By Lilly Moore
If Macklemore’s 2012 hit taught the world anything, it’s that thrift shopping is for hipsters and ballers alike. It offers buyers, donators, and sellers an opportunity to give clothing a continued purpose, a new life. Old garments grow in value because their style stands the test of time.
Vintage pieces counter “fast fashion,” in that they’re a use of textile resources in an effective way, which makes the continued production of clothing seem somewhat obsolete. Whenever I walk into a Goodwill or a regional thrift store like Southern Style in Nashville, TN, I’m instantly overwhelmed by the sheer amount of clothing hanging on the racks. It’s a similar feeling to walking into a Forever 21 or H&M which spans three stories, with enough clothing to cover a small country.
Many of these new pieces won’t be bought by shoppers at full price, but instead trickle down from original sale to thrift store to homeless shelter, and eventually get donated outside of the US or burned.
I’ve heard the pursuit of fashion described as a vain endeavor for individuals to assert their physical dominance with the help of rich artists. The fact of the matter is that society commands clothing in different ways. Fashion also is a way for people to define themselves, group themselves with similar tastes, make income, or have some sort of artistic outlet through the products of other artists. Fashion should never be written off nor romanticized too highly. The “vanity” in dressing comes from a person’s desire to express themselves, either individually or as part of a group.
The weight, however, of the overproduction of cheap imported textiles should not be ignored. When clothing reaches a point where it is “no longer useful,” when developing countries can’t rely on foreign imports to sustain their economy, and when high-end designers like Louis Vuitton refuse to lower their prices or donate bulks of products, the clothing is burned.
There are various impacts that the burning of textiles have on the environment, but the largest one is the release of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gasses into the atmosphere, which rapidly expedites global warming. Fast fashion also heavily relies on unethical production practices, both in and outside of the United States. The Los Angeles Times produced an article in 2017 which disclosed that Forever 21 workers were paid less than minimum wage to make clothes that cost more than their daily income in downtown Los Angeles.
I spoke with Talia Greenburg (C’19), a Sewanee alumnae, former sustainability fellow, and someone I’ve always personally known to take an interest in both the creative and environmental aspects of the pursuit of style. To her, the idea of “sustainable fashion” takes into account the clothing’s manufacturing, the way the company treats and pays its workers, and how the materials are sourced.
Sustainable fashion, at this point in Greenburg’s life, means buying second-hand.
“I’m buying the majority of my clothing from consignment stores/vintage clothing stores,” Greenburg said. “The items that I buy new are usually shoes or jackets that I can plan on keeping for a long time. I try to buy locally and if I don’t I try to keep it U.S.A. made. I do not buy into fast fashion, and I buy from clothing companies that are more sustainable, like Patagonia.”
Greenburg continued that if she could convey one thing about sustainable fashion to shoppers and style-seekers, it’s that it’s really not that hard to shop sustainably. She recognized that some sustainable designers can be more pricey since they source more ethically-produced materials, but as Macklemore once said about a shirt he found in a thrift shop, “that s*** was 99 cents!”
Greenburg ended with two important notes: number one, clothing, even in excess, cannot make up for a lack of style.
“Someone with style can make anything look fashionable and trendy,” Greenburg said. “Trendy clothing can not make up for a lack of style, so start to think outside of the latest fast fashion trends and build a unique style!”
HuffPost reports that the fast fashion industry produced approximately 52 “micro-seasons” per year in an effort to get consumers to buy into staying “in style,” when the intention is to make people feel out of fashion within a week.
Instead of Forever 21, Greenburg recommends considering designers like Zero Waste Daniel. “Based in NYC, [Daniel]designs and hand makes clothing and accessories from fabric scraps that were leftover from clothing manufacturers.”
Greenburg concluded with a warning: “We must change the culture around fashion and give companies less reason to produce more and more clothing each year. The fast fashion industry cannot be sustained ethically, and our planet and people are suffering from it.”
Be it the indentured workers who produce the clothes or the means by which fast fashion disposes of its mistakes, sustainable fashion is the only way forward if we want to have a clean environment and a thriving textile economy worldwide.