Why fast fashion is bad: Massive corporations exploit workers and harm the environment to sell cheap clothes. That seems obvious. But is calling it out classist? Writer Maggie Zhou debunks a troubling excuse for overconsumption.
Excuses for fast fashion
I’m gripping the padded, rubber handrail of the escalator at my local shopping centre. I’m shopping with a friend, whose hands are wound tightly over several shopping bag handles as we make our way up another floor level.
“It’s just so classist, you know?” she says. We’re talking about the accessibility of sustainable fashion—which undoubtedly comes at a higher price tag than its fast fashion counterparts. Without skipping a beat, I agree with her. But then she gestures to her bags of garments worth a couple hundred dollars and says, “That’s why I have to shop here.”
An icky feeling washes over me. I know that fast fashion is often perceived as the only accessible option for many, whether that be because of financial constraints, size exclusion, or lack of time. The argument many people make centres on the single parent working multiple jobs who’s trying to clothe their multiple kids.
Similarly, many say that purchasing ethical and sustainable fashion is predominately catered to middle- and upper-classes, that it’s for those with a disposable income, and that it predominantly excludes lower socioeconomic classes. There’s a lot of truth to that.
But lately, there’s something far more troubling happening in conversations around sustainable fashion: Many people are abusing the valid arguments around classism to justify their own fast fashion consumption. When upper- and middle-class people hide behind this logic that doesn’t personally affect them, it invalidates and undermines the actual hardships of those in the working classes.
Fashion, class, and devaluing labour
People do not like to own their privilege. They like to think they acquired their wealth through merit, superior intelligence, and hard work.
There’s a common thread of people who try to downplay their wealth, and I pose this predicament to Dr Karen Bell, author of “Working-Class Environmentalism.” Her answer: “Guilt and defensiveness,” she says, is at the crux of this. “People do not like to own their privilege. They like to think they acquired their wealth through merit, superior intelligence, and hard work.”
By minimising their class and financial privilege, people may feel less pressure to shop from ethical and sustainable brands. When bargain bins and mega sales are continuously shoved in front of our eyeballs, we become convinced clothes should be that cheap. This entitlement comes with a price: We undersell the value of clothes, and label them as disposable and temporary.
This mindset of what our clothes are supposed to cost—something that admittedly feels solidly cemented in our collective consciousness—is actually relatively new. Fast fashion only entered our mainstream about 20 years ago, completely changing the way we view and consume clothes. Hassle your parents and grandparents on their past clothing purchasing habits, and you’ll most likely find that they spent far more on far fewer garments (when adjusted for inflation over the years) than younger generations have become conditioned to expect. Or, like my grandparents, they might’ve even sewed almost all their clothing. The human production of clothes is almost an afterthought, rather than at the crux of our fashion consumption conversations now.
While sustainable fashion brands often target privileged consumers, it’s worth noting that these brands’ prices are likely in line with the garments of our grandparents’ generation – which, as they’d remind you, was not all that long ago. And for brands sourcing quality materials and paying living wages, the price of each garment reflects its longevity (high quality garments often cost less when you consider the cost over time) and the respect given to the workers who make our clothes.
Corporations have a lot to answer for
We follow fashion to belong and to show we are good enough. Capitalism uses these basic human needs for love, connection, value, respect—manipulating them to sell goods.
“The consumer voice does have power. Change can come from consumer outrage,” Aja Barber told Atmos—something she elaborates on in her debut book “Consumed: The Need for Collective Change: Colonialism, Climate Change, and Consumerism”.
This dismantles the argument that many middle- and upper-class people make when they use “sustainability is classist” rhetoric as a scapegoat for their own overconsumption.
The desire for new clothes, new outfits, and newness is not merely a byproduct of fast fashion’s overproduction. It’s a pillar that’s intrinsically tied to their business model. These corporations have tapped into the most human needs like comfort, pleasure, and the fear of not fitting in—converting these emotions into profit.
“We follow fashion to belong and to show we are good enough,” Bell explains. “Capitalism uses these basic human needs for love, connection, value, respect—manipulating them to sell goods.”
Simply put, the driving force behind overconsumption is not the physical garments on show, but the psychological urge to be considered trendy and attractive, and therefore, accepted within a community.
“We need to be looking at the companies [and] their large profits and tax evasions, rather than the actions of individuals who have less power and options in society,” says Bell.
There is no comparison between the power and wealth hoarded by fast fashion CEOs and the wealthy folk I know. Nitin Passi, founder of Missguided, is worth approximately $443 million. Boohoo is valued at over $6.2 billion, and its co-founder Mahmud Kamani is valued at a cool $1.7 billion.
Don’t forget about garment workers
We need to look at those who set up the systems of exploitation that drive this issue—the companies and the governments.
And in the spirit of classism, our concerns about equality must extend to those beyond our borders. The majority of garment workers are low-income BIPOC women who commonly face exploitative labour practices, and whose social and environmental needs aren’t being met.
“We need to think of working-class people everywhere,” says Bell. “Their interests are the same. Pay people decently so that they can afford to buy what they need and ensure working conditions are decent everywhere. We need to…look at those who set up the systems of exploitation that drive this issue—the companies and the governments.”
While many act performatively concerned by the problems of the working class, that angle on fast fashion entirely misses the structural equalities facing the working class who produce those clothes.
“It is more important that working-class people are paid adequately so that they can afford quality clothes which last. Unfortunately, most are not, because they are exploited [by fast fashion brands]”, Bell says.
What can you do?
Really ask yourself if you are unable to afford anything apart from fast fashion, or if that’s a convenient excuse to hide behind.
At the end of the day, as writer Fedora Abu says, “Nobody who cares about the environmental/social impact of fast fashion is telling people who are hard up to buy expensive clothes and let’s be real, the people making the argument know that.”
We don’t hold discourse around the detrimental effects of fast fashion to make people feel guilty about their purchasing decisions or to individually blame people—especially those who are in financially difficult situations. Some of the most sustainable choices we can make for our wardrobe are the most affordable anyway: Wearing clothes you already own, caring for them so they last, and purchasing clothing second hand all contribute to fashion’s circular economy.
But what I’m asking is for people above the working class to hold up an uncomfortable mirror to themselves. Really ask yourself if you are unable to afford anything apart from fast fashion, or if that’s a convenient excuse to hide behind.
The truth is, if you’re trying to find a reason to justify a fast fashion purchase, you’ll easily find one. Fast fashion companies have convinced us that we don’t just need their clothes, we’re entitled to them.
And to that we must ask ourselves, “but at what cost?”
Maggie Zhou is a Melbourne-based writer, podcaster, content creator, and slow fashion advocate. She currently holds the title Writer & Producer at Refinery29 Australia, and she’s written for publications such as ELLE, Marie Claire, MTV, and Fashion Journal. If she’s not writing about internet and culture trends, she’s tackling the perils of the fashion industry with intersectionality at the forefront of her advocacy. In 2021, she was nominated for Melbourne Press Club’s Student Journalist of the Year, and she sits on Melbourne Fashion Festival’s mentor panel for its Fashion Writing Program. Follow her on Instagram and Twitter.