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Ugly Christmas sweaters started as a vintage, sustainable shopping trend — so how did fast fashion take over?

There used to be joy in hunting for vintage ugly Christmas sweaters in the racks of local thrift shops.

ugly Christmas sweaters

Photo Credit: iStock

Years ago, ugly Christmas sweaters were well-worn holiday statement pieces enjoyed — or endured — by many. 

But as fast fashion brands started mass-producing their own versions of these eclectic festive sweaters, they went from thrifted gems to cheap pullovers that, more often than not, end up polluting our landfills with plastic.

Where did ugly Christmas sweaters come from?

In the '50s, festively decorated sweaters hadn't yet received their title of "ugly" and were an integral part of the holiday spirit, explains Fashion Institute of Technology Professor Lisa Donofrio

By the '80s, these seasonal pullovers went mainstream with embellishments like bells, bobbles, and tinsel. But as the '90s rolled around, the popularity of these sweaters dropped. These authentic, granny-approved ugly Christmas sweaters then sat in thrift stores, collecting dust.

In the early 2000s, we started to see a resurgence, especially after big-screen features like Mr. Darcy's off-putting reindeer sweater in Bridget Jones's Diary. The ironic adoration for kitschy clothes that defined this indie hipster era ultimately revived the ugly Christmas sweater.

There was joy in hunting for vintage ugly Christmas sweaters through racks of them at local thrift shops, lending them to friends for parties, and ultimately donating them back the next year to find another ugly, secondhand gem. 

But soon after, fast fashion companies disrupted this more circular ugly sweater cycle to capitalize on the trend, transforming the beloved wool-knit sweaters stitched with wholesome winter scenes into cringey pop-culture references printed on cheaply made sweatshirts.

This is a recipe for disaster that results in these new pullovers ending up in a landfill as quickly as pop culture moments become yesterday's trend. 

Google search results for "ugly christmas sweater meme"
Photo Credit: Screenshot

Why should we care about fast-fashion ugly Christmas sweaters?

What once was a relatively sustainable and earnest holiday fashion statement became an oversaturated seasonal trend.

A spokesperson for the London-based nonprofit Hubbub described the ugly Christmas sweater as "one of the worst examples of fast fashion," alluding to its overproduction and pollution issues.

Fast fashion brands are known for mass-producing clothing items using unethical labor practices and cheap materials, ultimately encouraging consumers to buy more. The fast fashion giant Shein has almost 2,000 different Christmas sweaters listed on its site at the time of writing.

Hubbub reported that U.K. shoppers bought an estimated 12 million ugly holiday "jumpers" in 2019, adding to the 65 million sweaters already purchased from previous years. 

In the U.S., these festive fast fashion pieces will most likely end up in a landfill along with the other 11.3 million tons of clothing sent to landfills annually.

What makes these sweaters truly ugly is their composition.

Hubbub analyzed the composition of over 100 Christmas sweaters and found that 95% contained or were made wholly from plastic materials. These synthetic materials release plastic microfibers into the air each time they are worn and into the water each time they get washed.

A study from the Institution of Mechanical Engineers estimated that 700,000 microfibers eventually make their way into our oceans each time an article of clothing gets washed. 

These tiny pieces are already a massive problem with more than four billion synthetic microfibers polluting each square kilometer of the deep sea.

How to make ugly Christmas sweaters less ugly for your wallet and the planet

We aren't trying to scrooge up your holiday festivities — you can have your eggnog and drink it, too. 

There are many ways you can still attend ugly Christmas sweater parties in style without breaking the bank or harming the planet.

Buying a secondhand sweater from a thrift shop is less expensive than from fast fashion brands and also a surefire way to ensure you don't end up wearing the same Taylor Swift Christmas sweater as three other people at the party.

Better yet, borrowing a sweater from a friend or family member is completely free. 

If you're willing to get a bit creative, decorating a pullover you own with reusable embellishments like ornaments, bows, or bells is a cheap and eco-friendly way to win the ugliest Christmas sweater contest.

@getwasteed Gift the world one fewer pieces of fashion waste! #sustainablefashion #uglychristmasweaters #christmassweaters #repurposed #christmasparty #zoomparty ♬ Free Town - Lofi Instrumental Beats Kingz

One of the best things you can do is make your festive pullover last as long as possible. 

Wearing it more than once a year, wearing it for multiple years, and repairing any damage for extra wear are all ways you can extend the life of your ugly Christmas sweater. 

Hubbub project coordinator Sarah Divall reminds us that these festive pullovers are "for life, not just for Christmas."

Lastly, hosting an ugly Christmas sweater swap party is a fun and festive way to encourage others to lay off fast fashion.

'Tis' the season to waste as little as possible. 

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