Those of us who make and use what we make are aware of the “true cost” (or at least truer cost) of, for instance, knitting a sock, weaving a hand towel, crocheting a blanket, carding fleece, spinning yarn and dying yarn. Recently on a hot afternoon as I sat knitting (a sock), I viewed “The True Cost” (2015) on Netflix. A documentary, The True Cost explores the true cost and impact of “fast fashion” – a term new to me. As opposed to the traditional two-season fashion releases per year, “fast fashion” is 52 seasons a year, something new every week. The result?
Autumn Newell explains: Today, overconsumption of cheap, poorly made clothing is contributing to epic waste generation. Items are often available at prices so low one can purchase a new piece of clothing for the same price as a bottled of water. These prices are so irresistible to consumers that more often than not people have more clothing than they know what to do with. Problems with quality, fit and durability are turning the habitual overconsumption of apparel into a less satisfying experience and creating a growing waste stream of textiles when consumers clean out their closets.
According to The True Cost,
- Today we purchase over 80 billion pieces of new clothing each year – 400% more than two decades ago.
- The average American throws away 82 pounds of textile waste per year. This translates to 11 million tons per year, most of which is non-biodegradable, sitting in a landfill for over 200 years while releasing harmful gases into air.
You might be thinking (as did I), “Well, at least my family donates used clothing to thrift stores.” I learned that in the U.S., only 10% of the donated clothing actually gets sold; more likely our donations are packaged up and sent to developing countries where people struggling to make a living try to repurpose and resell them.
As the price of clothing has dropped for the consumer, the way of making clothes has completely changed. As recently as 1960s, 95% of our clothing was made in U.S. and we outsourced 3% of it. Today we outsource 97% to developing countries around the world. Outsourcing: Another, serious problem with fast fashion.
Companies (and not just U.S. companies!) outsource and bargain with manufacturing plants in developing countries. In efforts to increase company margins without adversely affecting sales, the outsourcing companies demand lower prices from the manufacturing plants. The outsourcing companies at the top of the product chain choose where their products will be be made and will switch manufacturers in an ever-moving quest to boost profits. Seeking to maintain the outsourcing companies’ business, the manufacturing plants meet the demands, maintaining their own profits on the backs of workers and the environment. (The fashion industry’s profits are almost $3 trillion per year.)
It’s uncontrolled capitalism at its finest/worst: Those clothes that seem like such a bargain come at a great cost – especially to workers, for instance, 1,129 dead and 2,515 injured in the 2013 collapse of the Savar building in Dhaka, Bangladesh. (Bangledesh is now second only to China in clothing exports.) This tragedy was worse than the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in New York when 156 workers died. In fact, three of the four worst tragedies in history of fashion manufacturing happened in a single year, 2013. (Of course, the environmental impact is another discussion – also addressed in The True Cost.)
How did the 2013 tragedy affect the profits of companies known for outsourcing as they search for the biggest margin increases? Not adversely. As noted by The Guardian, “In the shops that sell cheap clothing, no one has observed any drop in the brisk sales of €2.50 t-shirts, $19.99 jeans, or £5.90 king-sized duvets. Shares in Associated British Food, Primark’s parent company, were up 6.5% in the week after the collapse of the building which housed its manufacturing contractor.”
Thor and I had an interesting discussion about whether corporations have or should have a social responsibility. In the U.S., except for minimum legally-mandated requirements, corporations are not required to be socially responsible. CEOs, in fact, are legally mandated to work in the best fiduciary interests of their shareholders – not the public and not the consumer. Thus, perhaps it should be of no surprise that U.S. corporations generally and the fashion industry specifically have grown into post-modern Lernaean Hydra; as activists attempt to force governments rein companies in on a certain area or topic, companies move into others.
Is there a better alternative?
Robert Reich (Chancellor’s Professor of Public Policy at UC Berkeley, Senior Fellow at the Blum Center for Developing Economies, and Secretary of Labor in the Clinton administration), argues: “The answer is to reform capitalism. The world’s productivity revolution is outpacing the political will of rich societies to fairly distribute its benefits. The result is widening inequality coupled with slow growth and stubbornly high unemployment.” (Click here to read his full discussion/article.)
In The True Cost, Richard Wolff, Ph.D. (economist and graduate of Harvard, Stanford and Yale), said that America is a peculiar country where we could criticize the education system to make it better, we could criticize the transportation system to make it better, but we couldn’t criticize the economic system. He stated that, “If you don’t criticize something for 50 years it rots. A healthy society subjects its component systems to criticism so it would do better.” Wolff argues that to effect real change, we have to deal with the system, not merely focus on improving worker rights. (Here’s an provocative 2014 interview with Dr. Wolff available his web page.)
If interested in learning more about the fast fashion industry and what journalists and activists are trying to change about the fast fashion industry, take a look at the work of Lucy Siegle, a British journalist and broadcaster who focuses on the environmental and social impacts of the fashion industry, and London-based Livia Firth of Eco-Age.
I asked myself what percent of my overall wardrobe is from fast fashion. Admittedly I have several pieces (mostly t-shirts) that come out the fast fashion arena. Yet I don’t replace them very often (sounds a little defensive!); most of mine are several years old. When they are no longer wearable, I need to start making rag rugs. (See what Craft Passion did with old bed sheets!)
The whole fast fashion-repurposing clothes conundrum has weighed heavily on my mind since I viewed The True Cost. Well, it must have been Providence! I opened the most recent issue of Handwoven (September/October 2015) and saw Amanda Robinette’s T-Shirt Rug!
Do you repurpose clothes and, if so, into what?