Finding your personal style can be time-consuming and expensive.
Growing up, I always saw clothes as a way to express myself. I loved the way an outfit could make me feel confident and put together, no matter the price. It was this love that prompted me to watch the 2015 documentary The True Cost when I recently stumbled upon it on Netflix.
The film investigates our consumer-based culture and its effects on the Earth through pollution and waste. It looks in particular at clothing consumption and what is termed fast fashion, the business style that moves clothes quickly from producer to consumer, bringing new styles to stores almost every week.
The film also shares the stories of garment workers who produce fast fashion, contrasting that with those who work for fair trade fashion brands, which make efforts to combat some of the ethical shortcomings that result from the production of fast fashion.
Throwing Away Clothes (And Money)
Clothes have become so cheap due to mass production that consumers are throwing them away in staggering amounts. Consider the size of the market: The fast fashion industry — composed of players like Shein, H&M, and Zara — raked in $35.8 billion in 2019 alone, according to the 2020 Fast Fashion Global Market Report.
Although the industry has seen a decline due to the market effects of the pandemic, that’s still a lot of clothes, many of which are worn only a few times before they are thrown away or donated to charity.
About 11.3 million tons of textiles ended up in landfills in 2018, reports the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). That’s more than six times the amount in 1960, and almost double that in 2000. These figures reflect an increase in consumption and point to a decrease in how long people keep a garment.
Clothes are often inexpensive, so it’s easiest to get rid of them rather than attempt to reuse or repurpose them.
What’s more, only 14.7 percent of textile waste was recycled in 2018, according to the same EPA study. We are missing the mark when it comes to respecting our resources — and in the long run, our money.
“I choose thrift over retail stores because of how corrupt our market is,” says Allie Vanetti, a student at Saint Joseph’s University in Philadelphia.
“I think it’s a better way to help the economy,” Vanetti adds. “I also donate to the thrift store I frequent, so it’s a give-and-get kind of thing. I think people throw away clothes like it’s nothing. They get piled up, and it hurts the environment.”
Filling up landfills isn’t the only way the fashion industry impacts the environment. Believe it or not, the fashion industry is the second largest contributor to water pollution at about 20 percent, placing 500,000 microfibers into the ocean annually, as reported by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNep).
Add to this that the carbon emissions from fashion manufacturing are responsible for 8 to 10 percent of global carbon emissions, as the UNep also reports, and you can see the staggering level of impact our clothing has on the environment.
The pollution doesn’t end with production, either. Every time you wash a synthetic fabric, the microfibers enter water sources, which continually threatens biodiversity, according to research by Francesca De Falco, Emilia Di Pace, Mariacristina Cocca, and Maurizio Avella.
With this in mind, it is worthwhile to consider purchasing clothing made of natural fabrics if you are seeking to be eco-conscious. Though these clothes may be more expensive than synthetic fabrics, they have a lighter environmental impact.
“There are so many initiatives and ways to look at the issue of environmental sustainability,” says Julie K. Hughes, president of the U.S. Fashion Industry Association (USFIA). “As an industry association, we hear from our members often and look into the issues they raise and are dealing with — of which there is such a breadth.’
“On the environmental side, you can start with fiber,” Hughes continues. “You know what’s sustainable fiber. You have cotton initiatives, you have initiatives like Canopy, that are looking at the use of viscose [a semi-synthetic] made from tree pulp, and how is the industry guaranteeing that they’re not using the old-growth forests.”
“We at USFIA work closely with organizations at the fiber level, the product level, and the yarn level. We see what’s sustainable, who’s using recycled products for sustainability, what are the practices for dyeing, and what are the water initiatives, ” Hughes adds.
“We’ve been working on the sustainability of our business for more than 20 years, but our industry is redefining itself and evolving, and so are we,” according to an H&M Group spokesperson.
“Our vision is to lead the change toward circular and climate-positive fashion while being a fair and equal company,” the spokesperson says. “We must innovate not only materials and processes, but also business models and new ways for people to experience fashion and design.”
Fast Fashion Garment Factories
Motivated by profits, fast fashion brands outsource much of, or all their manufacturing to countries where labor costs are low, such as China, Bangladesh, and Vietnam. There is a much higher profit margin in such countries than in places where minimum wages are higher, like the United States.
A main feature in the documentary The True Cost was footage from the Bangladesh Rana Plaza garment factory building collapse in April 2013. More than 1,100 people were killed, and thousands more affected by the tragic loss of life. It was a disaster that set in motion many safety and wage regulations in Bangladesh.
In 2013, the Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh was created. The Accord conducts factory inspections, monitors and facilitates remediation progress, conducts safety training, and resolves safety complaints.
These regulations work to create a safe and fair work environment so that workers do not have to fear for their lives when they walk into the factory.
The garment factory workplace has presented real dangers to its workers in the past, so it is important that brands make safety a priority in their supply chain. The biggest challenge in creating a safe workplace is the willingness of the brand to pay a bit more for labor, raising wages and/or investing in safety through factory renovations.
The cost of investing in workers is a portion of profit margin for the company.
These high costs have the potential to drive down the number of jobs available. If jobs are scarce and garment factory jobs decrease, this might make it even more difficult for people to find work in developing nations.
Safety and wage regulations ought to be good, not bad, for garment workers.
“The impact of regulation and wage rates in large supply chains, specifically pertaining to the garment and fashion industry, is phenomenal,” says Akshat Modi, director of MI Industries, a textile mill for woven fabrics in New Delhi, India, working toward complete production transparency.
“It is largely dependent on the underlying [raw material] industry’s ability to adapt,” Modi says. “If they are able to create significant productivity improvements, the new regulation might not create a significant negative impact.”
“We’re committed to being fair and equal and respecting the fundamental human rights of all people across our value chain — in our own operations, across our supply chains, and in the communities where we operate,” according to an H&M Group spokesperson.
“This work is guided by the U.N. Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights,” the spokesperson adds. “Our work focuses on three areas that are all an essential foundation for good working conditions: health and safety, workplace dialogue, and compensation and benefits.”
The Need for Transparency in Clothing Production
Understanding whether the brands you patronize treat their workers fairly requires transparency on the part of the companies. When a brand is transparent about its business practices, it allows consumers to make informed choices about where they shop.
“Transparency is essential to a just fashion industry because it requires brands to take accountability for their entire supply chain,” says Jessica NeJame, project manager for The New Fashion Initiative, a nonprofit promoting circularity, collaboration, and accountability in fashion.
“It also allows consumers to track where exactly their clothes are coming from and under what conditions they are being made,” NeJame adds.
Staying informed when you choose where to shop is a huge part of the battle.
How Slow Fashion Brands Are Flipping the Script
Brands who might describe themselves as “slow fashion” are breaking out of the fast fashion model, rethinking how they go about production. Luxury brand Stella Carakasi has been a fashion innovator and disruptor for more than 25 years, trying to break the unnecessary waste and the environmental and social consequences that fast fashion has created.
“‘Fashion as usual’ no longer works, and it is our responsibility as designers and manufacturers to be the catalyst for change,” says Allan Boutrous, director of brand marketing for Stella Carakasi.
“Our work goes beyond designing and marketing clothing in the old way,” Boutrous adds. “We must lead with our values, teach awareness, remain authentic, incorporate innovation, and inspire others to embrace change while collectively looking for solutions to reinvent and forge ahead. We must be thought leaders and environmental activists.”
In Boutrous’ opinion, it is up to the brands themselves to lead the way at correcting injustices and creating lasting change in the fashion industry.
In a world where companies can so easily exploit their labor sources, Boutrous believes, it is up to the brands to build businesses that uplift the members of their supply chain, respect natural resources, and provide transparency to their customers.
One way to identify if a company is using “slow fashion” practices is by seeking out clothing with Fairtrade International Certification.
According to Fairworldproject.org, this ensures that at every step of production, garment workers earn a living wage and are paid more for overtime, workers’ unions and collective bargaining are supported, and hazardous materials are kept out of factories.
The Bottom Line
Thinking creatively and consciously about how and where I shop, making choices as a consumer to lighten my impact on people and the environment, and sharing what I know with others, can contribute to lasting change — and so can you.
There are not only social and environmental benefits to treading lightly in our shopping habits, but there can be financial benefits, too. Shopping less frequently and more sustainability has the potential to lower your clothing bill — and help the planet.