In a marketplace full of seemingly infinite choices, every piece of clothing purchased could be construed as a moral quagmire. Are you a bad person if you buy leather? What about vegan leather? Conversations about the relative importance of various, often opposed ethical concerns are rightly packed with tough, worthwhile questions and considerations.
There are a million and one lines to draw, all dependent on a person’s particular value system. But there’s one clear-cut distinction that anyone should be able to understand: We can all do more to buy less (or, ideally, nothing) from fast fashion giants.
When you say something like this in public, though, there are a few types of pushback, with differing degrees of validity and popularity. One of the most common — and effective — is that fast fashion is accessible. This is true and entirely to the point. Fast fashion is accessible to people of lower incomes, and often accessible to people in a range of sizes — two extensive problems in the fashion industry. With fast fashion, people who otherwise might not be able to can express themselves through trends. This is, in a vacuum, a nice thing.
This nice thing also exists in a much broader and more complicated context.
Academics, human rights activists, and experts who work in fashion and sustainability have spent years sounding the alarm: Clothing overconsumption is awful for the environment and hurts the poorest of the world’s poor. The boom of fast fashion — the breakneck business model where retailers mimic trendy runway or streetwear looks to mass produce them at lower price points — has normalized a culture of constantly buying new clothes without thinking twice about the consequences to other people, animals, or the planet at large.
Every piece of clothing comes with two costs: the one we pay as consumers and the actual one, which takes into account the climate effects of production and shipping and the impact on the people who make the production and shipping possible. If a T-shirt retails for $5, what does that say about the wage of its constructor and of the materials that went into making it?
Companies are incentivized to cut corners when it comes to paying workers fairly, sourcing materials ethically, and ensuring the living conditions of animals. I’ve previously written about how our stuff — from blenders and bras to telephones and tractors — has gotten worse in the last decade because of the corporate pursuit of overproduction and overconsumption. Given the speed needed to keep up with trends, it’s not physically possible to quickly mass produce something that is of a decent quality, ethically made, and affordable.
The problems endemic to the fashion industry, however, are relatively under-discussed, and there’s a reluctance among consumers to take a good, hard look at their own purchasing habits. There isn’t enough clear information about the environmental or human rights impacts, the topic of fashion itself is seen by some as shallow, and the discussion is frequently derailed by related conversations. It’s not simple — nor is it solely our individual responsibility when policymakers and brands can step up — but none of that means we have to buy into a narrative that normalizes a culture of overconsumption.
“Clothing isn’t frivolous. It’s something that touches every human being on the planet,” said JD Shadel, editor-at-large at Good on You, a fashion evaluator site. “I don’t think we have a right to transgress the human rights of other individuals for our own stylishness. Fast fashion has sold us the lie that to be a whole person, we need more cheap clothes, and that’s not true.”
Fast fashion is bad, but some brands are worse than others
Americans already have pretty full closets.
In 2018, the average American bought 68 items of clothing, with the majority of it going barely worn, Rent the Runway CEO Jennifer Hyman told the New Yorker. That figure was before the rise of Shein, the Chinese mega-retailer that outputs thousands of new, cheaply made styles a day, alongside brands like Boohoo, Cider, Princess Polly, and Fashion Nova. The mall staples of yesteryear, your Forever 21s and Zaras, pale in comparison to the magnitude of e-commerce behemoths (though they’re not blameless). If social media is any indication, with influencers and everyday people alike touting monthly “hauls” of clothing, it wouldn’t be surprising if Americans were buying significantly more than 68 garments a year today.
We can estimate how many clothes Americans buy. We can calculate how many garments are ending up in landfills globally. What’s harder is knowing how many pieces are being produced industry-wide. Only 12 percent of brands publicly disclose the number of products made annually, according to the 2023 Fashion Transparency Index report from nonprofit Fashion Revolution. If we went along with the largest approximation of 150 billion articles of clothing per year, which could honestly still be on the conservative side, the sheer scale reveals something unsettling: There are way too many clothes for the 8.1 billion people on the planet.
“There’s an inherent flaw in fashion’s business model that does not value the products it makes,” Holly Syrett, the impact programs and sustainability director at Global Fashion Agenda, wrote to Vox in an email. “Looking at all market segments of fashion, figures indicate that just 30 percent of clothing made is sold at full price, 30 percent of clothing is sold at discount, and another 30 percent not sold at all.”
Meanwhile, you can see the world’s textile waste from space. In Chile’s Atacama Desert, almost 800 acres of unused and no longer loved clothing sits to rot. The mostly polyester-laden fast fashion shipped from the US, Europe, and Asia will take centuries to decompose. Unlike, say, food waste (a similar problem), those synthetic fibers can’t be easily composted the way a pomegranate can be. So that slinky going-out dress from 2016 will either slowly disintegrate, leeching its chemicals into nearby water systems, or be burned to create space, which in turn shoots chemicals into the air.
Waste is only one of the environmental downsides of the fashion industry. Synthetic materials made from fossil fuels like polyester, nylon, and acrylic contribute chemical byproducts to the air, water systems, and soil that are difficult to contain. Natural fibers — cotton, wool, silk, leather — require massive quantities of land and water use, not to mention the animal welfare of it all. The fashion industry is also a significant source of pollution. A recent estimate from the United Nations calculates the fashion industry is responsible for anywhere between 2 to 8 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions. At this pace, the industry’s share of emissions could surge by 50 percent by 2030, according to the World Bank.
There’s plenty to be worried about here for the future, but what and how much we buy also hurts people today. The fashion industry employs some 60 million people in the production of textiles and apparel globally, and it can feel like an understatement to say that not everyone is paid fairly. Most countries in the Global North outsource their labor to developing countries like Bangladesh or Vietnam due to a lack of regulations that protect labor. The garment workers responsible for stitching a pair of leggings together or knitting a warm sweater work long hours in terrible conditions for little pay in order to make cheap clothes possible.
The industry wage gap — the average percentage gap between minimum wages and the average living wage — across key producing countries has also increased to 48.5 percent, with many workers receiving less than half of the money they need to reach a living wage. Women and children along the supply chain see even lower wages.
Fast fashion and its discontents have been on the rise since the 2000s, with criticism aimed at brands like H&M and Zara. Not even other mall favorites, like the Gap or Abercrombie & Fitch, are spared as they, too, overproduce. But right now, one of the biggest players in the game is Shein. It leads the e-commerce pack in terms of its production, environmental impacts, and disregard for worker well-being. The overconsumption encouraged by Shein and its ilk essentially put the industry on steroids.
Sheng Lu, a professor at the University of Delaware who studies the apparel industry, analyzed Shein’s output compared to other fast-fashion retailers in 2022. He told Wired that in a 12-month period, Gap had around 12,000 different styles; H&M had approximately 25,000; and Zara clocked in around 35,000. Shein had 1.3 million. Mind you, that’s not the total number of individual garments, but the number of styles.
Shein’s pricing is also a differentiator. More than 1,000 people bought this $2.69 brown crop top. You could also buy a $3 shirt featuring Santa hitting a dab, a $5 nightdress, or an $11 men’s zip-up sweater. In no world do those prices make any logical sense, but they do allow consumers to normalize low price tags and buy a high volume of low-quality products.
Despite being around for more than a decade, Shein didn’t take off internationally until TikTok did, plus the onslaught of pandemic impulse purchases that happened around the same time. Shein experienced massive growth extremely quickly, operating more than 6,000 factories (including in western China, the site of the Uyghur genocide).
Shein’s scale makes its harms markedly worse. There are media reports of several human rights violations, including workers needing to clock in for back-to-back 18-hour days, with no weekends, in order to make a living wage. A 2022 investigation by UK publication iNews alleges that workers are paid as little as 0.03694 cents per item. Living wages with this kind of payout are impossible unless tons of clothes are made.
The lies we tell ourselves about fast fashion
Recently, I watched a TikTok where a foodie influencer touted a cute screen-printed shirt she’d recently purchased from a local brand. One of her followers scolded her for buying a $40-something top. “How can you share an expensive top to your college student audience?” the follower asked.
$40 isn’t nothing. But once you factor in labor, production costs, and overhead, it’s hard to say that it isn’t an ethical, reasonable price for a shirt. As Aja Barber, author of Consumed: The Need for Collective Change: Colonialism, Climate Change, and Consumerism, explained to Vox in an interview, the vast majority of people, especially young folks, do not know what things actually cost.
“We need to educate the younger generations because they don’t really know what a world looks like without fast fashion,” Barber told me. “We can’t blame them for not knowing.” Barber likes to do a thought experiment, asking people how much they’d like to be paid hourly. Garment workers, she points out, deserve a living wage, too — and hey, guess how long that T-shirt takes to make?
Today, to say that something should cost more is considered by some to be classist. A go-to argument for many fast-fashion proponents, according to the experts I spoke with, is that buying from a retailer like Shein is a necessity because it has the most affordable, new, trendy clothing. Being poor limits your options, so how else could you keep up with the Joneses? Similar arguments have been lobbed when it comes to anti-fat bias — that it’s discriminatory to tell people not to shop from a brand that might have cheaper options for larger clothes in an industry notorious for producing limited size ranges.
These arguments are ultimately just noise. America’s lower classes are not the ones with an overconsumption problem. One-off purchases aren’t meaningfully helping Shein reach the $100 billion evaluation milestone. It’s the folks who take advantage of low prices to buy more than they need or will ever use. When advocates talk about how people should buy less or buy nothing from fast-fashion companies, they’re not telling poor people that they don’t need stuff or that people with bigger bodies should go naked. Instead, that advice is intended for those who have the luxury of choice. “If someone is talking about affordability, then they should be asking themselves, what are they buying for?” Barber said.
This also doesn’t change the fact that poverty in the US, while horrific and unacceptable, pales in comparison to the everyday reality of those in the Global South. More likely than not, middle- and upper-class overconsumers are hiding behind the shield of affordability rather than simply acknowledging their culpability in the harms caused by the industry.
“It’s a core American problem that a lot of Americans are unable to see beyond themselves,” said Cora Harrington, a lingerie expert and critic of fast fashion. “One thing that just jumps out in such startling clarity when you’re discussing companies like Shein is that people say they’re the most victimized and oppressed people in this equation. The notion that people are not being paid fairly, that people work in dangerous conditions, that people are exploited to make your $6 bathing suits don’t even enter the equation of what they see as oppression.”
Having access to a glut of cheap clothes in order to be fashionable isn’t a human right, nor is it a requirement to express yourself. As political theorist John Stuart Mill posited a little more than two centuries ago, your rights end the moment they infringe upon and harm the rights of others. “If it comes at a cost to another human, is it right?” Barber asked. “Are we entitled to cheap clothing at the cost of other humans? That’s the question. I think we all know what the answer is deep down inside.”
How fast fashion sells itself (and what to do about it)
To be clear, it is not simply that consumers are lying to themselves so they can feel good about their purchases: A whole misinformation machine is at work, thanks to the fashion industry.
As Shadel explained to Vox, brand evasion makes everything more complicated: “It’s really hard for a consumer who wants to put their values at the center of their spending and vote with their wallets if you don’t know if this brand is profiting off of forced labor and wage exploitation.”
Fast-fashion brands take advantage of the overwhelming difficulty of knowing and proving what’s going on behind closed doors. For a lot of the most devoted buyers, no amount of outside evidence will be enough. “How can I stand against them if I don’t have anything to back it up?” a Shein fan told the New York Times last year.
And when independent evidence points toward unglamorous truth, as was the case with Shein’s factories, well ... just fly a bunch of influencer “partners” on an international trip to scope out a mostly empty “innovation factory.” In late June, six influencers were shown a facility in Guangzhou, China, and made a series of videos, espousing the merits of the brand. Naturally, the gullible influencers were dunked on left and right.
“The China trip has been one of the most life-changing trips of my life,” said influencer Dani Carbonari in a now-deleted video defending the excursion, where she emphasized her “surprise” at the “rumors” spread in the US. “My biggest takeaway from this trip is to be an independent thinker — get the facts and see it with your own two eyes.”
Ironically or not, this is the takeaway we should all have when it comes to companies like Shein: to think smarter about our own habits and use the data we have available. We have to remember that clothing hasn’t historically been this cheap; it’s only a recent development in the last few decades. “Fashion didn’t always used to be fast fashion and ultra-fast fashion,” Shadel said. “That’s not to say it was always perfect, but it’s a lot worse now in a lot of ways. And so we can change the system because it’s not inherent.”
The responsibility for real and lasting change lies with corporations and governments. There’s no easy one-size-fits-all solution, no magic polyester blend made of recycled water bottles, no number of trees planted that will gloss over the need for systemic reconstruction and reimagining. Some initiatives, like promoting a circular economy or regularly releasing reports of factory conditions, are moves in the right direction. Crucially, what’s needed is a deep shift in the current business model — and that will take time, collaboration, and pressure across the industry.
The good news is that we’re making progress. The EU has passed several initiatives targeting reporting standards, accountability for human rights and environmental regulations, and textile waste. In the US, there’s the New York Fashion Act, a proposed law that will require accountability to standardized environmental and social due diligence policies.
Still, the crushing wheel of bureaucracy and lack of international agreement about what accountability should look like remain roadblocks in shifting fast fashion’s business model at scale. So that leaves us, the consumer.
If there’s one thing we can do, immediately and easily, it’s stop lying to ourselves that we need these brands, that we deserve to have this much stuff, that our wants and desires stateside are more important than the lives of people across the globe or the future of our planet. We can just admit that fast fashion is not a good thing.
“If we don’t get a grip on this, nobody’s going to care in 10 years about your Shein haul,” Barber said. “We can either fix the system, or we can just drive the car until the wheels fall off.”