Opinion | Fast fashion is hard to avoid, but not impossible

By Kelly Xiong, Staff Columnist

We’ve all heard of the brands Shein and Fashion Nova, as they’re constantly showing up in advertisements or haul videos on social media platforms. These brands offer the newest and trendiest fashion pieces at extremely low prices — but there’s a reason why all of the products are so cheap. 

Globally, people bought 60% more clothes in 2014 than in 2000, and that number steadily increases every year. 

When you go to Shein’s website, one of the first things you see is their “1000+ new styles added” promotion. That is an absurd amount of items regularly released and restocked. Last year, Shein released more than 314,000 new styles. 

With how fast the brand pumps out new pieces every day, I can only assume how badly the workers are treated and what conditions they’re subject to. While Shein got itself into some controversy regarding worker maltreatment and copying designs from smaller designers, thousands — if not millions — of people still buy from them annually. 

Founded in 2008, Shein is a Chinese-based company that sources labor from the city of Guangzhou. Over the years, Shein has gained a reputation for violating labor laws in China and subjecting its workers to dangerous working conditions. Some of their manufacturers are literally just informal factories set up in residential buildings — some even with barred windows and no emergency exits. 

Under Chinese labor laws, workers cannot work more than 40 hours a week. Even with such laws in place, Shein factory workers are often still required to work 18-hour shifts while earning a monthly salary of 4000 Yuan — which roughly equates to $550 USD. The inhumane treatment and exploitation of overseas workers is an extremely unethical business practice, especially for a company that makes billions of dollars every year. Workers are so overworked that they often don’t even have time to meet their basic hygiene needs. Many workers have to wash their hair during their breaks because they wouldn’t have any other time to do so. Depriving people of something as basic as washing themselves for the sake of profit should not continue as a business practice that goes ignored. All workers deserve dignified treatment and respect, and they should not have to put their health and safety at risk in order to make money and support their families. 

Luckily, the human rights abuses are receiving more attention as Shein has faced heat in past years for the treatment of its workers. I’ve seen many TikToks mention this issue along with others, but that still doesn’t deter some people from buying their products. 

Fashion Nova is not much better when it comes to the treatment of their workers and the pace at which they release new pieces. The California-based company has 21.4 million Instagram followers, compared to even more notable brands like Gap, which has 3.1 million followers, and Abercrombie with 4.9 million followers. This is huge in terms of audience reach. 

Fashion Nova puts out about 1000 new styles every week according to its website, or about 52,000 new pieces a year. Compared to other fast fashion brands like Garage or ASOS, Fashion Nova appeals to a wider range of sizes, making it easier for plus-size women to find clothes that make them feel confident in their bodies. This is part of the reason why they are so popular and can collaborate with celebrities like Kylie Jenner and Cardi B — celebrities who are curvier and have the desired “hourglass” figure. Although neither are considered “plus size” by any means, they also don’t fit into the traditional model mold — size 0 supermodels. By promoting clothing for curvier bodies, Fashion Nova is able to reach a wider audience. 

However, many people don’t realize Fashion Nova’s shady practices. The company does not disclose where its manufacturers are or how its suppliers treat its workers. This means that there is no way to tell how they’re sourcing their materials or if they’re abiding by California labor laws. Through undercover investigations, though, Fashion Nova has reportedly violated many labor laws in the past, and they still do. Many of their workers were forced to work without pay in Los Angeles sweatshops. This is essentially a form of modern-day slavery

Besides the illegal and unethical business practices, these huge fast fashion companies also severely harm the environment. Once a fashion trend is over, most people throw out these clothes rather than donate them since they’re often made out of low-quality materials that don’t last long. 57% of all discarded clothing ends up in a landfill, and this can lead to serious harm to the environment. 

Additionally, some fabrics are very harmful to both people and the environment. Many of the fabrics fast fashion clothes are made from, including polyester, nylon and acrylic, break down into microplastics, which are non-biodegradable tiny fragments that pollute oceans and harm marine life. When microplastics are consumed by marine life, not only is it bad for them, but it eventually comes back full circle and causes us harm too when we ingest seafood, salt and water

So, what can we do to combat the damages caused by fast fashion companies? We as consumers can put our money where our values lie, and when big companies see this shift they might start to make changes given that they want to make money. There are many sustainable brands to shop from that don’t harm the environment or support worker abuse. While these brands are often more expensive compared to fast fashion brands, it’s important to invest in quality pieces that will last significantly longer if your budget allows. Some ethical brands include Patagonia, Everlane, ForDays, Girlfriend Collective, Pact, TenTree and United by Blue. 

You can also help limit the amount of clothes that end up in landfills by donating or repurposing old clothes rather than throwing them out. As a way to incentivize more people to repurpose their clothes, American Eagle partnered with “Cotton’s Blue Jeans Go Green” to recycle old jeans rather than have them thrown out. You can bring in jeans from any brand to recycle at any American Eagle store and you’ll get $10 off the next pair you buy — this can also be combined with their Unidays 20% student discount. 

The For Days Take Back Bag is also a great way to help reduce clothing waste. They collect used pieces of clothing and other fabrics, like pillowcases and towels, and recycle them into new pieces. When you buy a Take Back Bag you receive the $20 spent on the bag as store credit on any For Days product. Their circular fashion method helps extend the life of old, worn-out pieces rather than have them go to a landfill. 

These are just some of the ways that we can help slow the growth of fast fashion companies. Yes, we see them everywhere on social media and we want to participate in new fashion trends, but there are always other places that offer alternative options, like thrifting. 

Before we go on to buy the next hot item, we should start asking ourselves, “Do I even really like this? Or do I just want to fit in and be part of the trend?” When consumers are more conscious about where they’re buying their clothes from, they play a big part in reducing the environmental harm caused by fast fashion.

Kelly Xiong writes primarily about personal health and wellness. Write to her at [email protected].