The Real Global Price of What You Wear, Part 1

Last updated on February 3, 2024.

Interior of clothing store, wooden floor walkway flanked by mannequins, racks, and shelves of clothing.
Image by auntmasako from Pixabay.

The fashion and clothing industries contribute to climate change, environmental pollution, and human exploitation. Across the world, perpetuated by wealth, and rampant consumerism based on false urgency to keep up with ‘trends,’ the massive overproduction of clothing is killing us and our environment.

Companies have men, women, and even children, working in dangerous conditions with low or no labor standards. They are kept impoverished by low wages. Companies use toxic chemicals in clothing production, and those chemicals end up in the final products. The clothing industry uses unfathomable amounts of water in production, in a world where there isn’t enough water for everyone. Later, that water is discharged, often into the environment, polluting water and soil. Mass amounts of energy are used to produce both natural and synthetic fabrics. Transporting clothing from developing countries to the west uses astronomical amounts of fossil fuels. Worse, there is so much clothing in the world now that we can’t find uses for all of it.

All this so that we can buy $5 T-shirts that we don’t need. It’s called fast fashion, and it’s detrimental on many levels.

Interior of an Old Navy, a clothing store.
Image by DigestContent from Pixabay.

Fast Fashion

Fast fashion is a design, manufacturing, and marketing method focused on quickly producing high volumes of trendy but cheaply-made clothing.1 The term was coined by The New York Times in the 1990s “to describe Zara’s mission to take only 15 days for a garment to go from the design stage to being sold in stores.”2 By the 2000s, brands were taking ideas from the top fashion designers and reproducing them cheaply and quickly. Other big names in fast fashion include H&M, UNIQLO, GAP, Primark, and TopShop.

At one time, there were four seasons of clothing. Today, there are 52 “micro-seasons” per year. Fast fashion was artificially created. The demand “was carefully cultivated by fashion brands to change consumer behavior and make people want more and more, and quickly.”3 

But this disregard for quality has led to clothing going to landfills. “Constantly changing trends have encouraged consumers to discard clothing that’s no longer ‘in style’ even if it’s still wearable.”4 This is not sustainable.

“[Fast fashion] plays into the idea that outfit repeating is a fashion faux pas and that if you want to stay relevant, you have to sport the latest looks as they happen. It forms a key part of the toxic system of overproduction and consumption that has made fashion one of the world’s largest polluters.”5

Exterior of the Zara store in Tokyo, taken at night, lit up and brightly colored with a large digital advertising screen at top center.
Photo by Comunicacioninditex on Wikimedia, Creative Commons license (CC BY-SA 4.0).

Ultra-Fast Fashion

There is an even faster fashion now, referred to as ultra-fast fashion. Brands include SHEIN, Missguided, Forever 21, Zaful, Boohoo, and Fashion Nova. It is a recent phenomenon that is as bad as it sounds.6Ultra fast fashion turns fast fashion’s ‘weeks’ into days and ‘dozens of styles’ into hundreds and thousands. The numbers alone sound sinister. Brands like SHEIN and Boohoo are reportedly posting thousands of new styles to their websites on a daily basis. Sometimes, knockoffs of trending celebrity and pop culture styles will appear online in as little as 24 hours.” Social media, influencer culture, and online hauls certainly stoked the fire in the creation of ultra-fast fashion.7

“A generation now views ultra-fast fashion’s historically low price points and disposable culture as the norm, with many young people considering garments worn out after only a few washes. This overproduction and quick disposal has exacerbated fashion’s waste crisis.”8

H&M Store, Times Square in New York City, photo taken at night with store and billboards bright and lit up.
H&M Store, Times Square in New York City. Photo by Will Buckner on Flickr, Creative Commons license (CC BY 2.0).

Wasteful Overproduction

Companies produce more clothing than can be consumed. Some companies trash or burn the excess. “An estimated 2.2 billion pounds of overstock and unsold clothing are landfilled or incinerated around the world every year, according to a 2018 report by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation…Two billion pounds of clothes is the equivalent in weight of 5 billion T-shirts, enough leftover stock to dress the adult population of the planet. In 2018, H&M announced that the brand was stuck with 4.3 billion dollars worth of unsold goods.” It’s not just fast fashion companies, either. The same year, the luxury brand Burberry was caught destroying excess clothing and accessories worth around $24 million.9 

A woman reaching for a handbag. sourrounded by racks of clothing in a clothing or department store. The clothes appear to be organized by color.
Photo by Alexander Kovacs on Unsplash.

Environmental Costs

The world produces around 100 billion articles of clothing annually, and “92 million tonnes end up in landfills.”10 Fast fashion causes extensive damage to the planet, exploits workers, and harms animals.11 The fashion industry produces 10% of all carbon emissions and it is the second-largest consumer of water.12 

Clothing production requires tons of water. For example, it takes 2,000 gallons of water to produce a single pair of jeans. Worse, “the fashion industry is responsible for 20% of all industrial water pollution worldwide.”13 Textile dyeing is the world’s second-largest polluter of water as the wastewater from it is often dumped into bodies of water. “If fashion production maintains its current pace, the demand for water will surpass the world’s supply by 40 percent by 2030.”14

“The way we manufacture new clothes is truly unsustainable, commanding a staggering level of resources, especially water, chemicals, and fossil fuels, that can’t continue. Each year, clothing production requires 24 trillion gallons of water, enough to fill 37 million Olympic-sized pools. And the fashion industry spews more globe-warming carbon dioxide annually than all international flights and maritime shipping combined.” -Elizabeth L. Cline15

Stacks of blue denim jeans on a table in a clothing store.
Image by Linda Lioe from Pixabay.

Poor Labor Standards and Pitiful Wages

“Only 2 percent of the 40 million garment workers around the world earn a living wage – it effectively amounts to modern-day slavery.”16

Across the world, workers experience unsafe working conditions and low wages that are far below the minimum wage. Companies require garment workers to work long hours through forced overtime, often apply impossible quotas to their daily production, and sometimes even inflict abuse. They also expose workers to many chemicals and pollutants, which jeopardize their health. Unionization attempts and campaigns for improvements in safety, conditions, wages, sick pay, and job security are often barred by the threat of job losses and sometimes violence.17

The garment, textile, and footwear workers around the world deserve better. “Fashion is a powerful industry, one that can and should lift people out of poverty rather than trap them in it. It is a multitrillion-dollar business, with plenty of wealth to go around. And yet, according to Oxfam, the top fashion CEOs earn in four days what the average garment worker will make in a lifetime.” Increasing wages would require only a 1 to 4 percent increase in retail prices.18

“The difference in what it would cost for people to not to have to make these kinds of choices between paying rent and putting food on the table is less than a dollar per garment. Why in the world would any company choose every day to prioritize their profits and paying the lowest price possible over ending that kind of human suffering? Especially when it’s not complicated or unaffordable to fix it.” -Sarah Adler-Milstein, co-author of Sewing Hope: How One Factory Challenges the Apparel Industry’s Sweatshops19

Photo of the Eastex Garment Co. Ltd factory in Cambodia, one of garment factories that supplies Swedish company H&M. Shows women sitting at sewing machines in a large factory room with a conveyor belt running through the center.
Photo of the Eastex Garment Co. Ltd factory in Cambodia, one of garment factories that supplies H&M. Photo by U.S. Embassy Phnom Penh on Flickr, Creative Commons license (CC BY-ND 2.0).

World Exports

World map showing clothing exports with monetary amounts.
Map courtesy of HowMuch.net, a financial literacy website.

Each of the following countries exports billions of dollars of garment products annually:

China:

China is the largest clothing manufacturing country in the world, employing over 15 million people, mostly women. Companies in this country pay the highest wages but that still does not equate to a living wage for all.20

List of companies that source their clothing from China.
List of companies that source their clothing from China. Screenshot from the Business & Human Rights Resource Centre.

Bangladesh:

Bangladesh is the second-largest garment manufacturing country, but they are among the lowest-paid in the world. This is where the 2013 Rana Plaza factory collapse happened, which killed 1,134 and injured another 2,500 people. While “the disaster brought international attention to the alarming labor conditions in overseas garment factories,” only some improvements in safety issues came from it.21 H&M and the VF Corporations (Vans, North Face, Timberland, etc.) are two of the many companies sourcing from Bangladesh.22

After Rana Plaza’s collapse, no corporations stepped forward after the tragedy to acknowledge that they were manufacturing there. H&M executives responded with this: “‘None of the textile factories located in the building produced for H&M,’ it stated. ‘It is important to remember that this disaster is an infrastructure problem in Bangladesh and not a problem specific to the textile industry.'” The statement continued that it would contribute to solutions going forward.23 But this problem is specific to the textile industry.

“In 2013, [Americans] spent $340 billion on fashion – more than twice what they forked out for new cars. Much of it was produced in Bangladesh, some of it by Rana Plaza workers in the days leading up to the collpase.” -Dana Thomas, Fashionopolis24

India:

India employs millions of people but often under conditions of forced overtime, less than half of a living wage, and even child labor.25 There have been some improvements but many workers, of which the majority are women, experience physical abuse and sexual harassment. Companies sourcing from India include American Eagle Outfitters, H&M, Levi Strauss & Co., and VF Corporation. 

Vietnam:

Vietnam has a communist government that forbids labor unions, and wages are 60 percent below a living wage. There are around 6,000 textile factories that employ about 3 million people. Nike employs 450,000 people there.26 “Many of us are familiar with the news about Nike sweatshops, but they’re just one of the many fast fashion brands violating human rights for the sake of fashion. The people who make our clothes are underpaid, underfed, and pushed to their limits because there are few other options.”27 Zara and H&M are two of the major brands that source from there.

Cambodia:

There are about 600,000 garment workers in Cambodia. Women experience a great deal of abuse, sexual harassment, and low wages, which are 50 percent below a living wage. Many companies, including H&M, Gap, Nike, and Puma, source from there.28

“Brands are interested in getting clothing as cheaply and quickly as they can. They have consciously chosen to locate production in countries that do not enforce their labor laws. A factory that scrupulously complied with the labor law, respected the right to organize, paid all required wages, didn’t force people to work overtime: That factory will not be able to meet brands’ price demands. You can’t survive as a supplier unless you operate a sweatshop, because the brands are only willing to pay sweatshop prices.” -Scott Nova, Executive Director of the Worker Rights Consortium29

Photo of garment workers sewing on sewing machines in a a large factory room in Bangladesh.
Photo of garment workers sewing on sewing machines in a a large factory room in Bangladesh. Photo by Musamir Azad on Wikimedia, Creative Commons license (CC BY-SA 3.0).

Fashion Production in the U.S.

“In the 1960s, just 5% of all clothing Americans wore was
made overseas. By the 1970s, that figure had reached 25%
and today it’s somewhere around 98%.” -Sophie Benson, Sustainable Wardrobe30

The United States produces little clothing domestically today: Less than 3 percent, which is down from 50% in 1990. “And a Made in USA garment is no longer a guarantee of ethical working conditions.” The largest part of the garment business is in Los Angeles, where there are approximately 45,000 garment workers, many of them undocumented immigrants. “A 2016 US Labor Department investigation of LA’s factories found that 85 percent of inspected factories violated labor laws. Workers are being paid as little as 4 dollars an hour sewing clothes for well-known fashion brands, including Forever 21, Fashion Nova, Ross Dress for Less, and T.J.Maxx.”31 Another investigation found that companies paid sewers as little as $2.77 an hour.32

Even sadder, US garment workers are some of the highest-paid in the world.

“The large, middle-market brands who source from these sweatshops herald that their apparel is ‘Made in the USA,’ as if such a statement automatically confers authenticity and integrity, as well as superior quality, to clothes produced offshore. It’s a corporate marketing tactic to pander to consumers’ patriotism while flagrantly breaking US labor laws.” -Dana Thomas, Fashionopolis33

Department store clothing mannequins showing clothing.
Image by Photo Mix from Pixabay.

The Role of Companies

Companies have the power to make real, humane, sustainable changes. “It’s time for more big brands to step up to the plate,” wrote Elizabeth L. Cline. “Big companies are the ones with the huge economies of scale that could bring down the price of sustainable materials and fund the research and development of eco-friendly innovations, from textile recycling and nontoxic dyes to factories powered by clean energy. They can certainly afford to pay higher wages.”34 But we consumers need to hold these companies accountable.

Fast fashion companies sometimes use greenwashing to make consumers feel better about purchasing their items. Greenwashing refers to when companies deceive consumers by claiming that their products are environmentally friendly or “have a greater positive environmental impact than they really do.”35 “Fast-fashion companies tell their customers that it’s possible to buy their products and still have a clean conscience. H&M has ramped up its use of organic cotton and sustainably sourced materials; Boohoo sells 40 or so items partially made from recycled textiles.” Aja Barber, a fashion-sustainability consultant, called this greenwashing in an interview with The Atlantic: “It’s like, ‘Oh look, these five items that we made are sustainable, but the rest of the 2,000 items on our website are not .'”36

“[A] higher price reflects things like fair wages, ethical sourcing practices and higher costs for less wasteful production runs. Knowing all that, the real question we should ask is: how is fast fashion so cheap?” -Sophie Benson, Sustainable Wardrobe37

Man wearing coat with "Sale" tags all over it, as well as shopping bags. Depicts shopping for clothing at clothing or department stores.
Photo by Sora Shimazaki from Pexels

Our Role

“Fast fashion makes us believe we need to shop more and more to stay on top of trends, creating a constant sense of need and ultimate dissatisfaction.”38

We’ve all supported it at some point, probably mistakenly. We found a great deal on a cute cardigan or funny t-shirt and bought it. Buying new clothes, especially when they’re on sale, brings pleasure to our brains. “This means of instant gratification from the fast fashion complex is a recipe for disaster for our brains, our wallets, supply chains, and the planet.”39 But we have to stop supporting fast fashion now. 

Think about the human factor. Every time we purchase from a company that does not follow ethical labor standards or pays poor wages, we are supporting the mistreatment of our fellow human beings. “We are rarely asked to pay the true cost of fashion. The pollution, carbon emissions, waste, and poverty our clothes create aren’t tallied up and included in the prices we enjoy. It does cost a bit more to do things the right way, to operate safer, well-paying factories and farms and to use longer-lasting, sustainable materials and craft more durable products. Ethical and sustainable clothing doesn’t have to be unaffordable, though,” wrote Elizabeth L. Cline.40

We can do better. Follow my upcoming series to learn more about clothing production and learn what you can do differently. Thank you for reading, please share and subscribe!

Large well lit clothing store with racks of clothing and stacks of shoes.
Photo by Alexander Kovacs on Unsplash.

Additional Resources:

Article, “10 Fast Fashion Brands We Avoid At All Costs,” by Christine Huynh, Good On You, April 30, 2021.

Website, The Magazine of the Sierra Club: Elizabeth L. Cline author page.

Blog, Elizabeth L. Cline Books.

Publication, “A New Textiles Economy: Redesigning fashion’s future,” Ellen MacArthur Foundation, November 28, 2017.

The True Cost cover artFilm, The True Cost (2015)

 

 

 

 

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