What Ethical Brands Can Learn from Fast Fashion

What Ethical Brands Can Learn from Fast Fashion
Photo by Artem Beliaikin on Pexels.com

What I Learned When I Went Back to Fast Fashion

Discovering Ethical Fashion

I’ve beat my story into the ground by now, but just in case you’re entering it via this post, let me recap: I stopped buying the worst offenders of fast fashion (think Forever 21) in 2013 after learning that the majority of consumer goods are produced by underpaid, often unprotected and exploited, workers.

We in the U.S. have been fed the narrative that labor abuse is an “over there” issue, happening in overcrowded factories in Bangladesh or dirt-floored rooms in Cambodia. But labor abuse is common wherever garments are made, including within the United States. Covid-19 has illuminated this even further. LA Apparel, for instance, manufactured at the vertically integrated facility operated by former CEO of American Apparel, Dov Charney, was forced to shut down temporarily by the state of California when over 300 employees contracted Coronavirus. By the middle of July, 3 had died.

Momentum in the Movement

By the end of 2014, through a combination of building this blog (while doing near-incessant industry research) and starting to form communities of influencers, brands, and activists in this space, I had almost totally removed fast fashion spending from my life. I was operating a thrift shop by then, which gave me daily access to low priced goods on the secondhand market.

After building the blog into a part-time business, I started to be able to afford – through a combination of gifted products and revenue – more and more expensive items on the ethical market. Some of them were really worth the money. Others, sad to say, were not. While consumer prices are linked to fair wages and sustainable production, it’s not a hard and fast percentage. And, especially in the case of well-meaning fair trade and charity models, the people producing the goods had no expertise in what they were making, having been “rescued” from trafficking or transferred from other industries. But I had enough flexibility to risk trying things to see what worked and what didn’t. A lot of those companies didn’t survive.

Then, Everlane came on the scene, making big waves in the ethical fashion community. Many of us, myself included, were convinced we finally had an option for real, everyday clothing. Not over-bedazzled “artisan” products or ill-fitting dresses made of old t-shirts. Of course, that hasn’t been going so well as of late. Turns out a company with origins in Silicon Valley isn’t necessarily a bastion of ethics.

Grad School and Pandemic

Even though my financial situation changed considerably when I entered grad school last fall, I was able to roll along with my ethical spending plan because I already had a robust closet thanks to sponsorship and thrift finds. Then, the weight gain started, and by September, I was searching for jeans that would fit a body that hadn’t just gone up a size, but had proportionally changed. I ended up with a couple pairs of American Eagle jeans, which I still wear.

Then, I sprained my ankle, and my body changed again. We also got news that Daniel was dealing with an unexplained, potentially serious health issue. My world spiraled through the early parts of 2020. I was tired all the time, and preoccupied with doctor’s appointments. It was also winter, and my sprained ankle meant I couldn’t wear any of my shoes. I bought a pair of (ethically produced) Allbirds and wore them for three months straight.

By April, school had shutdown, and I was preparing for a professional internship at a hospital. I had no slacks or office-appropriate clothing. I still couldn’t comfortable wear a majority of my flats. I had no money. I couldn’t safely go thrift shopping. Plus, the thrift shops were still closed. I couldn’t even buy things piece by piece on resale sites, because there was no reliable way to return or resell them at the beginning of pandemic upheaval.

I was stuck. So I bought fast fashion.

For the sake of this post, I define fast fashion using the Oxford Dictionary’s definition: inexpensive clothing produced rapidly by mass-market retailers in response to the latest trends.

What Ethical Brands Can Learn from Fast Fashion

What I Learned

1 | Not all fast fashion is created equal.

I tried some work pants from GAP. Though they had good reviews on the website, I found the fabric scratchy. They faded significantly after the first wash, and the fit was abysmal. For $30 a pair, they were actually *too* expensive for the quality.

But then I tried several items from Loft and Madewell, and found each one to be reasonably well-made (I shopped sale items only, though, because their full prices are part of a scheme called “retail theater.“)

While it’s undoubtedly true that fast fashion items create more exploitation throughout the supply chain, this doesn’t always translate to low quality.

2 | Fast fashion companies benefit from incomparable access to customer data, resulting in better-fitting clothes.

Not in all cases, but in some (like Madewell and Loft), I found fit to be more consistent and flattering than many smaller scale ethical brands. When I ordered something from what I would call the second-tier (slightly better quality) fast fashion companies, I could generally rely on the size chart to be accurate, and for the quality control to be very good.

Fast fashion companies know their customers, and let data inform their decisions.

3 | Some companies, like Madewell, have wised up to consumer demands for ethics and transparency.

Before a reader reached out to tell me that the intro to my Ethical Alternatives to Madewell post was outdated, I admit that I hadn’t even bothered to explore their website for at least 4 years. While Corporate Social Responsibility standards often don’t do more than pay lip service to customer concerns, they are an added way to hold companies accountable. It means that you can actually say, “you’re not meeting your own standards.” In Madewell’s case, they have added “more” sustainable items alongside their fair trade denim. They also seem to be partnering with more fair trade producers for special collections.

Fast fashion companies have, in some cases, improved their supply chain in response to customer feedback.

4 | Fast fashion brands generally offer more sizes and fits than ethical ones.

This is no surprise considering the scale of each business model. But it’s still true that potentially a majority of Americans are sized out of ethical brands, because they’re petite, plus size, or don’t have the target proportions (this excludes companies like Symbology and Hackwith Design).

I tend to agree with body positive advocates that small and emerging brands should start with the goal to have as many sizes as possible represented. Our continued social bias for a certain type of thin, mid-height person creates inordinate privileges for the influencers and customers who fit in those sizes. My body doesn’t fit in a majority of pants and skirts produced by ethical makers, which I imagine some may find surprising.

Fast fashion brands offer greater size accessibility.

5 | I wear my fast fashion items more than my slow fashion items.

With exceptions made for the handful of items that were poor quality (and which I very quickly donated or returned), I can see that the items I’ve purchased have brought me a high degree of satisfaction. And that’s not just because they’re new or they’re the only things that fit.

In fact, if I look through my entire closet right now, the vast majority of things in rotation – some 3 months old, some 5 years old – were fast fashion items or Everlane, bought secondhand or new. Part of this may be that I’m a t-shirt and jeans person, and finding good basics on the ethical market continues to be a challenge.

I do have several slow fashion items that I love, but they tend to be for special occasions: items from MATTER, Tonle, and Mata Traders occupy a special place in my closet. And, of course, I’ve got some high quality shoes from Nisolo and Po-zu.

What Ethical Brands Can Learn from Fast Fashion

Is fast fashion…ethical?

Fast fashion is not ethical in the sense of creating a more just and sustainable world for its producers or, indeed, for its customers. It doesn’t meet the generally agreed-upon standards of the ethical fashion community. And I don’t think we should manipulate the data to somehow make it fit, because all this does is further dilute the meaning of the term, “ethical.”

But after going back to fast fashion after nearly a decade mostly removed from it, I realize that, in many cases, things have improved. I also feel way less overwhelmed and disappointed with the process of shopping because I know which brands fit me, which ones are legitimately high quality, and what styles suit my body and my aesthetic. This is always a crap-shoot with ethical fashion. I wish it wasn’t, but it still is, after all of these years.

What This Should Mean for Ethical Fashion

Ethical fashion has historically been cause-forward, asking questions like: How can we make sure people aren’t exploited? How can we ensure that our processes aren’t polluting local waterways?

And these are VITAL questions, of course. But clothing is a product with a purpose already. It is intended to clothe us: to keep us warm, to help us feel integrated in our workplaces and communities, to show social solidarity. If function is not front and center, then any fashion company – ethical or not – has lost the plot.

If ethical companies spent more time thinking about fabrication and fit, hired experts to help them navigate the supply chain, and prioritized core clothing items, they could give fast fashion a more legitimate run for its money. As it stands, surprisingly few ethical fashion companies focus on these three things together, and very few brand owners are experts in sustainability, labor law, or even fashion design. Add to that naïveté regarding the academic field of ethics and you’ve got a recipe for a brand that can pay lip service to a lot of things without fulfilling its own goals.

Not to mention that a vast majority of ethical brands rely primarily on poorly paid influencers – most with NO credentials to speak of – to market their products. If we don’t know anything, how can we instruct others? (Here is where I remind everyone that I operated a thrift shop for five years, and for some reason I have never been invited to a panel on the secondhand economy…which would be fine if they weren’t choosing random Instagram influencers instead).

What Consumers Can Do

Ethical fashion, like the road to Hell, is paved with good intentions. It doesn’t have to be this way. It turns out fast fashion can teach us several lessons about what it means to create a useful product.

My top recommendation for consumers is to buy the clothing that suits their figure, lifestyle, and budget, making smart choices where they can. As I indicated in my posts on the Ethical Rule of 3 (linked below), advocacy matters, perhaps more than building small-scale “ethical” business models (though, of course, there’s connection and value in supporting small businesses).

We also must commit to slowing down our consumption, whether we choose ethical fashion, fast fashion, or a mix of things. Ethical fashion’s greatest weakness may be that it is trying too hard to emulate the breakneck fashion cycles fast fashion has popularized. And consumers, who are already trained to consume far more than we need, eat it up. It may be financially good for a particular company, but in the end, it dilutes the sustainability goals of the movement.


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is fast fashion ethical

Leah Wise

Leah Wise is the founder of StyleWise Blog. She has been writing, speaking, and consulting on sustainable fashion, the fair trade and secondhand supply chain, and digital marketing for over ten years. An Episcopal priest, Leah holds a B.A. in Religion from Florida State University and an M.Div. from Yale Divinity School. When not working, you can find her looking for treasures at the thrift store.

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  1. I’m always impressed by your analyses and thoughtfulness, Leah! I am much more on the thrifting/natural materials side than the ethical/sustainable side because of body and career changes and budget, and because I strongly agree with you about ethical fashion influencers “trying too hard to emulate the breakneck fashion cycles fast fashion has popularized.” Yes, indeed!

    Online ordering during quarantine has made me even more careful about checking inseam length, fabric type, etc., so I feel okay about my mix of fast fashion and thrifted clothes, but I still feel a little guilty that I can’t find an ethical brand that matches my super-casual, slightly sporty, short girl style and modest budget. (I just can’t do the billowy warm-toned $300 pants, and seriously, who has time to iron all that linen.) So I really appreciate your attention to the limitations that ethical fashion has for body types, career changes, budget and personal style. Thank you!

    1. Thanks so much for your feedback and sharing your particular situation. It’s helpful to hear how someone else navigates this. Online ordering has been such a pain during quarantine because of delays in delivery and issues with returns. It has made me much more careful about ordering the right thing the first time, which is a good practice anyway.

  2. I loved this post! I got ‘into’ ethical fashion as a naïve, black & white thinking teenager. I bought things I didn’t like that much or weren’t actually that well made (and online, discovering that rich greens from brands like ninety percent and people tree oftne turn up barely-there greenish grey in real life), all while claiming I am some kind of said and I didn’t leave any opportunity to point out how terrible for example H&M is.

    Fast forward 2 years, and I am buying fast fashion. These things have changed:

    1. I study fashiontechnology: this means I learn about all sides of the fahsion industry, having classes on pattern drafting, sustainability, processing, fibers, textiles, actual sewing classes and so on. This thought me a lot about the fashion industry and the choices that have to be made at every single step and all the possible requirements for example a dye must have. Sorry, sometimes fair wages or eco-friendly dyes just aren’t priority.

    2. I defined my own style more. I like glam, girly, shiny, well-tailored, high quality looking stuff. This is honestly only to be found self-made (which I can kinda do, fortunately, but there is this thing called ‘time’) or in expensive designer brands, which I can afford. As ethical brands are still very…”Momsy”, very basic fits with some garish print (people tree *cough cough*) or potato-sack like, nope. There are lots of nicer brands and more coming but then there are still other factors such as fit and availability – I would love to try things on live and touch the fabrics, and most brands don’t have brick and mortar stores. Fast fashion does.

    3. I realized that some of my most-worn pieces were fast fashion. An acrylic H&M sweater I bought in spring 2017 is on it’s last legs, I have worn it a ton. And, tbh, people who swear that fast fashion (even H&M) falls apart after 2 washes…I am really curious in which program they wash their stuff!

    4. I also realized that I am not an ethical fashion blogger and won’t have access to the glamorous fancy ethical fashion pieces bloggers like you have easier access to. I am a student dammit.

    I am still not seriously advocating for fast fashion, at all. Nor for “EtHiCaL fAsHiOn”. Instead, I ask myself these questions:

    1) Do I love it
    2) Do I need-ish it (will I have an occasion to wear it and don’t I already have alike pieces that are rarely worn for the same occasion. I my lifestyle requires me to have 10 tweed skirts and I have 9, so be it, another one)
    3) Is it (relatively) high quality
    4 Does it fit/alter-able
    5) Is it within my budget, taking in consideration cost/wear.

    When buying fabric, similar list.

    Sometimes that list will conclude in a fast fashion piece. Sometimes it won’t. But ‘conscious’ consumption is #1.

    1. Thanks so much for your insight as someone building expertise from a design and industry perspective – I think that’s so needed right now. I agree on your point about H&M, too. I have a cardigan from 2013 that I still wear all the time and it’s in great shape. I think prioritizing natural fibers and considering the weight of fabric used can mean the difference between something that disintegrates and something that lasts.

  3. Another excellent read, Leah! Fast fashion turned me into a shopping/clothing addict many years ago and slow fashion helped break those habits. Now that I have more control over the sheer CONSUMPTION, I’ve allowed myself to adjust my shopping habits a bit.

    1. That’s a good way to think about it. Ethical fashion slowed things down for me at first, but as I started to receive more and more free stuff, I turned back into a shopping addict. The pandemic has helped me really reassess how I use shopping as a stress relief, especially because I hardly leave my house, so why am I buying stuff?!

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