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  • Angie Mak

Buy Me And Throw Me Away

Updated: Mar 13

Fast fashion is convenient and fun. What's not to like about it? Ex-retail employee spills the beans on the reality of a throwaway culture.


“That’s so cheap. It’d be good for wearing it just once and then throwing it away.”


“Of course. That’s SO you. It wouldn’t be your first time…”


I turned and faced the other direction. Poker face, poker face. I prayed for the sake of my performance bonus that my internal revulsion wasn’t showing. Must not strangle the customer.


I used to have a job as a salesperson in the running department of a sporting goods store. The brand was known for its bargain buys, including its HKD $24 men’s tank tops. In fact, that shirt price was so unbelievably low, it went up to $29, and it was still massively popular. I suspected the price had to zoom up 20% because it was milking the store considerably in labor costs, paying us minions to rehang the blasted shirts a million times a day.

The thing about fast fashion is that it looks so innocent on the store rack. No one ever explains how much rubbish was dumped to get that shirt on display.

Fast fashion is a two-headed beast. In the context of sports, low-cost, entry-level gear can help people exercise more, because if you can find HKD $29 shirts and $139 running shoes for your workout, you’d have more incentive to go out and get fit. Gone are the days that Hong Kongers had to endure paying at the very least $250 for a brand-name shirt and $400 for the shoes, the same quality and design as the bargain version. Especially now that it’s cool to show up at the office in yoga pants.


But oh, it’s so darn easy to throw away a $29 shirt without a second thought. Our landfills are weeping already.


The thing about fast fashion is that it looks so innocent when it’s just hanging there on the store rack. No one ever explains how much rubbish was dumped in the process of getting that shirt on display.


ONE PAIR OF SOCKS


I used to love working the early shift at the sports store, because a good 2.5 hours of a 9-hour shift was spent in pre-opening, and that was a lot less time dealing with customers. Every morning, the daily delivery would come in from the local warehouse, and we minions would unbox and unwrap in a flurry of half-asleep activity.


In fact, while we were snoozing in our beds the night before, the goods had already crossed the border from China by truck. It never ceased to amaze me how efficient the supply chain was (when it worked).

It always irked me that the box came from China by truck over thousands of miles to deliver… ta-da! One pair of socks.

In the store, nearly every item that was sold arrived in a plastic bag, or sometimes five in a bag. The white shirts were the worst, because they were all individually bagged to avoid it getting stained or spoiled in transit. It didn’t matter if it was a $29 or a $289 white shirt, in which case it might cost the store only a portion to write it off if it was damaged. The point was, it had to be pristine and sellable.


So we would robotically rip open and chuck away countless amounts of plastic bags and paper stuffing. Cardboard was always gold, because it was currency for the cleaning ladies. They managed to make a few bucks on the side by reselling it to paper collectors. Every few days, we’d open a box and be baffled to see just one lonely item squished in a corner. It always irked me that the box came from China by truck over thousands of miles to deliver… ta-da! One pair of socks.


But oh, the bags… And the perfectly good plastic hangers—we amassed so many each day, they had to be dumped in entire boxloads. After awhile, even the biggest tree-hugger on our staff would simply have to turn a blind eye to the daily perfunctory LANDSLIDE of disposed packaging. It’s a given in retail.


So when said male customer chuckled to his friend about wearing our shirt once and throwing it away so he didn’t have to bother washing it, I wanted to scream. It took all of my self-control not to take a pile of plastic bags and stuff them in his backpack as a parting gift. Would it be too much to cheerfully put in a plastic-bag-barfing whale into his shopping bag at the checkout?


THE TWO-SHIRT WINTER


It’s not to sound holier than thou, but there was a time last winter, when I had to survive on two long-sleeved shirts that I just constantly wore and washed. Still job hunting, I didn’t have much money and all of my other winter clothes were trapped in storage under my bed. I’d just moved into that place, downsizing from a two-bedroom flat with decent closets, in a cushy neighborhood, to a 120-square-foot ensuite. The new place was so tiny that I had to hang my two bicycles above the cube-sized fridge in order to fit everything in. I basically lived out of three drawers of clothes, only one of which was actual “going out” wear.


Somehow, in a Mari Kondo-minimalist way, I hacked it with just two long-sleeves that winter. (T-shirts, I had plenty.) It wasn’t the most fashionable time of my life, but I managed to wear one shirt to sleep and work out in it at the park the next morning, and I’d still have the other shirt for when I went out. About that time, I saw a video about a stealth-camping Aussie guy who lived mainly on the few clothes he carried around in his backpack. His secret was to keep sporting standard black merino wool t-shirts, Steve-Jobs style.


They say that something out of sight is out of mind. I’d be the first one most guilty of that, because I took to Mari Kondo-minimalism so well, I now discard rubbish with an unhealthy vengeance. But what really is rubbish? Is it the coffee grinds you have no use for, or the impulse-buy shirt that you didn’t know why you got at all? (Okay, so not everyone buys new socks every week instead of doing the laundry, like one uni student I knew. You’re forgiven if you wash your socks.)


UNBOXING AS A NATIONAL PASTIME


Before you point out that retail workers should be grateful that they’re being paid for the sheer fun of unboxing: Yes, unboxing is undeniably fun. Judging from the millions of likes collected by unboxing videos on YouTube, we’d be forgiven for thinking that the thrill of ripping open packaging will soon become a national pastime. After all, the point of unboxing is to be pleased with the mountain of packaging that proves we’ve done a Christmas sales’ worth of shopping.


But that’s the kicker: when you’re not the person who is doing the unboxing because you did the buying, that’s when you see the reality. That’s when you realize our buying indubitably has a price.


Remember that good feeling when we refuse a plastic bag at the checkout? We forget that whenever we buy clothing, we’ve essentially already thrown away the other bags and boxes that the item first arrived in. It seems what we don’t know about consumerism won’t hurt us. Truth is, it’s the backstory that’s actually the real story.


How do you feel about fast fashion? Whether you're for it or not, we'd love to hear your comments.

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