Nineteen-year-old Juanito Briones remembers the last fast-fashion purchase he made.
It was a couple months ago when he was visiting his friends in Boston. While passing through Newbury Street, the group spotted an Urban Outfitters and went inside. Briones later walked out carrying one item. To this day, the guilt hasn’t subsided.
“They were overalls,” he said with remorse. “I wear them all the time.”
As an avid thrifter, Briones is passionate about incorporating sustainability into his shopping habits, rummaging through bins of curated vintage and handmade pieces from Thrift2Death — a pop-up market in New York City — and researching retailers on his phone to confirm where clothes are sourced before buying them. And he isn’t alone.
A recent study by Bentley University and Gallup reveals that young people value corporate social responsibility, particularly when it comes to sustainability. The results showed that 77% of Americans aged 18-29 said it’s important for businesses to “operate in a way that is sustainable for the environment and the planet.” That compared to 64% of those aged 30-44. Those numbers fell off even further for older Americans, with just 52% in the age 45-59 demographic and 59% aged 60.
Last year, the World Economic Forum said that Gen Z, the cohort born from 1997 to 2012, is the most sustainability-aware generation. Yet, over half of the Gen Zers surveyed by Vogue Business in 2020 said they bought a majority of their clothes from fast-fashion brands. As the fast-fashion industry continues to target young consumers, some University of Connecticut students aren’t willing to give in.
“Fast fashion is definitely a prevalent issue with our generation,” said Dylan Steer, a sophomore at UConn and treasurer of EcoHusky, one of several environmental clubs on campus. Like Briones, Steer is a secondhand shopper who gets a lot of his clothes either from eBay or thrift stores.
When Steer searches for clothes on eBay, he includes the keywords, “Made in the USA.” His goal is to filter out items that were produced around the 1970s through the ‘90s, back when America still manufactured many of its clothes domestically. Because the item has lasted this long, Steer knows it’ll be good quality.
Clothing became cheap when apparel manufacturing began leaving the United States in the mid-90s and retailers took advantage of cheaper labor overseas. By 2011, employment in the industry declined by more than 80%, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Today, more than 97% of American clothing is made outside of the country.
“It got cheaper and cheaper, and that’s how this business is so profitable,” said Ann Cantrell, a fashion business management professor at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York.
Zara pioneered the idea of the fast-fashion business model by ditching seasonal releases in the ‘90s. For the next decade, other retailers would follow suit, opting for new products at a constant rate, from weekly to daily. Boohoo once dropped 772 garments in one week, Vice reported (that amounts to a daily average of 116 pieces). By combining cheaper labor with faster rollout, it was inevitable that fast fashion would boom.
“Everybody, across all age groups, are buying more clothes than ever before, clothes are cheaper than ever before, and we’re also throwing away more clothes than ever before,” Cantrell said. The average American throws away 70 pounds of textiles annually, according to the Council for Textile Recycling. Only 15% of post-consumer textile waste gets recycled, with 85% left to occupy landfills.
Cantrell’s biggest focus is advocating transparency in the fashion supply chain. That involves going public about environmentally impactful components that go into clothing production: how raw materials like cotton are grown or the dying processes of denim jeans. The issue isn’t just about transparency, but also accountability, she said. In other words, brands are responsible for improving themselves by using cleaner and more ethical resources.
Transparency in the supply chain is one potential solution toward achieving sustainable fashion. Another is secondhand shopping.
The UConn Swap Shop opened its doors last September, giving students the opportunity to donate, trade-in and buy secondhand clothing on campus. An entrepreneurial project-turned-business, the Swap Shop was founded by student Madeline Kizer. In an interview with UConn Today, Kizer noted that the shop’s core mission is to confront fast fashion.
UConn junior Laura Braddick has worked at the Swap Shop since its opening and has grown fond of her job, which combines her love for both fashion and sustainability. After studying luxury design management at Parsons Paris during the summer, Braddick said the experience broadened her understanding of the fashion industry and made her realize the amount of waste that goes into clothing production and sales.
“It just kind of made me change my mind about a lot of things and stop buying constantly new items and really start looking at just thrifting my clothes,” she said.
Hannah Brewer, who works alongside Braddick, claims that 75% of her wardrobe is thrifted. She confessed to purchasing non-thrifted items every once in a while, namely bathing suits from brands like Aerie (a sub-brand of American Eagle) and Abercrombie & Fitch.
According to Remake Fashion’s 2022 Accountability Report, American Eagle “provides no transparency into worker wages, unionization, factory conditions or its commercial practices,” and its total emissions have increased despite its promise to go carbon-neutral by 2030. The report named Abercrombie & Fitch one of the lowest-scoring companies it reviewed, with no transparency, no signage on the updated International Accord on Health and Safety and a lack of responsible sourcing.
Although Brewer would rather buy clothes that are ethically and sustainably made, being able to afford these goods — which are almost always more expensive — is difficult.
“I wish that I had the money for small, sustainable companies and everything, but I do not,” she said. “Honestly, if I had the money, that’s where I would shop.”
While a preference for sustainability exists, apathy is still prevalent among Gen Z. Corporations want sustainability to be about individual choice, said UConn sociology professor Phoebe Godfrey. Thus, part of the corporate agenda is to make consumers feel like the environment is solely their responsibility — a heavy burden that paints the picture of a helpless cause.
“It’s very much in the interests of the establishment for all of our young people to say there’s nothing they can do,” Godfrey said.
Tackling apathy is ultimately an issue of education and awareness, she added. More specifically, education that generates people’s relationships with commodities: making consumers aware of who made their clothes and appreciative of the processes behind making those clothes. The more information people are given, the better choices they’ll make, Godfrey said.
Perhaps sustainability is a struggle, especially considering that not everyone takes the same initiative. But it’s a struggle that some in Gen Z won’t abandon.
“Even if there is a lot of apathy, the only thing that can solve that is action on our part,” Steer said.
Briones admits he has a hard time staying optimistic. Regardless, putting in the effort is all that matters to him.
“It’s a sad thing to not try, you know?”
I love my alma matter, but Storrs has never known to be a fashion capital.