All I want are some cheap black jeans: a (moral) broke girl’s essay on fast fashion

For the past three weeks, I’ve been questing a specific garment — a pair of black jeans, women’s size 4. The denim-stuffed aisles of not-for-profit thrift stores are usually troves for someone like me, a staunch supporter of Canadian tuxedos and well-crafted designer goods. My best friends are Bill Blass and Tommy Hilfiger. A beautiful pair of cuffed Calvin Klein shorts and I met each other just the other day, and wed (for a small fee of six dollars) soon after. While some kids proudly flash their college IDs at movie theaters or football games, I never skip out on using my student discount at Goodwill. As I walk out of a thrift store, I’m always at least twenty dollars poorer and two blouses, a leather purse, and three vinyl records richer. My shopping sprees are fruitful — one could argue that I thrift like it’s a sport. So, these last few visits in which I’ve left the building empty handed and with cash still in my wallet have been unsettling.

All I’m asking for is a pair of black jeans — high-waisted, straight-fitting, free of holes, and one-hundred percent cotton. For fashion-forward folks of the ‘80s and early ‘90s, this denim variety was the standard, easily found at any clothing retailer, and I tell myself it shouldn’t be this difficult for me to find a once-college girl’s aged, dark Levi’s. But between the revival of past trends and the normcore surge of the 2010s, what I need is, without coincidence, what everyone else also wants (and has found before me). For the first time in a while, I’ve seriously considered taking people’s advice, which typically sounds something like, “Syd, just go to the mall already.”

Earlier this year, they wouldn’t have had to tell me twice. Yes, my wardrobe is eighty percent hand-me-downs, but I’ll be the first to admit that the balancing portion is symbolic of my past vice, my affair with fast fashion and its array of devilish enticements like wearable crop tops, faux leather things, and an inestimable number of shiny accessories. I was that teenage shopaholic who interpreted Urban Outfitters’ black, reusable bag as a trophy, and if Forever 21 was having a ‘free shipping, no minimum’ event online, I heard about it first. Investing faith in the fast fashion industry’s capacity to deliver loveable styles at wallet-friendly prices didn’t seem regrettable. Sure, the clothing I bought from these retailers wouldn’t hold up after more than a dozen cycles in the wash, and most items were deemed passé before they even had a chance to come undone at the seams, but for a full-time student who worked crummy part-time jobs, I found solace in fast fashion’s offerings.

At that time, not once did I ponder the fact that the dynamism and affordability of fast fashion is possible only at the expense of both humanity and our environment. Some know this stuff already: that fast fashion chains choose to produce in countries were worker’s safety and rights are undermined and wages are nearly unlivable; immigrants who work in metropolitan sweatshops in our country even struggle to gain basic rights; unregulated, overseas textile production uses millions of tons of coals, and over a half trillion gallons of fresh water are used for dyeing every year; major fast fashion retailers have been caught not donating or reselling, but destroying and dumping unused clothing — items in good condition, but didn’t sell in stores — in order to maintain ‘brand image.’ Nevertheless, people still support these companies, and the dollars handed over for every purchase, big or small, fuel the fire of the fast fashion industry’s immorality.

When I opted out of fast fashion, I chose humanism and sustainability. But a proud conscience doesn’t soothe the monetary anxieties of an expressive, fashion-besotted college student who works part-time making lattes. It’s true, that only purchasing clothes from resellers has made shopping more stimulating and comparable to a treasure hunt. With every secondhand gem added to my closet, my style evolves, and my faith in fashion as a method of achieving distinction further swells.

Still, no amount of love for thrifting negates the unfortunate reality in which particular things — say, a pair of high-waisted, straight-fitting, hole-less, black jeans in a women’s size 4 — are only guaranteed to be available at particular places. It’s the frequent absence of simple, necessary garments at thrift stores that continuously poses itself as a problem that I can’t ignore, but don’t know how to address. In these instances, I wish I could afford to shop for new pieces ethically. American Apparel is my favorite brand — just ask my friends and family, whom I drag with me into the store every time I see its iconic Helvetica font sign lit up and calling my name. The company’s practices are humane and sustainable, and of course, their garments are well-constructed and timeless. But all that goodness comes with a price: the exact pair of jeans I need, the ones I’ve been casually eyeing since I was eighteen, are 94 bucks. And after I meander around the store for a few minutes, glancing at price tags as if they’ll display lower figures than they did two months ago, I’m disheartened and off to the sale rack, where the brand’s quirkiest, least-basic prints and designs always seem to end up. My forbidden love for American Apparel largely reflects my interest in all retailers that manufacture with ethics in mind.

Aside from socks or underwear, I can’t tell you the last time I purchased brand new clothing because, thanks to my anti-fast fashion mentality, I just can’t afford to. I’m uncomfortably wedged in a space where morality and practicality fail to get along with one another. And as I drive around the city from thrift store to thrift store in my tiny, fuel-burning, climate change-contributing car, I wonder if it’s silly to look for a pair of jeans that may never actually surface. If my disregard for the mall stores across the way is helping planet Earth or the underpaid laborers overseas. If the way one girl chooses to do one thing makes any difference.

Sydney Sweeney

Journalism & Creative Writing major. My not-so-guilty pleasures include YA romance novels, Christoper Cross' debut album, and Trader Joe's vegan ice cream. Find me in the KCR studio, where I get to shove my wonderful music taste in people's ears on Wednesdays from 5-6 p.m. Sorry, people.