“Sus”-tainable fashion

Student customers are being taken advantage of by large fashion corporations


Illustration by Liora Hoi

As environmentally friendly practices — as well as the ways that companies shortcut them — become more prevalent in many areas of consumerism, student consumers need to inform themselves of these two “sus”-tainable practices to reduce their contribution to the impending effects of climate change.

In the modern global market, environmentally-friendly products are rising to the top of fashion trends. Whether it’s a hunter-green backpack or the trend of ‘thrifting,’ many teens find it fashionable to show off how sustainable they are. But as these trends rise in popularity, so do companies who attempt to take advantage of their customers. 

The fashion industry participates in certain practices severely detrimental to society, such as fast fashion and greenwashing. Fast fashion is a business model certain leading brands utilize even though it is extremely dangerous for the environment. Greenwashing is a strategy companies use to convince consumers to buy their products under the guise of being “environmentally friendly.” Consumers must stay informed and vigilant to ensure they are not falling for these methods.


Fast fashion

Fast fashion is a business model where companies cheaply manufacture trendy clothing at a fast speed to meet consumer demand. Because fast fashion companies supply the newest styles on the market as quickly as possible, shoppers can snatch them up while they are still at the height of their popularity, then discard them after a few wears when they’re no longer in style. 

This destructive cycle forms a key part of overproduction and consumption, making fashion one of the world’s largest polluters. Yet, many consumers take part in the fast fashion industry without realizing it. This is partially due to companies’ use of greenwashing tactics to mislead well-meaning consumers.

In other areas, such as the food, cleaning supplies or car industry, consumers tend to consider the effects of the products they buy much more often. But in the fashion industry, many consumers neglect the standards they hold close to when buying other products. To see a shift in this trend, consumers need to become conscious of their carbon footprints, especially in what they wear.

One brand infamous for using fast fashion practices is SHEIN, with just 6% of its inventory remaining in stock for more than 90 days. The company creates about 50-100 items per design, with hundreds of new designs each day, totaling around 10,000 products per day. If a design sells well, more batches are commissioned; if not, the lines are immediately discontinued, and any unsold extras are thrown away. On top of that, SHEIN ships to over 150 countries — a sobering thought when considering that the emissions created by trucks, ships and planes come not just from deliveries but also from returns. Many returns end up in landfills because it costs more to put them back in circulation, especially in the fast fashion industry.  

SHEIN is the epitome of fast fashion, and yet, the company was worth $47 billion in 2021. This is only possible because SHEIN and many other fast fashion companies profit off customers who read the $5 tag on a dress and snatch it up without thinking about the potential labor exploitation or lasting environmental costs they’re contributing to. Between carbon emissions and “clothing dumping,” the fashion industry is one of the leading contributors to climate change — yet these companies continue to thrive. Even if students don’t buy from SHEIN or other fast fashion brands, they need to be aware of the impact that their clothing habits have on the people around them. Ninety-two million tons of garments end up in landfills, and 100 billion garments are produced by the fashion industry each year.

Fast fashion is pervasive in school environments as well. Students buy Prom and Homecoming dresses that are typically only ever worn once. Seniors must buy graduation caps and gowns that they will never wear again. New school supplies being bought for every subject each year, when supplies such as binders typically don’t need replacing after just one school year. Student consumers who recognize these unsustainable practices in their daily lives can make a real difference.



Another concept that teen consumers need to keep in mind is greenwashing, referring to when a company makes an unsubstantiated claim about its environmental practices. Greenwashing is used to deceive consumers into believing that a company’s products are environmentally friendly or inflate their actual environmental benefits to advertise their product and increase their prices.

Being a conscious consumer includes being skeptical of broad claims, researching, rethinking personal practices and making personal clothing consumption choices. (Photo Illustration by Ashlyn Gillespie )

Greenwashing comes in many forms throughout the market. Still, there are a few common claims in the fashion industry, the first of which is having an environmentally friendly line of clothing or a few clothes that have a green tag on them. Another popular claim is that a certain percentage of a brand’s clothing is made with recycled materials when this practice probably isn’t helping the environment at all. Additionally, a company may advertise its sustainable goals for the future while neglecting to share what initiatives they’re taking at the current moment. Dominating fashion brands such as Lululemon, Adidas, Forever 21 and H&M have all used these methods and combined them to lead customers to believe that they are more environmentally friendly than they seem. 

These misleading practices allow companies to raise product prices solely because they’re claiming to be sustainable. So while it is a start that the consumer demand wants more environmentally friendly products, they need to be aware that companies that use these methods do not compensate for the overwhelming majority of their unsustainable practices. Even worse, companies could still be outright lying about these practices as well, as was the case for H&M.

In many cases, the concept of greenwashing — as well as deciding if a brand is ethical is inherently subjective. This is especially true when information is hard to find, or a brand intentionally sits in a gray area, making it difficult for a consumer to decide whether or not the company has ethical practices. Many mainstream clothing lines make minor, easily-adjustable changes to “check the box” of being a sustainable brand when in reality, these practices do not offset the company’s carbon footprint. This gray area gives consumers room to write off their guilt about buying unsustainable products by saying that companies are helping the sustainable cause, leading them to ignore the brand’s overall practices and buy the clothing anyway. Ultimately, consumers need to decide where the line between ethical and unethical lies and buy products accordingly. 


Sustainable Solutions

While the trending demand for environmentally friendly practices from the fashion industry is better than nothing, student consumers need to be conscious that not every claim a product is making is true or defendable. Though it certainly may be easier to scroll through social media and let others spew angry claims that a brand is bad for the environment, consumers need to research and decide for themselves. Not only should students partake in sustainable fashion practices, but they should also advocate for themselves and change the opinions of those around them. Some resources can help to do just that. 

Good On You is an organization that groups brands by specific categories to assist consumers beginning their journey to ethical shopping. The three main categories are “People,” which filters for companies that practice fair trade and promote healthy working standards, “Earth,” which filters for companies that practice sustainability and “Animals,” for companies that practice cruelty-free habits. Not only do they allow filtering based on specific classifications, but Good On You has “Brand Ratings” on thousands of fashion brands, serving as a search engine for eco-friendly fashion and a reliable source of opinions on ethical fashion.

However, as much as shopping ethically is admirable, ethical fashion can be expensive, and it takes a lot of time and effort to research brands that meet a consumer’s standards. Not every student — let alone consumer — can make ethical fashion feasible for them. Luckily, the best way to be environmentally friendly is simple: buy less. Not only does this save consumers’ wallets, but it also breaks the fast fashion cycle. And although thrifting may seem like just a trendy concept, consumers can take the trend seriously. Donating clothes instead of throwing them away and checking local second-hand shops for outfits is one of the best ways to be more sustainable and reuse clothes.

Consumers are powerful in the industry market because of their ability to choose. If the market demands real eco-friendly clothing and consumers reward genuinely sustainable brands with their money instead of the ones that are not, companies have no choice but to supply that demand and lower their carbon footprint. For change to happen, stay conscious and stay vigilant.