Is Your Slip Showing?
The Problem With Cheap Fashion
by Wendy Priesnitz
Image © Kraska/Shutterstock
There is a lot wrong with how many of us dress these days. And I’m not talking about
a particular fashion faux pas. The problem is that we’re buying too many cheap, disposable clothes at a
rate that is not sustainable for the planet. In order to be cheap enough for
us to overturn our wardrobes every few months (on average, Americans buy a
new piece of clothing every week), those clothes are mass manufactured in
factories in countries like China, Bangladesh, and Cambodia, under sweatshop
conditions and of low quality fabrics.
As a result, local businesses,
craftsmanship/quality, diversity of style, the environment, and people’s
health all suffer.
Some major accidents in clothing factories have been in the news recently,
such as a late 2012 fire in a Bangladesh textile factory supplying Wal-Mart and
other discount retailers, where over one hundred workers were killed, at
least partly due to the lack of emergency exits...and even more recently the
massive death toll that has arisen from another textile factory collapse
also in Bangladesh. This sort of thing happens
because the demand for cheap clothing has created fierce competition, where
contractors must accept whatever low price is given to them by manufacturers
or see the work placed in another factory. Contract prices are driven down
so low that factories are unable to pay legal wages or comply with safety
Unfortunately, sweatshop labor practices don’t just happen offshore. The
U.S. Department of Labor indicates that fifty percent of American garment
factories violate two or more basic labor laws. During a sweep of a single
building in the L.A. Fashion District, labor investigators cited ten
contractors for engaging in “sweatshop practices.” These companies supply
some of the biggest names in American fashion retailing, including Aldo,
Burlington Coat Factory, Dillard’s, Home Shopping Network, Rainbow Apparel,
TJ Maxx, Marshall’s, Urban Outfitters, and Forever 21.
In her book Overdressed: The Shockingly High Cost of Cheap Fashion,
Elizabeth Cline describes the problem as “fast fashion,” where chain stores
create new trends every few weeks by selling extremely cheap clothes in
massive quantities – including knockoffs of designer clothing. Even
secondhand stores can’t keep up with the clothing we discard anymore, Cline
Garment industry workers are also exposed to large volumes of toxic
chemicals, as are consumers and, of course, the environment. Cotton, for
instance, is the most highly sprayed crop in the world. Then the fiber and
fabric are dosed again. In a recent report, Greenpeace International
disclosed the results of its investigation into the hazardous chemicals used
in the production of twenty global fashion brands. The chemicals found
included high levels of hormone-disrupting phthalates and cancer-causing
amines from the use of certain azo dyes. In addition, the presence of many
other different types of potentially hazardous industrial chemicals was
discovered across a number of the products tested.
As a result of intense public pressure directed by Greenpeace, Zara, the
world’s largest clothing retailer, announced its commitment to eliminate all
discharge of hazardous chemicals from its supply chain and products by 2020
and to get rid of some of the worst chemicals, such as PFCs, even sooner.
Nevertheless, those low- to mid-price retailers will likely continue to try
and find ways to cut costs to feed the demand they’ve created. That is,
unless consumers change their ways en masse. There is a “slow fashion”
movement developing, which, in the style of the slow food movement,
encourages consumers to be more mindful about the products they consume and,
ultimately, to consume less altogether.
What You Can Do
Buy from local and sustainable designers.
Ask questions about the brands you like.
Think first and don’t buy on impulse.
Buy higher quality, including organic cotton and other eco-friendly fabrics.
Care for and repair what you own so it lasts longer.
Sew your own.
Upcycle or swap/trade used clothing.
Shop at secondhand shops.
Boycott cheap fashion chains.
Overdressed: The Shockingly High Cost of Cheap Fashion by Elizabeth Cline
Fashion and Sustainability: Design for Change by Kate Fletcher, Lynda Grose
(Laurence King Publishers, 2012)
Shaping Sustainable Fashion: Changing the Way We Make and Use Clothes by
Alison Gwilt, Timo Rissanen, ed (Routledge, 2011)
Toxic Threads: The Big Fashion Stitch-Up (Greenpeace International, 2012)
Thrifty, Greener Clothes by Kelly Hogaboom in
Natural Life Magazine, March/April 2011
Refashioning by Robyn Coburn
in Natural Life Magazine, July/August 2010
Wendy Priesnitz is Natural Life Magazine’s editor. She has been a journalist
for over 40 years and is the author of 13 books.