Liisa threw a post idea at me the other day: “How can we – gently and lovingly – convince our friends and family that fast fashion is an aberration? How can we respond to some of the most common arguments people use to shield themselves from thinking about the conditions their garments are made in?”
The idea is an excellent one, especially as adoption of more sustainable fashion practices (very similarly than becoming a vegan) leads you to exclude certain groups of products from your consciousness. Your wardrobe is build as if the big cheap retailers would not exist, and you get shocked every time you hear that somebody still goes there. This trick our minds play with us leads to less capacity for empathy for those who still continue with *the habit*.
Empathy is key in messaging, because the substance of all our “fuck fast fashion” speeches is no other than dividing garments in “good” and “bad”, and telling people that by purchasing “bad” garments they are directly responsible for oppressing people and destroying ecosystems. Nobody wants to be part of that club, so denial, defensiveness and anger are only natural reactions.
So both with veganism and sustainable fashion, unless people are really trying to provoke me (I wish I’d received a euro every time I’ve heard a variation of “what about the pain that carrots feel?”), I adopt the “every step counts” approach and never tire of celebrating the smallest changes that people are willing to make.
However, there are some common illusions that people use to shield themselves from the inconvenient truth of fast fashion. Be gentle and firm when addressing these, imagine you are unraveling a knit: you have to be careful during the process, but this stuff’s gotta go.
A: Fast fashion as employer. Sounds like something along the lines of “but these people are happy when the bad garment industry jobs come, they would be even more miserable without them”.
The fallacy is assuming that if it could be worse, it cannot be better. Also, unfortunately the fact that people making fast fashion garments in most cases are far away from the consumers reduces our empathy. In many cases labor, social justice and feminist activists would fight for similar issues at home but do not see the links with struggles thousands of kilometers away. There are exceptions, of course, but the geographical divide is clear. In Spain – the birthplace of the Amancio’s empire – Zara started by relying on Galician seamstresses, but then the price squeeze came, and now time by time we get TV segments lamenting death of the industry as all production jobs have been moved overseas. However, rarely it gets connected with “be ready to pay more if you want the industry back”.
My argument in favor of smaller but local garment industries has to do with less carbon footprint, but it is easy to imagine a better garment industry both in Cambodia and back in Galicia. But not at the actual rock bottom price point. And that leads us to the second fast fashion illusion…
B: Fast fashion as a cheap option. “But I’m poor/looking for the best deal, the price is very important to me, that’s why I go to fast fashion places”.
Two issues are at the root of this reasoning. First, we have learned that cheap garments are possible, and the assumption that follows is that they *should* be cheap. That is not true. For most of clothing’s history garments were scarce and very expensive. Everybody had very few items, and those were mended, upcycled and worn to threads. The abundance we live in is very recent and has clearly diminished the value of each garment. And the same logic has worked the other way around: pressure for cheap garments have propelled use of worse materials and worse stitching. So, on one hand, people want cheap stuff. On the other, they know that the cheap stuff won’t last, and are ready to buy another one very soon.
Second issue are hidden (i.e. unpaid) costs. As with other industries that rely heavily on a global production chain, many negative environmental and social impacts of garment industry go uncounted and unpunished. Due to strategic placement of operations, they are likely to pollute in places with lax environmental regulation and bully labor union activists in places where governments prefer foreign investment to organized labor force. This is a major trick for making the final garment cheaper: you just move your production to more savage capitalism and avoid Western regulations.
C: Fast fashion as as easy and ubiquitous. “I’m busy and need a pair of flats now!”.
Garments are not drinking water (or potatoes, if you are Eastern European). There are very few real clothing emergencies, i.e. you have only one bra and the fastening broke. Or it’s -30ºC and you have no garment that would cover your legs. I doubt that any of you, my friends, have been in a real emergency of that kind.
Our fake emergencies tend to be more along the lines of “I cannot wear this dress to this wedding, I already wore it last year to common friends’ wedding” or “this purse is several tones off from the shoe color”. Meh. Nobody cares, believe me. Not even if you’re the bride.
These fake emergencies stem either from the ubiquity of fashion and meaning we assign to garments (“I need new stuff for this event”) or bad past decisions (“these shoes are killing me, let’s pop in H&M for a 5€ pair of whatever”). The alternative is pruning, planning and knowing your stuff intimately. And letting go of many preconceived reasons for shopping.
D: Fast fashion as the amplest choice. “I like to see the biggest possible number of things in one place, and then chose from them”.
It’s like if you’d enter a bar, choose the least unattractive person there, and decide they are your crush now. While all you actually wanted was a glass of water.
In a nutshell, fast fashion moguls decide for you and then you browse their badly made stuff that won’t last for even one season knowing it’s either this or nothing until the next “update” (that happen at least weekly in most of those places). And even if the garment would last, you don’t even like it enough to wear for one full season and make it your signature item.
I admit that hunting down something specific in the ethical or second-hand market is hard. But internet exists. Seamstresses exist. Learning to sew is a possibility. And letting go of twisted fantasies about the perfect dress too.
E: Fast fashion as a pastime. “But it’s fun to go an browse, and then be able to buy at least some of it (or make a *haul* of it)!”.
Get yourself another hobby! If it has to be fashion-related, do the more exciting (and funny too!) thrift-store browsing. Or try to swap with your friends. If you want it fashion-related and being even more selective (and without spending any money), I suggest turning to Pinterest. Curate your own collections, capsules, editorials… Make collages and share them on the internets! (Like this person.) The gratification should be at least on par with spending hours indoors listening to chunda-chunda music and going through racks of poorly made polyester garments.
F: Fast fashion as “fast”. “Fast fashion is like fast food: After the sugar rush it just leaves a bad taste in your mouth”.
This is a bonus one, coming from this post that undoubtedly had best intentions. It’s only partly correct, though. It’s spot on about instant gratification and lack of long term benefits. However, despite the fact that industrial food production has a lot of issues going on in oh! so many fronts, fast fashion is worse because it has a bigger impact while being made and that stuff lingers…
While with food we have to worry (and rightly so!) about recycling the wrappers, it’s harder with garments. You have the bags and boxes, and the thing itself. Yet most cities don’t run a textile waste program. And charities that accept donations are overwhelmed by the quantity of badly made and worn out fast fashion garments nobody wants. So they ship containers of unwanted textiles to (mostly) African countries where they dynamite the traditional textile markets. And even if your 3€ novelty t-shirt end up becoming a cleaning rug in Ghana, there is still uncompostable waste at the end of all the moving and shipping that piece of mixed fibers has experienced.
OK, so I’m not sure how gentle this turned out to be. Not much, I suspect. However, here you have at least threads of conversation to use – more gently and lovingly, preferably – to advance the conversation in your community. Remember that you never know when just a one phrase you utter might make that *click!* in somebody’s head. I cannot promise converts, but at least you are prepared for the conversation now.