Fast fashion: How cheap clothing impacts the environment

Katie Drybrough sports a teal corduroy jacket she found at a thrift store. The jacket is one of her favorites, Drybrough said. 

Taylor Metcalf

From sweatpants to suits and everything in between—walking around campus, the variety of fashion is astounding. In a changing society, trends change quickly, and students are just as quick to follow.

Though what’s “in” and what’s “out” never stays the same for too long, it seems fashion is always coming full circle. With bell-bottoms and scrunchies coming back into style, who’s to say what could be next? At least one thing is for sure — fast fashion isn’t going anywhere.

Fast fashion generally describes clothing items which are trendy and recent but lacking in quality. For Deborah Shivel, a WKU fashion merchandising instructor, fast fashion has some serious issues.

“I view it as ‘disposable fashion,’” Shivel said. “It’s very inexpensive, and the quality is very low. It’s an item that can be purchased where the life span is very short.”

But fast fashion’s short life span is only one problem. Shivel said she is concerned with our environment’s health, as vast amounts of fast fashion pieces pile into landfill mountains. 

According to an article by The New York Times, “about 85 percent of textile waste in the United States goes to landfills or is incinerated.” The particles that don’t end up in landfills make their way into our water systems.

Despite the carbon footprint, students and others on a tight budget continue to buy into fast fashion. Shivel attributes this to accessibility. Already low on cash, students find themselves in a bind when their favorite clothing item is retired, but they can’t afford to invest in high-quality clothing.

H&M, Charlotte Russe and Forever 21 are guilty of selling clothes that rip, fade or shrink after the first wash. Mallory Schlossberg, a retail reporter at Business Insider, wrote an article explaining why she stopped dropping into Forever 21.

“The clothes wouldn’t last more than a few washes, let alone a few steps outside of the house and trips on the subway,” Schlossberg wrote. “Buttons would fall off, cotton dresses would fade and my tiny New York City closet was rapidly filling with unwearable items.”

It was perhaps this that caused Forever 21, once one of the most popular trend-following stores, to file for bankruptcy in September of this year. 

According to The Washington Post, it was the inability of Forever 21 to appeal to consumers’ needs that caused its downfall. The items that the company began to market to its customers seemed questionable to many, enough so that social media took to making fun of the selections.

TikTok and Instagram posts pushed the #forever21 hashtag — a place where buyers came together to share their frustrations about Forever 21’s interesting fashion choices and lack of quality.

Even with the company’s issues, fast fashion is anything but dead. Big retailers such as H&M and Target still thrive, often advertising ‘‘affordable” and trendy items that consumers seem to enjoy.

But the real question is, how is fashion changing on campus, and how does fast fashion tie in? 

Jay Cross, a freshman fashion merchandising student, said they see the variation our campus has to offer. Each person has their own “look” that makes them who they are.

“We have a big, diverse range of styles, but most people do choose comfort over style,” Cross said. “There isn’t anything wrong with that, though.”

Shivel said she believes society is changing into one where the ideal of “comfortable and casual” reigns supreme, and campuses are no different.

For Cross, their style is a mix of “alternative and trendy.” If you were to catch a glimpse into their closet, you would find a sturdy pair of jeans, versatile black items, heeled boots and accessories to make any outfit complete. But their favorite item is a faux fur coat from Hollister. 

Fast fashion doesn’t seem to fit into Cross’ closet space, only items that can weather the storm of the hectic college life and still come out in one piece.

There are some pieces, however, that never go out of style. Ball caps, plain T-shirts, sweatshirts and athletic wear are staples of college life. When mornings are hectic and your alarm doesn’t go off, it’s easy to throw on leggings, a sweatshirt and a pair of comfortable tennis shoes.

These items are the opposite of fast fashion — pieces that are tried and true and in almost every closet. While comfortable and trendy, these pieces have what fast fashion doesn’t: sustainability. Most of these are decades old and continue to circulate closets on the regular.

For some people, trends never go out of style. Katie Drybrough, a sophomore, finds her ‘60s-, ‘70s- and ‘80s-inspired pieces at consignment and thrift stores. 

“I love finding older pieces that are vintage-esque and unique,” Drybrough said. “I like to try to be environmentally aware of what I’m buying and how sustainable it is.”

Drybrough believes that many people are finding their way back to thrift stores for their style inspiration, even while some people still stick to their comfortable leggings and oversized sweaters. 

Thrift shops could possibly be considered the “enemy” of fast fashion — revamped and recycled pieces that can find new life for a relatively low cost rather than being dumped into one of the thousands of landfills.

In the article “Thrifting: It’s More Than Just Clothes” by Planet Aid, an environmental non-profit organization, thrifting is compared directly to fast fashion. The article offers solutions to the problems that fash fashion presents, stating that recycling old clothing can prevent the build-up in landfills. 

No matter what you wear — whether it’s comfortable, casual or dinner party ready — fast fashion is present in most of our lives.

Features reporter Taylor Metcalf can be reached at [email protected].wku.edu.