Not too long ago, fast fashion megastore Forever 21 announced plans to launch a new brand called F21 Red. Already known for low prices, these stores would offer clothing at costs that make Goodwill seem pricey — jeans for $7.80, tanks from $1.80 to $3.80. How can a retailer sell jeans for $7.80 and still make money? You don’t want to know, but it’s vital that you find out. All of those inexpensive finds might seem easy on your budget, but the world is paying a high price for fast fashion.
Remember the boycotts against the Gap and Nike back in the 90’s for using sweatshop labor? Today, business practices have gotten even shadier — and perhaps because clothes are cheaper, shoppers seem to care even less. Fast fashion stores are particularly culpable here, due to their drive for lower-than-ever prices and the frequency of their demand for new goods.
Back in the day, companies ordered clothes for each season. (This is still the way most high fashion labels work — the clothes that are on the New York runways in October showcase what will be available for spring of the following year.) Garments might take up to a year to actually be produced, and if an apparel company wanted something faster, they’d have to pay up.
Now, fast fashion chains like H&M and Zara introduce new styles as often as every two weeks. Practically as soon as photos from fashion week go up online, there’s an immediate chain reaction of fast fashion stores rushing to duplicate the trend. How do they do it? By subcontracting manufacturing overseas to the lowest bidder — generally in countries that already have some of the leanest production costs on earth. Rather than having long-term relationships with the factories, companies are comfortable with abrupt break-ups — so if they want something faster, the factories have to keep up or lose their contracts.
The push to quickly create clothing that costs buyers as little as possible leads, predictably, to factories that put production schedules and companies’ demands ahead of safety or workers’ rights. This was highlighted by the catastrophic Dhaka fire in 2012 and the 2013 Rana Plaza building collapse, which killed a combined total of over 1,200 Bangladeshi apparel workers and injured many more. The faulty wiring, lack of exits, crowded conditions, and poor construction are reminiscent of New York City’s Triangle Shirtwaist Fire. But that happened in 1911. It’s 2014.
Why is so much clothing manufacturing is going on in Bangladesh? Mainly because rising wages and inflation in China have made producing clothing there prohibitively expensive for manufacturers who seek to feed U.S. tastes for ever cheaper clothing. It won’t stop there, either — U.S. News recently reported that the Gap is looking to move some production to Myanmar (a country not exactly known for a stellar human rights record), and H&M is expanding to Ethiopia.
Politicians and pundits often the lack of U.S. manufacturing jobs that pay a living wage, allowing people who maybe don’t have a college degree to support themselves and their families. When people ask where the “good jobs” have gone, one answer is well, we can’t have decently-paid factory work and shirts that cost less than $5.
According to Northern California public radio station KQED, in the 1960’s — when roughly 95% of clothing manufacturing was made in the United States — the average American household spent over 10% of its income on clothing and shoes (like $4,000 in today’s dollars). Your average American shopper bought fewer than 25 garments per year.
Now, all of those figures have flipped. Today, less than 2% of all clothing is manufactured in the U.S. The average household spends less than 3.5% of its income on clothing and shoes (less than $1,800). The most shocking number: Now, your average American shopper is buying roughly 70 garments per year. That’s nearly 3 times as many items as 50 years ago — and yet our annual household spending comes out to less than half of the amount spent in the 60’s.
Though clothing design and marketing still generally happens in the U.S., from the 1970’s onward more and more apparel manufacturing went overseas (and in case you forgot how that went, scroll back up to item one on this list). To maintain their profit margins while feeding appetites for inexpensive clothing, manufacturers have country-hopped to wherever can provide the lowest costs. You can guess how well U.S. factories have fared. Given the higher cost of manufacturing in the states, today only about 150,000 apparel manufacturing jobs remain. Those workers make about 38 times the wage of their Bangladeshi counterparts, so yes, clothing that is legitimately American-made is not going to be that cheap.
That said, apparel manufacturing in the U.S. isn’t all decent wages and reasonable working conditions. It’s mostly neither of those things. Sweatshops absolutely exist, particularly in large cities like New York and Los Angeles, and it’s not uncommon for these to be contractors manufacturing clothing on behalf of fast fashion chains.
In particular, fast fashion behemoth Forever 21 has been the subject of several lawsuits related to conditions in Los Angeles factories that make their clothing (there’s even an Emmy-winning documentary, Made in LA, that looks at the struggles of the immigrant workers to gain basic rights). The New Yorker reports that in 2001, the company was sued on behalf of workers who worked well over full time while earning much less than minimum wage in grotesque conditions. How did the clothing chain respond? They said they couldn’t be held responsible for their contractors’ practices and filed defamation lawsuits against the groups that organized boycotts of the stores. (The dispute was eventually settled with the company agreeing to help activists but refusing to admit wrongdoing.)
But then virtually the same allegations cropped up in 2012, this time brought about following a multi-year investigation by the Department of Labor into Los Angeles sewing factories. The federal court issued a subpoena, then sued, then ordered Forever 21 to hand over records documenting workers’ hours and compensation. The workers in these factories are often unskilled recent migrants, who may be undocumented and/or unable to speak English. Their precarious status is something that unscrupulous manufacturers can exploit — and that’s how you they can be paid even less per hour than the cost of your $5.80 miniskirt.
“Buying clothing, and treating it as if it is disposable, is putting a huge added weight on the environment and is simply unsustainable,” says Elizabeth L. Cline, author of Overdressed: The Shockingly High Cost of Cheap Fashion
But it’s not just the resource strain caused by manufacturing — it’s also the issues at the other end, of people constantly getting rid of their used (or even unused) clothing. The Huffington Post reports that the average American throws out 68 pounds of textiles per year — not donates or consigns, straight-up throws in the trash. In case the sheer wastefulness isn’t galling enough, bear in mind that because most garments (especially fast fashion ones) are made with inexpensive, petroleum-based fibers that don’t easily decompose (such as polyester, nylon, and acrylic), they’re going to be taking up landfill space for decades to come. As Cline points out, people generally recycle plastic bottles or avoid buying them in the first place, but people are pretty okay with buying lots of plastic clothing.
Even if you donate used clothes to charity, at this point nearly half of all charitable donations go directly to textile recyclers. On the one hand, yes, a large portion of this is reused in different ways (recycled fibers can be used in stuff like insulation). On the other hand, though, it’s unbelievably wasteful. There’s the use of water, coal, and so on in the manufacturing process. But then there’s also the “downstream” costs, including to the charities themselves, which are forced to spend a considerable amount of money sorting through clothing they can’t use (like ripped, torn, or soiled items) and disposing of it. Fast fashion has even made the textile recycling business more difficult — the lower quality of the clothing, Cline reports, means that recycled fiber is often sold below cost (and for the record, recycled fiber is sold for less than a nickel a pound
H&M has been faced especially heavy criticism for its espousal of “disposable fashion,” and has done more than other stores to combat that image. They have released the “Conscious Collection,” billed as “sustainable style” and featuring items like a $7.95 tank top made with organic cotton. H&M also now boasts a selection of “premium quality products” (like $99 cashmere cardigans) which cost more and are ostensibly longer-lasting. They’ve also started putting recycling bins right in their stores, which will accept used clothing in any condition.
It’s a nice gesture, but at times the company’s attempts at proving its ethics are ludicrous. For example, H&M has a sponsored story titled “Fast fashion doesn’t automatically mean unsustainable” published in the UK’s Guardian (styled to look like legitimate site content, but paid for, branded, and no doubt heavily vetted by H&M). In the story, the author argues, “…everyone in the fashion industry knows that luxury brands and high street brands more than occasionally use the same suppliers. Factory workers are paid the same salary to produce luxury goods as so-called ‘fast fashion’, and under the same conditions.”
To recap then, their argument is that factory workers will be exploited no matter what, so might as well go with the cheaper pair of leggings. You can tell yourself that well, you’ll give those leggings to charity, and then someone else will wear them, but given the lower quality and cheap brand, they’re more likely to wind up in a landfill than on somebody else’s legs.
If you’re on a budget and looking for ways to save money on clothes, one way to evaluate the price of an item is to calculate the cost per wear for each item. You could complain that this is just a trick to make an expensive item seem reasonable, but it’s actually a way to force yourself to think about the effects of your purchase on your bottom line. You need to think about both how often you’ll wear the item, and how long it will likely last.
Say you’re looking for a pair of black heeled sandals. You can buy a pair from Charlotte Russe for about $30. If you wear them just to one party buy them for a special occasion and wear them just for that, that’s your cost per wear right there — $30. Wear them three times, it’s $10. If the cheap pleather cracks, if the heel breaks, if the plastic soles are too worn, that’s the end of the road for those heels. If you’re going to replace them with a new pair, that’s another $30. It would be easy to wind up spending $120 per year on four pairs of the same cheap black heels, with a cost per wear of roughly $10.
Now here’s a different scenario. We’re still looking for black heeled sandals, but say you get them from Cri de Coeur. Founded by two Parsons grads, their vegan, sustainably-produced, and totally stylish shoes retail for around $150 for a pair of heeled sandals. If you wear them the same amount as the cheap heels, they’re only costing you a little bit more per wear — $12.50. But since these are considerably higher quality and will hold up much better, you’re probably going to wear them more. Even if you only wore them 16 times in one year, your cost per wear would drop below the $10 mark. You also don’t need to make those three additional trips to the mall to replace your busted-up heels. Which scenario seems more sensible?
Ellen Ruppel Shell, author of Cheap: The High Cost of Discount Culture, argues that when we buy “cheap chic” clothes at places like Target or Mango, even though there’s not planned obsolescence — the clothing isn’t designed to fall apart (though some have alleged that it is) — we don’t expect it to last. We don’t invest much in it monetarily or emotionally, it’s just to fill the gap (something to wear to that party Friday night) and then its job is done. Part of why Americans toss so much clothing is because we no longer bother to repair a lost button, or resole a worn-out shoe. If clothing feels cheap, fast, and disposable, that’s how we treat it.
In an article on the website College Fashion, after explaining “how Forever 21 works” (i.e., mentioning that unethical labor practices help keep prices low), the author goes on to give tips for shopping at the retail chain. For example, look at the seams: “If the two sides of the seam appear to come apart relatively easily, the thread starts to come undone, or you feel that with a little bit more energy you could rip the item in half, it’s not made well and won’t hold up for long.” Why would you shop in a store where the item literally falling apart in your hands is a likely scenario?
Cline, author of Overdressed, also notes this phenomenon. She writes that “low prices and fast trends have made clothing throwaway items, allowing us to set aside such serious questions as How long will this last?
What used to be mega-events — round-the-block lines for Karl Lagerfeld for H&M, Missoni for Target crashing the big box retailer’s website — are now regular occurrences. Mass market retailers (notably Target and H&M, but also Mango, Topshop, and Zara) regularly trot out collaborations with high fashion designers, giving consumers a taste of what H&M has dubbed “massclusivity,” according to Dana Thomas, author of Deluxe: How Luxury Lost Its Luster. These limited-time capsule collections are designed to do pretty much one thing — send shoppers into a buying frenzy where they don’t even care what they get, they just know they’re getting something with the designer’s name on it.
Sure, that’s not how these brands would describe it. Thomas quotes Chanel designer Karl Lagerfeld as saying that fashion isn’t a matter of price, “It’s all about taste.” But how tasteful is waiting in line outside a mall store or constantly hitting refresh on your web browser just to grab something, anything that has a designer’s name on it? Considering that many fashionistas claim that it’s not about the label, it’s about the style, it’s more than a little surprising that these collaborations consistently create such buzz (Joseph Altuzarra coming to Target this fall is all over every fashion mag’s September issue).
Once the thrill of the initial scrum is over though, shoppers are left with items that say Missoni, or 3.1 Philip Lim, or Rodarte, or whichever designer they are. But are they really? Cline notes that actual Missoni dresses, for example, are made in Milan using natural fibers like virgin wool, viscose, and alpaca. Missoni for Target? That would be acrylic made in China. You could argue you’re paying for the design, but realistically, anyone who recognizes the designer is probably also going to recognize that you’re wearing the H&M version, not the real deal. Sure, it’s a lot less than a “real” item from one of these designers would cost… but chances are, it’s also something you wouldn’t even have considered buying if it didn’t have the designer’s name attached.
Though Americans like saving a buck — honestly, who doesn’t? — with the rise of fast fashion, we expect our clothing to cost virtually nothing. The strange thing is that even though we appreciate lower prices on all goods, we’re pretty willing to pay more for certain types of products. Some of the most desirable products — like Apple computers — are literally unavailable at a discounted price, and people still line up every time there’s a new iPhone. A computer or a smartphone is an investment and lasts a while, but think about other things in your life you’re willing to pay a bit more for. A grande latte at Starbucks costs around $4, and you drink it in a matter of minutes (or if you sip, we’ll call it an hour). If you’ll spend $4 on a bit of caffeination, is it really that important that a t-shirt cost only $3? The money you’re saving on that shirt has real consequences — it’s worth the time to reflect on what it truly costs.
Featured photo credit: Mike Mozart via flickr.com
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