OP-ED: Fast Fashion Chains Are Growing, So Give Up on Being a Conscious Shopper?

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It’s a great time to be a fast fashion company. H&M and Zara are plunking down stores all over the world and global sales of cheap, trendy clothing are stronger than ever. Inditex, the company that owns Zara, opened more than 300 stores last year across 19 countries. H&M’s profits are up 25% over last year and the company is opening more than one store a day on average.

In light of fast fashion’s unequivocal and seemingly unstoppable expansion and success, we have to wonder if there is any real point to participating in conscious fashion consumerism. Will the buying decisions of a cadre of committed consumers and companies REALLY change anything when the movement is up against the cancerous spread of the global fast fashion industry?

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These are tough and searching questions—but they are questions and doubts faced by most every social movement in the globalization era. With the advent of the Internet and social media, especially Twitter, our awareness of social change has sped up. We learn of outrageous crimes, as well as the responding revolutions and their successes and failures in real time. We follow a 24/7 news cycle where we see unspeakable tragedies like the collapse of Rana Plaza in Bangladesh play out as they’re happening. Our mistake? Thinking that solutions to these deep-seated problems will happen at the same instantaneous pace of our televisions and computer screens.

Despite living in a seemingly instant world, the actual process of social change is as slow and painstaking as ever. If we consider the ideology of fast fashion, which is one of instant gratification, we’ll recognize that, along with the Internet, we’ve been seduced into believing that desires can and should be easily met and that resources and people around the world can be moved and manipulated at a moment’s notice. We can’t expect lasting economic and cultural change to happen at the same finger-snapping speed of fast fashion production system itself, as if overhauling the fashion industry will be the next trend landing on shelves.

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Fast fashion is part of a wider ideological degradation, whereby we think of ourselves and identify in every way as “consumers,” to the point that we use consumption as our primary form of protest, by consuming “responsibly.” The problem with conscious consumption as the end all and be all of resistance is that it is a symptom of our over-identification with the marketplace and, more importantly, it indicates just how much we’ve lost site of the fact that social change happens primarily OUTSIDE of the marketplace, in the realm of government, law, policy, and activism.

The movement of conscious fashion consumerism is up against powerful economic forces that we cannot simply will away by convincing those around us that fast fashion is bad, or even by providing a seductive and affordable alternative. The laws of capitalism will make it so that H&M, Forever 21, and Zara will replicate their business model until it’s exhausted–until those chains have moved into every possible market and country and made disposable consumers out of every emerging consumer with $5 to spare for a throwaway top. Capitalist society always moves toward profit maximization and increasingly toward disposable consumption, which makes use of an overheated global production supply chain that’s expert at making a lot of stuff, and little in the way of equitable prosperity.

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To combat these seemingly intractable forces requires, as one might imagine, far more than the unyielding ethics of individual consumers. If you don’t want to buy a $5 top, there are countless other people who would love to, or will argue, many of them accurately, that a $5 top is all they can afford. If we truly want to reign in and subdue fast fashion companies, it will require our efforts as citizens, not as consumers.

What this means is that we should be lobbying government to regulate fashion corporations and to police global supply chains that import products to the United States, demanding that those imports abide by the same labor, environmental and health and safety standards as products made in the United States. We must work with governments and activists in the developing nations that make our clothes as well as work toward regulating their industries as well. And, yes, we must harass and harangue and embarrass fast fashion companies on social media, in the streets, and in interviews and articles at every chance we get, with every misstep they make—which is often.

If this all sounds exhausting, it can be.

But ultimately what we need to change the fashion industry is time, more time.

We have to think long term. Globalization is still a relatively new phenomenon, and we are slowly figuring out how to rally and organize pro-people forces around the world. Every step we make toward better regulating corporations and building an alternative and conscious apparel industry means that if and when the fast fashion exoskeleton cracks, there will already be new consumer habits and ways of doing business in place.

There are victories that we shouldn’t lose sight of—the volume of domestically made clothing increased for example between 2012 and 2013 for the first time in decades and H&M is making efforts to move toward paying a living wage in Bangladesh. Each so-called small victory for conscious fashion makes a big impact, even if that impact is difficult to measure or difficult to see and is not happening at the speed we’d like it to. Actual lasting, meaningful, social and economic change is slow, it is messy, and does anything but follow a straight line. But the needle is moving in our favor.

Images: Ryan Mcguire, StockSnap, aykapog, obpia