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Fast fashion has drastically changed the retail industry, but who is to blame for its downsides?
Fast fashion can be defined as cheap, disposable clothing that often replicates expensive alternatives. The popularity of fast fashion has excelled over recent years, coinciding with the growth of online shopping from overseas mass production websites such as Shein and Ali-express. Shein raked in close to $10 billion in 2021 and is ranked as the most talked-about brand on both TikTok and Youtube and is the most visited fashion and apparel website in the world. Daily 1000 pieces are added to Shein and is the archetypal example of a fast-fashion website. Although initially popular on TikTok with haul videos and cheap dupes for expensive items, there is a growing tendency to criticise those who shop via Shein on social media platforms due to it being a purportedly unethical and an unsustainable company. Whilst often this type of criticism is justified, could it be argued that criticising those who shop fast fashion is inherently classist as the ability to afford ethically produced clothes is ultimately a privilege for the wealthy?
Haul Videos, TikTok Microtrends and Overconsumption
In the fashion world, microtrends can be defined as one-off, short-lived trends which rise quickly in popularity and fall even faster. Social media is the idyllic vehicle in the promotion of microtrends as ‘popular’ items flood users’ platforms forcing a desire to own the item due to the trendy connotations it holds. The only problem with this however is that often these items are designer and somewhat unaffordable leading to dupes. At the core of the popularity of shopping via fast fashion is the almost identical dupes of ethically produced, expensive items. It is commonplace in the fast fashion industry to replicate viral items of clothing for a significant fraction of the price instantly making them more affordable for audiences. Not only is imitation a huge problem in the fashion industry as copy-cat items disrespect the artistic property of designs, but the market soon becomes saturated by just one item until the ‘hype’ dies out and the clothes head to the ever-growing pile of wasted materials. Overconsumption is encouraged by social media, particularly via the use of online shopping. We don’t need to buy 10 outfits at once but when clothing sites have thousands of items, choosing 1 item would be far too difficult so we are forced into this over consumption, which is only ever normalised by the concept of hauls. Hauls are overtly problematic. Driven by social media influencers, hauls are videos where people will show a large number of clothing-all bought at the same time. These videos often have some sort of sponsorship (which influencers must now legally disclose) and following the promoter’s approval, promotes a desire for fans to obtain certain items of clothing. As TikTok has grown in popularity, so have haul videos and it is now commonplace to regularly see the promotion of overconsumption on social media.
Why is Fast Fashion criticised?
As ever on social media, social trends peak and trough and calling out fast fashion is now habitual for a lot of Gen-Z users. It is notable that this trend has 180’d from the initial trendiness of mass fast fashion sites such as Shein and Ali-Express but this is a good thing. After all, education is vital and learning of the environmental dangers of the overconsumption of fast fashion is important in the climate battle yet at what point can we justify the usage of fast fashion? As the criticism for fast fashion has grown, so has second-hand shopping. The rise of thrifting and charity shopping can be credited to the toxicity of the fashion world and the desire to reduce first-hand buying yet there is an overarching feeling that thrifting is quite simply a trend.
Ultimately, fast fashion is a sustainability problem and what is more sustainable than buying preloved items as opposed to buying new. Yet it is argued by some social media users that the ‘trendiness’ of shopping second-hand is also inherently classist as second-hand clothing is well rooted in working class history. During the renaissance servants would often sell the old clothes of their master to peasants in surrounding areas. Could it be argued that the rising popularity of thrifting among wealthy consumers as an alternative to buying from sustainable and ethical fashion brands reduces options for the already limited, lower-class communities. Some social media users argue that if you do not need to shop via fast fashion then you can cause disadvantage to those that actually need it. If the popularisation of thrifting drives the prices up then this will undoubtedly disbenefit the less fortunate however it is a grey area as to whether or not you can criticise those more well-off for exclusively shopping second hand. After all, shopping second hand is better than fast fashion and if clothes are constantly donated then this shouldn’t be too much of a problem.
Is there a link between Fashion and Class?
What we wear forms our identities and it is notable that fashion has always had strong class connotations. Clothes are our armours for self-expression and historically are a symbol of class, with designer clothes having connotations of affluence and luxury. Shopping with image in mind as opposed to practicality has traditionally been a luxury of the more fortunate who can buy clothes with a disposable income and less regard for the quality and longevity of the items of which they are buying. Connotations of derogatory class terms such as ‘Chav’ are quite literally defined with reference to clothing- Cambridge dictionary for example defining a chav to dress with “tracksuits, white sneakers, caps and over the top jewellery”. Sustainable clothing is often associated with the middle class and shopping sustainably can be expensive and criticising those who can’t shop exclusively ecological should not be criticised.
Ultimately privileged shoppers can comfortably shop sustainability, yet this doesn’t mean we should criticise those who can’t. Not every consumer can afford to buy ethically produced clothing, and this applies more to those of a lower socio-economic class. Notably, working-class shoppers are not the ones keeping the brands like Shein alive and it would be more purposeful to point the blame at the corporations running these clothing sites. The working class has not fuelled fast fashion. The corporations, sponsors and its influencers have. Let's angle the blame towards them.