I must admit, I used to buy Topshop (or Topman, as it were). Lots of it. When you live in London, your weekly visit to Oxford Circus isn't complete without wrestling with a 16-year-old over the last sailor-striped £8 t-shirt in size small.
As time goes on, though, you realise Topshop isn't what it's cracked up to be. In my personal experience, that £8 t-shirt will be a very different shape after two washes. Chino seams will rip after a few weeks' wear. Shoe soles will be talking to you like sad puppets within three months.
When Topshop launched in Auckland last month, the entire country was caught up in the hubbub. "We're finally joining the fast fashion revolution!", Topshop fans rejoiced. I wasn't so excited, because dressing like everybody else is something I actively strive not to do.
Still, I see the appeal in fast fashion. New Zealand has historically been left far behind the rest of the world in style trends - it's only recently we've stopped seeing drop-crotches (or as Heidi Klum calls them, "poo-poo pants") on the streets, four years after they emerged in fashion magazine spreads. With Topshop, and similar brands such as H&M and Zara, you can have catwalk "inspired" garments on shelves mere weeks after Karlie Kloss walks them down the Dior runway.
But there's a major catch. Everybody else has the same idea. See it online at Vogue.com one day, buy a very similar version of it at a fast fashion outlet the next (for about five per cent of the price - along with 1000 other people who did the same thing). Who cares if it'll fall apart as soon as soap and water hit it? You look chic tonight, and that's what counts, right?
Wrong. Oh so wrong, because there are ethical problems with buying fast fashion.
We've all heard the allegations of young children working their hands bloody to make clothes for the likes of Nike and The Gap. While initiatives (such as the Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety, posited after the 2013 collapse of a factory that killed 1129 workers) have cracked down on these horrors in the last few years, they still happen because it is an "impossible task to track down all of these terrible sweatshops", according to Bhuwan Ribhu, a lawyer and activist from the Global March Against Child Labour.
While Topshop has been heavily criticised in the past about its labour practices, it does seem to be making an effort in line with the aforementioned safety agreement and specifically states on its website that it doesn't employ child labour. According to Topshop's New Zealand representative, Arcadia, the parent company of Topshop, "takes ethical, social and environmental responsibility very seriously, and have a really robust strategy in place to ensure all parties involved in the manufacturing and production of our designs adhere to our welfare code, all of which is further outlined on the Arcadia website".
Regardless, I remain wary of fast fashion, no matter what corporate websites say.
However, when you take an ethical fashion high-horse, you have to commit. And that opens up its own can of worms. I'd love to buy only ethical, New Zealand-made fashion. But there's a bit of a problem with this concept. Firstly, I can't afford Zambesi or Jimmy D or Stolen Girlfriends Club. Secondly, I don't really do black. Or drapey. Or grungy. So I'm forced to go offshore to ethical mid-range brands like J Crew and Club Monaco, where I can find Nantucket red trousers actually made in Nantucket, Massachusetts, by a skilled adult worker paid a reasonable wage.
No, I'm not supporting New Zealand businesses, but I can't buy these products, or anything similar in style, quality, and price, here at home. While I'm still buying mass-produced, at the very least I'm still buying something I won't see on anyone else when I'm brunching in Ponsonby.
There is solution for the modern generation of trend-wearers who want fast fashion, but don't want to risk looking like a clone of 1000 others. Buy clothes on Etsy.com.
Etsy works like any other user-sells website. It incorporates a buyer review culture with the sharing economy, enabling Mavis from Invercargill or Lily from Amsterdam to sell their wares to an international marketplace. Search for just about any fashion item you can imagine on Etsy, whether it's a blanket cape or a gingham shirtdress, and you'll find dozens of affordable and options from crafty sewers both at home and abroad. They're handmade, up-to-the-minute, ethical, and importantly, completely unique or from very limited production runs.
Is Etsy a perfect model? Not at all. You still can't try on things before you buy, and that deters many. But unlike buying online from J Crew or Club Monaco, you can ask the actual maker of any garment direct questions about an item's fit, or send them measurements and have a made-to-measure version sewn up at no (or minimal) extra cost.
Fast fashion certainly isn't the worst of the world's worries right now. But there are more mindful ways of looking stylish than scouring racks full of jeans that cost less than taxi fares. Try buying local, vintage, or independent. You don't have to overhaul your existing wardrobe (that goes against the grain of sustainable fashion), but making an effort one item at a time is a good step towards conscious consumerism.