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Harvard’s Fast-Fashion Crisis

By Amy Y. Li
By Ariel G. Silverman, Contributing Opinion Writer
Ariel G. Silverman ’23, a Social Studies concentrator, lives in Mather House. Her column appears on alternate Tuesdays.

Harvard students generally care about conserving the environment, fighting climate change, and preventing human rights abuses. Yet, in the choice between sticking to our values and repping our clubs with socially and environmentally harmful fast fashion, we usually choose the latter.

Within the first week of arriving on campus, my closet was filled with boxy t-shirts from FOP, my freshman dorm, an IOP info session, and PBHA (which I’m not even involved with!).

T-shirts aren’t the only swag endlessly thrown at first-years to persuade them to join clubs. Stalls at the fall activities fair overflow with customized stress balls, water bottles, and stickers. This gear is mostly made from flimsy plastic requiring significant quantities of water and toxic chemicals to produce, which will likely be used once then end up in a landfill or as ocean microplastic.

Our misplaced motivations are fueling a fast-fashion crisis at Harvard. Fast fashion is a clothing production method focused on rapidly producing high volumes of cheap and low-quality clothing with a high environmental and social cost. To align our consumption choices with our values, students can replace fast-fashion advertising with meaningful experiences to attract new members. We may find that doing so will strengthen communities in addition to benefiting the environment.

Even the most vocal advocates among us fall prey to fast fashion. In preparation for a 2019 rally protesting the University’s investment in fossil fuels, Divest Harvard purchased hundreds of bright orange t-shirts. One of them now hangs in my closet — the color clashes nicely with my auburn hair.

While these cheap shirts seem innocent, they were made in Nicaragua, most likely under the inhumane working conditions that abound the garment industry. The half non-organic cotton and half polyester shirts require significant resources to produce: 2,700 liters of water, one-third pound of pesticides, and 2.1 kg of CO2 are needed to make a single cotton t-shirt. A polyester t-shirt is responsible for 5.5 kg of CO2. The microfibers that shed from synthetic materials like polyester contribute to 35 percent of the primary microplastics polluting the ocean.

There is no denying the sentimental value of college gear. We accept or purchase swag because it is a way to show school spirit and pride in the House and organizations we belong to (a subtle, more socially acceptable way to drop the H bomb is by wearing it). After college, gear reminds us of all the good times we’ve had. How else would I remember that I was a Matthews Meerkat and not a Mole Rat during my first year if not for my Harvard-supplied shirt?

While everyone is entitled to purchase items with sentimental value, Harvard has a problem with quantity and quality. By the end of college, students wind up with dozens of unflattering t-shirts that do little to grow their memory bank of experiences. Instead, these clothes clutter our closets and our minds until they are thrown out.

One potential solution to Harvard’s fast-fashion problem is to buy environmentally friendly and responsibly produced products. There are now a plethora of cheap clothing brands using responsible methods. The College can do its part by purchasing 100 percent organic cotton t-shirts for Orientation week and Housing Day. Organic cotton, while undoubtedly more expensive, uses 91 percent less water than non-organic cotton and is pesticide-free. The University can also set up year-round donation bins or recycling stations for torn clothes to limit waste.

Unfortunately, purchasing from responsible brands is not enough. Switching suppliers does not force us to reexamine our unsustainable practices and hollow devotion to overconsumption. In addition, I have yet to come across a company that can produce mass quantities of customizable t-shirts using socially and environmentally responsible practices at a price low enough to satisfy college organizations’ slim budgets.

Given the lack of sustainable, customizable, and cheap clothing manufacturers out there, the most reasonable alternative is to reduce consumption.

Elizabeth Segran, a senior writer for Fast Company, argues that companies should supplement single-use promotional products with meaningful experiences that ultimately form stronger interpersonal connections, while reducing waste.

Harvard student groups can do the same. Clubs can advertise to new students by setting up photo booths, hosting a baking event (vegan, of course), or finding other ways to leave passersby with positive experiences rather than another scrap of plastic. If board members insist on swag, take a field trip to one of Boston’s many thrift stores. You will lose some brand recognition, but you’ll gain lasting memories and consume less in the process.

We all need to make sacrifices to promote environmental and social justice. Trading crappy t-shirts and single-use chachkas for positive experiences and greater interpersonal connection is a price I am more than willing to pay. If you agree, it's time to wear your values and perhaps think twice before accepting the next piece of free plastic you are offered.

Ariel G. Silverman ’23, a Social Studies concentrator, lives in Mather House. Her column appears on alternate Tuesdays.

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