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Episode 201: Is it CLASSIST to talk about fast fashion?

This episode is part two in a recurring series examining and debunking the most common “excuses” and justifications we see for supporting, maybe even protecting(?) fast fashion and fast everything. And this week we are going to explore a classic comeback to conversations about fast fashion: “it’s classist to talk about fast fashion.”  

We will explore the following questions:
  • What is class? What are the differences between socioeconomic class and social class?
  • What is classism? And how does it play out in day to day life?
  • Why is income not always a simple indicator of one’s financial situation?
  • How are fast fashion and classism *actually* linked? You might be surprised!
  • How does fast fashion actually exacerbate economic inequality?
  • Did fast fashion really democratize fast fashion?
  • Why is the fight against fast fashion actually a matter of class solidarity?
  • And what can ALL of us do to dismantle the fast fashion system?
On our journey to figuring all of this out, we’ll find out if Shein customers are actually rich, and if fast fashion executives actually wear clothing made by their companies. Amanda will share her own experiences dealing with classism within the fashion industry.

And HEY! BUY YOUR TICKETS TO THE CLOTHESHORSE JAMBOREE ASAP!

Additional reading:
MIT Living Wage Calculator
“Meet Shein’s typical shopper,” Jennifer Ortakales Dawkins, Business Insider.
American Attitudes About Poverty and the Poor
“Retail Wages Are A Growing Problem That Will Only Get Worse,” Richard Kestenbaum, Forbes.
Dynamics of Economic Well-Being: Poverty 2009-2011, Ashley N. Edwards, US Census Bureau.


If you want to share your opinion/additional thoughts on the subjects we cover in each episode, feel free to email, whether it’s a typed out message or an audio recording:  [email protected]

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Transcript

Welcome to Clotheshorse, the podcast that missed recording episodes for you!

 

I’m your host, Amanda and this is episode 201…part two in a recurring series examining and debunking the most common “excuses” and justifications we see for supporting, maybe even protecting (?) fast fashion and fast everything.  And this week we are going to explore a classic comeback to conversations about fast fashion: “it’s classist to talk about fast fashion.”  

 

Before we get started, I want to talk to you about something important and that’s the Clotheshorse Jamboree!

 

It’s happening August 16-17. Let’s talk about what we will be doing…

 

Okay, so here’s the thing: Tickets went on sale on 5/15.  So far, four days later, we have sold only one ticket.  And I’m worried that I need to cancel because for one, we can’t have a jamboree with one person and me. And two, the venue alone costs two months of rent for me. I am not in a place where I can lose money on this.  I was already anticipating doing all of the work for free (which is a loss because of course my time has value), but I’m nervous that I need to cancel because no one else has bought a ticket.  It could be because Instagram isn’t showing any of my posts to anyone. So they might not know tickets are on sale.  It could be because this is a dumb idea.  I guess what I’m saying is…if you are planning on attending the Jamboree please buy a ticket in the next few days OR let me know that you are planning on coming so I can make the decision about whether or not to move forward.

 

Is it classist to talk about fast fashion? Well, before we dive into answering that question, I think it’s important to take some time to define “class” and “classism.”  We are used to seeing these words in use all over social media, but how many of us really learned about class in school? And we live in a really weird time when many of us are becoming increasingly distrustful of the media and are looking for more information and facts on social media. The problem is that a lot of information we find on social media is misinformation, whether intentional or accidental.  You don’t have to look further than a lot of the anti-reseller myths like “resellers are like landlords” to see how incorrect information (maybe even just feelings) become “facts” over time if they are repeated enough.  So we might think we know what class and classism mean but we might actually not.

 

So let’s start with “class.”  And class itself sort of changes its definition depending on the user’s tone and intentions.  In a very straightforward way, the Oxford dictionary defines class as “the system of ordering a society in which people are divided into sets based on perceived social or economic status.”  Synonyms include social stratum, rank, level, caste, echelon, pecking order.  And yeah, those synonyms have some baggage, right?  I also think it’s important to call out the use of “perceived” as in “perceived social or economic status” in that definition.  Because what’s poor or rich or sophisticated or basic to you…well, it’s all very personal.  One thing I realized as an adult, is that the people my mom often referred to as “rich” when I was kid were middle class. But to her, owning a house, two nice cars, maybe a riding lawnmower…that was “rich.”  Meanwhile, someone with extreme wealth would look at that way of life as “poor.”

 

But also that idea of perception means that people come at terms like “lower class,” “middle class,” and “upper class” with biases of their own. One person’s middle class is another person’s poor.  And vice versa. 

 

Socioeconomic class can feel straight forward because there are hard numbers attached to it:

  • The lower class is often signified as the lower 20% of earners, making less than about $28,000 in income per year.  This kinda blew my mind to learn because I didn’t make more than that (and I was somehow raising a kid) until I was in my 30s. 
  • Lower middle class: These people make somewhere between $28K and $55K per year.  They occupy the 20-40 percentile range of income.
  • Middle class: They are the 40-60 percentile range of income, making $55K-89K
  • Upper middle class people are 60-80 percentile range of income, $89-149K
  • Upper class: The top 20% of earners, making more than $149K

 

Hearing that, where do you land? Are you surprised? Are you in a different socioeconomic class than you expected?

 

Well, it’s kinda more complicated than that even, right?

Because what kind of debt do you have? Student loans? Medical bills? Credit card debt? If your parents paid for your college or helped you with a downpayment on a house, you’re probably coming out way ahead of someone who makes the same amount of money as you but is paying on student loans and still renting. Or someone with a chronic illness that requires more medical care.

 

Do you have savings? How is your health? Do you have kids? Are you single or married? Are you caring for family members (or at least giving them money)?

 

So many things make these numbers WAYYYY more complicated! Like, while these numbers might seem straightforward, where you live can indicate your true quality of life in relation to your income.  MIT has this amazing living wage calculator that can be fun (or depressing) to play around with.  

For example, a single adult where I live in Lancaster, PA needs an income of $45,837 in order to be doing okay here.  If that person has one child, that living wage goes up to $84,954. $108,527 if there are two kids.  Things go up and down from there if the person is in a domestic partnership, depending on whether or not both adults are working and how many (if any) children they have.   

 

But change the city in the calculator to San Francisco, and the living wage for a single person with 0 children goes up to $62,122, $117,964 with one child.

 

So while economists and sociologists tend to break us down strictly by income for data purposes, it’s way more complicated than a simple number.   And you might be upper middle class based on the breakdown I shared, but feel like you’re living paycheck to paycheck thanks to debt, geography, kids, etc. I want you to put a pin in that idea when we talk about the average income for Shein customers. 



Class can  refer to someone’s socioeconomic class (meaning their income, often described as low, middle, high) OR their social class, which can take on a whole bunch of other meanings ranging from things like working class vs professional class to education levels to geography.  It can also mix all of these things up in a blender with income level, adding race, religion, social network, education level, and gender into the mix.  And when people are talking about social class, well, that’s where all kinds of -isms can come into play.  These things play out in front of us regularly in a negative way.  For example, the idea that being fat = poor, while thin = rich.  Or advanced degree = upper class while trade experience=lower class (interesting enough, plumbers, electricians, etc are making more money than my friends with masters degrees). That’s where this idea of anything the middle class likes as being boring and gauche comes into play.  And that’s where you get things like “that’s classy” or “she carries herself with class and sophistication.” “Social class” perception is so wrapped up in both explicit and implicit biases. And socioeconomic class is certainly a part of that.  And when actual socioeconomic class is blended up with geography, education, social status, age, race, appearance, body size, etc…it’s where we get really fucked up stuff like “poor people are fat and lazy.” “poor people are ugly and stupid.” etc.  It’s less a statement about the income of the target of these statements, and more about their perceived flaws, all based in stereotypes.  And really, for many, “poor” is less a signifier of income, and more of just an insult, a cautionary tale, and a feared future for oneself.

 

Now classism is less about socioeconomic class (income) and more about all of these perceived ideas about social status and class, even if people are using the term “poor” in their statements.  And it’s ugly.  It’s rarely punching up, almost always punching down, viewing people of lower socioeconomic class as lesser than upper socioeconomic class people.  Birds of a feather flock together right? And so I’ve always found myself surrounded by others who seemingly shared my progressive values (or at least, liberal values), people who would never, ever want to be perceived as racist or even sexist…yet they had no problem making fun of poor people. Going to college in a time when hipsters loved being ironically “white trash,” I cringed every time someone joked about doing something “white trash” like swimming in a river or drinking low price beer.  Wow, thanks for joking about my family? And me? So many memories of swimming in the river, of watching my grandpa drink a michelob and listen to AM radio while he fished on the weekends.  

 

Working within the fashion industry, too, I saw so much disdain for poor people on a daily basis from my peers and company leadership.  And I also saw wealthier people (and fashion) fetishing working class interests, aesthetics, and hobbies, like motorcycles, so called “dive bars” (what my family just calls a ‘bar’) and even more middle class things like eating at chain restaurants or shopping at the mall. Sorry, my family can only eat at the Olive Garden on very special occasions, even if you think it’s funny and ironic.

 

Classism can be personal: judging people as lesser based on their income and social status. 

Classism can also be cultural: collectively discriminating against people of lower incomes and social status, gatekeeping access to schools, jobs, neighborhoods, and social groups to keep people of perceived “lower class” out.

And classism can be institutional (oh spoiler…all of those times I said it “can be” I meant, “definitely is.” Institutional classism prevents people of lower incomes and social status from having access to health care, education, housing, and so much more. It keeps poor people, well, poor.

 

Classism has real long term negative effects on many people.  And when we talk about any movement to improve the world, we cannot hold these conversations without including race, geography, gender, disability, and class.  The reality is that when we are talking about things like climate change and the impact of fast fashion, people of lower socioeconomic class ARE and WILL bear the repercussions far more than people of higher socioeconomic class. 

Is it classist to talk about fast fashion?

Well, I think you can already guess the answer…NO.

But, like all things we talk about around here, it’s more complicated than that.  Yes, the answer is a simple “no,” but conversations about fast fashion can become classist if there is no recognition of the privileges that can make disconnecting oneself from fast fashion a lot easier.  And even if the people engaging in these very important conversations are approaching them with the best intentions, it can still feel hurtful and classist to those listening and observing, especially if it is coming from people of a higher socioeconomic class.

 

Why? Well, to start with, society as a whole loves to look down on the poor. Classism is alive, well, and socially acceptable to many (even those who have otherwise liberal/progressive values).  Whether they say it straight out or just joke around the issue, many people believe that poorer people  are lazy or criminal by nature or less deserving of nice things and a nice life. And for many of us, no matter where we live on the socioeconomic ladder, we fear becoming those below us, while we strive to be the people above us. As I often used to see shared on Twitter, “Why does everyone hate poor people so much?”

 

But time after time, Americans show up to let everyone know that they think poor people are poor because they are fundamentally undeserving of something better.

 

  • A 2001 national poll conducted by National Public Radio (NPR), the Kaiser Family Foundation, and Harvard University’s Kennedy School asked nearly 2,000 Americans 18 or older, “Which is the bigger cause of poverty today: that people are not doing enough to help themselves out of poverty, or that circumstances beyond their control cause them to be poor?”   48% of those surveyed said that people were poor because they weren’t doing enough to lift themselves out of it.  Ah, the old bootstraps myth.  When broken down by income level, 50% of the more affluent people believed that the poor were not doing enough to help themselves.  But even 39% of those whose income qualified as “poor” in the survey said that poor people were poor because they weren’t trying to become unpoor.

 

  • A 2012 report by The Salvation Army called “Perceptions of Poverty,” found that 27% of Americans “believe[d] people are poor because they are lazy, not due to economic circumstances. Furthermore, 43% of those surveyed said they believe people living in poverty can always find a job if they really want to work.
  • I found that survey particularly disheartening (albeit unsurprising) because a three year study conducted by the US Census Bureau around the same period of time of that 2012 Salvation Army report found that over a three year period,  ⅓ of Americans  will slip below the poverty line at least once for two months or more.

 

But yet, being poor is shameful. Even though we all know that it is generational, a thing of chance (one accident, illness, or natural disaster away), and a thing of circumstances (medical bills, school debt, predatory loans).

 

We feel the pressure to not seem poor from a young age.  Poor kids were made fun of at my school, for wearing the same clothes or seeming dirty or having home hair cuts or old backpacks. There was a rumor afoot that someone had seen one kid’s mom at the grocery store in town (called SuperThrift), and she didn’t have enough money to pay for groceries so she had to leave the full cart behind. TBH this is a fear that still lives in my heart, which might be why I prefer self checkout.

 

But that fear of being called out for being poor lived inside me even back then.  My grandma would buy clothes for me at yard sales and I had to make her promise to never go to yard sales anywhere near the town where I went to school after this really mean girl in 7th grade called me out for wearing an Esprit shirt from her family’s yard sale earlier that year.  My mom cut my hair (not very well, in my opinion, even now in 2024 I would be afraid for you to see photos of some of those haircuts…maybe that’s why there are so few photos of my childhood). We bought our groceries at this place called The Cannery, kind of an early Grocery Outlet.  But if someone from school had seen me there, I never would have lived it down.  

 

The irony of this–which I learned when I moved away to the big city and encountered truly rich people–was that in the rural area in Pennsylvania where I grew up, the “rich” people were just middle class.  But they had luxuries that so many of us didn’t: cable television (we had an antenna on the roof that my stepfather had to adjust every time it was windy), central air (I learned early on to take a cold shower and then lay in front of a box fan in order to fall asleep in the summer), family vacations–sometimes even to Disney World (sometimes we would go to the Jersey shore for two nights…that was our big vacation), clothes from the mall (mine came from Kmart, yard sales, an off-price place called Value City, sometimes TJ Maxx but my grandma thought it was kinda expensive), nice cars that didn’t break down regularly on the side of the road. As a kid I seriously thought everyone frequently found themselves walking miles along the highway as a family to a gas station payphone to call the tow truck again. Man, I’ve been to so many of those junkyards where you pull secondhand parts from old cars to fix yours.  It saves a lot of money.  Maybe this is where my appreciation for secondhand began, not with clothes or old cookbooks, but with car parts and the pull-it-yourself junkyard.

 

By middle school, the gap between these so-called “rich” middle class kids and myself was widening.  They wore name brand clothes, not stuff from Kmart like me.  The girls had Clinique skin stuff and they were always pulling out those little Clinique “gift with purchase” make up bags after gym class.  They had name brand backpacks, the nicest newest sneakers, and they got to do nice things like go on orchestra trips or learn how to ski or maybe they even had a computer at home. And they had lots of stuff, lots of new clothes, shoes, nice prom dresses from the Bon Ton.  None of that surprised me, because they all had nice, new toys when we were kids. Along with swimming lessons, doctors visits, dental care, and all of these other nice things. But when we were kids, I noticed it less. As a teenager, it couldn’t be more obvious. Now I looked poor.  No, I wasn’t going to be allowed to get braces.  No, my mom wasn’t going to let me see a doctor about the scar on my face from being bitten by a dog in fourth grade (back then actual medical care would have prevented the scar in the first place). No, I wasn’t going to wear college sweatshirts or name brand jeans or any of the other stuff the unpoor kids had.

 

But behind the perceived social shame of being poor, there is the lack of safety.  Especially for girls and women.  Frequently dudes with more money than me felt that they could get sexual favors from me just because I was from a low income background. Yeah, it sounds so stupid to say it out loud, but plenty of people (even now) think poor=slutty.  There’s this 1968 song by The Zombies called Time of The Season and it literally goes “What’s your name? Who’s your daddy? Is he rich like me?” And it always struck me as really asking “Are you from a low income single parent home because I would really like to pressure you into sexual situations that make you feel really uncomfortable.”   I saw other girls at school who were also poor being pulled into highly predatory relationships with adult men who could give them money for lunch or rides to school or maybe some false sense of safety.  

 

For me, not appearing poor meant safety.  Boys wouldn’t fuck with me if they thought my dad was a middle manager somewhere and that my mom had her own exciting career.  Older predators would stay away if they thought I lived in a house, and not an apartment or a trailer.

 

And as I’m writing/recording this today, earlier this week a video emerged of P. Diddy beating the crap out of his ex-girlfriend Cassie. And well, let’s just say, here comes the trigger fest for all of us who have survived intimate partner violence! It reminded me of a fact that I have come to accept:  after Ryan died and Dylan was born, in my mid-to-late 20s, I was in relationships with two different men who I am fairly certain would have eventually killed me.  Because I was poor, because they perceived me as damaged goods as a single mother, I was an easy target for them.  And those around me just said “wow, it’s just so nice that someone will date you even though you have a kid.”



As a teenager I got smart about how I would hide my true economic situation: I knew I could never afford nice clothes from the mall, so I just started thrifting and wearing the craziest outfits around.  I knew that rich girls did that, I saw it in Sassy magazine. And it worked…people thought I was just a weird middle class kid who would probably go away to art school in a few years.  Even early on, I recognized that clothing could create the illusion of wealth. In fact, I think we can all agree, that while we have been encouraged to “not judge a book by its cover,” we all tend to literally pick books based on the cover (a friend in the publishing industry has confirmed that for me), but we also judge people based on their cover: their actual physical appearance AND their clothing/shoes/bags/etc.  We all find ourselves on a daily basis making assessments of people based on what they are wearing.  Sometimes it can be a good thing: seeing someone wear a shirt for your favorite band or carrying the same bag as you and thinking “this person is a potential friend.” But you might look at someone in a MAGA hat and say “yeah, fuck that person.” Or you see someone in a pair of skinny jeans and you’re like “ugh that person is so out of style.” There are many things you might think, good and bad.  Clothes are a big deal in how our brains sort people.  And that includes how we sort them by class.

 

As an adult, not only did I have to appear “not poor” to stay safe, I had to actually get some money.  And for me, that opportunity to get safe came when I began my very surprising career in buying.  But the problem was: I was poor.  And there were certain trappings of professionalism (especially in the fashion industry) that cost money I didn’t have: haircuts, manicures, Invisalign, facials, a nice car, lots and lots of new clothes,  etc.  Well, I couldn’t afford most of those, but I did learn how to do my nails. I did my own facials at home. I rode my bike to work so no one knew I didn’t have a nice car.   And since I still couldn’t afford expensive clothing, I continued to wear vintage, thrifting like a maniac so I was always ahead of the trends.   Because I still needed a steady stream of new clothes to get the respect of my peers and bosses.  Shopping equaled opportunity in a really sick way. It’s funny to run into someone who knew me then and hear that they thought I was “so cool.” Because really, I was just trying to keep my head above water.  Trying to fit in and get promoted, so maybe someday Dylan could have a nice, safe middle class life.  And with this perceived non-poorness came more opportunities, and for me, more safety.  

That’s the thing: there are many reasons why someone would  not want to be perceived as “poor.” And these reasons almost always lead to buying a lot of stuff to disguise that fact.  When it comes to clothes, fast fashion makes it easier to play the game of “a new outfit for every occasion.” Of course, the irony of it all is that people with real money often WILL judge you and dismiss you for wearing low price, fast fashion clothing.  My boss at Nuuly came from a lot of generational wealth and she referred to the lower price fast fashion brands we were renting out as “cheapo creepo.” Like, fine for ding dongs who didn’t know better, but not good enough for her. This is the same boss who basically flung me back into the trailer park when she said “Delias clothes were trashy.  My mom bought me stuff from J. Crew.”  I just backed away awkwardly when she said that, thinking about how my mom thought Delias was like the most expensive clothing in the world.



But fast fashion seems to allow people the illusion of fitting in.  After all, everyone (including me) has said over and over again that fast fashion “democratized” fashion.

 

But did it though? No, it democratized buying lots of new, trendy clothes.  But as I said, rich people still judged others for buying all of that fast fashion instead of indie designers or luxury or even…sustainable brands.  And I say that because I have lived it and seen it happen in front of me while working for fast fashion brands.  In many companies, most people working in the corporate offices didn’t buy clothes from the actual brand because it was kinda frowned upon.  Like, “ew, why do you buy these poor versions of nicer clothes?”  Executives 100% came to work in extremely high end clothing, but so did middle managers, and as time progressed and I found myself more and more surrounded by people from exceptional generational wealth, I saw even the entry level employees showing up in expensive cars and wearing true luxury/designer brands to work. Honestly, there was this kind of fundamental disdain for the actual customers of the clothes we were making. Like they had lower standards and were too dumb to know that they were buying crap. Which is interesting when you really dig into it…because as we have discussed here in the past, fast fashion isn’t a particular price, customer, or aesthetic. It can be Anthropologie or Shein.  Fashion Nova or J. Crew.  Amazon or Revolve.  It’s a business model that encourages overconsumption because the math for these companies does not math if we’re not buying as much stuff as possible as often as possible from them.  They don’t stay in business if we aren’t buying wayyyyy more than we need. So fast fashion is selling to both lower and middle class people.  Once again, we’re not talking about social class here, we’re talking about income levels here.  And there are fast fashion brands for people at every income level. We live in a world where a $158 dress is made under the same conditions as a $38 dress. 

 

But fast fashion thrives when we feel like we need a lot of new clothes to get respect from others. To fit in. To feel safe. To be appealing to others.  In fact, I would say that fast fashion LOVES classism because our collective fear of being seen as “poor” means that we will continue to buy more and more stuff. We all have a lot of internal classism…sometimes we use it to judge and exclude others, and OFTEN we use it against ourselves.  We believe that we need all of those clothes to be okay. It’s time for all of us to collectively separate our personal value from our wardrobes.

 

Here’s the thing: whether we want to believe it or not, fast fashion is intended by the people at the tops of these companies to be a product for poorer people.  Maybe these leaders aren’t sitting around checking the incomes of their customers and looking at them in relation to the income percentiles of society as a whole, but they perceive these customers as poor because from their perspective, they are.  Fast fashion has made billionaires and millionaires out of the leadership of these companies.  As my career progressed, I found myself more and more surrounded by coworkers whose parents were millionaires themselves.  These are people who would think that a middle class person is poor.  Because they just don’t have that perspective. Going back to that rich boss who thought Delias was “trashy,” she was shocked to hear that I couldn’t afford a nonstop flight to Tokyo, which would have been probably about $5K at that point.  Like it just didn’t make sense to her. So I’m sure in her mind, I was mega poor, nevermind that I had the money to travel across the world in the first place. 

 

And yes, there has been a lot of classism, fatphobia, racism, ageism, and even transphobia built into the sustainable fashion world, with brands only dressing thin, cis people. With marketing featuring and directed toward thin, white, people with money.  And even a lot of the bigger influencers, accounts, and organizations within the “sustainable fashion” world continue to focus on thin, rich, white, young women, while also expressing disbelief about how out of reach many sustainable brands can be for so many people.  

 

That’s why I actually use the term “slow fashion” rather than “sustainable fashion.” Because I believe that sustainable fashion is the world of brands and shopping. Slow fashion is a way of life, a community, a movement for everyone.  

 

But you can see how discussions about fast fashion start with a little bit of classism baked into them, even if it’s just because historically these conversations have focused on shame and blame.  And so it’s important to start any conversation about fast fashion with a recognition of the privileges that make separating oneself from fast fashion a lot easier: access, size, and MONEY.

 

That doesn’t mean that everyone can’t and shouldn’t play a role in dismantling fast fashion.  NOPE.  In fact, one of the most important parts of the slow fashion lifestyle is BUY LESS NEW STUFF….and everyone can be a part of that.  The same goes for extending the life of your stuff via care and repair.  Everyone can be a part of that, too.  But for so long the conversation in sustainable fashion has been “buy THIS, not THAT.” Which can make any discussion of Shein or Amazon feel like an attack. And specifically, a classist attack when you’re buying from those brands because it is what you can afford.  It’s kinda like “okay, so not only are you saying I’m a bad person for shopping these places but you’re also shaming me for being poor because that’s all I can afford.”

 

I know I’ve talked about this Temu post that blew up on TikTok. Somehow it’s still going. But the sentiment I see commented most frequently is “well, I’m also underpaid and overworked and poor, so I don’t have the luxury of caring about garment workers or shopping somewhere other than Shein and Temu.”  I actually believe that casting a critical eye on the fast fashion model, of thinking twice before participating in it, of working with others to dismantle the fast fashion system…well, these are all acts of class solidarity. And if we don’t start advocating for one another…if we continue to allow capitalism to keep us apart and turn us against one another…well, things are never going to get better for any of us, no matter where we live or what we do. This world is fucking scary.  I worry all the time that I will get sick or in an accident…and lose everything.  The fear of having nowhere to live, well, I’ve never stopped having that.  And I know so many of you feel that way every day.

 

From the garment workers making our clothing to retail employees selling it to the warehouse staff shipping it out, a big chunk of the fashion industry relies on underpaying its workers and keeping them financially insecure (and desperate for any job the industry will give them).

 

Why? Because retailers can’t make the kind of wild profits they want while offering a steady array of sales, coupon codes, and low prices…while also paying a living wage. 

 

Yeah, it’s @#$%ed up.  Feel like Shein is all you can afford? Thank your employer for underpaying you.



In the first year or so of Clotheshorse, every time I posted anything about the fast fashion business model, like clockwork, someone would show up in the comment section to call me classist. And it would kinda flummox me, because I didn’t know how to respond to these people (and honestly, no response ever “fixed” the situation). I didn’t know yet that we will never “win” someone over to our team via a discussion in the comments section.  

 

What I realized over time is that these conversations about fast fashion are tough, shocking, and downright depressing.  All of us handle tough information in different ways: abject panic, depression, ignoring it, or anger.  And if we have had to deal with classism in our daily lives (which many of us have), we can immediately see criticism of fast fashion as yet another way to put us down for buying what we can afford.  And it’s doubly painful because we have to buy all of these dumb clothes in the first place because we want to be respected, safe, to fit in.  Here we are, just trying to do our best and now someone is showing up to make us feel bad for where we buy our clothes?!

 

It’s my low income background that makes me super passionate about this work because it is the poorest people on this planet who bear the brunt of fast fashion’s disastrous business model. 

 

By virtue of being born in rural PA, my family does not work in garment factories, but most have been working in the retail industry in stores, warehouses, and as truck drivers. And these jobs kept/keep them struggling. 

⅓ of Americans make less than $15/hr…and $15/hr isn’t a living wage.

Where I live in Lancaster, a living wage is $22.04/hr for a single person with no children, $40.84 for a single person with one child, and $52.18 for a single person with two children.

 

And the fashion industry itself (especially in the fast fashion era) is exacerbating economic inequality by underpaying and overworking people. Fast fashion doesn’t work as a business model if people are paid well and treated well. And that includes YOU, the customer…because fast fashion doesn’t sell if people have money to buy something better.

 

And I want to be clear that a lot of the underpaid people in this world are working in one way or another (directly or indirectly) within the fashion industry.:

  • Garment workers: we already know that the people making our clothing (and the fabrics, trims, etc) are paid their country’s minimum wage (at best) which is not a living wage.  I think it’s easy for people to sort of let themselves forget this because it’s happening far away, not in front of them.
  • Retail workers: Almost 16 million people here in the US work in retail.  And 64% of them do not make a living wage. Many of them are selling you fast fashion, whether it’s at the mall, Target, Walmart, TJ Maxx or even Nordstrom.  I’m sure you or someone you know works retail.  And you know how much it sucks: overworked with less hours than in the past, little to no raises, and little to no respect from customers.  It’s brutal physical work, and yes it’s also skilled labor. I worked retail for a long time. And I still remain shocked by how little retail and warehouse workers are paid for so much work. How our hours are always kept below full-time so we can’t get benefits. How disposable all of us were to our employers.  

 

  • And then there are warehouse workers.  Now, in some ways warehouse workers can fare better than retail workers, making about $16-19 an hour.  But that’s not actually a living wage, either.  And their schedules can be as unpredictable as retail workers, with a lot of on call shifts and being sent home on slower days (that happens to retail workers, too).
  • Okay, how about in the corporate offices? Now I worked as a buyer and I worked my way up the ladder to the sort of lower executive level.  I managed millions of dollars worth of business at each level.  And I did not make a living wage for a person with a child until I was a Senior Buyer at Nasty Gal. many years into my career. I also had no work life balance, my benefits were horrible, and I lived paycheck to paycheck for years after that. And I had absolutely no job security…I could lose my job just as fast as I did as a retail worker. 
  • We’ve also talked here on the pod about how the low, low prices of fast fashion (along with all of that so-called free shipping and returns) are pushing down the wages of truck drivers, delivery drivers, and people working for the shipping companies.
  • Furthermore, fast fashion loves to steal ideas from small businesses, smaller brands, and artists.  When they do that, they are preventing individuals from making a living, too. After all, most small businesses are one person, maybe two or three if they are super lucky!

 

Okay, but let’s say you have never worked retail.  You don’t know anyone who works in fashion or drives a truck or has a small business. Your only contact with fast fashion is as a customer.

 

Well don’t you deserve better stuff for the money you spend with these companies? We know now that clothes are kinda garbage these days thanks to a swap into cheaper fabrics, trims, and lots and lots of cut corners.  They aren’t made to last.  Which is great for fast fashion, because the only way the business model works is if you are buying lots of new clothes all the time.  And if the zippers are always breaking or the fabrics are pilling up after one wash, well, that’s great for fast fashion because you’ll be back to buy some more new clothes very, very soon. 

 

You worked so hard for the money you have, and here is this industry sorta robbing you of it, by forcing you into a situation where you have to buy more and more clothes to feel okay.

 

So back in December, a report by UBS Securities about the Shein customer base took the slow fashion world (at least on social media) by storm. The researchers focused on 684 regular Shein customers.  That’s not the biggest sample group in my opinion (especially when I know that at the end of 2022, the Shein app had 74.7 million total users worldwide). But we’ll work with this, fine.

 

  I’m going to be honest with you and tell you that nothing about this study surprised me, but maybe it did surprise people who had very classist ideas about who shops from Shein.  This report indicated that

  • The average Shein shopper is 34.7 years old. Was I surprised by this? No, but I do often see Gen Z being blamed for being the driving force behind Shein and fast fashion as a whole.  I think this just goes back to a lot of the ageist misconceptions people have about fast fashion: that it’s for young, trendy people.  Nope.  Ann Taylor, Chicos, and Anthropologie are defo fast fashion and they cater to an older target customer. But also, Shein launches 6,000 new styles every day…so odds are very high that they have stuff for the decrepit olds like me.
  • The Shein customer also shops at Target, TJ Maxx, Walmart, and Amazon.  This is a customer who is price sensitive because they are looking for as many clothes as possible on their budget.  
  • Next, the study indicated that the Shein customer earns $65,300 in annual income.  People on social media were like I TOLD YOU THAT SHEIN CUSTOMERS WERE RICH.  Well, as we talked about earlier, an income of $65,300 might not even indicate that a person is making a living wage.  Like, if they live in Austin, TX that’s only a living wage if they are unmarried and have no children.  But also, what if they have student loan debt? Medical bills? Care for a family member? Yes, $65K sounded like a zillion dollars a year to me until I made $65K and I was like “oh god I’m still just getting by because I’m a single parent with student loans and I live in Portland, OR.”



The reality is that most Shein customers are probably not “rich,” because why would they be shopping there otherwise? Could they afford to buy something that isn’t fast fashion? Probably yes, if they could find it in their size.  BUT if they were going to have the money to spend on non-fast fashion, they would have to shop secondhand AND buy less new clothing. 

 

And that’s the thing here:  skipping fast fashion when you aren’t rich means changing up your behavior. It means buying less clothing and making what you have last longer.  It means shopping secondhand as often as possible.  It means buying new clothes from ethical and sustainable brands. It means shopping small and local. And all of these are BIG changes, whether they are shifts in habits (how, where, and how often we shop) or bigger changes internally.  Like, getting comfortable with wearing the same thing over and over again. Many of you are comfortable with that, so am I. But I couldn’t do that when I was working in the fashion industry. And I definitely worried about doing that when I was younger because I didn’t want people to think I was too poor to buy more clothes. 



Actually many of us feel that we have to have a steady stream of new clothes if we are going to fit in and be socially and professionally successful.  And unless you’re rich, fast fashion is the only way to do that.  Because most of us don’t have a lot of money to buy a steady stream of new “sustainable” clothes.  

 

But could we afford to buy sustainable clothes if we got rid of the “steady stream” part of it all and just bought clothes occasionally, when we truly needed them, with the intention of wearing them for a long time? Probably.  Because I’m talking about buying 75% less clothes.  

 

So let’s go back to this survey of Shein customers. Those surveyed spent about $100 each month on clothing.  That’s $1200 per year.  For some context, based on the average prices at Shein right now:

  • That’s 80-100 dresses from Shein.
  • 150 tops from Shein
  • About 100 lightweight sweaters from Shein.

 

Yeah, it’s a lot of clothes.   But what could $1200 buy you off of Shein?

  • About 24 NICE secondhand items with an average price of $50. If you shopped on ThredUP, you could get about 48 secondhand items (or more).
  • It could buy you 4-6 dresses from some nice ethical brands.

 

The point is, you would get less clothes but do you really need 80 Shein dresses? Or 150 Shein tops? And I’m not even going to go into how the more expensive fast fashion brands like Free People or Anthropologie are just kinda scamming you with low quality stuff at high original retail prices.  



When I look at the fight against fast fashion, I see a few very important elements where all of us can and must participate, no matter how much money we have or the size we wear or where we live:

 

  • Spreading information and having conversations with others about fast fashion.
  • Using the power of our vote and our voices to push our elected representatives to pass legislation that regulates the fashion industry (like the Fashion Act), along with legislation that increases wages, benefits, and improves the lives of all workers.
  • Buying less stuff. Period. Making our stuff last, mindfully rehoming stuff when we are done with it, and breaking free of the fast fashion cycle.

 

All of us play a role here.  And furthermore, all of us–no matter where we live or what we do for a living–are experiencing the repercussions of fast fashion: microplastics in the water, soil, and food supply, water scarcity, the impact of carbon emissions, the suppression of wages, and even the emotionally corrosive nature of a steady stream of low quality/poor fitting clothing.

 

It’s not classist to talk about fast fashion.

 

And it’s time for all of us to talk about it with as many people as possible. 

 

Fast fashion actually exacerbates economic inequality.  And it’s part of a larger issue of economic justice.

 

It sets the precedent for underpaying people.  It keeps people poor.  It traps customers on a hamster wheel of shopping that strips them of their own financial health.

 

Remember:  CALLING OUT FAST FASHION ISN’T ABOUT SHAMING THE PEOPLE WHO BUY IT!

 

INSTEAD, WE ARE STARTING CONVERSATIONS ABOUT A WAY OF DOING BUSINESS THAT PRIORITIZES PROFITS OVER PEOPLE AND PLANET.

 

We are recognizing that fast fashion isn’t a good deal for anyone.  Let’s change some minds together!

Want to Support Amanda's Work on Clotheshorse?

If you want to share your opinion/additional thoughts on the subjects we cover in each episode, feel free to email, whether it’s a typed out message or an audio recording:  [email protected]

Clotheshorse is brought to you with support from the following sustainable small businesses:

Thumbprint is Detroit’s only fair trade marketplace, located in the historic Eastern Market.  Our small business specializes in products handmade by empowered women in South Africa making a living wage creating things they love like hand painted candles and ceramics! We also carry a curated assortment of  sustainable/natural locally made goods. Thumbprint is a great gift destination for both the special people in your life and for yourself! Browse our online store at thumbprintdetroit.com and find us on instagram @thumbprintdetroit.

Picnicwear:  a slow fashion brand, ethically made by hand from vintage and deadstock materials – most notably, vintage towels! Founder, Dani, has worked in the industry as a fashion designer for over 10 years, but started Picnicwear in response to her dissatisfaction with the industry’s shortcomings. Picnicwear recently moved to rural North Carolina where all their clothing and accessories are now designed and cut, but the majority of their sewing is done by skilled garment workers in NYC. Their customers take comfort in knowing that all their sewists are paid well above NYC minimum wage. Picnicwear offers minimal waste and maximum authenticity: Future Vintage over future garbage.

Shift Clothing, out of beautiful Astoria, Oregon, with a focus on natural fibers, simple hardworking designs, and putting fat people first.  Discover more at shiftwheeler.com

High Energy Vintage is a fun and funky vintage shop located in Somerville, MA, just a few minutes away from downtown Boston. They offer a highly curated selection of bright and colorful clothing and accessories from the 1940s-1990s for people of all genders. Husband-and-wife duo Wiley & Jessamy handpick each piece for quality and style, with a focus on pieces that transcend trends and will find a home in your closet for many years to come! In addition to clothing, the shop also features a large selection of vintage vinyl and old school video games. Find them on instagram @ highenergyvintage, online at highenergyvintage.com, and at markets in and around Boston.

St. Evens is an NYC-based vintage shop that is dedicated to bringing you those special pieces you’ll reach for again and again. More than just a store, St. Evens is dedicated to sharing the stories and history behind the garments. 10% of all sales are donated to a different charitable organization each month.  New vintage is released every Thursday at wearStEvens.com, with previews of new pieces and more brought to you on Instagram at @wear_st.evens.

Deco Denim is a startup based out of San Francisco, selling clothing and accessories that are sustainable, gender fluid, size inclusive and high quality–made to last for years to come. Deco Denim is trying to change the way you think about buying clothes. Founder Sarah Mattes wants to empower people to ask important questions like, “Where was this made? Was this garment made ethically? Is this fabric made of plastic? Can this garment be upcycled and if not, can it be recycled?” Signup at decodenim.com to receive $20 off your first purchase. They promise not to spam you and send out no more than 3 emails a month, with 2 of them surrounding education or a personal note from the Founder. Find them on Instagram as @deco.denim.

The Pewter Thimble Is there a little bit of Italy in your soul? Are you an enthusiast of pre-loved decor and accessories? Bring vintage Italian style — and history — into your space with The Pewter Thimble (@thepewterthimble). We source useful and beautiful things, and mend them where needed. We also find gorgeous illustrations, and make them print-worthy. Tarot cards, tea towels and handpicked treasures, available to you from the comfort of your own home. Responsibly sourced from across Rome, lovingly renewed by fairly paid artists and artisans, with something for every budget. Discover more at thepewterthimble.com

Blank Cass, or Blanket Coats by Cass, is focused on restoring, renewing, and reviving the history held within vintage and heirloom textiles. By embodying and transferring the love, craft, and energy that is original to each vintage textile into a new garment, I hope we can reteach ourselves to care for and mend what we have and make it last. Blank Cass lives on Instagram @blank_cass and a website will be launched soon at blankcass.com.

Gabriela Antonas is a visual artist, an upcycler, and a fashion designer, but Gabriela Antonas is also a feminist micro business with radical ideals. She’s the one woman band, trying to help you understand, why slow fashion is what the earth needs. If you find your self in New Orleans, LA, you may buy her ready-to-wear upcycled garments in person at the store “Slow Down” (2855 Magazine St). Slow Down Nola only sells vintage and slow fashion from local designers. Gabriela’s garments are guaranteed to be in stock in person, but they also have a website so you may support this women owned and run business from wherever you are! If you are interested in Gabriela making a one of a kind garment for you DM her on Instagram at @slowfashiongabriela to book a consultation.

Vagabond Vintage DTLV is a vintage clothing, accessories & decor reselling business based in Downtown Las Vegas. Not only do we sell in Las Vegas, but we are also located throughout resale markets in San Francisco as well as at a curated boutique called Lux and Ivy located in Indianapolis, Indiana. Jessica, the founder & owner of Vagabond Vintage DTLV, recently opened the first IRL location located in the Arts District of Downtown Las Vegas on August 5th. The shop has a strong emphasis on 60s & 70s garments, single stitch tee shirts & dreamy loungewear. Follow them on instagram, @vagabondvintage.dtlv and keep an eye out for their website coming fall of 2022.

Country Feedback is a mom & pop record shop in Tarboro, North Carolina. They specialize in used rock, country, and soul and offer affordable vintage clothing and housewares. Do you have used records you want to sell? Country Feedback wants to buy them! Find us on Instagram @countryfeedbackvintageandvinyl or head downeast and visit our brick and mortar. All are welcome at this inclusive and family-friendly record shop in the country!

Located in Whistler, Canada, Velvet Underground is a “velvet jungle” full of vintage and second-hand clothes, plants, a vegan cafe and lots of rad products from other small sustainable businesses. Our mission is to create a brand and community dedicated to promoting self-expression, as well as educating and inspiring a more sustainable and conscious lifestyle both for the people and the planet. Find us on Instagram @shop_velvetunderground or online at www.shopvelvetunderground.com

Selina Sanders, a social impact brand that specializes in up-cycled clothing, using only reclaimed, vintage or thrifted materials: from tea towels, linens, blankets and quilts.  Sustainably crafted in Los Angeles, each piece is designed to last in one’s closet for generations to come.  Maximum Style; Minimal Carbon Footprint.

Salt Hats:  purveyors of truly sustainable hats. Hand blocked, sewn and embellished in Detroit, Michigan.

Republica Unicornia Yarns: Hand-Dyed Yarn and notions for the color-obsessed. Made with love and some swearing in fabulous Atlanta, Georgia by Head Yarn Wench Kathleen. Get ready for rainbows with a side of Giving A Damn! Republica Unicornia is all about making your own magic using small-batch, responsibly sourced, hand-dyed yarns and thoughtfully made notions. Slow fashion all the way down and discover the joy of creating your very own beautiful hand knit, crocheted, or woven pieces. Find us on Instagram @republica_unicornia_yarns and at www.republicaunicornia.com.

Cute Little Ruin is an online shop dedicated to providing quality vintage and secondhand clothing, vinyl, and home items in a wide range of styles and price points.  If it’s ethical and legal, we try to find a new home for it!  Vintage style with progressive values.  Find us on Instagram at @CuteLittleRuin.