The Cost of Fast Fashion Inspires Personal Change for Students, Staff

Jamie Chen ’21 in thrifted outfit.
Image credit: Nat Souza, @muppetsonfilm
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Wellesley Chaplain Sarah Robbins-Cole loves a challenge, and she aspires to be more environmentally aware. Those two interests intersected in September 2020, when she wore the same dress for 100 days and documented it on Instagram.

A sustainable clothing company sponsored the 100-day challenge, which helped Robbins-Cole think about steps she could take in her personal life to reduce her environmental impact, as did learning that it takes over 700 gallons of water to make a single cotton shirt, and that the average American throws away over 80 pounds of clothes a year. “My goal is not to buy any new clothes or accessories in 2021,” she said.

Robbins-Cole joins a number of Wellesley students and others community members who are encouraging change at both the systemic and individual levels to address the problems caused by clothing manufacturing and consumption, and in particular fast fashion—inexpensive clothing that is mass-produced quickly in response to trends and is often discarded quickly, too.

In high school, Bella O’Connor ’21, a peace and justice studies major, watched the documentary The True Cost, about the fast fashion industry’s effects on the environment and on communities in the developing countries where the clothes are made. It was the first time she had considered where her clothes came from and who was affected by their production.

“How do you quantify the environmental and social costs of creating fabric that’s harmful to our ecosystems, that’s harmful to the health and well-being of the people who are making that article of clothing?” she said. Seeing footage of clothing factories that had collapsed, killing workers, set her on a path to pursue more sustainable clothing options.

She found sustainable fashion clothing lines too pricey and turned instead to shopping at thrift stores. But she decided she would also ask herself first, “Do I need new clothing, or do I just want new clothing?”

Laila Pearson ’22, an environmental studies major, said it’s important to be aware of why you want to buy an item. She suggested developing more sustainable alternatives, like borrowing a piece from a friend, and said small steps are key. “All or nothing is very scary for people,” she said. “Even for myself, it’s very hard to be, like, if I don’t hold to this specific standard, I have no standards.”

Beth DeSombre, Camilla Chandler Frost Professor of Environmental Studies, notes that while individuals can help, the enormous environmental problems fast fashion creates need to be addressed by the systems that allow it to persist. “I’m wary of individualizing what are actually systemic and structural problems,” she said via email.

Social media challenges focused on sustainability, like the one Robbins-Cole participated in, are a great way to get people thinking about the topic, “but if it’s designed to get us to feel guilty for participating in a system to which there may not be reasonable alternatives, that’s not going to get us where we need to be,” DeSombre said. It’s important to work on changing environmental policies that currently allow the fast fashion industry to create the harm it does.

O’Connor, who has taken classes with DeSombre, said she thinks a combination of relying on people to adjust their habits while also pushing for systemic change may be the best approach. In her final project for her Social Theory class, taught by Peggy Levitt, professor of sociology, she looked at data regarding the power of social influence and found that individuals’ actions affect the people around them—peer pressure can be used for a greater good.

“I think that we can’t create those systemic changes if we also aren’t influencing and changing cultural ideas and values,” she said. Creating systemic change, such as addressing a country’s environmental policy, is a long, complicated process; taking small steps that are within your control can help keep you motivated while you work on larger issues. “[I]f you don't have small wins and you can’t practice agency, you’re going to burn out,” she said.

“Sometimes it does seem a little hopeless,” said Jamie Chen ’21, an environmental studies major, “because it seems like the system is so deeply ingrained.” As part of her capstone project for Environmental Synthesis and Communication, a Calderwood Seminar in Public Writing taught by Jay Morton Turner, professor of environmental studies, Chen wrote about fast fashion, the afterlife of clothes, and the effects on many countries in sub-Saharan Africa that are inundated with discarded clothing from the West. She got interested in the topic while studying abroad her junior year in Malawi, where she visited outdoor markets that were overflowing with secondhand clothing.

Chen noted that a lot of the clothes likely were manufactured in some of these same areas where they are now clogging the markets. In her research, Chen found that lax environmental laws allow cheap clothes to be made quickly—with little regard for workers or the environment—and exported to countries where people buy and wear them for a short time before donating the items, which then get sent to developing countries. “We’re dumping the clothing and not giving it a second thought,” she said. “I wanted to explore how that is adversely affecting communities, economies, environments…it’s just a big issue that’s festering and nobody’s paying attention to it.”

“I think focusing on a consumer level is important, but looking at it globally, the whole entire lifeline of clothes is even more important,” Chen said. “Our actions are directly affecting the livelihoods of people, both in the U.S. and internationally.”

For those interested in thinking about sustainability when it comes to shopping, the student ambassadors for The Frost Center for the Environment suggested some questions to consider before buying: Do I need it/will I use it? Can I borrow it? Can I buy it locally or in person? Will it last (is it quality)? Can online purchases by shipped and packaged together?