Why I Quit Buying Fast Fashion

07/22/2016 10:55 am ET Updated Aug 08, 2016
Stores like Forever 21, H&M, Zara and Target made fast fashion a huge part of modern American culture.
By Kara Hackett
Stores like Forever 21, H&M, Zara and Target made fast fashion a huge part of modern American culture.

When I decided to quit buying fast fashion, I got a lot of questions.

“If you aren’t going to shop at stores like H&M and Forever 21 anymore, what are you going to do? Buy a $100 shirt once or twice a season?”

Honestly, I don’t know. I’m not a social activist, a humanitarian or the most environmentally conscious person on the planet. I’m not even quitting because I don’t like the clothes.

To tell you the truth, I don’t mind the thin, translucent fabric or the sweaters that ball up after a few washes.

But I decided to quit buying fast fashion because now that I know the truth about it, I can’t go back.

The term "fast fashion" refers to any brand that mass produces cheap clothes with high inventory turnover, taking t
By Kara Hackett
The term "fast fashion" refers to any brand that mass produces cheap clothes with high inventory turnover, taking trends from the runway to our closets as quickly as possible.

Considering the ethics

To those who are less materialistic, it might sound trite. But to those of us who have spent almost every weekend scouring the racks of ultra-trendy stores since we had our own babysitting money to spend, fast fashion is a big deal.

It allows me to stay stylish on a budget, and I like the creative process of putting outfits together, or testing trends without spending all of my money in one place.

Forever 21 has been my favorite store since I was 13. I discovered it on a summer trip to Denver for my cousin’s wedding, and I remember counting down the days when I heard it was coming to my hometown a few years later. I’ve shopped there religiously ever since.

But my perspective started to shift one night in a Pittsburgh parking lot.

Today, as a society, we purchase 400 percent more clothes than we did just two decades ago, and fashion is one of the most polluting industries in the world.

It was about midnight, and my friend Katie and I had met up earlier that day for a weekend of shopping and exploring the city.

For some reason, while Katie ran into CVS to grab a toothbrush, I sat in the car, rummaging through my Forever 21 bag (a frequent post-shopping ritual) when I noticed a Bible verse on the bottom of the bag: John 3:16. 

According to the New International Version Bible translation, John 3:16 is, “For God so loved the world that he ga
By Kara Hackett
According to the New International Version Bible translation, John 3:16 is, “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.”  

As a good Christian college grad, I knew the verse. But I didn’t know why it was on the bottom of my bag. So like any good college grad, I turned to Google.

Apparently, the religious founder of Forever 21, Do Won Chang, told CNN in 2012 that he put Bible verses on the bags because he “hoped others would learn of God’s love.”

A noble idea, indeed. But it got me wondering about Forever 21’s ethics.

Of course, I had the vague suspicion that fast fashion was shady. After the sweatshop debacle with brands like Nike in the 90s, many of us kind of know that people in a Third World country somewhere might be underpaid to make our clothes.

But I figured that people more powerful than me were already doing something about that. Who knows? Maybe even Forever 21 was doing something. 

So I let it go that night. But the idea haunted me whenever I went shopping for the next few weeks, and when I watched the documentary True Cost, it only got worse.

Discovering the True Cost

I chose True Cost by chance. I was looking for something new to watch on Netflix, and the cover looked interesting—three well-dressed young adults with empty shopping bags over their heads like a poor attempt at hide-and-seek.

As soon as the narrator spoke, I was hooked.

“This is a story about clothing. It’s about the clothes we wear, the people who make these clothes and the impact that it’s having on our world. It’s a story about greed and fear. Power and poverty.”

LA filmmaker Andrew Morgan made the documentary, and it’s easy to follow because he doesn’t have a background in fashion. He simply explores honest questions about how our clothes are made from the perspective of the average consumer.

As Morgan goes from country to country, industry to industry, he discovers that fast fashion is destroying our world at every point of its lifecycle—from the farms where genetically modified cotton is grown, to the textile factories where women are enslaved overseas, to the greed-inducing stores in our own country and the dumps heaping with toxic clothes.

When you see it all yourself, it changes everything.

Suddenly, fashion isn’t this nebulous Third World problem. It’s a problem for all of us, everywhere, from the slums of the poorest countries to our own crowded closets.

Stores like H&M sell clothes cheaper than you can buy meals at mid-range restaurants, and it's allowi
By Kara Hackett
Stores like H&M sell clothes cheaper than you can buy meals at mid-range restaurants, and it's allowing us to buy more than ever before.

Today, as a society, we purchase 400 percent more clothes than we did just two decades ago, and fashion is one of the most polluting industries in the world.

By some standards, it’s second only to big oil.

Now, I’m an engaged citizen. I keep up with the news, and I know enough about big oil to list it among the top pollutants in the world.

But as someone who buys fast fashion all the time, I’ve heard so little about this industry’s issues until now.

Why have I been shopping at these stores every weekend, thinking cheap clothes are a good bargain? And why are stores like Forever 21 slapping Bible verses on some of the most destructive practices in the world?

As consumers, we’re safely separated from how our clothes are made, and that’s part of the problem.

It’s easy for fashion tycoons to hide their dirty secrets because people like me don’t have to hear them, and quite frankly, we don’t want to.

Shopping is an escape industry. We flock to the pop music and fluorescent lights to celebrate a promotion or to get over a bad breakup. We don’t go there to confront a global crisis.

But the more I thought about it, the more I realized that’s exactly what I wanted to do.

Fashion is something I use to express myself, and when something is wrong with it, I want to express that, too.

Normalizing the change

When I did some digging online to see how I could help reverse the effects of fast fashion, I found several resources on the True Cost website and another site for a movement called Fashion Revolution that started in the UK.

The bloggers and speakers on these sites helped me feel like I wasn’t alone in my desire to change, and their words were truly inspiring.

But the more I searched, the more I noticed that many of the people talking about the dark side of fast fashion right now are celebrities, nonprofit owners and people who seem like they were born to be ultra-conscious fair trade shoppers.

I didn’t see a lot of fast fashion shoppers like me who want to be better, but also don’t see how being an ethical consumer fits into our budget and lifestyle.

When you’re a fast fashion shopper, being an ethical consumer seems like one of those lofty goals in your dream life—the one where you wake up at dawn to do yoga and keep your plants alive for more than a week.

I consider my friends and I to be “good people,” and we’ve shopped at these stores for 13 years now without having a single conversation about the ethics of it.

So I decided to quit buying fast fashion because I think these issues need to come up in our conversations more often.

We need more fast fashion shoppers talking about what stores like H&M, Forever 21, Zara and even Target are selling us. And we need more practical examples of what trying to be an ethical consumer looks like when you can’t afford designer brands.

There’s got to be a way to dress fashionably on a budget without contributing to waste, destruction and abuse in the world, and I want to find out what it is.

I don’t expect my little boycott to change the world. That’s going to take serious effort from thousands of people in many parts of society.

But as a consumer in a capitalist economy, I can’t ignore the limited power that I have. Fashion is something I use to express myself, and when something is wrong with it, I want to express that, too.

I may not have all the answers. But that’s OK. I don’t think we need all the answers to get started. We just need the conviction that something is wrong.

And then we can start with the questions.

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