Tea Time with Tagwa: Environmentally conscious fashion is unaffordable to the poor

Illustration by Karly Andersen

Tagwa Shammet, Opinions Editor

Tea timers, fashion has been around since the dawn of time. From the first realization of the need for clothes in prehistoric times, to the reveal of new gowns during royal times; from expressive fashion during the Civil Rights era to catwalk shows at New York Fashion Week — fashion is everywhere. 

The desire to stay fashionable has become a priority to our younger generations. However, the absolute need to keep up with the ever-changing fashion trends has become a plague on our society; specifically taking a toll on our depleting natural resources and harming our environment. 

Prior to the industrial revolution and its inevitable evolution into mass production, clothes used to last individuals nearly half a lifetime. That is, those who could afford clothes. In older times, only the upper class could afford to be draped in the best of what fashion had to offer. A majority of the population wore whatever they could afford.

That reality doesn’t seem to have changed much throughout time. Today, we still see segregation in fashion. Not racial segregation, but economic segregation. As trends continue to dawn catwalks all across the world, those on the lower end of the socioeconomic spectrum find themselves falling behind trends.

However, “fast fashion” stores and sites such as H&M, Forever 21 and SHEIN have made a popular resurgence. With their mass production of new stylish trends that replicate high fashion almost daily, staying fashionable on a budget has proven a bit easier.

Yet, even with the benefits of fast fashion, a new issue has arisen: Fast fashion is deteriorating our environment.

Fast fashion has been shown to produce a large carbon footprint, which in turn only worsens global warming and climate change. In 2019, Insider reported that the fashion industry is the cause of 10% of our carbon emission. It is also the second biggest consumer of the world’s water supply and continues to pollute our oceans. 

Furthermore, it has been identified as an ethical issue due to the human rights violations present in sweatshops. According to the International Labour Organization, 170 million children across the world are engaged in child labor. This labor is defined as work that is unacceptable for children. Many of these children work within the fashion world, helping produce textiles and other garments to be distributed. 

Overall, fast fashion has been looked down upon. And yet, fast fashion companies are continuing to make an astounding amount of money. In fact, since it was founded in 2008, SHEIN has grown into a $15 billion company.

And yet, while the disapproval of fast fashion from an environmental standpoint is validated, these stores and sites provide a feasible shopping experience for poorer people. 

In a previous story of mine — Tea Time with Tagwa: Caring about the environment is a privilege not many have — I wrote about intersectional environmentalism. I discussed how the conversation of climate change and the overall health of our environment cannot happen without understanding race and economic stability. 

So, let’s compare some prices. A simple satin dress. A classic, staple item that can be dressed up or dressed down.

At REVOLVE — a designer clothing brand — a satin dress costs $260. 

At Macy’s — a department store — a satin dress costs $108.

At Forever 21 — a fast fashion retailer — a satin dress costs $22.99.

Finally, at SHEIN — a fast fashion website — a satin dress costs $8.

While I understand the desire to stay environmentally conscious, paying $260 for a dress that I could similarly get for $8 seems ridiculous.

I am a college student at a university that prides itself in its tasteful fashion trends. Therefore, I’m constantly buying new clothes to keep up with the trends. As much as I care about our environment, I don’t have the privilege to spend half my rent money on a dress.

The same can be said for poorer people, some that even live in the streets of our Richmond city. Staying clothed and fed is the priority; unfortunately, the effects on the environment take a back seat.

Another option for poorer people is to visit thrift stores. It helps eliminate the environmental insensitivity present with fast fashion, while also providing affordable clothing options. However, thrifting has been exploited by financially stable people and turned into a for-profit business.

I can’t even tell you how many times I’ve gotten on TikTok to see well-off white women buying up trendy items from Goodwill just to resell them on websites such as Depop for double or even triple the original price.

This isn’t innovative — it’s robbery. These people are snatching up all of the affordable and trendy clothes and reselling them for astronomical prices just to pocket some cash they honestly don’t need. In the process, people who thrift because they have no other choice are left with the bottom of the barrel.

Staying trendy, yet environmentally conscious, is unfortunately a privilege that many people cannot afford. So, next time you decide to flip your thrifted Gucci, remember that. And that’s the tea.

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