Fast fashion is a wasteful and polluting non-essential that is nevertheless fun and empowering. To preserve both the environment and positive aspects of fashion, we need to slow down the rate of consumption by shifting to a culture that emphasizes quality over quantity with the help of technology.
Numerous sources point to the fashion industry as a major polluter that produces wastewater, carbon emissions, and plastic microfibers. According to a United Nations news article, the “fashion industry produces 20% of global wastewater / Clothing and footwear production is responsible for 8% of global greenhouse gas emissions / Every second, the equivalent of one garbage truck of textiles is landfilled or burned.” While clothing is essential for survival, fashion is not. Many people have moved beyond basic survival needs to the realm of fashion. However, many less-fortunate individuals have not. Fashion is already a major pollutant, but to make it worse, this negative impact of fashion reaches everyone, even those who cannot afford fashion or those who are already exploited by the industry. Damaging the environment, and therefore the welfare of the general public, for something only affordable to relatively well-off people is disturbing.
On the other hand, fashion is necessary for enriching many people’s lives. As shown by debate.org “Yes” responses for Is fashion important? Why? and “No” responses for Is fashion harmful to society? Fashion allows people to express themselves, as well as their political views, such as wearing a BLM shirt. Activists use the clothes they wear to spread their message at all times because their clothes are able to draw people’s attention. Fashion can represent one’s cultural heritage, such as wearing traditional attire at a cultural festival. Fashion helps you make a good impression on others, such as dressing smart for an interview. Fashion is also an artform that people practice and appreciate. However, a common critique of fashion is that chasing the latest trends is superficial.
Clearly, fashion has its benefits. But despite these positives, fast fashion remains a major polluter and symbol of inequality and superficiality. The UN article concisely sums up what we need to do: “both retailers and consumers will have to reject the ‘take, make and dispose’ model and agree that, for the sake of the planet, when it comes to fashion, less is more.” The question is how can we save both the environment and further enhance fashion’s positive roles? To find out, we trace a brief history of the clothing industry.
Fashion was not always fast. A hundred years ago, it was a slow but personalized experience. According to Bellatory, “Even after the Industrial Revolution, up into the early part of the 20th century a dress, for example, was made for the person who would wear it. People in the lower classes, servants, and laborers often wore hand-me-downs or purchased used clothing … In the not-too-distant past, a garment would last for a very long time.” The process of buying new clothes by itself was a big event that occurred perhaps only once a year, akin to a holiday. Back then, people were much more invested in their clothing, in terms of time, money, and emotion. If you are buying something you know you will likely be wearing for at least an entire year, naturally, you will spend more time finding something that resonates with you and be willing to pay more money for it. In addition, as you wear the same clothing over time, you become familiar with it and may develop personal wearing habits or experiment with unique ways to wear it. Thus, in a sense, the buyers of clothes were not merely consuming, but were more involved in the life cycle of clothing.
Fashion nowadays is fast and emphasizes consumption. Fast fashion brands produce 52 “micro-seasons” a year, and according to Investopedia, “Zara’s designers can sketch a garment … and have the finished piece appear on store racks in as little as four weeks” as part of its strategy to “stuff the stores with more goods, offering the consumer an unparalleled amount of choice.” In contrast to the past, consumers of fast fashion simply browse for something that catches their eye, wear it once or twice, and move on. While there might be enjoyment in this, it pollutes the environment and exploits the less fortunate.
Currently, slow fashion has experienced renewed interest in reaction to fast fashion. There are also challenges to abstain from buying clothes. However, the fact that fast fashion remains shows that willpower alone is not enough to reduce rapid turnover. With the internet, people’s habits seem to have shifted towards browsing and instant gratification, which fast fashion caters to and slow fashion does not. Thus, slow fashion models emulating the past will not work today without modification.
Instead, consumers should slow down by adopting a culture that values involving themselves in the design process rather than being the passive consumer. Here is a proposed alternative business model: instead of mass producing physical clothing, artists can try to come up with as many creative designs as possible. These designs will be represented as drawings or 3D models: virtual products to satisfy the browsing and trend-chasing habits of the internet age. Customers can scroll through designs and try them out using emerging VR/AR technology. Perhaps this future form of virtual fast fashion, akin to the current trend of buying skins in video games, will be enough to satisfy many. However, for those serious, physically realizing the design will be a slow but satisfying process. After choosing to sponsor a few, customers can collaborate with skilled artisans to physically realize the clothing. Finally, the products will ship according to a seasonal schedule. Thus, procuring physical fashion will not be as simple as clicking “buy,” slowing the rate of consumption and reducing pollution. Also, if someone says “I like your shirt,” rather than simply saying “I bought it from this online store,” one can proudly tell a story about the process of discovering a design, physically realizing the clothing, and the deeper meanings it holds.
Today, fashion is stuck in a polluting business model because of the difficulties in switching to a slower model due to the behavioral trends brought by the internet. Previous conceptions of slow fashion will not be economically viable unless consumers change their values, which involves making a tradeoff between instant gratification and clothing with deeper meaning. However, by introducing VR/AR technology, the tradeoff may be eliminated, allowing the best of both fast and slow worlds, virtual and physical.
Art by Angela Liang for The UCSD Guardian.