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The cost of fitting in: The phenomenon of fast fashion and overconsumption in college

With fashion this cheap, the end of the world doesn't seem so bad


The cost of fitting in: The phenomenon of fast fashion and overconsumption in college

With fashion this cheap, the end of the world doesn't seem so bad

Sometimes, shopping for secondhand clothes at ASU can feel like a competitive sport β€” especially for the uninitiated. Just imagine: The double doors of the Buffalo Exchange on University Drive slam behind you for the first time, and with it, pulsing dread sets in like a second heartbeat. When you walk out those doors, you need to leave with an outfit that impresses the nearly 80,000 other students on campus and that will somehow summon the people who will become your forever friends.

Then you remember that the hordes of fellow shoppers in the store are just as desperate to fit in as you are. It's a race to see who can find their clique faster, and no one wants to get left behind. Better start hitting the racks.

Thanks to social media, fashion trends spread across the internet like wildfire. But because these trends fade away just as quickly as they come into fashion, many cash-strapped students try to opt for the cheapest clothes possible. Many times, that means scouring secondhand stores.

But secondhand shopping isn't what it used to be: Many fashion resellers like Buffalo Exchange, which promises to peddle "vintage pieces and unique finds" on its website, are stocked with poorly made clothes that cheaply recreate online fashion trends.

Even though style mavens on a budget may find these clothes convenient, their consumption fuels the fast fashion industry, which is one of the world's most significant contributors to the climate crisis.

Despite the U.N.'s warning that climate change is the "single biggest health threat facing humanity" fueling many students' anxiety about looming climate doom, it may seem contradictory that overconsumption, or the practice of buying an unnecessary amount of products, has campus culture in a chokehold, as evidenced by the Stanley cup takeover of TikTok and shopping hauls full of Shein.

@bizwithamina Replying to @Ayoola374 unfortunately they LEAK πŸ˜­πŸ’” unless you got the 30oz flip straw tumbler #stanleycup #stanleycupgirl #stanleycupreviews #stanleycupgirlie #viralstanleycup ♬ original sound - Амина πŸŽ€

The fast lane

While the roots of fast fashion date back to the dawn of manufacturing during the Industrial Revolution, fashion today has only become faster and faster. Now, the modern fast fashion industry churns out billions of articles of clothing a year at breakneck speeds through a business model that often uses cheap, low-quality materials and replicates existing trends, rather than featuring unique designs.

"There are so many fast fashion brands out there, like Shein, Forever 21, H&M," said Olivia Madrid, a fashion design student currently on a gap year. "If there is something new every week or day, it's easy to catch fast fashion."

In this industry, companies are still able to spin a profit from selling cheaper clothes by producing mass quantities of low-quality items, rather than fewer long-lasting pieces.

"With new trends ... happening every day, retail stores will produce mass amounts of clothing, which ends up as overconsumption," Madrid said. "This is very bad for the environment because it all ends up in landfills. All this trash is taking up space, and it's taking up a massive amount of resources to produce this much."

As the third-largest polluting industry in the world, fashion releases 1.2 billion tons of carbon a year, representing 10% of annual greenhouse gas emissions worldwide. Textile production also dumps 92 million tons of waste in landfills annually, with only 12% of textiles being recycled and reused.

'It is so easy to overconsume'

For those who want to fit in but are on a budget, fast fashion can seem like a blessing.

"Fast fashion trends are cheap, which allows college kids to keep up with trends while on a budget," said Elyse Rivera, a junior studying fashion design. "They're also relatively casual and easy to wear, which tends to be ideal for college kids with busy schedules and active lifestyles."

These cheap clothes have found their way into many areas of student life at ASU. From joining a group that often requires members to dress in a certain style, like Greek life organizations, to piecing together a last-minute costume for themed events, fast fashion promises students that they will never be left scouring their closets, lost on what to wear.

Cassandra Kellar, a junior studying healthy lifestyles and fitness sciences, is no stranger to overconsumption through fast fashion β€” both from herself and her peers. As an avid music festival attendee, Kellar has depended on Shein and other fast fashion brands or online retailers, like Amazon, to cobble together affordable, yet trendy, outfits for shows. 

"You really only wear outfits once, so it is so easy to overconsume," she wrote in an email statement.

Aside from the festival scene, overconsumption also found a place in her life as a member of the Alpha Epsilon Phi sorority. Themed Greek life celebrations, like parties and bid day β€” the last day of the recruitment period for a sorority when invitations to join the organization are distributed β€” tend to overuse resources, according to Kellar.

Bid day shirts, which are distributed to every member of a sorority during the event each semester, cannot be reused for future bid days because they often align with a certain theme and include a specific year, Kellar said. In addition, these articles of clothing are frequently made with cheap materials and are often purchased in bulk.

"It's not even just with bid day shirts or sorority or fraternity parties, it's very common for ASU parties β€” a very prominent part of our ASU lives β€” to have themes," Madrid said. "You see the post (advertising) a party on Snapchat, and you need to come up with a Western-themed outfit in four days."

Madrid was no stranger to caving to fast fashion in order to fit in with the crowd as she navigated the University's party scene.

"I am guilty too," Madrid said. "I was trying so hard to fit in my freshman year. ... I would go to parties and try to be on theme or trendy, and I would shop Amazon all the time."

What happens next?

The typical life cycle of a trendy fast fashion piece begins with a click. But after all is said and done and it lives out its shelf life on the racks of some student's dorm closet, all those puffy jackets and cow-print flared jeans have to end up somewhere. For many fast fashion pieces, that final resting place is the bargain bin at a secondhand clothes store.

"You go to Buffalo Exchange, and all those mesh shirts with angels on them from 2020 are everywhere when there used to be some high-quality finds," Madrid said. "It makes me want to throw up."

The country's culture of overconsumption has caused fast fashion pieces to flood thrift stores nationwide, which can strain smaller stores that lack the employees, time and space to sort through the influx of clothes, according to The New York Times.

This phenomenon has also impacted the shopping habits of many longtime thrifters, like Abbey Raye Richmond, a sophomore studying psychology. As someone with an alternative fashion style, Richmond has long depended on secondhand shopping as a surefire way to come across lasting pieces that align with her unique tastes. However, she said it's now nearly impossible to go secondhand clothes shopping without encountering fast fashion pieces that mimic past style fads.

"I still have friends who buy huge Shein hauls to try and look alternative, and it only ever lasts a few months," Richmond said. "I just wonder how long it will take until I find it in a Goodwill somewhere."

Fashion forward

While overconsumption culture and fast fashion may have found a home at ASU, many students and faculty are also working to promote sustainable shopping on a budget and reduce waste when shopping for clothes.

Elena Marshall may be the director of sustainability at The Fashion Collective at Arizona State University β€” a club dedicated to the business of fashion β€” but even she has fallen victim to shopping at fast fashion stores. The sophomore studying fashion wasn't aware of sustainable fashion practices until researching the topic, so she used to unknowingly purchase clothes from fast fashion brands.

"As I gained information on the topic, I slowly stopped shopping at those stores and (began) shopping at thrift stores and saving my money to purchase longer lasting pieces from sustainable brands," Marshall said. "Choosing to shop sustainably impacted my style significantly. Instead of purchasing trendy clothing that would only be relevant for the next week, I chose clothes that were more timeless and complemented my style better."

At The Fashion Collective, Marshall hosts workshops that discuss sustainability issues in the fashion industry and why impulsively buying clothes before researching brands can be environmentally harmful. 

Even though the urge to hit "add to cart" can feel irresistible, Marshall aims to teach students that it's not always the most sustainable option.

In the end, she hopes to emphasize that sustainable shopping can also be a celebration of individuality. Rather than resorting to trends that are shoved down their throats by large corporations, shoppers can hone their own personal styles by avoiding fast fashion brands, all while being more sustainable, Marshall said.

"Admitting to faults and stepping away from fast fashion is a huge step in the right direction of figuring out who you are," Madrid said. "People not just following trends and having some staple pieces is what shows the world who you are."

Edited by Camila Pedrosa, Savannah Dagupion and Madeline Nguyen. 

This story is part of The Culture Issue, which was released on Feb. 28, 2024. See the entire publication here.

Reach the reporter at and follow @iamGibManrique on X. 

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