The High Price of Cheap Fashion

Fall is in the air, and you know what that means – Black Friday shopping! Americans today are buying more clothes than ever, with the fashion industry reaching global sales of $1.8 billion in 2015.

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But although this ‘fast fashion’ may come for a low price on the racks of H&M and Forever 21, the environmental and social costs are monumental.

The problem starts with what these cheap clothes are made of. Polyster has recently surpassed cotton to be the most commonly used textile; this synthetic fiber is petroleum-based and is therefore carbon intensive to produce. Once polyster clothing reaches the consumer, a garment can shed up to 1900 fibers every time it is washed, polluting aquatic systems as treatment facilities are not designed to address microplastics.

Cotton, although natural, is not much better in terms of environmental costs. In addition to being a highly water intensive crop, over 80% of the cotton produced is the U.S. is genetically modified to be “Round-Up Ready”, which means extremely high quantities of this pesticide are sprayed across millions of acres of crops in the southern United States. Although a recycling process for cotton fibers exists, it is expensive and tends to produce subpar textile quality. Cotton fibers are also treated with many chemicals during the manufacturing process, many of which end up polluting drinking water sources in developing areas where clothing is produced.

cotton.jpg

Which brings us to the actual production of cheap clothes. The global apparel industry produced 150 billion garments in 2010, enough to provide 20 new articles of clothing for every person on the planet. Compared to 15 years ago, we are buying 60% more clothing and keeping it for half as long. Fashion companies have changed their marketing models from winter, summer, spring, and fall lines to introducing 52 microseasons so there’s something new and trendy on the shelves every week. This rapid growth has come hand in hand with deteriorating working conditions in factories in countries like India, Bangladesh, Cambodia, China, Indonesia and others. Pushed by the demand for more clothes faster, countries avoid enforcement of their own labor laws and worker safety policies in order to stay competitive.

Bangladesh.Rana-Plaza-anniv-demo8.4.14.sc_

Even aside from the obvious human rights violations associated with worker conditions in the fashion industry, the environmental costs to the communities in which these clothes are produced are significant. The fashion industry is considered the second most polluting industry in the world, behind only the oil industry. The energy used to run factories and to transport clothes around the world, the toxic chemicals used in the manufacturing process, the land and water intensive agriculture practices – these costs add up. Maybe we should think twice about what that $5 dollar price tag really means.

 

Sources:

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1964887/

http://www.triplepundit.com/2016/12/high-environmental-cost-fast-fashion/

http://www.esquire.com/style/news/a50655/fast-fashion-environment/

http://www.newsweek.com/2016/09/09/old-clothes-fashion-waste-crisis-494824.html

https://www.organicconsumers.org/essays/beyond-monsantos-gmo-cotton-why-consumers-need-care-what-we-wear

http://www.tortoiseandladygrey.com/2016/08/29/environmental-impacts-polyester/

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/margie-kelly/genetically-modified-food_b_2039455.html

https://qz.com/431747/us-fashion-companies-are-starting-to-look-beyond-china-for-sourcing-apparel/

I would also highly recommend the documentary The True Cost if you are interested in this topic.

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25 thoughts on “The High Price of Cheap Fashion

  1. Have you ever seen the piece by John Oliver on the fashion industry? Although he didn’t highlight the environmental issues with producing the materials like cotton and polyester, he did discuss how the fashion industry introduced micro-seasons and have been pushing down wages and health & safety concerns at foreign plants. I think there will come a point, where either the American customer or the foreign worker will reject this system of operations. American companies have “taken steps” to reduce work place accidents and fair wages, they those measures seem stop gap and short-term. Americans over the past twenty years have become accustomed to buying very cheap clothes and often. Our generation doesn’t understand the world, where you bought clothes once they were truly ruined and needed. I have a feeling that might become reality again one day.

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  2. This is a very interesting point that I don’t think most people even think about when it comes to environmentalism (I certainly have not). The fact that the clothing industry has so much negative environmental impact is really astonishing to me. Cotton in particular, I have always thought of as a very sustainable resource.

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  3. In the past, cotton proved to be a very sustainable resource. The introduction of pests that were previously unknown to the area has promoted the use of pesticides, however, and scars from over-production in ill-suited areas are still left on the soil from the production period of 1870ish to late 1920’s. In both that historic cotton case, and the current case with the clothes, a common thread that connects them to the overarching environmental problems of our time is the consumerist mindset. We’re taught (and secretly want, at times) to consume things in great and flippant quantities, and it is an ethical ailment that hinders the development of many virtues in us until addressed. For the future, a point I would like to learn more about in particular is the fact that wastewater treatment plants are ill-equiped to remove micro-plastics. Are we currently addressing that? How would that even be possible? Surely we could do it, right? Appreciate the article Kathryn!

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    1. I definitely agree – anything can become unsustainable if its consumed at crazy high quantities as is the case with the fashion industry. As for microplastics in water systems, currently no, we’re not addressing that. We’re just now really finding out how big of a problem it is. From a policy perspective, we did ban microbeads in toothpastes and face wash, but that doesn’t address polyster fibers. Larger plastic particles can be captured using fine screens and there is work to develop new density separation methods, but the cost to install these new systems in wastewater and drinking water treatment plants is going to be steep.

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  4. I have never considered the impact clothing has environmentally. It makes sense, you see stores packed with clothing that gets cycled out daily. These clothes have to be made somehow and go somewhere. I believe microbeads are banned but not microthreads.I think policy should be made in order to regulate the type of fabrics used and the waste produced from making said fabrics.

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  5. Clothing companies that are environmentally friendly are few and far between. Normally, I am hesitant to boast a company for being “green”. That can be a hollow sentiment that only carries merit until it goes off the shelf. Through this cynical view, it really is good to see and promote the companies who do truly live up to those environmental standards. I feel the “environmental factor” of clothing should be as important as what is on it or how it fit. Of course that is a much broader (incorporating waste management, production sourcing, as well as overall resource use) and undefined category that would require corporate transparency, which is all but a wishful thought. A good example of a company who practices what they preach, so to on, would be Patagonia.Patagonia operates in Fair Trade Certified factories in India, Sri Lanka, and Los Angeles. While I do understand this corporate structure relays into a more expensive product, it would be great to see these practices become lauded and the social norm.

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  6. Awesome post Kathryn! I wasn’t really aware of how much of an impact the fashion industry affected the environment. It makes sense though with the spike of consumerism since the 1900s. Is there a way that these fibers can be recycled and reused to make new clothes? I think this would drastically reduce the environmental impact that the textile industry is causing. I definitely will be more aware in the future when purchasing clothes and seeing what type of materials they’re made of.

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    1. Thanks for the comment! There are some companies that recycle textiles, but for the most part they are made into things like industrial rags rather than remade into clothing – it’s not a closed loop. Recycling is costly and it’s so cheap to produce clothing right now that it’s difficult to make it work economically.

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  7. You mentioned the pollution from plastic micro fibers into water systems. I was just wondering if there have been studies to see how much of a negative impact these micro fibers have and what the impact is. Also, i have shirts that claim to be made of “100% recycled water bottles.” I feel like there would still be some kind of downside to making clothing of this material, but i am not sure what they would be. Maybe it is not cost effective to use recycled materials?

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    1. The research is very new and emerging on microplastics – but we do know that they tend to accumulate toxic chemicals which can then be leached into fish and shellfish that humans consume. So there’s obviously a human health threat there. We do know that almost all municipal wastewater has large concentrations of microfibers that are being released into rivers, and they’re increasingly being found in drinking water samples as well. You’re definitely right that the difficulty with recycling is making it cost effective – clothing is so cheap to produce, it’s hard for recyclers to compete.

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  8. Cool pick, Katheryn! I think this is a topic that is especially difficult to face as a college student trying to keep up with the latest trends and get the most bang for your buck. Similar to the avocado article posted last week, I am conflicted as to what is the best course of action and how I can make an impact in this area. I am just curious as to what you think would be the best course of action, or solutions you have stumbled upon. A couple I have thought of:
    1) Do we refuse to buy these inexpensive clothing articles, or will that just effect the workers down the line negatively?
    2) Do we try to work out a deal with countries to only import their product if produced in a way that is safe and fair for laborers? This would be tricky because they could have all of the pieces made in places countering the agreement, but where they are all assembled is an agreed upon factory.
    Just two options I thought of. Curious to hear your opinion and what you think to be the next step in minimizing if not mitigating this problem!

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    1. Thank you for the comment! It’s definitely a complicated problem, but there are people working on solutions. There are companies that are Fair Trade certified for clothing just like for agriculture – when you purchase clothing from these companies, you are ensuring that they pay their workers a living wage and provide them with safe working conditions. These companies also tend to be much more cognizant of their environmental impacts. However, the downside for college students is that fair trade clothes tend to be significantly more expensive. You can also buy things at thrift stores, which avoids directly contributing to this system of worker exploitation and also can help reduce clothing waste.

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  9. I have always been angered by consumerist wastefulness in America. From an economic standpoint, the hegemony of global capitalism has roped all these underprivileged peoples and nations into a system that only represses them. All while we slowly kill the environment. I am very interested in the work of companies like Patagonia. Their philosophy to mend and keep high quality goods sounds reasonable to me– over the course of its lifetime, the article of clothing will pay for itself. However, I am well aware of the limitations price burdens place upon us. It is extremely difficult to moderate consumer choices because only the “market” dictates anything. Perhaps we could place an excise tax on new clothing, and support reusing/clothing swaps? This is fundamnetally a social problem, with people wanting luxury for nothing. I dont’t know a clear solution, but the problem is so incredibly frustrating.

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  10. Cool article Kathryn! I had never heard about the shedding of polyester or even thought something like that might be an issue. It seems obvious that cheaply made clothing falls apart pretty quickly but it never occurred to me that waste products besides the actual article of clothing are produced over its lifetime.
    Perhaps one way to slow the production of clothing waste it to promote the repair and alteration of clothes and more secondhand purchasing? If we all got some portion of our clothing from the thrift store then that’s a pretty big decrease in the purchase of new fast-fashion garments.

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  11. I found this article very interesting! It’s crazy that clothing can be so inexpensive while having such an intense environmental burden. I think the market needs to readjust so that price better values the energy intensity of a product or service. Do you have any suggestions for companies that produce clothing in a more natural or “organic” or environmentally friendly way? I’d love to support companies like that.

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  12. I think it is interesting to see how college students can also be huge contributors to this problem. For example, sororities and fraternities constantly purchase event tees and the university itself often distribute free shirts at school events. There are also a number of themed social events and outfit matching involved in Greek life. On the otherhand, I have seen websites that are specifically geared towards purchasing and selling used dresses for sorority events. There also seems to be an increased interest in secondhand/thrift stores, especially due to the vintage style trend that has been present this past year. A number of Youtube “thrifters” have created businesses off their channel by recording their clothing hauls from common thrift stores such as Goodwill. They purchase these items and resell them on their own websites, creating a more modern market for used clothing. While the vintage trends will not last forever, getting consumers to invest in used clothing or more sustainable clothing is definitely part of the solution.

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  13. I really love this post! Having watched “The True Cost” myself, this post just reminded me of it. It really inspires me to not get caught up in needing to be in fashion and getting sucked into a consumerist mindset. It makes me wants to buy some good quality clothes, maybe from Patagonia, to wear that will last.

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  14. This was a very interesting blog! I really never considered the impact the fashion industry and clothes in general have on the environment and being that it’s the second most polluting industry in the world it’s very concerning no one is really talking about it. I wonder if there are people looking into “green” fabric that is as easy and cheep to manufacture as polyester… I think maybe that would be the only solution. Also never really thought about the particles that come off our clothes when they are washed. This was very informative and you had a lot of great facts and figures to help us see the big picture of this problem.

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  15. I have a friend who is in the textile industry and we have talked about this subject many times.
    I do think there is a growing movement for companies to produce longer lasting fabrics or fabrics sourced from sustainable sources. However, these fabrics do come at a cost, and are not the cheap clothing discussed in this blog.

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  16. I have often contemplated how moral it is for us to purchase these clothes. Of course the US has suitable working conditions, but does it really matter if we simply just outsource our industry and purchase the clothes from countries over seas who disregard the harsh working conditions they put their employees for just for a check. I love the cheap affordable prices as much of anyone but we’re encouraging these countries to continue on forcing there employees to work through dangerous life threatening conditions for low quality T-shirts that don’t even last two years. The change has got to start with us.

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  17. Similar to what many people have commented above, I have never really taken into consideration the impacts that the clothing industry have on the environment. I am not huge into fashion or buying new clothes, but the micro-season trend is very interesting to me. I am sure it is effective but it seems to have very negative effects elsewhere. Also, with companies like Amazon getting so big and making shopping online so easy, I only see the problem getting worse.

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  18. I think this topic leads right back to the education of our society. I was not aware of all the harmful effects of different clothing fibers and how it can negatively affect our environmental. I’m not a huge fashion person, so I tend just to buy what is cheaper that suits my everyday life without ever thinking about where it might have came from or how harmful it could be to our environment. I think that we need to be more educated on topics like these that seem to slip through the cracks. They need to be brought up and more heavily regulated to ensure we are not just polluting our environment and poisoning it.

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