How realistic is it to expect students to shop only ethical fashion?
A boy at school once made a backhanded comment to my face about my mustard-coloured knitted jumper one dress down day. While it was pretty harmless, I was left feeling like all I could and should wear was skinny jeans and Topshop crop tops because that’s simply what the girls all wore. But at uni, cardigans and jumpers are, dare I say it, cool? With newfound access to a student loan and having to travel past a shopping centre to get to uni every day, I definitely over-consumed from fast fashion brands as I revamped my wardrobe, going from being a teenager to a student who didn’t feel like neon crop tops really fit her vibe anymore.
Fast fashion, cheaply and rapidly produced clothing at low prices to keep up with current trends, is a problem we are all thoroughly aware of through social media, especially TikTok, as sustainability makes its way through the algorithm. Last year, one popular studytuber posted a TikTok showing her new top from a sustainable company, stating that “fast fashion sucks” and encouraging us to thrift or invest in good quality pieces that will last. What she didn’t share was that the top in question cost £130, to account for the more expensive long-lasting materials and ethical production. As one TikTok commenter pointed out, this equates to around 20 hours of work at minimum wage for 18–20-year-olds. At the end of the day, fast fashion is widely available at low prices. Sustainable clothing is less accessible, and I don’t think it is up to others to police our habits, because sustainable fashion is a privilege, a very worthwhile one, but still a privilege to access and promote.
"One popular studytuber posted a TikTok showing her new top from a sustainable company, stating that “fast fashion sucks” and encouraging us to thrift... What she didn’t share was that the top in question cost £130."
However, with more knowledge of the problems surrounding fast fashion, I have made a concerted effort to reign in my consumption. Do I still buy fast fashion? Yes. Because if I need a basic top, I will buy one for five pounds instead of the prices charged by ethical companies like Organic Basics, which range from £30 to £45 per top. I, and likely most students, can’t afford those prices regularly. But I still feel guilty if somebody asks where something is from, and I have to admit it’s an unethical H&M piece. My friends and I frequent charity shops regularly, but you can’t really look for specific things in charity shops, and the stock available is a complete luck of the draw.
Three years ago, I purchased a pair of Dr. Martens shoes, a company whose ethical rating sits at “very poor”. Despite years of consistent wear in all weathers, they still look almost brand-new. Taking care of fast fashion pieces and making them last is a step in the right direction.
We all deserve to look and feel nice in our clothes and more blame needs to be put onto the companies producing the clothes rather than blaming consumers, many of whom do not have the luxury of shopping sustainably elsewhere. While sustainable advocates may not like it, fast fashion allows more people to get involved in fashion and keep up with the trends when the price tags of designer brands like Balenciaga are out of reach. And I don’t think it is up to environmental advocates to make people feel guilty for wanting to enjoy clothes on a budget that is accessible to them, however worthy the cause may be. What environmental activists should be doing is instead voicing what the average shopper can do to help, rather than highlighting everything they are doing wrong.
"More blame needs to be put onto the companies producing the clothes rather than blaming consumers, many of whom do not have the luxury of shopping sustainably elsewhere."
I’m not here to say that fast fashion is fine, and we should just keep going as we are because it is convenient. The fast fashion industry is awful, with the operation of sweatshops to manufacture the clothes, producing microplastics that pollute our oceans and is responsible for 10% of global carbon emissions. But I do think there are unrealistic expectations for average shoppers to solve this issue, when there is a lack of a consistent, affordable market for alternative sustainable clothing. We have become used to low prices for clothes for decades now, we cannot expect everyone to suddenly just accept that basic wardrobe pieces now cost hours’ worth of work. If I knew I’d definitely be able to get whatever I required from charity shops or Depop when I needed it, I wouldn’t shop fast fashion.
I think conscious shopping is the way forward for the average consumer. Making more informed decisions at the checkout is the method I’ve tried to adopt. How often will I realistically wear this item? Can it be dressed up and down? Do I already have other similar pieces? Being more inquisitive about why we are purchasing something can help prevent unnecessary waste and reduce the “fast” part of fast fashion consumption.
It is unrealistic to expect everyone to suddenly start thrifting everything and blockade Primark until they change their ways. Purchasing more thoughtfully and less often is perfectly adequate for the average person. Charity shop when you can, and if your budget lends itself, absolutely support ethical companies. Do what you can with what your clothing requirements and budget allows. Fashion should be enjoyed and expressed with confidence, not something we should be made to constantly feel guilty about.
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