Aja Barber: But Is Fast Fashion Actually That Cheap?

Image: Zsuzanna Palmai 

Working out the actual cost of something takes a lot more than just a quick glance at the price tag. As we approach the seasonal sales, writer and fashion consultant Aja Barber asks the all important question about fast fashion: But is it really that cheap? 

In my line of work, one thing that I hear over and over again is the sneaky myth that shopping more sustainably and ethically automatically equals spending a lot more money. 

This particular myth really gets my goat because, truth-be-told, fast fashion isn’t that cheap. It’s certainly not cheap for the folks that are producing it (or for the planet), but, in the long term, fast fashion isn’t that cheap for the consumer either. It’s often no cheaper than a well-made, second-hand find and more importantly, the repetitive buying and replacing of items which haven’t lasted in the long run actually ends up being quite costly. The items pictured here are slow fashion items that are all from four to ten years old, which in the long term have had a cheaper cost-per-wear than any fast fashion knitwear garment I’ve bought.

The brands I see being pushed the hardest on my personal social media often carry an upmarket price tag (looking at £60 and up for a dress). Furthermore, the labels which many influencers in my age group often advertise have prices that my more economically disadvantaged social media following claim to be inaccessible for them. So, who is benefitting from this system of fast fashion besides the select few at the top of the food chain?

A quick scroll of the biggest and most popular fast fashion brands on Instagram is all you need to find the prices of whatever is being pushed on the platform at the moment. Occasionally on Instagram stories, I’ll compare those prices to a similar item from a second-hand site or an ethical brand in order to demonstrate that the same look can be achieved without needing to purchase an expensive, brand-new garment. There’s this idea that we are all held captive by fast fashion but breaking away is a lot easier than most people think.  

As I’ve mentioned in my writings, shopping second hand is not a new phenomenon. It’s the way many people have been shopping forever, out of both need and pleasure. But it wasn’t always cool. The small amount of luxury items which make an appearance on my Instagram and in photos are all goods which I have purchased second hand, because I simply cannot afford to buy luxury goods and many designer brands brand new. So, when you buy designer goods second hand (and depending on the designer, of course) sometimes the price point can be similar to that of new fast fashion. However, the level of quality is entirely different; with a high-end garment, you’re getting something built to last a lifetime. 

It’s sad to see that the way we value goods changes the minute the season moves on, and that is also undoubtedly part of fashion’s waste problem. However, the silver lining is that it also means you can find a designer dress that was once £350 for £50. Sure, it takes more creativity and time is always a luxury, but the satisfaction is so much deeper, especially for anyone who truly loves fashion.

While we’re on the topic of time, I have also noticed how I just don’t miss the hours that I once spent in stores and checking to find the newest pieces online. It was non-stop and relentless … a job within itself that I never realized I was committing to. Once I stepped out of the cycle, I found myself with more time to really choose carefully and pick a considered wardrobe. I make fewer rushed decisions because fewer items come into my closet now. Time is money and I felt like the fast fashion trend cycle sucked up way too much of mine.

I’ve been known to keep my eye on a dress or a shoe and chase it until it pops up on a resale or discount site. The dress I wore repeatedly to weddings and fancy occasions in my twenties was one such dress which first appeared on the Marni runway five years before I purchased it. Trends come and go but style is eternal. A dress that is timeless and of good design will remain so throughout the seasons.

A few things happened when I stopped shopping fast fashion, but mainly I immediately noticed how much money I was absolutely saving. Because the formula of fast fashion is one that encourages you to spend recklessly while constantly moving on to the “next” thing.  While I was in the cycle, I was going into stores (sometimes weekly) to find the latest arrivals and often leaving with five new things. I would trick myself into believing that I was saving SO much money, buying things in these stores instead of fewer buying nicer items. But in actuality, I was spending easily £40 – £80 per shopping trip on clothing just that wasn’t good enough quality to stay in my wardrobe for more than two years.  

In a time where we know humans are buying clothing faster than ever and discarding our wardrobe at a never-before-seen speed, it’s disingenuous for fast fashion makers to pretend that they are encouraging anyone to buy something and wear it forever.  Especially when there are new items being pushed to consumers every day and stores are laid out in a way which encourages you to buy things you may not need. No one is being encouraged to “buy forever” when brands send daily marketing emails encouraging consumers to buy, buy, buy.

 When a certain CEO of a fast fashion brand insisted on making a body suit that a reality tv star wore, then later insisted that people were buying things to wear for a long time, I sarcastically thought: “I better see a lot of grandmothers in 2060 wearing that heritage knitted body suit, since that’s what we’re all apparently doing with our fast fashion.” 

But of course, the statistics, facts and figures tell a different story about the actual lifespan of a garment from a fast fashion brand. In the UK alone, with 300,000 tons of used clothing go to the landfill in the UK every year, according to The Times. 

There is a real dishonesty in the idea that buying fast fashion could ever mean wearing your clothes for a long time. The formula for the industry’s success and survival depends on the continuous cycle of consumers buying and rebuying way more than they actually need. So, how can we break the cycle? Buy less and buy better quality. You’ll save in the long term and find items to last you a lifetime.


See Jil Carrara’s tips on how to talk to your friends about quitting fast fashion.

Discover the best sustainable swaps to make on a budget

Read Clare Press’ open letter to fashion