Natural Life Magazine

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The Problem With Cheap Fashion
by Wendy Priesnitz

cheap chic
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 laws.

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 writes.

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.

    If you enjoyed reading this article, you might also like these:

    Organic Fabrics

    Shopping With a Conscience

    Hemp Fabrics

    Thrifty, Greener Clothes

  • Ask questions about the brands you like.

  • Buy less.

  • 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.

Learn More

Overdressed: The Shockingly High Cost of Cheap Fashion by Elizabeth Cline (Portfolio, 2012)

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.


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