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Fashion Talks: Is $20 for an Outfit Really Cheaper?

May 1, 2010  
Filed under Coffee Table

By Rod McLaughlin —

The long-term impacts of fast fashion.

We all know about fast fashion, that democratization process whereby designer clothing worn on the red carpet or the runway just two weeks ago is on the shelves of H&M, ZARA and Forever 21 today. By democratization, I mean people can wear the latest $1,000 trends for only $20. Fast fashion has been growing for years but in this economic recession, the ability to buy a whole outfit with all of the accessories for under $100 seems to resonate with even more shoppers. This trend also allows the wearer to discard items after only a few uses to make room for more, newer items.

This is not to say that making fashionable clothing accessible to the masses is a bad thing but there are some significant costs to this growing throwaway clothing culture. These costs range from pollution in manufacturing and transportation to the destruction of small businesses in developing countries and facilitating the spread of disease in Africa. Now that I have your attention, let’s examine what it really costs to have such cheap fashion.

The main problem with fast fashion is the volume of consumption it promotes. When people are able to buy the latest trends at rock bottom prices, trends that seem to change weekly, it promotes a culture of buy and dispose.

There was a time when people actually purchased garments with style, quality and durability in mind. Fast fashion is just the opposite. Trends replace style, affordability replaces quality and a one-season shelf life replaces durability. Fast fashion promotes a system where shopping for clothing has almost become recreation where people make purchases not out of need, but as part of a day out at the mall.

This is no accident, it’s by design. These retailers design their clothing for obsolescence and keep turning over inventory in order to increase store visits and promote shopping. Spanish clothing retailer ZARA says its customers visit their stores an average of 17 times a year (www.hbr.com). Their clothing is designed to be worn a mere 10 times, necessitating frequent replacement of their items.

Environmental Impacts

The environmental impact of the garment industry varies from nation to nation but most clothing manufacturing has significant impacts. Many synthetic fabrics are made from petroleum byproducts, which represent a whole litany of processes to create the fabrics we wear.

While not as bad as synthetic materials, natural materials like cotton also have their share of environmental impacts. According to the Organic Consumers Association, cotton is the most toxic crop in the world. Cotton uses 25% of all pesticides in the world and 12% of all insecticides yet it is only farmed on 3% of the world’s farmland.

The origin of these fabrics is just the beginning of the story. The manufacturing process requires the use of chemicals for treating and processing as well as dyes for coloring. Then there is the fuel required for transporting by ship, train and truck to get the garment to your local retailer. More consumption results in more of each of these environmentally damaging steps.

Increased Disposal

Another side of the fast fashion trend that is not often considered is the disposal of all of these garments. More purchases inevitably result in more garments being thrown away. The majority of all of these fast fashion items end up in landfills, prompting many to call this trend Landfill Fashion. The EPA Office of Solid Waste states that Americans throw away more than 68 pounds of clothing and textiles per person per year.

The obvious alternative to throwing clothing in the trash is to donate it. Donating clothing lets items live on in the possession of those who are in greater need or are sold at dramatic discounts in thrift stores. In industrialized nations like the US and those in Western Europe, this is not so successful. While quality clothing can live on, cheaply made clothing that shrinks and fades after a few uses is not so desirable. It is also hard for these items to garner thrift store prices when new items are so cheap.

Shipping the disposed garments overseas to developing countries is another solution. There is no arguing that the billions of people in developing countries could use these items. Clothing from the US and Europe is also very popular in poor countries. In many African nations, these second hand items are the most popular garments sold in the local markets. By comparison, they are well made and last for years. Often clothing items are even passed on to the next generation.

Despite the obvious benefits donated clothing promotes, there are still challenges. Tons of free clothing being dumped into African markets has all but destroyed many small local textile businesses. How can someone trying to make a living in the African garment industry compete with free?

Many of the items that reach African shores also end up in landfills. Even though there is almost endless need in Africa, there is no distribution system for getting enough of these garments to the millions of people that need them. The result is tons of garments in African landfills too.

Fast fashion garments clogging African landfills present specific problems. Most trash in developing nations is not managed well or buried. Rather, it is just gathered in massive, unsorted piles. Most garbage biodegrades over time but most fast fashion is made of synthetic fabrics which do not biodegrade in the same way cotton or wool garments would. These synthetic garments create a barrier that keeps rainwater from soaking into the soil. The groundwater table is not replenished and the standing water in the landfill creates a nice breeding ground for disease spreading mosquitoes.

Simply Too Much

The root problem with fast fashion is simply sheer volume. We want to stay up-to-the-minute with trends, so we demand a constant refreshing of our wardrobes. This requires more manufacturing related pollution, more transport related pollution, more synthetic clothing in landfills, more harm to local textile businesses in Africa, more filling of African landfills with synthetic clothing, more water runoff, more diseases like malaria, and more negative impact on the water table.

So what’s the answer? Collaj Readers are a smart group and we’re not here to tell you what to do. It’s for you to decide since we’re just the messengers. The fast fashion industry can’t just fold up and go away.

The consumer is in control, and that means you. Stores only produce what we tell them to through our shopping behavior. We speak with our wallets. We all have a right to do and buy what we want, but the next time you’re thinking about buying that $9 top or that $15 skirt, consider the real cost.

Comments

4 Responses to “Fashion Talks: Is $20 for an Outfit Really Cheaper?”
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