Fast fashion is having a significant impact on people and the planet. We reached out to an expert to learn more.

One Planet Life had the wonderful opportunity to speak with Dr. Karin J. Bohleke, director of the Fashion Archives and Museum of Shippensburg University, regarding the varied impacts of fast fashion, its historic rise in popularity, and how we, as consumers, can make changes to shift the tide in support of a more sustainable model. 

Q: What is your definition of fast fashion, and how do you think it’s impacted today’s fashion industry?

A: When I think about fast fashion, I think about the rapid production of multiple collections by design houses – and by that, I don’t necessarily mean designers in the French “couture” sense of the term – and the constant disposability of goods that have to be replaced very quickly by new items. 

When you think about it, historically, designers had to come out with their spring/summer, fall/winter, and their resort collections. They only had to come up with three collections per year, so they could spend time developing their ideas. Now, young designers are expected to turn out a new collection every three to six weeks. It leads to burnout, poor designs, and overproduction.

 rapid production of multiple collections by design houses
Q: What are some of the environmental consequences of fast fashion, and how do they compare to past historical fashion practices?

A: There are several issues at stake; one is the dye agents, the colorants used for the fabrics. The United States outsourced most of its dye houses to developing nations, so their waterways would be polluted and not our own. Traditional dyeing operations also require a lot of water.

Another aspect is that most clothing is made using artificial fibers, and many of them are petroleum-based. When we are talking about natural fibers such as cotton, increased production leads to increased use of pesticides. 

The popularity of certain fibers is damaging the environment. Most cashmere comes from Mongolia. Western greed for cashmere has led Mongolians to increase the number of cashmere goat herds, and they are devastating the environment in Mongolia. So we have an active consumption issue there due to species overpopulation. That’s another example. 

And when you think about the greenhouse gasses for production all along the way – we’re using water, we’re using land, we’re putting emissions into the air. 

There are also labor costs associated with cheap fast fashion – and that is outsourced sweatshop labor. Since many of these workers are women, it does entrap women in cycles of poverty.

Q: That actually leads to another topic I wanted to touch on – the exploitation of workers, low-income communities, and some methods on how we can address this issue.

A: Fair trade is becoming an important factor in mitigating this through fair wage concepts, but sometimes companies get away with ignoring this through a series of subcontracts. By the time you get to the sweatshop, you have subcontracted from fair trade and more expensive labor to unmonitored, exploitative labor. 

There are technological advances taking place to use less water with dyes. In other countries, they are growing hemp, which works the same way as cotton and linen do; and I’m simplifying here. Hemp requires a fraction of the water and a fraction of the pesticides but can produce the same amount of yardage with smaller land plots. So there is some shifting to sustainable fibers.

There are a number of companies that are investing in zero-carbon production. There are also companies in Sweden that are taking innovative steps towards fiber recycling so abandoned clothing can be taken out of the landfill and turned into either clothing or something else. This is where our manmade fibers are an issue because they don’t recycle as easily as natural fibers do. If you’ve got 100% wool, 100% cotton, 100% linen, 100% silk – that recycles more readily than artificial polyester and similar petroleum-based fibers that are often complex blends.

Q: Looking at the shift into fast fashion, can you pinpoint when that started to take place and why?

A: The roots really begin in the late 1960s with the Youthquake fashions. That’s when you start to see fads that change quickly. It was the expectation, particularly among young people, that they were going to change their styles quickly. The difference is that things were still very well made during this time period. When you pick up a dress from the 1960s, it’s beautifully made, even if it was considered sort of disposable at the time. 

Even remembering my own shopping days as a college student in the 1980s and 1990s; I still own pieces that I bought at that time that are amazingly well done. I really blame more recent decades for the fast fashion that we now associate with very low-quality fabrics as a base, as well as simplified construction. A lot of fast fashion is going back to simple T-shaped designs: everything is based on squares and rectangles. 

1960s Dress
Q: Would you say that fast fashion is highly representative of women’s fashion more than men’s? Or has that shifted as we see trends change?

A: Yes and no. It hits women harder. They want us to be clothes horses, constantly changing our wardrobes and our outfits. It is hitting men in another way. You will never get away with removing the pockets in a man’s work trousers, like your dressy khaki. Guys would never do without that, but women now get excited when a garment comes with a built-in pocket because it is so rare. But I have noticed over the years in shopping for my husband that the quality of fabrics is going down for men as well. It’s not as bad as it is for women, but I’ve noticed it. I’ve also seen it in, for example, unisex goods such as T-shirts. The fabric quality is deteriorating for both men and for women – getting thinner and thinner. The fibers are very badly spun. And these are the T-shirts that start developing spontaneous holes by the third wash.

Q: From your perspective, how can consumers make informed decisions about the clothes they buy and reduce their contribution to the fast fashion industry?

A: I’m actually a 19th-century specialist, but the attitudes towards clothing they had back then are very relevant today. They had a number of proverbs, and one was, “Don’t throw good money after bad.” We work hard for our money and should vote with our wallets. Don’t buy something that’s badly made that is going to fall apart. That’s the first thing I would recommend to anybody. We are better off saving our money and buying a higher quality product. 

I’d also say, and this is another 19th-century principle that’s highly relevant, “Buy less but buy well.” We don’t need a ton of pieces in our wardrobe. We need classic, quality garments that will last. Say you get a T-shirt. It’s the perfect color. You love it. You pay $10 for it, and it falls apart. It’s developing those holes in the third wash, and you’ve worn it, let’s say, six times. How much did that T-shirt cost per wear? Whereas say you save up money and buy a $25 or $30 T-shirt that is really good cotton and is really going to last, and you wear that T-shirt for two years. Which item is more expensive? 

The fast fashion industry is seducing us with a low price at the purchase point and trying to make us think that we won’t notice that we’re actually having to spend more to have fewer wearable items in our wardrobe. 

I’d also say that, especially our staple goods, the things we come back to again and again – those are the ones where we do want to spend and invest good money. The ephemeral things, the fads, save that for accessories. ‘FAD’ stands for ‘For A Day.’ That’s how long it’s fashionable.

Q: Can you speak more to the rise of vintage fashions?

I love going to vintage clothing stores. As a student preparing for job interviews, I bought a tailored suit in the 1980s that I still wear, and all I did was take out the jumbo shoulder pads.  I substituted thinner shoulder pads, and the suit is still a knockout. It’s a skirt with a jacket inspired by the fashions of the 1940s. The skirt even has two pockets! The lines of the jacket are fabulous. It’s a gorgeous 100% wool exterior, and it’s still pristine after many wearings. 

We also need to learn to repair our clothes and maintain our wardrobes. 

Some of the classic problems, especially if you have wools, of course, revolve around keeping the moths at bay. That’s where a nice garment bag can help. 

The typical repair you have to deal with is a button falling off. Learning to sew a button on yourself is a basic skill, right up there with learning how to swim. Sometimes a hook will come off, and functionally, that’s the same thing. Every now and again, a seam will split. That’s an easy thing to fix as well. So we’re not talking about developing extensive skills. These are things that don’t necessarily require investment in a sewing machine unless you have a real interest in learning how to alter and make your own clothing. 

Vintage Clothing Store
Person sewing button nto shirt

Jazzing up a jacket can be as simple as replacing the buttons for a new look. There are tricks too. Say you lose a main button, but there’s a similar one on the cuff. You can take the one from the cuff to keep this line preserved and then maybe even put something different on the cuffs. Nobody will notice. Or if you lose a top button, you take a button from the bottom and put it on the top. Put the slight mismatch down below, away from your face, and nobody will notice.

Q: How do you see the fashion industry changing within the next five to 10 years?

A: I think that any change will have to be consumer driven. As long as the shoddy goods associated with fast fashion remain profitable, that business model will continue to exist. Not to be negative, but it underscores the importance of consumers voting with their wallets. Really, education has to take place at the consumer level, and I think a lot of change is driven by young people who are waking up to the real economic costs of fast fashion. But at the same time, their own education is short-changing so many of them: traditional home economics courses have largely vanished from most high school curricula, and if no one is at home who can teach them about clothing care, they have to look elsewhere to learn. Fortunately, there are many online venues, but they have to want to make the effort, and, speaking more broadly, everyone has to commit to personal change. 

Written by Carley Kimball

Written by Carley Kimball

Freelance Journalist and OPL Content Contributor

“I’ve always tried to implement planet-friendly practices in my life but didn’t quite realize just how much of an impact individuals can make until I was introduced to One Planet Life. I’m so excited to be able to utilize my professional skills to contribute valuable information and positive personal experiences to help make the world a better place.”

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