Fast fashion isn’t just an environmental issue: it’s a feminist one

When 19-year-old Eloise Amirtharajah was recruited to run a clothes-swap in 2019 with Ballarat Youth Council, she had no idea that sustainable fashion would become such an integral part of her day-to-day life. 

Sitting in a cake shop on Acland Street, she says that what she learnt about thrifting and dressing sustainably has had a huge impact on not only what she wears, but also how she views the world around her. 

“Thrifting, clothes-swaps and online thrift stores like Depop are completely accessible to a lot of people and it’s a much more sustainable way of building a wardrobe,” she says. 

However, Miss Amirtharajah’s rose-coloured outlook on sustainable fashion very quickly turned sour as she took a closer look into the mechanics behind changing your clothes-buying habits for the better. And she’s not the only one. 

The exclusivity and expense of ethically sourced clothing companies continue to deter people from shopping more environmentally friendly. The lingering image in people’s minds of baggy, unflattering pieces made solely of linen accompanied by staggering prices, have seen people turn to fast-fashion brands like Zara and H&M to stay on top of the latest trends. 

According to a study conducted by Common Objective in 2018, around the world, about 107 billion units of apparel and 14.5 billion pairs of shoes were purchased in 2016. 

To tackle this ever-growing issue, Miss Amirtharajah says the best way forward is to think about reducing your consumption instead of trying to source only ethical clothing. 

“I don’t think it’s fair to ask a teenage girl to buy a $70 tank top even if it is ethically sourced and hand-woven or whatever, when there’s a $6 alternative at Kmart. No one’s going to do that,” she says. “Reducing consumption is more important. Buy whatever you want as long as you wear it for a long time.”

The current societal expectations around ‘what’s hot and what’s not’ have made over-consumption a given. Clothes are being churned out at breakneck speed to keep up with demand, made out of increasingly poorer materials like polyester that shed toxic microplastics when washed. Not only are the garments bad quality, but they’re not being recycled. This is a big problem when you consider that in 2018, the average American was throwing away around 81 pounds of clothing yearly.

Buying less clothing and recycling more is an easy assessment to make. However, the underlying problem runs much deeper than that.

“This is a gendered issue. Fashion is usually considered to be more of a women’s interest, and sustainable brands almost always focuses on women’s fashion, so that financial burden is exclusively placed on women,” says Miss Amirtharajah.

As women’s fashion has become less politicised, uninhibited by rules and social expectations about things like hem length, fashion has become a crucial form of self-expression.

“Just think of the ’80s power dressing,” said fashion writer Alice Ghent, “with the big shoulder pads for women who were busting to break into domains traditionally dominated by businessmen.”

“But now instead of fashion being governed by strict trends, it’s fashionable to be yourself, whether that means a mini, a midi or a maxi.”

Unfortunately, this also means women are more likely to be pressured into having an extensive wardrobe, made worse by decades worth of media enforcing the belief that wearing the same outfit twice is socially unacceptable. 

“Men can get away with making no effort, while women face criticism for doing so,” said Ms Ghent. 

“It’s extremely unfair and fundamentally sexist.”

To add insult to the injury, fast fashion has been shown to disproportionally disempower women. According to the non-profit group Remake, 80% of the people making this clothing are young women aged 18-24, most of whom are paid less than $3 an hour. 

“There is more awareness about the appalling working conditions of the people in developing countries who make these cheap clothes,” said Ms Ghent. “There is an associated sense of guilt about this kind of empty consumerism.”

Many people don’t have access to ethical, and oftentimes expensive, fashion. And as awareness rises on the dangers of fast fashion, so can arise feelings of shame at this type of consumerism. But Miss Amirtharajah says that using fast fashion as a shaming tool against women will not help us win the battle against fast fashion. 

“We as a society need to change our attitudes towards women and fashion,” she says. 

So, maybe it’s time to rethink how ethical fashion accessibility, as well as the huge overturn in fashion trends, impacts women. After all, fashion should be fun, and perhaps it’s the time to make quality over quantity a style trend.

Article written by Maya Duggan

Header image courtesy of @virgoe_xoxo

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