The True Cost of Cheap Clothing
July 7th, 2015
Last week I watched perhaps the most powerful documentary on the fashion industry I’ve ever seen. It’s an in-depth look into the production of clothing in the “Fast Fashion” industry, and the profound impacts that the relatively new concept of “disposable clothing” is having on our environment and our communities. It’s called The True Cost. I suggest watching it before buying another piece of clothing.
The film starts with some staggering statistics about the rise in consumption: 80 billion pieces of clothing are purchased worldwide each year, which is 400% more than a decade ago. Three out of four of the worst garment factory disasters in history happened in 2012 and 2013. And as the death toll increased, so did the profits. The year after the Rana Plaza disaster was the fast-fashion industry’s most profitable yet, and the world’s top four fast-fashion brands — Zara, H&M, Fast Retailing (which owns Uniqlo) and Gap — had sales in 2014 of more than $72 billion, compared with $48 billion in 2013.
On Articles of Style we talk a lot about the benefits of buying quality over quantity. Our goal is to help you invest in well-made items that fit you properly and will last you the test of time. We commonly advise our readers to avoid the trap of buying products that are cheaply made or trendy in style – for good menswear rarely needs to be replaced. Today we take a closer look at this concept, by exploring the effects that cheap clothing has on our world. The fashion industry is the second largest polluting industry, behind only the oil industry, and every link in the supply chain contains shocking levels of social injustice.
As recently as the 1950s, 95% of the clothing that Americans wore was made right here in America. Today that number is about 3%. The other 97% is outsourced to developping countries around the world. “Fast Fashion” retailers are no longer concerned with waiting for new seasons like “Spring/Summer” or “Fall /Winter” to release new product. Instead, they unveil new products in their stores weekly, if not daily. This means they have dramatically cranked up their production in the past 15 years or so, all in a ruthless attempt to move more cheap product to low-end consumers and increase annual profits for the shareholders. Fashion brands can manufacturer wherever they want, too. And switch factories at any time, for any reason. This means that desperate factories in impoverished countries are forced to compete with each other by continually lowering costs and increasing the burdens placed on the garment workers who have no say or rights in this equation.
In order to better understand how the clothes we buy impacts our world, I’m going to attempt to walk you through the lifespan of a typical “Fast Fashion” item, like a shirt from a store like H&M, as we try to calculate the true cost of disposable clothing.
The Burden on Farmers
The story begins with a poor farmer in the plains of Cambodia who produces the world’s cheapest cotton. Yesterday he was delivered his new cotton seeds, loaned to him by the bank that represents the seed company. The farmer can’t plant just any cotton seeds, since only those genetically modified to produce super-dense crops can provide the yields he needs to reach his quotas. In order to reach these yields, however, it’s going to involve a lot of chemical spraying. Using a backpack-mounted sprayer, the farmer coats each of his fields weekly with a mixture of pesticides and chemical fertilizers, all sold to him by the same company that sold him the seeds. These are the same chemicals that, as proven in court, have caused diseases such as jaundice and cancer to the farmer as well as two of his children. He doesn’t make enough money to afford the growing list of chemicals he needs to kill the resilient pests in his fields, let alone health care for him and his family. Eventually he loses every last dollar buying his children’s medications, which, astonishingly, are sold to him by the same company that sold him both the seeds and the chemicals.
With his debt and the health of his family becoming more and more overwhelming, the farmer begins to understand why 250,000 farmers in Cambodia have reportedly committed suicided – most of which by way of drinking the very chemicals that caused their health problems and debt cycle in the first place. Nevertheless, despite all of the hardships and a never-ending cycle of poverty, the farmer manages to produce his cotton quota. It wasn’t without plenty of literal blood, sweat and tears. It never is. This cheap cotton is eventually purchased at record-low prices by large textile distributors who weave it into cheap fabrics that are then sold in extreme bulk quantities to low-end super-retailers like H&M and Zara.
The Burden on Garment Workers
This super cheap cotton is then shipped to Dhaka, Bangladesh where it is received by a factory owner who employs 5,000 sewers, 85% of whom are women. These women make roughly $2 a day, for 12 hours of sewing work. There are growing cracks in the walls and every day the workers fear that the building might come crumbling down, as it did last week in a neighboring town. A thousand garment workers were killed that day, even after voicing concerns about the structural stability of the building. Every day this factory produces 180,000 shirts, and dumps 20 million litters of chemicals into the local water supply, which has been causing record levels of disease and birth defects in the local community.
The factory owner must stay on top of his workers to make sure they are sewing fast enough to meet the deadline. The most recent order is for half a million shirts at 20 cents each, but they all need to be delivered by the end of the month otherwise the brand can cancel the contract and not pay the factory anything. His investors won’t let him lose another major contract to a competing factory, but he knows that at these rates he won’t be able to pay his workers their full wage. He’s forced to give his sewers a pay cut. This month the sewers will only make $1.80/day, rather than a full $2 – which is already not enough to feed their kids and buy the medication needed to treat their diseases caused by the pollution. When the female workers attempt to unionize and demand a higher minimum wage, the owner and his male staff lock the women in the factory and beat them with their own rusty sewing equipment, including chairs, rulers, and scissors. At the cost of more blood, sweat and tears, the dirt cheap cotton farmed in Cambodia is made into dirt cheap shirts sewn in Bangladesh that are ready to be shipped and sold in America.
The Burden of Advertising
The next person in this cycle of garbage and pollution is the one who’s in charge of marketing the shirt to the almighty American consumer. The Cambodian/Bangladeshi cotton shirt arrives on the slowboat from Asia and eventually reaches the office of GQ magazine. There’s a new unpaid intern in the office working on pulling product for a story called “The Best Button-Downs Under $10”. He’s been chit chatting on the phone all morning with his contact-persons at each Fast Fashion brand who is sponsoring the October issue. Out of the three shirts that are going to be recommended in this story, one has to be H&M, another placement is sold to the GAP Brands, and the intern gets the honor and excitement of choosing the 3rd shirt (but it can’t be from any brand who purchased advertising last month and didn’t re-up for the current issue). He takes photos of the sample shirts on his smartphone and texts them to his boss with some anxiously excited emojis. They debate catchy marketing titles such as “Shirts That Cost Less Than Lunch” in order to satisfy their advertisers and shareholders by convincing their readers that buying this cheap cotton shirt is as fundamental and happiness-inducing as eating a proper meal.
The photoshoot for the advertorial story is scheduled for next week, and the expert photoshop re-touchers are already on contract. The H&M shirt will get center position in the story, because they paid the most. As it turns out, the largest expense for a fast fashion brand like H&M is not producing the low-quality garments they sell, but spending on aggressive marketing campaigns to convince consumers that buying more cheap clothing will solve their problems and have them looking like happy European super models.
The Burden on the Consumer
Kurt is a DJ and part-time promoter at a couple nightclubs in NYC. He makes $300 when he spins, which is a couple nights a week if he’s lucky. He has student loans and credit card debt, he doesn’t have health insurance, and he’s falling behind on the rent for his Chinatown apartment. But, despite his poverty level, he’s got access to a consolation prize that usually cheers him up. When he buys a brand new shirt at an unbeatable price, he feels like he got a great deal and considers himself happier in the short term. Although, the truth is, he doesn’t necessarily love the shirt he just bought and when he looks at his wardrobe he’s not really sure what his “style” is. It kind of changes with every season, which sometimes gives him anxiety and leaves him wondering what to wear or who he is, even though he’s got an expansive collection of trendy clothing. Nevertheless, Kurt buys the Cambodian/Bangladeshi shirt and ends up sweating through it at his next DJ performance. After a wash it’s just not the same shirt – the fit is off and the collar looks all floppy – so Kurt ends up donating the shirt to charity. He feels like he’s doing a good thing; somebody in need will get to enjoy that used, shrunken shirt. Oblivious to the truth about where that shirt originally came from and all the pain and damage that was caused to produce it, Kurt feels good about his recent donation so he decides to forgo lunch and buy himself another new shirt instead. He still can’t make rent or afford health insurance, but this one has color blocking and studs on it, and it was only $8 added to his credit card debt. This one makes him feel like a whole new man, he thinks. And if he doesn’t end up wearing it, well, he can always just donate it to a “good cause”.
The Cost of Recycling
Once Kurt tosses the shirt into the local donation bin, it embarks on another epic journey known as the world’s recycled clothing system. This is another insanely labor intensive and wasteful process that uses more energy than it produces. We touched on the recycled clothing cycle a bit in our Guide to Shopping Vintage, but we will get into greater detail about this globally intertwined marketplace in another article. Long story short, only about 10% of the clothes donated to charity are actually sold to vintage, thrift, or second-hand shops for after market re-sale. Kurt’s shirt, like most, was not picked-up for re-sale by a store owner, which means after yet another entire process of shipping and handling, it gets marked as “donation” and gets dumped somewhere in a country like Haiti. Haiti receives a ridiculous amount of recycled clothing. So much, in fact, that it has virtually destroyed the local garment-making industry that was indigenous to the community. Turns out with so much free clothing being dropped into the country all the time, it’s hard to keep people employed sewing new garments. Chances are, with all the abundance of recycled clothing, not even an impoverished person in Haiti is interested in Kurt’s shirt that was worn once and shipped around the world twice. Eventually the shirt is deemed unwearable and is thrown in the garbage.
The Burden on the Environment
It’s important to realize that every step in this process has profound effects on the environment. Farming, manufacturing, transportation, marketing, sales, recycling, waste management – these all require tremendous amounts of energy and release tremendous amounts of harmful bi-products on the environment.
Finally, Kurt’s $9 cotton shirt that was worn one time arrives to it’s final resting place. It sits on one of many, many giant landfills which are consuming our earth, polluting our air and water, and killing our wildlife. It is estimated that 40% of these landfills are made up of old textiles used for clothing. As it turns out, when people can wear something one time then throw it out, they do. Like napkins. At alarming rates. The average American throws away roughly 82 lbs of clothing per year…that’s 11 million tons coming annually from the US alone. And it all just sits there, somewhere, on the land, releasing gasses that ruin our planet.
Is There a Solution?
I believe there a solution. In my opinion, it’s three fold:
1) Educate the consumers. As bloggers with the power of the internet and the ears of consumers looking for advice on buying clothing, it’s our duty to teach people about more than putting together a cool outfit. At Articles of Style we want our readers to invest wisely and develop lasting style, all while preserving the environment and understanding who they’re giving their hard-earned dollars to. Large corporations are not going to stop making cheap crap unless we stop wasting our money on it.
2) Produce quality goods. It’s on fashion brands to produce quality goods that last the test of time. Good design is meant to last, not be replaced after one season, or even worse, one wear. Clothing should never be considered disposable. This is a wasteful way of doing business and it harms every person in the cycle, from the farmer to the sewer to the end consumer. There do exist several forward-thinking fashion companies, as highlighted in the documentary, who use sustainable practices to create their garments – from organic farmers who are paid fair wages, to garment workers who are treated with care and respect, to products that are designed to enhance the life of customers rather than add the burden of storing more worthless junk.
3) Provide transparency. In the digital age, there is no excuse for a brand who produces a product to not be upfront about where and how it was made, and the conditions of those who were contracted to make it. This should be a point of pride for the brand, not a dirty secret. As a consumer, it’s our duty to ask questions and not be fooled by price tags that seam unreasonably low. There are people all around the world who are paying a steep cost in order to sell you that shirt for $9.
In conclusion, I believe it is possible for us to slow down the shockingly detrimental effects caused by this new “Fast Fashion” industry, but it’s going to take a lot more education and effort among consumers. To get started, I suggest watching The True Cost. If you’re a fashion enthusiast I have a feeling it will change your life, or at least the way you spend money on clothing.
Thanks, as always, for reading.
Yours in style,
The photos in this article are not owned by Articles of Style.