It is no mystery that fast fashion is a Bad Thing. I’ve spent a lot of time in recent years thinking about fast fashion, its not-so-nice impacts, and ways to circumnavigate it as someone interested in clothes. As a tween, paying a visit to Topshop or New Look on a shopping trip (remember when we used to do this?) made for a pretty unbeatable weekend. I’d trawl through racks of cheap polyester crop tops on the sales racks trying to find the perfect look for non-uniform day because I naturally wouldn’t want to be seen in the same outfit as last time. The situation I find myself in now is a dramatically altered one. I pretty much avoid buying anything new: Topshop has been swapped for charity shops, and I scroll through Vinted like it’s the hottest new social media platform rather than spending hours on ASOS as religiously as before. For my own purposes, almost anything can be sourced second-hand, and almost always for a decent price.
Almost. Therein lies the rub: sustainable shopping is not currently feasible for every person, nor for every part of the average wardrobe. Every now and then I have to buy new underwear, for example, and although I could fork out a bit more money to buy from a sustainable company, frankly, when it comes down to it, I’m lazy, and don’t invest enough time into finding the best options. It’s significantly easier to just pop to M&S (I have aged well before my time) or even Primark, which takes the punches in a lot of fast fashion discussions when it’s certainly not the only culprit, and buy something for a low price. I’m actually interested in sustainable fashion, yet I am still very far from perfect in my practice of it – so, for someone for whom fashion is trivial, the choice will always be a no-brainer.
What’s more, my experience of sustainable clothes shopping is not the universal one. I’m pretty much bang-average-sized for a woman in this country so I can usually find a lot of pieces that fit from second-hand sources. I’ve also been sewing since I was eleven, soI can pick up almost anything I vaguely like the look of in a charity shop and turn it into something wearable. For shoppers outside of the ‘average’ sizing range (if there is such a thing), sustainable fashion is a real feat given the limited breadth of sizes in second-hand stocks, whilst if you’re looking for something particularly specific, the sustainable choice is likely to be heaps more expensive than something grabbed off the shelf. For anyone who has attempted to source costumes for a production, beyond borrowing clothes from friends there is little to be done to avoid fuelling fast fashion in order to keep under budget.
More to the point: should any of this even be left up to us? In the face of ethical and environmental catastrophe, it often feels hopeless to take any responsibility ourselves at all because there are much bigger players determining the wreckage our earth is becoming, running industries that exploit the most vulnerable across the world for their own monstrous profit margins. Is the consumer to blame at all? Should we continue to shop as we wish until the fast fashion giants make some changes that lie out of our control?
From my point of view, this question cannot be answered straightforwardly. Allocating blame for the fast fashion industry purely to the consumer is clearly a misstep. But that doesn’t mean we are totally powerless. Particularly, when it comes to the task of climate action, every item not left in landfill, every item not left to rot in its packaging at the back of a wardrobe, every extra effort to find a second-hand alternative, makes a difference. As with everything related to being kinder to the earth, it isn’t about doing it perfectly – it’s about the whole lot of us giving it a go. And those of us for whom sustainable fashion is a feasible option sort of have no excuse not to at least try.
So, what can we do? It’s time to start sharing and swapping (check out the Oxford Facebook swap group if you haven’t already!), shopping in our own wardrobes and restyling old garments to make them feel new again, rather than grasping for the gratification of a new purchase (an understandable temptation), and typing in ‘Ebay’ or ‘Vinted’ as a reflex action instead of Urban Outfitters. Until the fast fashion industry slows down, our individual habits are all we have in our control.