The Real Global Price of What You Wear, Part 6

Many embroidery floss skeins in rainbow order, making a blank heart shape in the center.
Photo by Karly Santiago on Unsplash.

If you’ve been reading articles from my series about the clothing industry, then you probably want to know more about what you can do about fashion waste. The short answer is that first, you can take good care of the clothes you have by laundering them well and repairing them. Second, stop buying too much clothing – even when it’s a great deal! Try to buy only the pieces you really love and that fit well. Don’t just buy something because you found it on the clearance rack.

Globally, we have to stop the overproduction of clothing and fast fashion.

As Elizabeth L. Cline noted, in America, we spend more money on restaurants than we do on clothes. We don’t see any reason to spend more on fashion because of the availability of cheap clothes. “As any economist will tell you, cheaper prices stimulate consumption. And the current low rate of fashion has spurred a shopping free-for-all, where we are buying and hoarding roughly 20 billion garments per year as a nation…If we could only give up our clothing deals and steals, we might just see that there are far more fortifying, not to mention more flattering, ways of getting dressed.”1

“The most sustainable clothes are the ones already in your closet.” -Katrina Rodabaugh, Make Thrift Mend2

Close-up of a white front-load washing machine, with a hand turning the dial.
Photo by rawpixel.com form PxHere.

Wash Your Clothes Less

Washing our clothes less makes them last much longer. It also reduces the number of microfibers, that is, microscopic pieces of plastic from synthetic clothing, that enter our water systems. You can wear some articles several times before you launder them unless you sweat or spill something on them. You can freshen your clothes without washing them, by hanging them in the bathroom during a shower or hanging them outside. Read “Make Your Clothes Last Longer with Good Laundry Habits” for laundry tips.

“Americans in particular overwash their clothing and rely on machine washing instead of steaming or airing out their clothes, which shortens the life span of what we wear.” -Elizabeth L. Cline, The Concious Closet3 

Tan cardigan with white and yellow flower embroidery near shoulder.
Photo by Alex Baber on Unsplash.

Mending

“When you take the time and effort to repair or improve a garment, you will value it and, more importantly, enjoy wearing it.” -Zoe Edwards, Mend It, Wear It, Love It!4

Mending can extend the life of your clothing and keep them out of the landfill. Learning basic sewing and embroidery is worth the effort because you can save money and protect the environment.

In her book, The Conscious Closet, Elizabeth L. Cline offered an entire chapter on how to perform basic repairs and instructions on several types of stitches without sewing skills or a sewing machine. A few common repairs include missing buttons, seam splits, loose stitching, applying patches, and darning socks. You can find tutorials for all of these in her book. Often you can find tutorials online for free, as well.

Cline also recommended using a fabric shaver to remove pills,5 which are the little bobbles of loose fibers that build up on your clothes. Sophie Benson, author of Sustainable Wardrobe, wrote that you can also reuse an old razor to remove pills. Just avoid pulling them off with your fingers because that can cause damage to the fabric.6

BEAUTURAL Fabric Shaver and Lint Remover, gray, showing the device and two blade attachments.
This is the fabric shaver I use and I’ve been happy with the results. This is not a paid promotion or affiliate product.

Tip: You can even find sewing materials and notions – and even sewing machines – at thrift stores and second-hand shops. You don’t necessarily have to pay retail for those things.

“Wear visibly mended clothes proudly. Visible mending is a great conversation starter, and a visibly mended garment is the perfect uniform for the reluctant activist because it does the heavy lifting for you. Whenever you wear something visibly mended and chat with someone about it, you’re raising awareness that mending is possible, it can be creative and colourful, and caring for our clothes is an important thing to do.” -Erin Lewis-Fitzgerald, Modern Mending7 

Tiny flower embroidery on denim, many colors, needle with light blue thread at center.
Photo by Barbara Krysztofiak on Unsplash.

“In repairing our clothes, we send a message. With each stitch we declare, ‘I value the people who made this, I value the natural resources that went into making it and I value the version of myself that chose it.’ ” -Sophie Benson, Sustainable Wardrobe8

Hire A Tailor

If you don’t want to learn basic sewing or don’t have the time, you can take your items to a tailor. This costs more but still extends the life of the clothing you already own. Sophie Benson wrote, “Both alterations and repairs should very much be seen as part and parcel of the maintenance of our clothes. Any action that keeps your clothes in wearable condition is classed as maintenance, and this includes things like lowering hems, taking in or letting out waistbands, altering silhouettes and replacing linings. You might be surprised what a tailor can do.”9

“Through mending we slow down consumption, extend the life of our garments, and increase resilience and technical skill…As we mend our textiles we work on an individual scale to mend overconsumption, fast fashion, and the unethical treatment of people and the planet.” -Katrina Rodabaugh, Make Thrift Mend10

Reuse Old Clothes

You can reuse clothes for repair projects and even refashion them. You can also just find a way to reuse them around the house. “This is the way humans ‘recycled’ worn clothes for ages. Scrap denim is ideal for mending and patching…Cotton t-shirts make great cleaning cloths and rags. And worn or stained items and scuffed-up shoes are great to wear for yard work or other outdoor activities.”11 

You can cut off the sleeves of a long-sleeved shirt and make a tank top, or make jeans into shorts. This is especially true for children’s clothing! Other clothes can be repurposed into bags, dog toys, or pillows. Use your imagination! The internet abounds with inspirational ideas!

“Slow fashion is…saving up to buy fewer pieces of higher quality and keeping them for longer (or forever!); it’s shopping secondhand; it’s repairing instead of throwing away; it’s brands making to order to reduce waste; it’s local or small batch production; it’s personal style not trends; it’s releases once or twice per year instead of every week. It’s our way out of this mess.” -Sophie Benson, Sustainable Wardrobe12

Wear Clothes Longer

This is the goal: To wear your existing clothing longer.

If you take good care of your clothes through good laundering and simple mending, your clothes will last a lot longer. This will save you money and time, and it is better for the environment. “According to Greenpeace, wearing your clothes for at least two years will reduce greenhouse gas emissions by more than 24 percent.”13 We can all make a big impact when it comes to clothing.

“Mending, repairing, and caring for our clothes is the essence of sustainable fashion.” -Elizabeth L. Cline, The Conscious Closet14 

I hope this helps! Feel free to leave me a comment about your ideas for caring for or repairing clothing. Thank you for reading, please share and subscribe!

 

Additional Resources:

Website of Erin Lewis-Fitzgerald, author of Modern Mending.

Reuse shop, FabScrap, “FABSCRAP diverts thousands of pounds of commercial textile waste from landfills every week. These pre-consumer materials are often in perfect condition.”

Responsibly sourced wool and knitting materials, Peace Fleece store.

Good on You website, evaluates the ethics and sustainability of fashion brands around the world.

See books on Mending in the footnotes or on my Books Page under “The Textile & Clothing Industry.”

Footnotes:

The Real Global Price of What You Wear, Part 3

Updated September 12, 2023.

Cotton flowers in field with blue sky background.
Photo by Trisha Downing on Unsplash.

Are synthetic or natural fabrics better for the environment? Natural fabrics fare better, but the overproduction of both types of fabrics is the problem. The way we carelessly disregard and dispose of our clothing is a  problem too, as was emphasized in Part 2 of this article series. Elizabeth L. Cline, an expert on fast fashion and sustainability in the apparel industry, says that asking which fabric is greenest is actually the wrong question. “We need to improve the sustainability of all the materials we wear.”1

Though we all need to reduce everything we consume, understanding the differences between synthetics and natural fabrics will benefit us as consumers. If we know where something came from, how it was sourced, and how it was created and turned into fashion, we can make better choices and value our clothing more.

Natural fabrics refer to those made from natural fibers sourced from plants or animals. Let’s start by taking a look at the natural fabrics that come from plant-based sources.

“We need to improve the sustainability of all the materials we wear.” -Elizabeth L. Cline

Clothing rack with many attractive colors, small chalkboard sign indicates they are on sale.
Photo by Megan Lee on Unsplash.

Cotton

Cotton is grown all over the world, and its production provides income for more than 250 million people. There are about 35 million hectares of cotton under cultivation in the world. But it requires a lot of water, pesticides, and fertilizers.

Water

Cotton production uses 3 percent of the entire world’s agricultural water supply.2 Some experts argue that cotton is the largest water user of all agricultural production combined.3

“As much as 2,168 gallons of water is required to grow the cotton in a single T-shirt…While water is plentiful in some cotton-growing areas, almost 60 percent of all cotton is grown in regions affected by water scarcity…And while cotton could be a major source of poverty alleviation in rural and poor areas, in many places it is exploitive instead.”4

In some areas, surface and ground waters are diverted to irrigate cotton fields. This leads to freshwater depletion for entire regions, including Pakistan’s Indus River Delta and Central Asia’s Aral Sea. About 97% of the water from the Indus River goes to crop production, including cotton.5 Worse, the Indus River, upon which millions of people rely, is badly polluted with chemicals and plastic.

The depletion of the Aral Sea is one major loss. A Soviet Union project that began in the 1960s diverted the feeding rivers away from the Aral Sea in an attempt to grow cotton and other crops in Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan. This has almost drained the Aral Sea, once the fourth-largest lake in the world. That has caused the soil to become drier and saltier, and the dry soil creates dust storms. That dust is full of leftover pesticides and fertilizers, and people in those areas have significant reproductive issues, including miscarriages and malformations at birth. In addition, “Livelihoods, wildlife habitats, and fish populations have been decimated.”6

Aerial view: The Aral Sea in 1989 (left) vs. 2014 (right).
The Aral Sea in 1989 (left) vs. 2014 (right). Image by NASA and collage by Producercunningham on Wikimedia.

Chemicals

“Conventionally grown cotton requires the heavy use of synthetic fertilizers.”7

Cotton production requires about 220,000 tons of pesticides and 8.8 million tons of fertilizer yearly. “One-fifth of insecticides – and more than 10 percent of all pesticides – are devoted to the protection of conventional cotton.”8 Those pesticides are highly toxic to human workers and animals, and they pollute the environment. Industrial and agricultural chemical poisoning are among the top five leading causes of death worldwide.9 The World Health Organization classified 8 out of 10 of the US’s cotton pesticides as ‘hazardous.’10

Fertilizers that end up in waterways create nutrient pollution, meaning those excess nutrients (nitrogen and phosphorous) allow toxic algal blooms. Those deplete entire zones of oxygen, creating dead zones, which harm aquatic species and disrupt entire ecosystems. Fertilizers also contribute to greenhouse gases.11

Approximately 16% of all pesticides are used on cotton.12 Additionally, genetically modified crops, including cotton, have made crops toxic to common pests. This has reduced the use of pesticides but has not eliminated the need for them. “A large number of farmers have adopted genetically modified cotton seeds that include a gene protecting it from the herbicide glyphosate (the active ingredient in Monsanto’s Roundup). That way, the fields can be sprayed with the herbicide when the plant is young, easily eliminating competition from weeds.”13 However, this has made farmers dependent on those specific seeds, which are made by the same company that makes the pesticides and herbicides.

Forced Labor

Uzbekistan, once one of the largest producers of cotton, used forced labor for cotton production until 2021.14 Today, China and India are the largest producers of cotton. Parts of China use forced labor and parts of India use child labor for cotton production. According to the U.S. Department of Labor, the following countries also use child labor, forced labor, or both:15

                • Argentina
                • Azerbaijan
                • Benin
                • Brazil
                • Burkina Faso
                • Egypt
                • Kazakhstan
                • Kyrgyz Republic
                • Mali
                • Pakistan
                • Tajikistan
                • Turkey
                • Turkmenistan
                • Zambia

Soil Degradation

Cotton production severely degrades soil quality,16 because of the overuse of nitrogen-based mineral fertilizers. Cotton also causes soil erosion because of the large amounts of water it requires to grow.

Organic Cotton & Other Options

We can produce cotton organically, that is without pesticides and fertilizers, and therefore more sustainably. There are two leading organic certifications: Global Organic Textile Exchange (GOTS) and Organic Cotton Standard (OCS). Organic cotton only comprises around 0.33% of all cotton grown. Those chemicals never end up in runoff or the environment. However, organic cotton still requires large amounts of water. And, unfortunately, organic often means more expensive.

Initiatives such as “Better Cotton and Fairtrade Cotton focus on better land use, water practices, and labor standards but don’t have any proven environmental benefits.”17 Better Cotton is difficult to enforce and farmers who adopt it are not subsidized. Also, it allows for genetically modified organisms (GMO) seeds.18 So this is not the best initiative out there.

Cotton Made in Africa has more than 30 brand members, which supports small growers and environmentally friendly growing practices in sub-Saharan Africa.19

Recycled or reclaimed cotton sounds promising as well, but it does have drawbacks. According to cottonworks.com, “the majority of recycled cotton is claimed through mechanical recycling. First, fabrics and materials are sorted by color. After sorting, the fabrics are run through a machine that shreds the fabric into yarn and further into raw fiber. This process is harsh and puts a great deal of strain on the fiber. It is not uncommon for fibers to break and entangle during shredding. The raw fiber is then spun back into yarns for reuse in other products. The quality of recycled fiber will never have quality values equal to the original fiber. Specifically, fiber length and length uniformity will be impacted, which will limit the end-use application.”20 

“Current cotton production methods are environmentally unsustainable.” -World Wildlife Fund21

Field of cotton with a green cotton harvester harvesting the crop, blue sky background.
Photo by Karl Wiggers on Unsplash.

Denim

Denim is mainly made from cotton. It takes between 2,000 and 2,900 gallons of water to produce a single pair of jeans, mainly because of dying and finishing treatments. “In the 1970s and 1980s, hip fashion people decided that denim shouldn’t look like denim anymore, and they came up with stone washing and acid washing.” These processes use pumice (stones) and sometimes bleach or other acidic chemicals. The water used for dying and finishing is not reused or recycled, which means it ends up in the environment.22

“To achieve a faux-worn effect, jeans are sandblasted, hand-sanded, or sprayed with chemicals by individuals who inhale the fumes each day.”23

We must also consider the cost of transport for something such as a pair of jeans. There is “a big cost in getting the cotton from (for example) Texas, where it’s grown, to Indonesia to be spun into fibers, to Bangladesh to be made into denim, and sent back to the U.S. to be sold.”24

Some programs aim to reduce water in production, such as Levi’s Water<Less campaign. Their process reduces up to 96% of the water normally used in denim finishing, which is the final stage in making a pair of jeans. Levi’s claims to have saved more than 3 billion liters of water and recycled more than 1.5 billion liters of water.25 Always look at these programs critically, but if they are legit, try buying sustainable clothing.

Last, there is a recycling program for denim. The Blue Jeans Go Green program collects cotton-based denim and recycles it back to its original fiber state and transforms it into something new. The program claims to have kept more than 4.5 million pieces of old denim out of landfills.26 Denim is also a sustainable type of home and building insulation.

Man installing recycled denim insulation in a wall.
Photo by Rebecca Landis on Flickr, Creative Commons license (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).

Bast-Plant Fibers

Bast-plant fibers include fabrics like linen, jute, hemp, and ramie. Linen is a textured fiber made from the flax plant. It is naturally hypoallergenic and is very breathable, making it a great textile for warm-weather clothes. Jute is a coarse natural plant fiber from the jute plant that is used to weave fabrics like burlap cloth. It is a popular textile to make rugs and burlap sacks. Hemp is durable, versatile, and moisture-resistant. Ramie creates strong fabrics that look similar to linen. 

These fibers are biodegradable, renewable, and sustainable. Bast fibers are collected from the outer third of the stem of a plant between the woody core and the thin outer layer. These make strong, durable, and breathable cloth.

These plants support regenerative farming, which improves the environment. “Plants used in bast fibre production are often great cover crops working in rotation with other crops, keeping the soil covered to minimize erosion and incorporating organic matter to improve soil fertility. A greater diversity of crops within a farming system not only improves soil quality, but minimizes plant diseases, further reducing the need for chemical applications.”27 They use less water, fertilizers, pesticides, and energy.

You can also buy these fabrics recycled or organic certified (see Additional Resources below). Organic means that chemical pesticides and fertilizers weren’t used in the production of the plant or fabric.28

Close-up of a Linen beige button down shirt.
Photo by Taisiia Shestopal on Unsplash.

Bamboo

While bamboo is a plant, marketers often tout it as “eco-friendly,” but manufacturers make bamboo fabric by chemically pulverizing plants and trees. This makes it unnatural. Since this fabric is full of harsh chemicals, I have chosen to include it in the synthetics part of this series (Part 5).

Read the Labels

Now that you know more about natural fabrics, you may find that reading labels will at least give you the basic information you’re looking for. Is the item you want to purchase made with 100% organic cotton, or a cotton blend? If it’s the latter, what does the blend consist of? Also, where was the item made? Was it made in a country with decent labor laws?

If there’s a fabric you’re not familiar with listed on the tag, look it up. Most people carry a smartphone with them, which offers the opportunity to look it up before making a purchase.

Overproduction

While plant-based fabrics come from the Earth, they are not always the best option because of the pesticides, fertilizers, and chemicals that most producers use to grow them. But they are still better than plastic-based synthetic fabrics derived from fossil fuels.

Remember, the overproduction of all fabrics is the problem. Buy fewer but higher-quality articles when you can. Take good care of the clothing you do have, mend your clothing if you are able, and buy second-hand when you need to replace something.

In my next article, I’ll review types of animal-based fabrics. Thank you for reading. Please share and subscribe!

 

Additional Resources:

Website, Better Cotton. Their mission is “to help cotton communities survive and thrive, while protecting and restoring the environment.”

Website, Global Textile Standard (GOTS). “GOTS is the worldwide leading textile processing standard for organic fibres, including ecological and social criteria, backed up by independent certification of the entire textile supply chain. GOTS-certified final products may include fibre products, yarns, fabrics, clothes, home textiles, mattresses, personal hygiene products, as well as food contact textiles and more.” According to Elizabeth L. Cline, “GOTS is the most rigorous organic standard, as it covers not just the cultivation of the raw materials but the processing of the textiles as well.”29

Website, Organic Content Standard (OCS). They are “a voluntary global standard that sets the criteria for third-party certification of organic materials and chain of custody.”

Website, Oeko-Tex, “certifies that every component of the product, from the fabric to the thread and accessories, has been rigorously tested against a list of up to 350 toxic chemicals.”

Footnotes:

Tennessee River Clean-Up!

Nickajack Lake on the Tennessee River, water in foreground and hills at center. Bridge at left. Cloudless blue sky at top.
Nickajack Lake on the Tennessee River on the day of the clean-up. Photo by Marie Cullis.

Last year, I read the book, From the Bottom Up: One Man’s Crusade to Clean America’s Rivers by Chad Pregracke. It was about Living Lands & Waters, the organization established by the author to clean up trash along rivers. His story was super inspiring, especially because I love to clean up trash (and would even do it for a living if I could make that work). This organization, based out of Illinois along the Mississippi River, performs large-scale river clean-ups. Since 1998, they have worked on 25 rivers in 21 states, and have conducted more than 1,100 community clean-ups.

“[Living Lands & Waters] hosts dozens of community river cleanups each year to help watershed conservation efforts with the assistance of thousands of volunteers of all ages who are willing to roll up their sleeves and get dirty – individuals, schools, community organizations, businesses and more!”1

So when I discovered that I could get involved with local clean-ups along the Tennessee River, I was more than excited! I was too late to sign up last fall, but this month, I signed up when an opportunity came up near my area.

This one was hosted by Keep the Tennessee River Beautiful and AFTCO (American Fishing Tackle Company) in partnership with Living Lands & Waters. Keep the Tennessee River Beautiful is a nonprofit that serves as the first Keep America Beautiful affiliate in the nation to focus solely on a river. Their mission is to educate and inspire people to take care of the Tennessee River and show the impact of trash. Their volunteer cleanups are held along the 652-mile Tennessee River and its tributaries, an area spanning seven states!2 

The Experience

I took my family with me. My son enjoyed riding in the boats and meeting people. He really fed off of the energy of the crew, who took time out to make him feel included. I’m proud that he understood why we were there and that he gets why it’s important at such a young age.

My son talking to a crewmember with a dog on a grassy area.
My son making friends with a crewmember of Living Lands & Waters. She had a dog, and he loves dogs, so it was an easy conversation starter. Photo by Marie Cullis.
My son cleaning up trash along a river bank, holding a yellow bag, boat at right center background, clear blue sky.
He wasn’t afraid to get into the water and clean up trash along the river banks. Photo by Marie Cullis.
My son found a barge line along the shore, tangled in logs. He is trying to pull it out here.
My son found a barge line along the shore, tangled in logs. Photo courtesy of Kathleen Gibi of Keep the Tennessee River Beautiful.

It was a gorgeous day on Nickajack Lake! We picked up so much trash – hundreds of plastic bottles, Styrofoam pieces, tires, broken fishing tackle and line, plastic lighters, plastic bags, food wrappers, glass bottles, and many other pieces of broken plastic items. Even a section of a plastic dock and an entire plastic truck bed liner.

One of the participating kids, Cash Daniels, also known as the Conservation Kid (@theconservationkid), was there with his family. Cash is an avid environmentalist and ocean lover. He has organized many river clean-ups and is also a published author and public speaker. I had read about him before and it was cool to meet him and his family.

The volunteers all worked hard, and the crewmembers were like superheroes!

Their leadership and positivity are what struck me most. Both the executive director of Keep the Tennessee River Beautiful and the crewmembers of Living Lands & Waters were super positive, highly enthusiastic, hard-working, and obviously happy to be doing this!

Flat bottomed boat on the water with one person and heaps of trash.
Dan Breidenstein from Living Lands & Waters with trash loaded onto his boat. Photo by Marie Cullis.
Two women removing a large tire from the water, a shoreline with logs. A dog crosses a log. Two boats in the background with a man loading trash onto one of them.
Kathleen Gibi of Keep the Tennessee River Beautiful with Callie Schaser from Living Lands & Waters, removing a large tire from the water. Photo by Marie Cullis.
People loading trash into a floating boat, background shows lake, land, and bright blue sky.
Loading one of the boats. The black piece in the foreground is the truck bed liner. Photo by Marie Cullis.

By the end of the afternoon, we had loaded two full flat-bottomed boats with trash and debris from just a few shorelines.

Flat bottomed boat on a trailer filled with trash, ties, and other debris.
Full boat of trash. Photo courtesy of Kathleen Gibi of Keep the Tennessee River Beautiful.
Flat bottomed boat on a trailer filled with trash, ties, and other debris. Person with his arm up in the back of the boat.
Second full boat of trash. Photo courtesy of Kathleen Gibi of Keep the Tennessee River Beautiful.

In the end, it was an awesome experience. I recommend that if you’re able and interested, you join a local clean-up in your area. We can all make a difference!

“That’s how the change for our river will happen: through local partners and individuals who are eager about taking ownership to protect and improve their beautiful river community.” -Kathleen Gibi, Executive Director of Keep the Tennessee River Beautiful3

Group of people with a boat load of trash behind them, water in background.
Our group photo! Photo courtesy of Kathleen Gibi of Keep the Tennessee River Beautiful.
Group of people with a boat load of trash behind them, water in background.
Photo of the second group, courtesy of Kathleen Gibi of Keep the Tennessee River Beautiful.

Remember, the most important thing you can do right now is to stop using disposable items. Especially those made from plastic. Even when you think you are properly disposing or recycling something, so much of it inevitably makes its way into our landscapes. We have to turn off the tap when it comes to disposable items.

I hope to meet you on a future clean-up! Thank you for reading, please share and subscribe!

 

Footnotes:

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)

 

 

 

 

Footnotes: