When she was younger, Katherine Nation recalls going on shopping binges at Forever 21 and H&M to spend all the cash she’d received on Christmas or her birthday. Now an eighteen-year-old student, Nation considers herself a conscious shopper, who repairs and sews her own clothes and repurposes remnants of clothing. It was a semester-long college project that made her aware of how massive amounts of cheap clothing are impacting people and the environment.
“I was a little bit conscious before, but not enough so as to really act on it.” she says. “The gravity of the situation hadn’t hit me ‘til this project.”
Nation, in her research, learned about the rise of “fast fashion”—the production of cheap, ubiquitous, and ever-changing clothing. Rapidly copying and discarding new fashion trends, fast fashion creates the appeal of cutting-edge chic for as little as $5 a garment, made possible through cheap, exploitative labor. Some of this clothing is meant to be used only once or twice.
From 2000 to 2014, the number of clothing items purchased globally zoomed an astonishing 60 percent, according to The Elephant in the Boardroom, a working paper on consumption patterns from the World Resources Institute. A garment is worn only half as long as it was twenty years ago, according to the report, and global clothing sales are on track to rise from $1 trillion in 2002 to 2.1 trillion by 2025.
The impacts of overstuffed closets on our water, health, and resources are hellish. One cotton T-shirt requires 2,700 liters of water to produce, enough for one person to drink for two-and-a-half years. Cotton farming is responsible for 24 percent of insecticides and 11 percent of pesticide use globally. Fabric dying alone sucks up 1.3 trillion gallons of water every year. Because a polyester shirt takes more than twice as much energy to produce, it has a disproportionate impact on climate change.
And the impact is felt most by people living in places with fewer labor and environmental protections. Garment workers, primarily women, in Bangladesh make about $96 per month, while the government there says that a minimum of $336 per month is needed for a “decent life with basic facilities.” A 2018 U.S. Department of Labor report found evidence of forced and child labor in the apparel industry in Argentina, Bangladesh, Brazil, China, India, Indonesia, Philippines, Turkey, and Vietnam.
“There are rivers polluted with toxic chemicals [from garment manufacturing],” says Nation. “Local people can’t touch it lest they get chemical burns.”
“Companies have been incentivizing short-term use of clothes by making clothes so cheap it’s more expensive to repair them,” says Lu Yen Roloff, of the Detox My Fashion program at Greenpeace.
Elizabeth Cline, author of Overdressed: The Shockingly High Cost of Cheap Fashion, explains that “traditional” clothing seasons of two to four collections a year have been replaced by a “fast fashion calendar, which entails putting out new styles even daily.”
“There are no seasons,” she says. “Fashion is just this constant churn of new styles now,” often lifted from whatever a Kardashian was seen wearing on the street.
Free trade agreements have facilitated the ability to manufacture and ship clothing for a very low price, fueling the ascension of fast fashion companies such as Zara.
Also, according to Cline, “there’s been a cultural shift over the last ten to fifteen years. A decade ago, most consumers thought it was pretty crazy to go and buy new clothes more than once a month,” she remembers. Now cheap prices and endless styles make buying clothing almost like buying groceries. Companies no longer need to advertise incessantly; consumers just know the clothes are there, and share through word of mouth and social media, she says.
Indeed, for many people purchasing clothes has become an addiction, a way to fill the emptiness within. On such sites as Fashion Nova, Misguided, and Boohoo, says Cline, clothing sells for as little as $1 an item.
Julia Mooney rebelled against the demand for ever-new outfits. An eighth-grade teacher in Moorestown, New Jersey, Mooney vowed to make a personal statement and set an example for her students by wearing the same outfit for 100 school days.
An eighth-grade teacher in Moorestown, New Jersey rebelled by wearing the same outfit for 100 consecutive school days.
Mooney has gradually realized just how pervasive and harmful the obsession with fast fashion really is. “It’s really kind of an irrational thing that we do and it creates a lot of waste, not just economically but also for the planet, and it’s not good for our emotional well being,” she says.
Consumers addicted to clothes shopping are at the end of a long supply chain where, “profits are internalized, costs are externalized and paid for by the public,” says Greenpeace’s Roloff. In a globalized economy, apparel manufacturing flows to the poorest countries, where workers and the environment are most easily exploited.
There is resistance. Sustainably conscious clothing—higher quality, made to last—and the idea of “circular clothing” that is fully recycled, is a growing trend. Patagonia repairs the clothing it manufactures, while Gwynnie Bee sponsors renting and exchanging of its garments. Other companies use recycled materials and factory remnants. Cline notes Everlane and Reformation as clothing companies with strong sustainability standards.
Greenpeace’s Detox My Fashion campaign includes eighty companies around the globe that have eliminated hazardous chemicals from their apparel production.
Deborah Drew, an author on the World Resources Institute’s report, pointed out the challenges of regulating the clothing industry, since “the supply chain of the apparel industry is so complicated and it’s over so many countries.” She calls for transparency as a first step, so that consumers know the full impact of their purchases.
Mooney, though acknowledging business pressure to consume, thinks the problem is also with ourselves. “We can blame the fashion industry, but they are responding to needs of consumers,” she says. It is up to individuals to form movements and pressure governments, as well as clothing manufacturers, to change, she says.
Along those lines, Cline compares the clothing industry to the food industry a few years ago, when increasing numbers of people, tired of fats and sugars in processed food, began a shift toward fresh, local, and organic. Now, she says, “People are looking again for more meaningful and responsible ways to consume clothing.”