A trash can is overfilled with piles of thrown-out clothes.

(HS Insider)


Opinion: Gen Z’s ethical consumption debate lacks nuance

What started as an open conversation about environmentalism, the working class and the world has since shifted into an extremist debate.
<a href="https://highschool.latimes.com/author/charlottepinkerson/" target="_self">Charlotte Pinkerson</a>

Charlotte Pinkerson

November 10, 2022
The topic of ethical consumption in all facets of the American buyer’s life has created a heated debate in recent years as we push toward a more progressive state of existence. This conversation has been especially prevalent among younger generations via the role social media has played in connecting us based on beliefs.

However, what started as an open conversation about how we can do better for the environment, the working class, and the world has since shifted into an extremist black-and-white debate wherein people are more concerned with being right rather than the greater good. This debate has left no room for nuanced takes and an acceptance of a possible gray area. Not only is this counterproductive to the sustainability movement itself, but it also selfishly plagues the nature of future conversations about right, wrong and the in-between.

While my specific qualm is with the ethical consumption debate overall, I am directly citing its relation to fast fashion. Powerhouse fashion brand Shein is at the forefront of this argument being condemned for environmentally unfriendly manufacturing, violation of labor laws, stealing from small designers, and overall immoral production habits like the infamous alleged sale of swastika necklaces. While they are the most popular of the fast fashion brands (largely due to their controversies) there are dozens of other brands orchestrating similar practices. Much of the public isn’t even aware that brands such as Forever 21, Zara, Topshop and H&M are just some to fall under the category of fast fashion.

One side of the argument comes from a very liberal prioritization of the environmental impact these companies and the demand for their product creates, which is overall not positive or sustainable. According to the UN Environment Programme, 20% of global wastewater comes from textile dyeing.

The rate at which these companies are mass-producing products in order to seize hype on recent trends makes them large contributors to this statistic. Part of brands like Shein’s initial exposure was TikTok trends of item “hauls” (in which people buy hundreds of dollars worth of cheap items in one sitting). This has made the demand for stock grow exponentially. This becomes an even bigger problem when you consider that trends inevitably end and these clothes will be disposed of after a few wearings, ending up in landfills. 

The other main point of this view is the morality behind purchases produced by underpaid, overworked sweatshop employees. Large groups of people (particularly women and children) are paid unlivable wages to do hard work for long hours in unsafe conditions, all to produce a shirt you’re gonna throw out in a month when Instagram says you’re not cool anymore. 

The opposing side has its own points of defense, some of which have gone widely unaddressed in the debate. A primary point is the selective hypocrisy of the anti-fast fashion movement. If you’re an existing member of American society that is partaking in things like buying clothes/shoes, technology, makeup, food, and everything else you are in some way (and realistically many different ways you are unaware of) contributing to unethical business and giving money to something that goes against your personal morals. That’s not to say that makes it okay, however, when looking at that information it needs to be accepted that policing people’s spending habits on the grounds of ethics is naive and impossible.

Additionally, the concept of being able to shop “ethically” in the first place comes from a  privilege that many don’t even realize they have. Brands and businesses that do subscribe to ethical manufacturing processes spend more to produce products and as such charge significantly more than regular and fast fashion brands, making these items more difficult to obtain for many people of different financial situations.

According to the About Us page of Shein’s website they are “committed to making the beauty of fashion accessible to all.” This mantra is verbatim to the bio pages of many other fast fashion websites. Fast fashion brands similarly to fast food companies function by offering things that are made decently enough and priced cheap enough that they are accessible to people of all monetary circumstances, which is especially valuable with the inflation rates skyrocketing in every aspect of the economy right now. 

The bottom line is that both arguments alone are generally pretty reasonable and clearly come from places of well-thought-out consideration — that’s what makes both able to be right about different things at the same time. The problem is the people supporting both are too busy attacking the other side to reach a reasonable middle ground.

This coupled with entitlement both seem to think they have to police the other’s choices is the larger issue. If you see someone on your social media feed contributing to one of these two groups of argument and you disagree that’s perfectly fine, but you don’t need to write the bill of rights in the comment section telling them to burn their clothes or kill themselves. While your free speech protects that it doesn’t do anything in terms of constructive solutions and adult conversations.

Things like cancel culture have fostered this mob mentality of entitlement that has bled into affecting the maturity in which we as a generation and society handle situations. In the end, it’s case by case and dependent upon context.

Should you ideally not shop fast fashion if you’re in a position not to have to? Yeah. But if you shop for fast fashion is it the worst thing in the world? No, and truly there are many other unethical practices with a greater individual effect. How about we put our angsty Gen Z leftist ethos towards those instead?

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