Fast Fashion and the Climate Crisis

Climate change was responsible for a quarter of all deaths in 2012. The anthropogenic increase of CO2 and other greenhouse gas emissions have grown over 30% since the industrial revolution and are a product of modern manufacturing and processing methods. The climate crisis will only increase in coming years unless both consumer and corporate habits are altered to reduce impacts like pollution. The fast fashion industry is second in pollution only to the oil industry. Fast fashion is the rapid mass-manufacturing of cheap, low-quality clothing for current trends. In response to climate change, sustainable fashion has taken off, with over half of consumers desiring a more environmentally-conscious clothing industry. Although environmental concern around the fast fashion industry is rising, elitism in the sustainable fashion industry slows progress towards greener fashion consumption. 

The Fast Fashion Industry

The average person today buys 60% more clothing than the average person did 15 years ago, but only keeps the clothing for half as long. The manufacturing of cheap, ‘trendy’ clothing is taking a huge toll on our world. For example, it takes 20,000 liters of water to produce each kg of cotton, and the constant production of cotton for low-quality, high-impact clothing has caused the desertification of the Aral Sea. The wastewater from garment and textile factories are thrown into nearby waters and harm marine life as well as the people living near these waterways. The damage of fast-fashion doesn’t stop there- every time you wash a synthetic piece of clothing, you release 1,900 microplastics, which make their way into the oceans! Fast fashion is unquestionably taking a toll on our planet and its resources.

Sustainable Consumerism

As public awareness of anthropogenic damage to our ecosystems increases, the sustainability movement has grown immensely. The sustainability movement discourages fast fashion, and values clothing from sustainable and environmentally friendly brands. Sustainable consumerism has become a way of showing off both wealth and ‘wokeness.’ ‘Green’ products typically cost 50% more than the ‘normal’ version of the product. This price gap between ‘green’ products stimulates a divide in the sustainability movement. Climate activists who can afford this marked-up clothing may view themselves as more passionate about the environment than those who cannot afford it, solely because they spent more money on a sustainable product. This wealth divide creates a chasm between climate activists, competing to prove themselves the most sustainable.

How Elitism Damages Sustainable Fashion

The world of sustainable fashion holds an air of elitism that is most visible in its price tags. Fast fashion critics have likened stores like H&M and Zara to fast food chains. Although these stores are harming the environment at an alarming rate, sustainable alternatives are up to 20 times more expensive. While a t-shirt from H&M costs $5, a similar shirt from Reformation (a popular sustainable brand) costs up to $100.The wealth divide in fashion creates a class of people able to shop sustainably, and a class who aren’t. Many people are not aware of the accessible alternatives to overpriced sustainable fashion brands, and turn to fast fashion instead. This elitism harms sustainable fashion by turning away passionate consumers who want affordable sustainable clothing. 

Is Elitism Good?

A popular counterargument for this elitism in sustainable fashion is that it will create a stronger desire for these environmentally friendly brands. Sustainable fashion will become solely a trend among the global one percent. If sustainable fashion is seen as a status symbol, then more people will strive to own sustainable fashion pieces. The social pressure to shop in sustainable stores will incentivize more consumers to make the switch from fast fashion. However, because sustainable fashion’s prices have made it a status symbol, it has lost many consumers who support sustainable clothing but cannot afford these overpriced items. In the long run, having less people involved in sustainable fashion will harm the planet, because consumers will simply turn back to the low-quality high-impact fast fashion brands. Elitism is not good for the sustainable fashion or the environment because it ultimately will reduce the amount of individuals who consider shopping at sustainable brands. 

Accessible Alternatives

Climate change will result in extreme weather events, cause the extinction of plants and animals, and heighten threats of disease. Fast fashion is one of the leading causes for this environmental crisis, and many are attempting the switch to sustainable clothing. However, sustainable clothing’s elitist culture and prices exclude the large majority of consumers who cannot afford these overpriced items. The sustainable fashion industry will not create a large enough social change while leaving out so many people. The good news is, sustainable clothing does not have to be so unattainable. Second hand clothing is a wonderful, accessible, and affordable way to shop green. There are plenty of options for thrift shopping, both in person and on apps like Depop and Poshmark which let consumers purchase used clothing directly from the seller. Today’s materialistic culture pushes consumers to purchase and discard items at a larger scale than ever before, but as a consumer, you have the power to curb this negative trend.