Wear Justice Week ~ the Impact of Fast Fashion

Wear Justice Week 2021

The Center for Justice & Reconciliation's fourth annual Wear Justice was in a hybrid format, with in-person and virtual opportunities to engage. The CJR's Student Staff and Student Ambassadors planned different activities that educated hundreds of people on ways to incorporate Fair Trade into their daily lives. Some notable events included a booth at Nicholson Commons, a Drink Justice day which gave students a taste of fairtrade coffee and tea, a Film Festival in the Greek Amphitheater, and a virtual webinar with I Love a Clean San Diego where participants across campus got to hear from experts and passionate students alike. Students also got a chance to enter many contests to win a prize from over 20 different companies. One such contest was our film festival which featured short films that will be posted on our Instagram here

Wear Justice started as an event to raise awareness about the fast fashion industry. While the event has grown exponentially since 2018, the CJR still wanted to really highlight the lasting effects of fast fashion on people and our planet. One of our student ambassadors, Katrina Cloyes, has been working with the Center for Justice and Reconciliation for the past year and is full of passion for ethical fashion. With her inspirational spirit, creative thinking, and go-getter attitude, Katrina has added immense value to the team as a student ambassador. Below is a transcript of the speech she delivered at our Film Festival in which she discusses what it means to Wear Justice and the effects of fast fashion. 

Hello everyone! My name is Katrina Cloyes and I am a sophomore Psychology major and Sustainability minor. I heard about CJR last year and joined without even knowing the definition of sustainability, worker’s rights, or fair trade. Tonight I will be sharing with you one of the areas of interest that I have learned so much about since joining:  fast fashion. Wear Justice became an impactful event in my life last year because it encouraged me to change several of my habits, question the story behind the clothes I was buying, and begin conversations with those around me. 

For those of you who don’t know the definition of fast fashion, it is a business model where large companies pump out lower quality clothes very quickly, allowing business owners to meet their customers’ every need and keep up with new trends. It is also known as the Take, Make, Waste Model. They “take” from the environment, “make” with little regard for those who make the garments, and “waste” which means wearing clothes only a few times and then getting rid of them. This model seems successful from the outside, but fast fashion is taking the desire of quantity over quality to the extremes. The “fast” portion of the term is not describing how quickly the manufacturing company can get a garment made and delivered to the customer, although that is often the case. The word ‘fast’ describes how quickly retailers can move designs from the catwalk to stores, keeping pace with constant demand for more and different styles. Fast Fashion has also been referred to as “McFashion” because of its similarities to McDonald’s. Both provide products that were not made ethically but have little competition in terms of price. It has been a norm for hundreds of years that clothing stores release new items every season. Many stores like H&M have abandoned this practice and bring in shipments of new clothes every week (4x per year versus 52x per year). Some of the most well-known companies following the fast fashion business model include H&M, Zara, Forever 21, Topshop, and Fashion Nova.

Before my knowledge of fast fashion, I was an avid Forever 21 shopper, making a trip for every themed high school dance, holiday, or a special occasion where I wanted to match the “look” to the best of my ability. After making the decision to never shop at a fast-fashion store again, there were entire malls I had to avoid! Once I even went to a mall and noticed that I couldn’t find a single clothing store that wasn’t fast fashion. As I learned more, I became specifically interested in America’s role in fast fashion. According to many experts, “Fast fashion chains typically earn higher profit margin by at least 9%”, and with more and more companies following this model, especially with the recent ability to sell through platforms like Instagram,  the prevalence is only increasing.

Wear Justice Students

Many have claimed that fast fashion is a democratization of fashion, but that is a common misconception. Customers view fast fashion as a Robin Hood figure by taking from the rich, those in high fashion and big-name designers, and giving to the poor, the consumers. The first issue with this “Robin Hood” idea is that it undermines the concept of fashion. Fast Fashion companies are making a profit off of the creativity of other businesses.  However, the second issue is that a piece of the equation is missing. More importantly, with fast fashion, both the sellers and the consumers are getting what they want, while completely disregarding the conditions for those at large manufacturing companies and their workers. In order to meet the very high demands placed on them, manufacturers must use those with fewer rights and privileges to create the garments at a lower price. 

One prominent example of this impact on an impoverished developing country occurred in 2013. The Rana Plaza Factory in Bangladesh employed over 5,000 people in one building. The structure collapsed, killing over 1,334  people. The day before the collapse, the building was deemed unsafe, but the building owner and local government officials were unwilling to shut it down or spend the money to get the building up to code. Hundreds of those who were not killed now suffer from severe trauma and permanent physical disability, with most workers not even receiving government compensation. If the workers, primarily in developing countries like Indonesia, are being treated poorly in order to support fast fashion, then this analogy should be flipped. America is acting like the rich who are stealing from the poor in other countries who aren’t being paid enough for what they do

I would also like to take a minute to acknowledge I am coming into this topic from a place of privilege. By being a white, middle-class American I sit deep in the realm of consumption. A lot of people don’t even have the opportunity to make ethical fashion choices due to their socioeconomic status or the availability of ethical stores in their area. The fashion industry is the perfect example of a profitable industry linked to racism, depending on the exploitation of BIPOC communities by cutting labor and production costs. Fashion is a $2.5 trillion global industry. People of color are doing the majority of the work, dealing with the side effects of this unsustainable production, and experiencing environmental racism. Garment workers exposed to toxic fumes and inhale fabric dust, those in surrounding areas suffer from runoff of chemical dyes and other toxins ending up in water sources that communities of color depend on for survival. On top of all this, the cycle of exploitation enters the last stage where unwanted clothes from thrift stores and donation centers are shipped off to developing countries, primarily in Africa, where we are inhibiting their ability to profit from their own clothing production by flooding them with our unwanted waste. Only 3% of the clothing sold in the US is made in the US, we are the leading country setting the demand. One in six people on the planet work in the global fashion supply chain, which means billions of lives being directly affected by the fashion industry

A commonly overlooked component of ethical fashion is also the types of materials used and energy consumption. Clothing sheds microfibers, and even smaller nanoplastics, from every material. However fast fashion companies use the most harmful materials: synthetic fabrics like polyester, nylon, and acrylic. Microfibers end up cycling through our water systems and damaging wildlife, ecosystems, and eventually ending up in our food like fish, and even bottled water. In terms of energy production, it is always best to borrow, swap, rent, and even make clothes because it is lessening the impact on the environment. It takes 24 years of drinking water to make one cotton sweater, and an estimated 2.2 billion people need access to safely managed drinking water, including 884 million currently without basic drinking water services. Even awareness of disparity helps take a step in the right direction because we are able to start a discussion about how to use less energy in the fashion industry. An encouraging trend to be aware of is the use of recycled materials to create clothes, using everything from face masks to plastic found in the ocean.

Learning about fast fashion has changed how I shop, awareness is half the battle. For me, the first step was to completely stop shopping at fast-fashion companies. This wasn’t easy and often meant avoiding shopping altogether unless I was willing to research the company. I learned there are varying degrees of how ethical a company is. Apps like Good On You or Good Guide rate how companies compare in environmental impact, labor conditions, animal welfare, and also continually publish articles with tips and guides for how to be more aware of making ethical fashion decisions, have been helpful for me. I also love shopping local and almost exclusively thrift. Apps like Depop, Mercari, Poshmark, and more help when I need to find something specific. The discussion of fast fashion wouldn’t be complete if I didn’t give a warning about false claims from fast fashion companies. Greenwashing is a claim to deceive consumers into believing products are environmentally friendly. H&M may have a “sustainable line”, but how sustainable can you be if you are following a corrupt business model? With fast fashion, someone has to pay. An example of this is H&M’s new recycling bins that allow customers to bring in used, unwanted clothes in exchange for a coupon in order to  “be made into new clothes.” In reality, only 1% of the clothes collected are recycled. When researching online shops like She-in or Zaful the results often say that the companies are credible, but I can confidently say that they are fast fashion so it is important to find a source that has specific standards when evaluating fashion companies. 

I have also been learning to embrace the intersectionality of ethical fashion: recognizing fast fashion’s roots in racism, being a contributing factor to climate change, disproportionately causing harm to women garment workers, and so much more. I’m not going to pretend to know the extent to which this affects people's lives, but I can do my best to stand against it. Before I wrap up, I just want to give a disclaimer about having grace with yourself. Recently I have been furthering my education in Fair Trade, and also leaning into the grace that comes with changing my shopping habits. If you shop at an unethical company by accident or choose to buy something that you know may support a company that lacks great values, you are still capable of learning and making more ethical decisions in the future. God calls us to be stewards of His creation, but this includes taking care of ourselves and not trying to solve everything at once. Sometimes all it takes is being an example with your choices, and you don’t need to put pressure on yourself to change everyone’s mind about their shopping habits because sometimes that level of change takes a long, long time. Aristotle once said that “Educating the mind without educating the heart is no education at all.” This has been a huge piece of my story. I plan on continuing to educate my mind, but educating the heart is a much more thorough process that requires deep intentionality and conscious empathy. My biggest encouragement for you guys on Earth Day tomorrow, for the rest of Wear Justice this week, and for the future is to continue to find more ways to “wear justice.”

~ Katrina Cloyes