As I sit here at my computer writing this column, I am wearing a soft sweatshirt and comfy yoga pants. I have been wearing soft sweatshirts and comfy yoga pants for about six weeks now. I have a lot of soft sweatshirts and comfy yoga pants, and now I have had the pleasure of not just wearing them on weekends, but every single day as I Zoom from my home office. I like it. I have even talked about it during meetings, and that sweatshirt/yoga pants comment to a business associate prompted her to mention the high cost of what she called “fast fashion.” Truthfully, I had never heard this term and I began to ask questions. She directed me to Dana Thomas’ newly published book, “Fashionopolis: The Price of Fast Fashion and the Future of Clothes.”
I got the book and started reading. It was not a comfortable experience. I learned that the clothing industry turns out over 80 billion garments a year, uses an unspeakable amount of earth’s resources, pollutes air, water, and land, all while practically enslaving garment workers in emerging countries – as well as in some sweatshops still found right here in the United States. I checked the labels on my sweatshirts (Honduras) and all my yoga pants (Vietnam and Jordan). This was not good, but I kept reading.
The first part of this book was very sobering. I investigated more in my closet(s) and cringed. Granted, unlike many clothes shoppers who “shop, wear once, and then toss,” I do wear my garments for an exceptionally long time. But this does not absolve me of my contribution to the problem. We as a nation, along with Europe and other industrialized parts of the world, buy too many clothes. Furthermore, the clothing made in other countries, brought to the United States, and sold very cheaply means that garment workers in America are out of jobs, while people in emerging nations are working in hideous conditions – for the sake of yet more unnecessary, inferior, frankly shoddy, clothing choices.
After feeling wretched about the statistics, despondent over the human suffering and all the other ills surrounding the fashion industry, I started the next part of the book – ready to feel even worse – but still needing to be informed. Instead, I was actually pleasantly surprised. Thomas began to discuss “right shoring,” as opposed to “re-shoring,” the garment industry back home. She has spent a considerable amount of time traveling through the American south, that historically recognized center of spinning, weaving, and sewing, and found several modern clothing manufacturers re-starting the old mills and factories and doing it right.
Thomas went on to discuss the need to pay a fair wage, run clean, safe, modern businesses, and re-educate the public about the importance of quality over quantity. Finally, the third part of her book covered efforts to recycle the discarded clothes that ordinarily would find their way into landfills around the world; as well as how modern, scientific techniques can produce natural fabrics without the pollution and waste of years past.
This was still a sobering book, but one with a good degree of hope.
But was Thomas’ book the first foray into investigation of fast fashion? I searched some more and found “Over-Dressed: The Shockingly High Cost of Cheap Fashion” by Elizabeth Cline. This book, published in 2013, raised similar alarms seen in Thomas’s book. However, Cline’s focus is on designers who compromised their work for more money, industrialists who took advantage of the new obsession for clothes, and those individuals who pursue fast fashion, lust after high fashion, and the economic disadvantages associated with both ends of the fashion spectrum.
Cline explained that with the economic advancement of the middle class in the 20th century, American garment manufacturers saw a newly-financially flush population’s emerging preoccupation with clothes. At the same time, competition to sell more, albeit inferior products, pushed the cost of clothes way down, making it easier to purchase cheaply made items; until today when the cost associated with clothes is so low many people can afford to buy an item of clothing, wear it once or twice (it frequently falls apart after that anyway) and then toss it out. Thus, the pollution; both pre- and post-manufacture.
Cline really started the current conversation about fast fashion, but Clare Press continued it in her book “Wardrobe crisis: How We Went From Sunday Best to Fast Fashion.” Press is a fashion journalist who knows the inside dirt on this industry – and it is not pretty. She explains the rise and fall of the once-ubiquitous local department store, the origins of the likes of Dior, Chanel, and Ferragamo, as well as the mafia’s involvement in New York’s garment district. This was quite a history lesson!
Press also reminds us that the 20th century is not the first era that has seen the ills inherent in the fashion industry. She also references Charles Kingsley’s essay “Cheap Clothes and Nasty” that exposed the disgusting working conditions seen in London’s garment district in 1850! Things might have finally changed in Victorian England, but the ills moved at the turn of the last century to America, and now all those same evils have just relocated to many spots in Asia and India/Pakistan/Bangladesh.
And what about plastic? More and more plastic, petrochemical-based yarn, and other synthetic fibers are finding their way into our clothes. Press reminds us that by 2025, we will be releasing eight million tons of plastic into the water EVERY YEAR. Yes, our clothes often contain some form or plastic or similar man-made material rather than 100% cotton or 100% wool, or 100% linen. Those man-made fibers also pollute pre- and post-manufacture.
Exploitation, inhumanity, greed, stupidity. The list goes on. What can we do? Buy carefully, check the labels, find clothes made in America in ethically run facilities that pay their people a fair wage. This battle cry has been raised again and again, and so far, little has been done. But our current time of trouble is vastly different. We have gotten out of the cycle of “buy for the sake of buying,” because the stores have been closed. Orders for clothes on the internet have decreased significantly, as many are not flush with discretionary funds due to lack of employment. Could we consider returning to those days of sewing our own clothes, mending clothes rather than just tossing them, and when we do buy – buy from “right shored” businesses? If it is going to happen, now is the time.
Yes, this is a sobering column. The more I read the more I became embarrassed by my own lack of attention to so many details about the garments I purchase. From now on, however, that will change. I hope it changes for all of us, and we can look back on these times and declare that even in the face of the hardships we are currently experiencing – we did something right and for that we can be proud.