OPINION: The Dangers of Fast Fashion and a New Era of Sustainable Purchasing


Grace Bellinghausen

As clothing stores close, online fast-fashion retailers have risen in popularity. But with concerns over sustainability and the ethics of fast-fashion, is there a better option? Photo by Grace Bellinghausen/The Gateway.

In 2020, popular fast fashion store Forever 21 announced that it filed for bankruptcy. This led to the closure of 178 U.S. stores, including the location at Nebraska Crossing in Gretna. As popular fast fashion retailers have been declining, online retailers are quickly gaining traction.

With popular online retailers like Shein, AliExpress and Fashion Nova, a customer’s purchasing power feels infinite. On these sites, thousands of items can be purchased at bargain prices that wouldn’t be found at a local retailer.

If it sounds too good to be true, that’s because it is. Not only do they not sell clothes as they are advertised, but manufacturers cut corners by using harmful chemicals on their merchandise.

One Canadian Marketplace study found that a toddlers jacket from Shein contained 20 times more lead than what is considered safe for children. Miriam Diamond, an environmental chemist and professor at the University of Toronto, classified the jacket as “hazardous waste.” The researchers also found dangerous levels of PFAs and phthalates, which can affect cognition and reproductive function, especially in men and boys. These chemicals are called “forever chemicals” because they never break down.

More than just the consumer is in danger. Due to the lack of transparency about their production chain, we can only imagine the poor conditions that Chinese factory workers are under when making these toxic garments, and what adverse health effects they may face. Forever chemicals sitting in our landfills, possibly being recycled, start the chain reaction all over again.

In California, a decades-old law is forcing brands to label garments with dangerous chemicals and possible effects. One tag reads that these chemicals “…are known to the state of California to cause cancer, birth defects, and other reproductive harm.”

But tags, however, are band-aids for a larger issue. Tags fall off, and clothes are eventually circulated into the second-hand market where they’ll be sold to unsuspecting customers.

Many of these retailers cater to an incredibly fast fashion cycle of trends. One day something is in, and the next day it’s “cheugy” or “uncool.” In the age of Instagram and TikTok, the last thing a teenager wants is to be “cheugy.”

But with every culture, there’s a counter-culture. According to ThredUp’s resale report, 45% of millennials and Gen Z refuse to buy from unsustainable brands and retailers. If the secondhand market continues to trend the way it has lately, the secondhand clothing market will be twice the size of fast fashion by 2030.

A growing awareness of trends coming back into fashion has many thrifty young people skipping the designer copies and going straight to the vintage fashions that inspired them. Secondhand options are often made with more care and at a fraction of the price.