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Fast Fashion and Conscious Consumerism

One of the more deceptive industries that are guilty of contributing to the negative environmental impacts associated with climate change is the fast fashion industry. This business model refers to the accelerated production and distribution of clothing. Companies will fast track designs to be released weekly, sometimes daily to follow trends to entice consumers to constantly buy new clothing. These garments are not being made with quality in mind, in fact, they can sometimes be made so cheap a person might only get a few wears out of a single garment. This practice makes the garments almost disposable. The effects of having an industry with a business model like this means we end up with an excess amount of waste and an excessive amount of energy and resources being used. The detrimental effects of the fast fashion industry on the environment can not be understated enough. The amount of overconsumption and exploitation of raw materials are major contributors to the reason why the fast fashion industry is harmful to the environment. Companies continue to exploit materials and labor in order to increase profits. All is not lost though, there are things we can do to ensure a better future for the environment like conscious consumerism.

Raw and natural materials are still the primary source to make clothing and in a world with limited resources we have to be mindful of our consumer behaviors. Production isn't the only problem. The excess waste after a garment has lived its shortened life cycle has also become an issue. When clothing is used a handful of times, they end up in landfills. Andrew McAfee et al. says “a garment is designed to be worn no more than 10 times.” During the production of textiles water is used throughout the process especially in the dyeing and finishing stages. states that “Around 215 trillion liters of water per year are consumed by the industry.” The fast fashion industry is responsible for a significant amount of water pollution. Many people might not realize how much energy and resources go into the production of textiles and fabrics. “Textile production generates 1.2 billion tons of CO2e annually, more than international flights and maritime shipping combined” according to Morlet et al. the amount of pollution textile production is responsible for also needs to be considered when discussing the effects of fast fashion, For example, "cultivation of natural fibers consumes a large amount of fresh water, whereas yarn and fabric manufacturing consumes a vast amount of energy" (Patwary). Cultivation of materials such as cotton and synthetic fibers like polyester, derived from fossil fuels, contribute to pollution and greenhouse gas emissions. Oftentimes materials from foreign countries are being exploited for American consumption.We need to be conscious of where and how these materials are being sourced. Pushing the fast fashion industry towards a more sustainable approach is crucial in combating the long term effects it will have on the environment.

The landscape for shopping for clothing has drastically changed over the decade. With the rise of online shopping, free shipping and cheap clothing it is easier than ever to get a hold of new clothing faster. Companies are incentivized to produce low quality products while simultaneously increasing their bottom line. Social media has a significant influence on how people shop. Places like Instagram, TikTok and YouTube are flooded with videos of "hauls" or "unboxings" of peoples' latest purchases. These types of videos influence consumers to do the same. These behaviors contribute to a culture of "disposable clothing.” The demand for cheap disposable clothing can be traced back to social media apps resulting in the pressure of having a constant rotation of clothing to keep up with style trends. Social media apps have transformed the way people shop by giving into the instant gratification of purchasing new clothing. The author, Manneh stated in their paper "The influence of social media on e-commerce: fast fashion multinational companies" that “The use of social media marketing is vital for these fast fashion e-commerce businesses as they can have direct contact with their customers, attract new customers and to get to know their target market.” These direct lines of marketing from company to consumer are important in shaping if we want to shop with that company or not. Which means, it would be in a company's best interest to have a positive reputation when it comes to their products.

In an essay by 17 year old Evelyn Wang, she recounts one of her peers looking for a dress for a school dance. She settles on a $20 sapphire gown. Two weeks later that same gown is at the bottom of the landfill. (Wang). This extreme example is the result of what it's like to have poorly made cheap clothing be so easily accessible. Consumer habits that lead to overconsumption is a factor. People are buying so much clothing that it is filling up landfills faster than we can keep up with. McNeil and Moore, authors of “International Journal of Consumer Studies” said “A lack of knowledge around what was sustainable or ethically produced in fashion was a consistent thread through all interviews.” If consumers were more aware of the true lifecycle of clothing it could push them to make more sustainable choices when making purchasing decisions. Buying better quality clothing that will last longer can be one part of a solution.

Greenwashing is a marketing tactic used by businesses to mislead consumers into thinking they are making sustainable choices when shopping with them. For example the company H&M used a scorecard system on their tags that were meant to inform the customers how sustainable their products were being produced. However, "A watchdog group found that the scorecards use only averages of the environmental impact of types of textile, rather than giving the full environmental impact of the manufacture and sale of a particular finished piece of clothing" (Stern). These deceptive techniques make it hard for consumers to make informed ethical sustainable choices. People should not have to look for in depth reports to make sure their clothing is being sourced and produced sustainably. "There was concern that consumers are desensitized to green marketing because of the ‘buzz’ around it and the presence of greenwashing. Greenwashing was considered one of the leading contributors to perpetuating negative stereotypes" (Szabo and Webster). The unfortunate reality about that is that it can be difficult to recognize when something is produced sustainably since the term has been watered down.

There is no one solution in trying to solve the issue of the fast fashion industry. The fashion industry will always exist, people will always be looking for ways to express themselves through clothing and companies will always look for ways to increase profits. But that doesn't mean we can't take small actionable steps to make big changes. An individual person's actions play an important part in how industries are shaped. Industry change has to come from within consumer habits. If there is a higher demand for better ethically made clothing the market will have no choice but to adapt. Right now, there is a huge demand for affordable clothing that looks good enough for photos but not made well enough for practical everyday use. What can be defined as the fast fashion problem can be alleviated by something called conscious consumerism. By being aware of where and how our clothes are made and produced we can have peace of mind knowing we could do our part in not participating in the exploitation within the fashion industry.

Proposing companies to be transparent and use more sustainable practices during the production process can help in reducing the carbon footprint of the fashion industry. It can also instill customer trust and loyalty. More and more people are looking for ethically made products. If companies could provide information about the environmental impact of their products, including water and energy usage, as well as waste and emissions, it would allow customers to make informed choices. Some people might argue that even though we push for companies to be more transparent in their production process, that's not going to stop them from using greenwashing tactics. They might see it as just another marketing opportunity. So what can we do to make sure companies are being held accountable? We can make small choices daily!

Recycling initiatives is realistic way we can address the issue of fast fashion by donating and thrifting we are able to extend the lifespan of our clothing. Upcycling garments into different pieces is also in demand for people who are looking for unique ways to express their style. Pintu et al cites that “Both recycling and upcycling reduce the amount of waste which ends up in landfills across the world.” in their book, Recycling from Waste in Fashion and Textiles : a Sustainable and Circular Economic Approach. By upcycling and recycling clothing it can reduce the demand for new garments and in turn keep more waste out of landfills. Some people might say that donating to thrift stores is not effective enough to make a difference. That it does not tackle the root cause of why the fast fashion industry is harmful to the environment. With overconsumption being the main cause there should be more effective ways to address the issue of fast fashion. In some cases second hand clothing stores are overwhelmed with the amount of donations they receive that many of the garments end up in landfills anyway. Although recycling and upcycling doesn't solve the issue completely it can be beneficial. It is important to recognize that it needs to be coupled with other efforts to be effective.

One of the most powerful tools to enact change can come from social campaigns on social media. Hymen and Tohill said in their book Shopping for Change : Consumer Activism and the Possibilities of Purchasing Power, “If a social movement can be defined as a loose coalition of groups and organizations with common goals that are oriented toward mass action and popular participation and that share the intention of influencing major societal institutions or groups, then the consumer movement certainly counts as one.” The impacts from social movements are valuable in altering the way the industry operates. Consumers should know the power they wield with their ability to make conscious sustainable decisions. As equally as responsible social media apps are for amplifying the fast fashion industry, it can also be used as a source to make positive change for. “Forms of consumer activism— from boycotts to buycotts— have often been central to the most important struggles for social justice, like abolitionism, anti– child labour activism, civil rights, trade unionism, and anti-globalization.” (Hyman and Tohill).

These criticisms that may arise from the proposed solutions are that individual people shouldn’t be the only ones responsible for making changes but companies need to bear some of the responsibility to produce their products in a more sustainable way. By having some type of government intervention there can be regulated protections against the excessive use of materials during production. Since labor exploitation tends to go hand in hand with the fashion industry, we can have government protections against labor violations as well. Michael Schragger stated “Consumers are not, can not and should not be the driving force for completely changing an industry — not least because as long as it’s easy, fast and cheap to buy fashion, then the sustainability aspect of the offer will always be a secondary choice” in the NY Times article “The New Laws Trying to Take the Anxiety Out of Shopping”. This is why it is important for there to be mandatory policies to be put in place to pressure companies into making sustainable production choices.

Pushing back against the fast fashion industry is something that is important in the future of our planet. It is a well known fact that we overproduce and overconsume. Small actions across millions of people will be able to make a huge difference. If we can alter the shopping behaviors and mindsets of consumers we can make more informed and ethical choices when it comes to how we buy clothing. Implementing daily changes are just pieces of a puzzle in a larger issue. We can't solve this complex issue without a massive change and one of the major driving forces is being able to hold companies accountable. There isn't one single solution to the problem of fast fashion. We have to collectively make more conscious decisions in every aspect of our consumer habits. The best case scenario would be to stop shopping at fast fashion retailers all together but that's unrealistic. So maybe the alternative is small changes to make a larger difference. Maybe we can buy one really good pair of quality jeans instead of 5 cheap trendy pairs. If it's about wanting to express ourselves through fashion maybe learning to sew to repurpose and repair garments is an option. If donating to thrift stores is contributing to the issue, maybe shopping at them can make a small difference. It's not so much about consumption but overconsumption that we need to be conscious of.

Works Cited

Hyman, Louis, and Joseph Tohill, editors. Shopping for Change : Consumer Activism and the Possibilities of Purchasing Power. Cornell University Press, 2017,

McAfee, Dessain A., and A. Soeman. Zara: IT for fast fashion. Harvard Business School Publishing, 2004. Accessed 2 October 2023.

Manneh, Mariama. "The influence of social media on e-commerce: fast fashion multinational companies." (2017).

Morlet, A., et al. “A New Textiles Economy: Redesigning Fashion's Future.” Ellen MacArthur Foundation, 28 November 2017, Accessed 10 October 2023.

Pandit, Pintu, et al., editors. Recycling from Waste in Fashion and Textiles : a Sustainable and Circular Economic Approach. Wiley-Scrivener Publishing, 2020.

Paton, Elizabeth. “The New Laws Trying to Take the Anxiety Out of Shopping (Published 2022).” The New York Times, 3 October 2022, Accessed 23 October 2023

Patwary, Sarif. Clothing and Textile sustainability: current state of environmental challenges and the ways forward. 2020. Accessed 09 October 2023.

Stern, Matthew. “H&M Case Shows How Greenwashing Breaks Brand Promise.” Forbes, 9 March 2019, Accessed 15 October 2023.

Szabo, Szerena, and Jane Webster. “Perceived Greenwashing: The Effects of Green Marketing on Environmental and Product Perceptions.” Journal of Business Ethics, vol. 171, no. 4, 2021, pp. 719-39, Accessed 10 October 2023.

Wang, Evelyn. “How Fast Fashion Became Faster — and Worse for the Earth (Published 2022).” The New York Times, 22 June 2022, Accessed 10 October 2023.

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