I’m in a half-bad mood before I’ve even woken up. It’s a Thursday — my busiest day of the week. It kicks off with a 9:05 a.m. class after three to four hours of sleep. My alarm clock is frustrated by my nonresponse, and I shut it off to check the weather report. Another 20-degree day with a chance of snow. I drag myself out of bed to brush my teeth, gaining momentum from the fear of missing an attendance point.
Deciding what to wear is the notorious thief of my morning time. I want to wear black jeans, but they’re ripped, which won’t work for the walk to class in the snow. I want to wear my favorite hoodie, but I’ve already worn it (twice) this week. I try on a sweater that looks better on its hanger than on me. My Kim K-inspired cargo pants look awkward because I fail to meet their height requirement. Discouraged, I opt for a sweatshirt and leggings.
As a fashion management major, I feel pressured to represent my personal style and knowledge of the industry. This is challenging because my in-season garments are only relevant for a short time. After one wash, the affordable clothing hangs clumsily on my body. I’m chastised when I admit to my classmates that my jacket came from Forever 21.
Forever 21, the poster child of fast fashion, joins the Zara and H&M goliaths in their destruction of ethical clothing production. At the forefront is factory working conditions. In Los Angeles, a Forever 21 employee creating a garment that costs between $12.99 and $25 in stores will receive pennies for it. In India, an H&M worker may be beaten by her supervisor if she struggles to meet production targets. In Bangladesh, Cambodia, India, Indonesia and Sri Lanka, a GAP factory employee may be raped in her employee housing. Workers may be forced to work through lunches and without bathroom breaks. In Bangladesh, a 15-year-old worker receives $1.07 for producing 480 pairs of pants. In Turkey, Zara factory workers stitch cries for help into tags: “I made this garment you are going to wear, but I didn’t get paid for it.” The outrageous abuse, documented in thousands of factory reports, reads like a laundry list. We are complacent in our understanding. I bought the jacket, anyways.
Rapid clothing production is also destroying the environment. Greenpeace, an independent environmental campaigning organization, Detox campaign laments that “today’s trends are tomorrow’s trash,” and it calls for the industry’s redesign of textile dyeing practices, which are second to agriculture in their water pollution. Beyond production, the pressure to keep up with fashion seasons produces immense waste. Garment malfunctions are discarded; unsold products are scrapped; you toss out the t-shirt you’ve laundered twice because it already has holes in it. The clothes you donate to thrift stores are often thrown away because shops can’t keep up with the influx of clothing — much of it comes from Forever 21.
We support this production because we want to stay fashionable at an affordable price. Trends originated in the 14th century, where conspicuous consumption demonstrated wealth. As nobility changed its styles, keeping up meant you had the good taste to recognize and emulate it. Fads like my Kim K-inspired cargo pants follow a similar framework, but they mostly fuel the industry’s wealth and keep celebrity designers in the spotlight. Prof. Tasha Lewis, Fiber Science and Apparel Design, told NPR, “It used to be four seasons in a year; now it may be up to 11 or 15 or more.”
As Lewis knows, Cornell is not exempt from the pressure of changing fashions. Out of 15 Cornell students surveyed, 100 percent claimed they do not diligently follow crazes. Most, however, acknowledged they may be influenced indirectly — by the clothes of their friends or ads they see online. While the average student shops for clothing every other month, all are frustrated by the cost.
“I want good quality but struggle with the high cost that comes with that. I always look for ways to save … before I purchase,” said Caroline Brown ’19, a fashion management major.
Staying current can force social or emotional strain, too. While comfort and weather are the major drivers of student style at Cornell, the desire to dress for affiliation or uniqueness is factored in, as well.
Hotelie DeeDee Brown ’19 believes “this season it’s about warmth, and which shoes I don’t mind getting salt on,” but she also admitted to wearing “‘riskier’ things” if she feels “more confident.”
Juliet McCann ’19 prefers to look “put together,” and also acknowledges that the people she will interact with in her day affect her outfit decisions.
Staying stylish places financial strain on students while also requiring consideration for social situations. As a student with loans, it can be difficult to keep up, particularly on a campus that prides itself on research and efforts for sustainability, including a plan for achieving carbon neutrality by 2035. Livia Calligor ’21, a fashion management major from New York City, said that while she is frustrated by the cost of clothing, wearing “fast fashion makes [her] feel worse.”
Students across campus are taking action against fast fashion anxiety — and you can participate. Start by investing in longer lasting clothing, which requires less severe production times. Acknowledging garment lifecycles requires a bit of trend ignorance, but it’s still possible to stay current; fashion repeats itself, so thrifted items are both economical and often on-trend. They’re also sustainable. As the AirBnB and Uber sharing economy continues in its popularity, clothing must follow suit. Options like ThredUp and Rent the Runway deliver clothes to your door while recycling clean, high-quality clothing. On campus, The Wardrobe lends professional attire to students, while Cornell Thrift offers resale options and workshops for mending and embellishing your closet and recently hosted a Spring Cleaning event in Willard Straight Hall. Clothes will never be free, but your conscience can be.
Come Thursday, I’ll roll out of bed and put on the same blue jeans I wear every other day. By now, they’re so worn-in that they’ll be about as comfortable as my leggings, anyways. I’ll toss on one of the sweaters I’ve had since freshman year. When I put on my Forever 21 jacket, my discomfort is pacified when I remember I’ve worn it nearly every winter since December 2013. I’ve grown tired of it, but wearing it through to its end is the most ethical choice I can make. It’s a small price to pay to stay in fashion.
Victoria Pietsch is a senior in the College of Human Ecology. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Fancy Pants runs every other Monday this semester.