The phrase, “reduce, reuse and recycle” has been advertised in the past for plastics and cans, but it further extends to high-end runway fashion, as well as the clothes college students wear in their daily lives.
Social Impact Coordinator at the UT Free Store, Leah McCord, will begin her second year serving through AmeriCorps VISTA this fall. She recruits volunteers, manages student workers for the Free store, runs the store pop-ups and manages the social media accounts.
Her duties also include collecting data and advocating for the Free Store to have a permanent location on campus so it can function weekly rather than sporadically as it is now.
“We start with the principle that so much of what goes into the landfill is perfectly good material, it's just unwanted by the person who has it at the time. We want to stop those materials from being wasted,” McCord said. “A socially sustainable plan, like the Free Store, recognizes that there are others in our community who need things and cannot access them, due to resources or transportation or other factors.”
Michelle Childs, professor in Retail and Consumer Sciences, talks about fast fashion differently in two classes she teaches: she approaches it from a business side in her Retail Management and Business of Fashion course and from an environmental/sustainable perspective in the course entitled “Global Retailing and Sourcing.” Childs has been a faculty member at UT since 2015.
“Fast fashion really describes the life cycle of items and that items match fashion trends. It pertains to college campuses because college students oftentimes don’t have a ton of disposable income, in this case – students want to be trendy but may not want to spend that much money on fashion products,” Childs said.
McCord’s position focuses on the intersection of sustainability and social justice, emphasizing connection with the community and meeting them where they are.
“We are connected to all the support resources on campus, and we want students to know they can come to us about food insecurity, housing insecurity, mental health needs or just someone to talk to. Sustainability is about community as much as it is the planet,” McCord said.
One of McCord’s goals for the store is to collect items like clothing, household goods, sport equipment, kitchenware, books and school supplies to make them available for whoever needs them on campus.
“We don't ask anyone to justify their need. We just request that they only take items that they think they will actually use and that they consider ways to reduce the impact of that item's disposal in the future. They can send things back to us, give them to others, or dispose of them responsibly,” McCord said.
Furthermore, she wants to create a circular economy to reduce the amount of items unnecessarily produced and the waste footprint created by practices like fast fashion.
Because fast fashion is a quick business — sometimes going from runway to consumer in as little as four weeks — the items are considered disposable, as they are only made to last about 10 wears, according to Childs.
“After this time, either the quality of the garment is gone or the item has gone out of fashion,” Childs said.
According to McCord, “fast fashion is driven by ever changing fads and lower quality items. College is expensive, and a $5 shirt seems like a really great deal at first, but it is designed to last only a short amount of time. There are also endless events that give away t-shirts that no one wears again. It creates a lot of clothing waste on campuses.”
For students on college campuses, fast fashion is essential to expressing their individuality and exploring issues of identity.
“College might be the first time they can experiment with how they present themselves through their clothing. This is important and something we always want to be mindful of. … College is a time of figuring out who you are and clothes are a big part of that,” McCord said.
Fashion itself has an enormous environmental impact. In addition to many fast fashion brands having poor labor conditions and low pay for vulnerable workers, “It takes 713 gallons of water to make ONE cotton t-shirt, the equivalent to 2.5 years of drinking water for an individual. The manufacturing process as a whole is very polluting, from energy inputs to toxic dyes,” McCord said.
Similarly, Childs adds that these items are not meant to last and often end up in landfills.
“Also, items are very inexpensive, so people end up adding too many pieces to their wardrobe that they may not be able to wear,” Childs said. “Since they are high fashion items, pieces may go out of style very quickly, which also adds to waste.”
Burning unsold items is another practice of fashion companies, as well as sending multiple tons of unwanted clothes to markets in third-world countries, which disrupts local trade customs and gives the job of disposal to vulnerable populations.
To remedy the environmental and economic impacts of fast fashion, Childs encourages students to think carefully about what they buy and to rely on certain items when looking for new clothes.
“Focus on adding items to your wardrobe that are high quality and will last longer. In this case, you can focus on the staple items (basic black dress, blazer, denim) that can match with other items in your wardrobe,” Childs said.
Fast fashion practices affect everyday thought processes about clothing, making the option to buy a cheap article of clothing more appealing, especially for college students.
As spring cleaning commences and piles of unworn clothing take over the chair in your room, keep in mind the repercussions of buying trendy clothes versus rethinking and refurbishing what you already own.