“I don’t actually remember what I bought, which I think is not a good sign,” says fashion influencer Zoella in a video speaking to her YouTube audience of 10.8 million subscribers. This video is one of her popular Zara hauls (a haul is when someone shares each item from a shopping trip in detail) and has over 1.7 million views. With each item of clothing she holds up to the camera, she seems to justify why she bought it. She suggests what items would coordinate well in an outfit and how she would style the different pieces together. People in the comments have nothing but positive things to say. “I love your sense of style so much,” one commenter shares. “I love how you’re always open to new styles and choices,” another adds. What they don’t seem to take note of is where the clothes are coming from or the fact that the numerous hauls she posts may not be doing good for anything besides her YouTube views.
A certain pair of black polka dot shoes she shows seem to excite her but also create some doubt in her mind. “I think these would go great with this outfit,” she says of the outfit she is wearing in the video, which is then followed by, “I hope I actually get some use out of them though.” She says they are a bit out of her comfort zone. The predicament of wanting to buy new things knowing you might not even wear them is common for shoppers like Zoella. Who knows how much of the clothing shown in these “haul” videos actually end up getting worn. And even if they are worn, is it enough to justify their purchase?
The availability of so much cheap clothing is the crux of the problem of the continuous cycle of fast fashion. According to the journal Environmental Health, fast fashion is widely available, inexpensive clothing — it’s ‘fast’ because of how quickly companies can recreate trendy designs from the runway and get them into stores. But cheap clothing isn’t made to last and is usually manufactured with low wages, poor working conditions and little care for the environment. The U.S. throws away up to 11.3 million tons of textile waste each year and around 2,150 pieces of clothing each second. Studies have shown that people throw out clothing after wearing items an average of seven to ten times. Some clothing companies are trying to implement more sustainable practices such as using more recyclable materials. Yet, the average consumer doesn’t really understand that a cheap, fashionable dress at Zara or Shein comes at a greater cost. In fact, a 2020 survey of 700 people found that many were not familiar with the term fast fashion nor did they understand why buying large amounts of clothing in the latest styles at cheap prices is problematic.
“I am a Shein shopper,” Zoe Pizzuto ‘25 says guiltily. Every couple of months, she can be found scrolling on her computer through the endless pages of the cute, stylish, and very affordable pieces that Shein has to offer. What’s not to like about getting trendy clothes at a fraction of the cost compared to stores in the mall? Not to mention that many, if not all, of the clothes found on sites like Shein look identical to the clothes at retailers such as American Eagle and PacSun. It seems like a win-win situation for college-aged students working minimum wage jobs who don’t have that much money to spend on clothes. However, the very things that make Shein appealing also raise some red flags. Zoe has the common consumer mindset that because you’re paying less for more items, it seems like you’re getting more out of it. This is what perpetuates the phenomenon of fast fashion and keeps places like Shein in business. “I’d rather get more for less than less for more,” Zoe adds. It makes sense, right? Why pass up the chance to get ten items for the price of one?
Despite frequenting Shein every few months, Zoe says she wears clothes from Shein all the time. She thinks before she buys something and still makes sure to take time to consider if it’s really something she’d wear and wants to spend money on, even with the astronomically low prices Shein advertises. Zoe doesn’t buy impulsively the first time she sees an item, but says “if I go back a second or third time to look at an item I’ll buy it.” She acknowledges that clothes from fast fashion brands aren’t made with as high quality materials as other brands, but she hasn’t found too many problems with the clothes she has bought. Zoe differs from the typical Shein shopper in that she is not carelessly buying clothes just because of the low prices. “I do really watch my money. I’m really stingy with my money,” Zoe confesses. Just because Shein may be cheaper, she still treats spending money the same there as any other store.
Social media influencers like Zoella have a strong hold on viewers and their spending habits — they are buying a lot of clothes and encouraging their followers to do the same. Maddie Anders ‘25 blames a large part of young people’s addiction to fast fashion on social media culture. “People want to have a particular aesthetic,” and aspire to be like the influencers they see on social media wearing certain clothes. Maddie mentions TikTok as a platform where people often share videos of clothes from their most recent shopping spree from, you guessed it, a fast fashion company. “For every TikTok of someone with a Shein haul, there’s another one of someone telling you why you shouldn’t be shopping there,” she explains. This creates a conflict for young people –- is it ok to buy fashionable clothing they can afford or should they hold themselves and others accountable for the impact of their purchases?
While social media has added to the problem of fast fashion and is known to promote fast fashion brands, it has also given a platform for second-hand clothing websites like Poshmark and Depop to gain popularity. These websites have enabled people to resell their clothing items they no longer want and continue the life cycle of these items.
“It’s almost like it’s made to be disposable,” Alena Ruckh ‘24 says before sharing that she chooses not to shop fast fashion anymore. “When I was in tenth grade, I discovered Romwe. I saw these shirts with cute embroidery on them and I was like ‘oh my god it’s only five bucks, and I have five bucks! I don’t have a job but I have five bucks.’”
Alena admits fast fashion is a way to expand your wardrobe at an inexpensive price, but she has now found alternatives that she prefers for her own personal, unique sense of style over the more mainstream retailers. Alena can now be found shopping on Depop and Etsy and has her eye out for a more vintage style. The outfit she is currently wearing consists of a brown sweatshirt from Etsy hand painted by an artist and patterned pants from Depop. Alena enjoys buying items that are secondhand or handmade and got a pair of vintage Doc Martens from England for $45 on Poshmark. “I always preach quality over quantity when it comes to clothing,” she says, “I don’t care if I have a ton of clothing, I just want to have good quality clothing that’s better for the environment.”
Alena describes how she’ll usually be very intentional with her searches on websites like Depop. For example, she’ll do an oddly specific search such as “chunky green cotton turtleneck sweater.” Adding filters for size and color help narrow down the endless articles of clothing listed on the site. However, Alena will sometimes spend hours scrolling if she’s bored or if she’s looking for a specific piece of clothing. She describes the satisfaction of finding the perfect item after scrolling “and then finally being like ‘yes, this is the image I had in my head.’ I put a lot of consideration before buying things…I try not to be impulsive when I buy things,” she says, and estimates that she acquires a new piece of clothing once every couple of months. Shopping sprees aren’t really her thing as it feels wasteful to her to just have clothes laying around.
It’s very easy to curate your own individual style using the folders option on Depop, Alena shares. “I love secondhand fashion because nobody will ever be wearing the exact same thing that you are.” Alena finds irony in the fact that “thrift stores are filled with fast fashion because people are getting rid of it.” There will never be a perfect solution to the issue of fast fashion. Shoppers like Zoe who actually do get use out of their purchases from Shein is better than the alternative of not wearing the clothes from fast fashion brands at all, but Alena feels that it perpetuates the existence of these websites. “But then again, they’re so popular that I don’t know if they’ll ever go away,” Alena acknowledges.
Another hindrance to discovering that perfect find at the thrift store is that people seem to be finding the clothes in thrift stores and reselling them online. This is why Alena believes the options are not as vast at brick and mortar thrift stores. However, this then presents a problem for those trying to buy sustainably online. “A few weeks ago I ordered two shirts off of Depop that I thought were vintage and good quality. I ordered them, they were fifteen bucks each, which isn’t horrible, but when I received them, they were from Shein and somebody had just posted them to Depop,” Alena says. She found the exact same shirt on Shein that went for six dollars. She remembers being angry about it and wished the seller had labeled that it was a Shein shirt, otherwise she wouldn’t have bought it. “But at the same time, I guess, ethically if Shein is going to exist I guess I’d rather pay a little bit more to get used Shein stuff than buy it right off the website where they would have to produce more shirts which is not sustainable.” This seems to be a dilemma that not only Alena has encountered. Maddie mentions this Depop reseller problem as well and says that people are “taking clothes that should be sustainable and accessible and reselling them for five times the price.” Just like Alena, Maddie has found that the tags are not always marked accurately on the websites and has seen an item displayed as “vintage” that is actually from Forever 21.
When it comes to having a store or brand that makes clothes sustainably and sells them for an affordable price, Maddie sighs while saying, “you can’t have it all.” Filtering clothing brands for affordable, cute, and made sustainably unfortunately doesn’t seem to produce any search results.