Fast Fashion and the Illusion of Wealth

I watched True Cost today, a documentary about the profound ecological, health, labour, and human rights consequences of fast fashion. For those who are generally aware of how and what they consume it is not new, but it is stark. I would highly recommend everyone seek it out.

There was a particular idea put forth by Livia Firth, an executive producer of the film and creative director of Eco-Age (and wife to Colin) that I found particularly interesting. It tweaked my interest in neoliberalism and how profoundly the ideology has shaped the world in the past thirty years. Specifically, it was the idea that fast fashion allows us to maintain the illusion of wealth. It was just a sentence in a larger conversation about human rights and sustainability in fashion, but one I wanted to explore.

One of the fascinating things about Americans and Canadians is the disparity between who thinks they’re middle-class (everyone) to who is actually middle-class (fewer and fewer). Somehow we have allowed a hollowing out of the middle-class while ever more people claim to belong to it. I think a big part of this is the illusion of wealth that fast fashion and other modes of hyper-consumerism allow. I make little enough money that the government provides repayment assistance on my student loan repayments and yet I could go downtown and buy a new dress every week if I wanted to. This is not because I am a budgeting wizard or because the government is especially generous (I promise you neither of those is true) but because the cost I see for a dress is a fraction of its true cost. This subsidized cost, though, allows me the illusion that I am richer than I am.

I’ve long viewed the role of hyper-consumerism to be one of distraction–keep the masses busy trying to keep up with the Jones’, getting brief hits of bliss from buying ever more stuff, while the 1% trash the planet and exploit everyone below them, but I realize now I was missing a part of it. One of the reasons we have allowed (and continue to allow) the hollowing out of social services, the transfer of cost from our wallets to developing countries and the people who live in them, is because we have bought into the lie that we are wealthier than we are. Therefore, trickle-down-economics must work! After all, I’ve got 25 dresses in my closet! Things can’t be that bad, can they?

Not only do Americans (and, increasingly, I’d imagine, Canadians) believe themselves to be temporarily embarrassed millionaires, but we have allowed ourselves to be deluded into membership in a middle class that increasingly doesn’t exist, by way of mindless consumption.

And while fair trade clothing and organic cotton are lovely, they cannot be the sum total of our response. It is not enough to take a neoliberal tool (individual action) to the job of dismantling the system. We must work collectively to demand profound change–change so large we won’t recognize the new system.

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6 thoughts on “Fast Fashion and the Illusion of Wealth

  1. Thank you for that analysis. I haven’t seen the documentary yet, but I will put it on my list. I do remember John Oliver’s coverage of fashion and how there’s always a scandal about how they’re made in sweatshops, but then after the fervor dies down we stop caring and go back to gushing about how “CUTEEEE!” the kids’ clothes are, and how cheap! Particularly telling was a clip from the Today Show, in which a particular brand was being praised months after that very program did an expose on sweatshops they use. One of the women gushing over the cute and cheap clothes was Kathie Lee Gifford, proving nothing changes.

    Not to derail this thread. I agree with you, we need to change the system until it’s unrecognizable. Freedom to shop =/= freedom.

  2. in a recent article about throwaway fashions it was reported that thrift stores can only handle about 10% of the clothing donations they receive because of the volume of castoffs that have been made possible by fast fashion. it has made me rethink my shopping strategies and focus more on quality rather than quantity.

  3. Thank you for posting about this. I stumbled onto this documentary via Netflix and wanted to comment on it as well by blog, but had so many angles to come in through. I was overwhelmed with the options.

    In addition to that, I work in the fashion industry in the US, so my own feelings with being a part of the system add an emotional mix to it. This is an industry I’ve been trying to get out of for a while as I saw it served very low purposes. It gave me hope that there are others out there trying to make a change, but the consumers will be the ones to make the call.

    While it has not changed my shopping habits much since I’ve resorted to reused clothing prior to seeing this, it does change my future shopping options. I have attempted to shop more carefully now, buying things that may seem rather expensive, but will be of value for many years – trying to stop the disposable fashion cycle in my home. Not just for clothing, but for home goods as well.

    I hope more people see this documentary. We could save lives.

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