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Fast Fashion: Is it really a bargain?

In 2017, the average Canadian household spent $3,430 on clothing and accessories – just over 5% of their overall budget.  That works out to about $114 per month per person.

By comparison, we spend a yearly average of just $2,593 on restaurant meals, $1,300 on personal care, and only $158 on reading materials. In other words, chances are you spent more money on the clothes you wore to dinner than you did on the food you ate.

I’ll admit I don’t love to shop for clothes. I am rarely in the mood to go to the effort and spend the money. Even if you love shopping, the impact on your wallet is rarely a welcome one.

Enter fast fashion.

What is fast fashion?

The term “fast fashion” was first coined by the Spanish retailer, Zara, when it first opened its doors in New York in the early 1990s. Unlike most clothing retailers that offered an assortment for spring, summer, fall and winter, Zara would release new collections as often as every week. To stay ahead of the competition, Zara found ways to get new designs into stores just weeks from the time of conception. Their clothing was fresh and affordable – fast fashion was born.

Zara is still one of the world’s leading fast fashion houses, but many others use a similar fast fashion model. Retailers like H&M, Uniqlo and Forever 21 have become staples of Canadian shopping centres, and online giants like ASOS, boohoo, Nasty Gal, ModCloth and Stitch Fix are all vying for a share of your wallet with cheap, trendy fashion alongside homegrown contenders like Frank + Oak and Kit And Ace.

A bargain to be had – or is there?

Fast fashion retailers have much to offer for shoppers. As well as providing a nonstop flow of new products, fast fashion often closely resembles the looks from top designers at a fraction of the cost. Retailers, however, tend to do a poor job of buying items and getting them to stores in the right quantities. This leads to well-stocked clearance racks and bargains to be had on clothing that aren’t immediate best sellers.

I put my online shopping skills to the test. I found similar floral print dresses at Zara and H&M listed for $49.90 and $39.99, respectively. The same look could be found for $110 from TopShop, $195 from Banana Republic, and $398 from BCBGMAXAZRIA by way of The Bay.

But fast fashion costs you more than just dollars at the till. These retailers also make considerable sacrifices in terms of quality. If you’ve ever bought a t-shirt at H&M, it probably only survived a few washes before a hole showed up. Your fast fashion purchase may only be suitable for a handful of wears before it falls apart or goes out of style.

Cheaply made clothing has a huge environmental impact as well. Manufacturing is often outsourced to Asia where environmental (as well as humanitarian) standards are either lax or nonexistent. Demand for materials puts stress on crops and accelerates petroleum use. Discarded clothing sent to landfills can leach harmful chemicals and shed microplastics into the water table. And sometimes, the leftover unsold stock is literally burned. A power plant in Sweden recently burned 15 tons of discarded H&M warehouse inventory as fuel.

The cost of fast fashion

Ignoring the perils of consumerism for the environment, for a moment, let’s look at whether you are personally financially better off buying fast fashion or springing for higher quality.

A good starting point for this is figuring out how much you spend, on average, each time you wear an article of clothing. If you buy a $40 dress and wear it 40 times, that’s $1 per use. Wear it just 20 times, and your price per use goes up to $2. A $250 pair of shoes will achieve $1 per use after they’re worn every weekday for a year. You get the idea.

To figure out your overall average cost per use for clothing, you need to look at your entire wardrobe.  Yes, including the stuff you don’t wear, which is probably around 80% of the clothing you own. A $200 sweatshirt worn ten times costs as much per use as a $20 sweatshirt worn twice. No matter how you slice it, the two together add up to $10 per time, which is probably way more than you would be willing to spend if you had to tap your credit card every time you opened your closet.

The more you own, the less you wear

Interestingly, the more items of clothing you buy, the fewer opportunities you have to wear them. If you buy a whole new outfit every other week, that’s 26 over a year. On average, you’ll wear each outfit once every 3 weeks 5 days for a total of just 14 wears per garment.

Keeping the clothes for longer seems like the logical response, but as long as you keep buying new clothes at that pace, you won’t get more use out of the ones you have. Every time you buy a new outfit, the average time between wears gets longer, and the total number times you can wear each article holds steady at 14. Let’s say you’re buying cheap fast fashion clothes in the relatively inexpensive range of $30-45 per item. You’re still spending an equivalent of $2-3 per use, no matter how long you hold on to them.

Now, let’s imagine you buy a whole new outfit once every six weeks. That works out to 8.6 per year, which we can round up to 9. At that pace, you’ll wear each outfit once every 9 days for a total of 42 wears per garment throughout the year. With more chances of wearing each item, you can afford to spend more money. At this pace, you can spend an average of $84-126 per piece of clothing and stay at $2-3 per use.

Since this is all based on averages, you can opt for less expensive fast fashion items to freshen things up. Then, use the money you save to invest more in high-quality clothing you’ll enjoy wearing regularly.

You decide how much you want to spend on clothes

By buying higher quality clothing less often, you will end up spending a similar amount on clothing per year. You’ll also get more use out of the clothes you buy, enjoy your wardrobe more and reduce your environmental impact. Conversely, if you like having new fashions all the time at the expense of quality, you can still save by sticking with your current approach.

You get to decide, based on your own personal finances, what version of cost per use is acceptable to you. Optimize your wardrobe – choose items that last with style and structural integrity based on price per use. Then, you can buy whatever you want.

A quick rule of thumb to stay under $3 per use when clothes shopping is that you can spend $35 on an item you’ll wear every month or $150 on an item you’ll wear every week.

Flipping that around, you can decide whether an article of clothing is in your budget by multiplying the number of times you think you’ll wear it by your max cost per use. If you’re willing to pay $3 per use for a pair of shoes and you think you’ll wear them 50 times, you can afford to spend up to $150.

The bottom line

Whether you choose cheap fast fashion clothing or decent brand names, you’re likely looking at similar value when you measure your cost per use. A $10 t-shirt you can wear twice costs as much on a per-use basis as a $100 t-shirt you can wear 20 times.

To get the most for your money when buying clothes, choose to go shopping less often and get more use out of the clothing you purchase. By deciding in advance how much you’re likely to wear an item and how much you’re willing to spend per use, you can determine whether you’re getting the deal you want.