Thrifted clothing is a popular alternative to the unsustainable fast fashion items sold in most stores. Long-wearing fabrics like denim, linen and cotton are good for the environment as well. / photo by Sheridan Lambrook

Thrifted clothing is a popular alternative to the unsustainable fast fashion items sold in most stores. Long-wearing fabrics like denim, linen and cotton are good for the environment as well. / photo by Sheridan Lambrook

story and photography
by Sheridan Lambrook

Ever since Adam and Eve grabbed handfuls of fig leaves in a desperate attempt to cover themselves upon realizing—“Hey, we’re naked!”—clothes have been part of the fabric (pun intended) of human existence.

A few millennia later, clothing has evolved into more than just a way to cover ourselves, it has become an art form, an expression of identity, sometimes even a political statement.

And lately, a new—and some claim disturbing—trend has emerged: fast fashion. Companies are manufacturing cheap, trendy clothing intended to be worn briefly then tossed into the trash to make way for the next industry-created craze. The primary target audience for these companies: young adults. College students and others who are trying to look stylish on a shoestring budget are easy prey.

Early in America’s history, fashion was only for the elite. Lower-class citizens wore whatever clothes were available to them, whether provided by their employers or handed down. When more money became available to lower classes after World War I, fashion was something that more people could take part in. From small craft shops to textile mills, the evolution of clothing production has revolutionized the fashion industry. Gone are the days when people had to make clothes last longer and new items were released only a few times a year.

The advent of mass-production and, more recently, the Internet, have led to new styles coming out virtually every week. According to Maryia Fokina, PR and content-relations specialist who contributes to Tidio’s blog, 70 percent of U.S. shoppers purchased their clothing online in 2023.

“It’s all about making something that people will buy, and selling as much of it as you can,” says Jay Jones, professor emeritus of biology and biochemistry at University of La Verne. “That’s what fast fashion is all about. Clothes perform a particular function. They keep us warm, they keep us cool, they keep us shaded and so forth. But the onset of fashion introduced vanity to the equation. People want to look attractive. We’re a species. We want to attract mates and so forth.”

Science and fashion have more in common than one may think. Science provides the knowledge, research and analysis necessary for us to understand impact of fast fashion. It also can help identify solutions, guide policy decisions, and promote sustainable practices.

“Another factor, of course, is going to be the microfibers that are produced from polyester and other synthetic fibers.,” Jones adds. “Every time you wash clothes, you lose fibers. As you well know, if you dry them in a dryer, you get all that wind. Well, that came from somewhere. It wasn’t just picked up. It’s the clothes themselves losing the fiber. So these microplastics are found around the world now. And they, of course, contain chemicals other than the polymer which give the fiber its particular character. And a lot of those are actually toxic.”

The American fashion industry is often touted as a boon for consumers, offering trendy clothing at affordable prices. The fast fashion industry may be good for our budgets, but it’s taking a toll on workers and the environment.

“I think it’s an iconic representation of our consumer economy,” Jones says. “We have 8 billion people on the Earth, and every item that we buy—be it clothes or a gallon of gas or whatever—has what we call embodied energy. That’s all of the energy that’s used to produce that product, in addition to the material cost. That is, what is it that you are harvesting, that you are processing, to make the final product?”

Reusing is just another method of being sustainable and keeping our environment in mind. A trend that does not harm the environment is using shoelaces in place of a belt. / photo by Sheridan Lambrook

Reusing is just another method of being sustainable and keeping our environment in mind. A trend that does not harm the environment is using shoelaces in place of a belt. / photo by Sheridan Lambrook

In 2022, Forbes, senior contributor Sharon Edelson reported that 72% of college students shopped from fast fashion brands. Still, some among the young target audience are becoming wise to fast fashion and are seeking out alternatives. Some have begun going to thrift stores, finding an article of clothing and, without any design background, creating new garments of their own. But is it enough?

“I try my best to thrift or accept hand-me-downs, but sometimes it can be challenging to find exactly what I need, especially if I’m looking for something specific,” says college junior Anya Habeeb.

University of La Verne sophomore Johanna Hellebrandt moved to California from Switzerland to focus on environmental studies and activism. “I know that the majority of college kids are on a budget they can’t afford to spend money on sustainable clothing because it’s more on the pricey side. What I do is go thrifting to find cool, unique clothes, but also buy clothes that are basic so you can make a lot of outfits with them.

“Sometimes it is hard to find things,” she adds. “I am conscious of the clothes I buy from fast fashion like Zara. But I look at the quality of the item so it won’t fall apart after two washes. I believe that doing stuff like that minimizes waste but also allows you to have good options in your closet to put outfits together.”

Fast-fashion companies are driven by profit, releasing new items to keep up with demand, and encouraging consumers to buy more and more. But at what cost? According to a Princeton University study, the environmental impact of fast fashion is undeniable, with the industry being responsible for 10 percent of global carbon emissions and 20 percent of global wastewater.

Fashion is an integral part of the American lifestyle, and fast-fashion’s reliance on unsustainable production practices and the exploitation of workers have far-reaching consequences. But change is possible. Through education and action, consumers can make a difference and create a more sustainable and ethical fashion industry.

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Depop is a peer-to-peer social e-commerce company based in London and founded in 2011 by Simon
Beckerman.

Poshmark is a social commerce marketplace where users can buy and sell new and secondhand fashion, home goods and electronics. Founded in 2011, and headquartered in Redwood City, California.

Sheridan Lambrook is a senior journalism major at the University of La Verne and co-editor of the Summer 2023 issue of La Verne Magazine.