I often hear about avoiding fast fashion because it’s better for the planet, in part because it is highly disposable and people cycle it through to the landfill too quickly. But can I feel just a little less guilty about my fast fashion if I hold on to my clothes until they wear out? I’m a budget-minded shopper, and though I can occasionally afford to buy a piece from an ethical brand, the truth is that fast fashion is what keeps me clothed. — Lesley, Syracuse, N.Y.
In 2015, one of the first documentaries on fast fashion’s impact on the planet was released. Directed by Andrew Morgan, it was titled “The True Cost.” The implication was, of course, that it would reveal the real price the earth is paying for our embrace of overconsumption when it comes to clothes. It did do that.
But what it didn’t discuss (what is rarely discussed when it comes to addressing fashion and the climate crisis) is the literal cost to individual budgets of changing the system and our own behavior. That’s because one of the biggest issues with buying better and more responsibly is the fact that, as you point out, it is a luxury for many consumers.
Responsibly made products cost more. Sometimes a lot more.
In part that’s because when you encounter a garment that is so cheap you think, “how can that be possible?,” the truth is, it can’t — not unless the people who made it were exploited for their labor and the factories that produced it were squeezed out of their margins.
And in part it’s because materials that are low impact on the planet generally are not produced with economies of scale. At least not yet.
So what is a consumer who wants to act responsibly but is also faced with cost limitations to do?
First, not all inexpensive fashion is created equal. The rise of companies like Shein, Fashion Nova and PLT has made H&M and Zara look like card-carrying greenies. Though it seems impossible the business model (make more stuff quickly!) will ever be compatible with responsible production, H&M and Zara are at least trying.
And there is a difference between fast fashion and what might be called factory fashion: outlet stores of brands like Ralph Lauren, J. Crew and Brooks Brothers, which tend to be less trend-focused but often use longer-lasting materials.
Second, wherever you buy, your solution — wear your products more — is absolutely key.
According to Maxine Bédat, the founder of the New Standard Institute and an architect of New York’s Fashion Sustainability and Social Accountability Act, currently wending its way through the State Legislature, “prolonging the active lifetime of a garment by two (using the garment in its original form twice as many times as average), will decrease the climate impact by 49 percent.”
How long qualifies as “average” is hard to know, but a 2015 survey estimated only seven times.
Changing this number is something everybody can and should do, no matter what their budget. Buy for the long term, not the weekend. This will also change how you think about expense.
If you buy a T-shirt for $50 but wear it once a week for a year, the price per wear is less than $1. Which is actually cheaper than if you buy a T-shirt for $10 and wear it twice before it starts to come apart at the seams or lose its shape. Then the price per wear is $5. That is not a steal. (Note: part of extending the first life of a garment is also learning to take care of it properly.)
So when you want to make a purchase, run the numbers. Then figure out how much you want a piece, and how many ways you could wear it with what already exists in your wardrobe. Fashion math! Sometimes, it actually does add up.