Arts & Culture

Donned and Discarded: The Fast Fashion Debate

Art by Olivia White

They say trends are temporary and style is forever, but when it comes to fast fashion, a synthetic polyester shirt will be sitting in a landfill long after it has lost its popularity. As the internet teems with ads of the latest low-cost trendy pieces, consumers are bombarded with a plethora of fast fashion brands daily. 

Fast fashion can be defined as inexpensive clothing produced rapidly on a mass scale as a way to create and respond to the latest trends. While the mass production of clothing has been around since the Industrial Revolution, the pervasive cultural normalization of trends and low prices have increased the prevalence of fast fashion as well as the sheer speed and quantity at which clothing is made. Often mimicking designers or luxury brands, fast fashion brands aim to bring styles that people may see on celebrities or runways to the average person for a low price. However, these low price points are achieved through unethical labor practices and unsustainable quality that harm the environment.

The fast fashion industry affects all of our lives, seeing as self-expression is reflected in style. At Tufts, the negative consequences of fast fashion do not go unnoticed by students. Senior Oluchi Ezekwenna described fast fashion as brands that “do not ethically source their clothing with a negative impact on the environment, and [whose] workers are not paid fairly.” Forbes stated that in sweatshops in the US, “Workers put in grueling 12 hour days, making garments that will be sold for anywhere from $5 to $75 for around three cents apiece paid out.” Rolling Stone said that in SHEIN partner factories in China, “employees worked 12-to-14-hour days and often worked 28 days per month under incredibly unsafe conditions, such as windowless rooms with no fire [exits].” Many clothes produced in these unethical conditions are purchased by US consumers, perpetuating an unequal power dynamic overseas.   

Many workers face long hours in grueling conditions in order to produce a cheap product using poor materials, and the quality of the product suffers. According to NPR, fast fashion brands use cheap, synthetic materials coupled with rudimentary manufacturing processes, leaving most fast fashion clothing unable to survive more than a few washings. These articles of clothing then get “recycled into industrial rags and insulation, or even thrown out altogether—generating the term ‘landfill fashion.’”

In this way, fast fashion has proven to be destructive to the environment, as it produces a massive amount of waste. According to, the average US consumer throws away 81.5 pounds of clothing every year. Moreover, the US alone accounts for about 11.3 million tons of textile wastes—equivalent to 85 percent of all textiles—that end up in landfills on a yearly basis. The United Nations Environment Programme found that 20 percent of global wastewater comes from textile dyeing, where often the wastewater finds itself in rivers and seas, with detrimental effects on marine life and sewage systems. 

The internet makes clothing shopping easy and prevalent. Social media platforms such as Instagram and TikTok broadcast the latest fashion micro trends, dubbing different patterns, pieces, and pairings as “in,” leading consumers to flock to purchase the newest fad. Freshman Grant Garland explained, “A lot of trends have to do with social media and celebrities and what people of influence are wearing.” Coupled with the accessibility of online shopping, consumers can access any article of clothing with just a few clicks, leading them to be able to buy clothing at an alarming rate. Time Magazine cites a study published in the Journal of Consumer Psychology in 2014, indicating “making purchases helps people feel instantly happier—and also fights lingering sadness” as “making purchase decisions confers a sense of personal control and autonomy.” The repercussions of ubiquitous access to new clothing include micro trends fading fast, clothes being thrown away, and discarded garments becoming harmful waste. The cycle continues as soon as a new trend picks up. 

Garland sees fast fashion as leading to an “increase in consumerism,” as people are encouraged to buy more clothing and, as “a consumer, things catch your eyes easily.” Fast fashion pulls from the notion that in order to stay up to date and relevant, one must constantly reinvent their style. According to, since 2000, clothing sales have doubled from 100 to 200 billion units a year, while the average number of times an item was worn decreased by 36 percent. The demand for clothing has risen significantly as consumers buy much more, yet the amount consumers are wearing their clothing is decreasing. 

As well as creating trends or duping luxury pieces, fast fashion has also been accused of stealing from other brands and small businesses. Time Magazine names brands such as SHEIN and Zara as some of the largest in the fast fashion industry. According to NPR, the designer behind Elexiay, a Black-owned fashion brand, took to Twitter when SHEIN copied the design of its “Amelia Top.” Elexiay’s crochet sweater is handmade in Nigeria and costs $330, while its dupe appeared on SHEIN’s website, mass-produced in a nearly identical color scheme, and was sold for $17 until its removal. This incident is one of many in which a giant brand steals the work of smaller brands in order to drive profit, ultimately harming small businesses. 

Students often turn to fast fashion when they need something quickly for a specific occasion. Ezekwenna said, “If I were to purchase fast fashion, it would be if I needed a lot of clothes for a certain occasion and didn’t want to spend a lot of money on it.” Fast fashion seems to fill the need for rapidly produced clothing that is simultaneously accessible and affordable to consumers. Kaitlyn Wells, sophomore and eco-representative at Tufts, said she tries to escape fast fashion “by buying secondhand or mostly secondhand,” even though, “for some pieces, [fast fashion] is just most affordable.” Wells warns consumers to be on high alert for greenwashing, “a practice where companies will intentionally portray themselves as being green or eco-friendly, when they might just be taking one fact and blowing it out of proportion.” states that Zara is planning on switching to 100% renewable energy by 2030 and also planning on using sustainable and recyclable materials. Yet, still a leading fast fashion brand, producing a high carbon footprint, Zara neglected to share a detailed factory list and refrains from publishing results of audits, showcasing a lack of transparency and leaving consumers unable to assess how impactful their sustainability goals truly are.

Many students expressed that in the process of developing their own personal style, their reliance on fast fashion has lessened as they shift their focus to the quality and longevity of clothing over quantity. Senior Bridget Gattinoni said, “Now I understand my style better, versus when I was buying fast fashion clothes, I wanted to order a lot of clothes. Now I put more money into the clothes I buy because I know I like them, and I know they will last.” Often, as one feels more comfortable and sure of their style, it becomes worthwhile to invest in nicer, more sustainable pieces that will last long term. Wells also suggested a perspective shift in relation to fashion, saying, “Whether it be by recognizing the value in high quality pieces of clothing, or just shifting our attitudes when it comes to clothing consumption…We don’t need to be on top of every trend and wearing something different every day, every season.”

That being said, the option of more sustainable fashion is not always accessible to the working and middle classes. Sustainable alternatives—clothes that are made to last and minimize waste—tend to be more expensive and are not always financially accessible. Due to low prices and accessibility, fast fashion becomes an enticing option to many as a way to stay up to date on trends and feel good about what one is wearing, all without breaking the bank. Consumers are faced with difficult choices when debating whether or not to buy from fast fashion brands, such as questions of ethical labor conditions and environmental impact, against general accessibility, ease, style, and cost. Wells suggested “a worthwhile exercise could be an introspective look at what you tend to like, reflecting on what I really enjoy wearing and what makes me feel good, because knowing what you like helps you reduce buying unnecessary pieces of clothing that might just be a fad.”