The High Hidden Costs of Fast Fashion

By Jerri-Lynn Scofield, who has worked as a securities lawyer and a derivatives trader. She now spends most of her time in India and other parts of Asia researching a book about textile artisans. She also writes regularly about legal, political economy, and regulatory topics for various consulting clients and publications, as well as writes occasional travel pieces for The National.

The fashion industry conceals many dirty little secrets. Its labour practices have long been notorious, with many low-cost producers relying on sweatshop production and in some cases, child labor. These and other problems have only worsened with the rise of fast fashion– cheap, shoddy clothes intended not for the long haul, but to be worn for a short while, and then discarded in favour of the next new thing.

Many of us reject this approach to buying clothes. But regardless our individual preferences, the success of chains such as Forever 21, H&M, Target and Zara has shaped the fashion industry, and this not for the better. It’s another example of the crapification of a staple product, in this case, the production of  attractive, long-wearing, quality clothing. Price pressures from fast fashion companies make for even more cutthroat competition in the rag trade.

A recent Newsweek cover story, Fast Fashion is Creating An Environmental Crisis, spotlights another series of problems for the ethical consumer to ponder: the environmental costs that fast fashion imposes. The article is an eye-opener and although I summarize some of the main points here, it is well-worth reading in full.

As Newsweek describes, perhaps the most significant of these problems is outright waste:

Americans are blithely trashing more clothes than ever. In less than 20 years, the volume of clothing Americans toss each year has doubled from 7 million to 14 million tons, or an astounding 80 pounds per person. The EPA estimates that diverting all of those often-toxic trashed textiles into a recycling program would be the environmental equivalent of taking 7.3 million cars and their carbon dioxide emissions off the road.

The situation is much the same in the UK, with 350,000 tonnes of clothing ending up in landfills and the average person only wearing 2/3 of his or her wardrobe.

Unfortunately, it is extremely difficult using current technology to recycle the fibers used to make clothes into a form where they can be reused to produce pleasing clothes. So although in theory recycling at the level of the fiber is an option, in reality much fast fashion — and other textile waste, for that matter– ends up as rags or in other industrial uses, and some is shredded  to be used as insulation. But there’s only so much demand for rags or insulation.

I’s also possible for an entire garment to be recycled. It need not be broken down into its fiber constituents in order to be effectively reused. Yet while there is a market for secondhand clothes, and a global one at that, the glut of cheap clothes produced by the fast fashion industry has caused that market to collapse, both in the US and further afield. This in turn has had a pernicious knock-one effects, with exports of shoddy castoff clothes to emerging markets destroying domestic textile production, especially clothes made by skilled artisans, according to Oxfam.

In fact, there has recently been a bit of a backlash to the dumping of secondhand clothes from the west in Africa.  Last year, as Newsweek reported, some political leaders called for ban on secondhand clothing to protect their domestic textile industry during the course of a summit of East African heads of state.

What Happens to Most Textile Waste?

In the absence of a strong market for secondhand clothes, most discarded textiles in the US end up in the trash: the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimates that 84 percent of unwanted clothes in the United States in 2012 went into either a landfill or an incinerator. What happens to them there?

Well, it depends on whether they’re made from natural or synthetic fibres. Natural fibres– cotton, linen, silk– or semi-synthetics made from plant cellulose such as rayon, behave much like food waste in a landfill, producing methane as they degrade, thus contributing to global warming. The situation for synthetic fibres is worse. They are essentially plastics and take generations, at minimum, to break down and ultimately blend back into the ecosystem rather than remaining as chunks of discrete rubbish.

Other Environmental Problems

Waste is only one environmental problem created by fast fashion. Many textile production processes are very water-intensive, as is growing cotton, a notoriously thirsty plant. Further, cotton is also extremely chemically dependent:  only 2.4% of the world’s cropland is planted with cotton, but cotton production accounts for 10 percent of all agricultural chemicals used and 25 percent of insecticides, according to AlterNet.

Further, most textiles  are produced using chemical dyes, causing pollution in the places where textiles are made, and having associated health and safety impacts. Most fast fashion is produced in low-wage countries, largely in Asia, and needs to be shipped to the major European and US markets. This means that despite the cheap nominal costs of these goods, they have a large carbon footprint.

What Can Consumers Do?

So what can we, as consumers do, to mitigate some of the impacts this industry causes?  The first and most basic step is to consumer less of fast fashion. By one estimate (which is admittedly a bit imprecise) merely extending the lifespan of a garment by three months of active use would reduce carbon, waste, and water footprints by 5-10%.

Tracing Supply Chains

I’d first like to mention some of the non-environmental impacts of fast fashion and low-cost textile imports. Bangladesh has become the world’s second largest apparel producer, with $25 billion in annual revenue, as a result of duty-free access for imports offered by Western nations and low worker wages (the minimum monthly wage is $68, compared to $280 for the world’s largest garments producer, China). Sixty percent of Bangladesh production is sent to Europe, 23 percent to the United States and 5 percent to Canada, according to Reuters

The 2013 Rana Plaza disaster, when 1135 textile workers died after an eight-story factory collapsed, alerted the world that Bangladeshi producers were skimping on more than wages. Since then, activist pressure has forced major Western retailers who source clothes in Bangladesh to pay more attention to health and safety concerns.  But three years later, has much really changed?

“You have about 200 brands working together, and there’s definitely more transparency, more attention to the issue of human rights in the global supply chain,” Sarah Labowitz, co-director of the Center for Business and Human Rights at the NYU Stern School of Business in New York, told Reuters. “But in addressing fire safety, building safety, workers’ protection – there aren’t enough practical discussions around these issues, not enough financing,” she continued. “So not enough has changed.”

Now, it may certainly be true that not much has changed so far. But that doesn’t mean consumers should let up on pressure to force retailers to verify that wage and labour conditions, as well as health and safety compliance, of companies that form part of their supply chains.

Championing Sustainable Production

Eileen Fisher, fashion designer and founder of the eponymous women’s clothing chain, surprised the fashion world a couple of years ago when she claimed at an awards ceremony that the fashion industry was the world’s dirtiest– trumped only by Big Oil. It’s difficult to evaluate the validity of her claim, as there are certainly many potential claimants for the world’s dirtiest industry crown. But as summarized above, fashion does indeed have lots to answer for.

“Some people say [clothing is] the second or third largest polluter,” Fisher repeated in an interview with Fashionista. “I’ve come to really believe that we have a lot of power as designers to actually change this problem.”

Fisher has herself taken several steps toward this end. First, her company offers classic, timeless designs that are consistent with a sustainable approach.  She’s sought to develop a sustainable supply chain and has additionally promoted  sustainability by launching customer education campaigns, instituting transparency practices (e.g., labelling a garment with a description that parallels that used for food labelling); and moving some of production back onshore t reduce the corporate carbon footprint.

She also created the Green Eileen, which allows  customers a small store credit when they trade in used garments. These are then sold on through Green Eileen,   donated to women’s shelters and charities,  or recycled, spending on their condition.

At this point I’d like to mention that Western companies are not alone in developing sustainable garment and textile production practices. FabIndia, an Indian company, is well-known for its sustainability practices, and in fact, can be said to be a leading pioneer of the concept of corporate social responsibility. Founded over fifty years ago by an American, John Bissell, as part of a Ford Foundation project to develop crafts-based employment in India, Fabindia has been the subject of a Harvard Business School case study.

Fabindia  has structured itself so as to insure that artisans are involved in its decision-making. It  is comprised of several community owned companies, each of which has one and sometimes two artisans on its board. Artisans are encouraged to buy shares and take a ownership stake. Merely making a profit on a product is not sufficient reason to offer it for sale; any product Fabindia produces must be consistent with its guiding principles.

Unfortunately for consumers who might like to buy into this story, most of FabIndia’s production is aimed squarely at the Indian market, and focuses on the types of fibers– cotton, especially– that suit the country’s hot and often humid climate. Some of the fusion wear products might work in a Western setting, but to date FabIndia has a very small presence outside India, with  outlets in Italy, Malaysia, Singapore, and the UAE.  But FabIndia’s size and success has both preserved and extended the skills of traditional textile artisans throughout  various parts of  India.

Paying for Handwork

The impact of low-cost textiles is not just felt in developed countries, but also causes harm in countries such as India that are major textile producers in their own right. India retains vibrant textile traditions, the excellence of which was recognized by the elite of ancient Rome. One passage written by Pliny the Elder laments the impact on Rome’s balance of payments of the appetite of Romans for Indian textiles.

Several million traditional handweavers still ply their trade. Weaving is a highly-skilled job, but declining compensation is causing younger weavers to train for other types of work. Many of India’s poorest citizens cannot afford to pay for this high-quality handwork, and the declining demand further presses the wages of handweavers.

Textiles in India occupy a special space. It’s the only country that features a spinning wheel on its national flag. Gandhi promoted the the production of khadi cotton– simple handspan, handwoven fabric– as part of his  strategy of swadeshi– village-based production– as a means of liberation from the economic system imposed by the Raj. (This included steady infusions of mass-produced fabric from the UK. Textile production comprised one foundation of the Industrial Revolution, but at the same time seriously damaged India’s artisanal production.)

It is ironic that today, the price of khadi is beyond reach of many Indians– it has become known as a  rich people’s fabric. Both the national Indian government as well as individual Indian states have created infrastructures that support hand production, but sadly, many of these bureaucracies are sclerotic, and focus on mindless replication rather than husbanding hand production skills to create clothing that people wish to wear.

Organic Production, Natural Dyes

The last two decades have seen a move away from the use of chemicals to produce textiles,  to instead resurrecting old textile traditions that used natural processes, especially plant, insect, and mineral-based dyes.  These dyes typically used large amounts of organic material. Moreover, dying processes are usually quote water-intensive, whether natural or chemical processes are used.  Yet natural dyes don’t cause the same pollution problems generated by chemical dyes.

Dr. Jenny Balfour-Paul is the world’s leading expert on indigo, both practically and intellectually. She’s written the classic text , Indigo: Egyptian Mummies to Blue Jeans, about this most widely-used natural dye, which has been used for thousands of years throughout the world. The use of indigo, she says, is now undergoing a revival in many parts of the world, from West Bengal in India, to the United States.

Some large companies, such as Levis, have stepped into this area, and produced a line of jeans dyed with natural indigo and made from organic cotton. The cost of this product was marginally higher than standard Levis, but not ridiculously so, and suggests that a strategy of focusing on natural production  could be economically viable.

Unfortunately, the company didn’t strongly support the product, and it’s very difficult to get further information about it. This is perhaps because Levis does not want consumers to ask difficult questions about its normal production processes, which do not use organic cotton and employ toxic, highly polluting chemical dyes.

Numerous boutique companies have also now sprung up that feature natural dyes. One of these, Dypt, founded by British textile designer Simon Marks, who has travelled extensively in Asia researching natural dyes. Marks has maintained workshops in Indonesia and in India.

Purchasing natural dyed fabric made from organic natural fibers is one way to reduce the environmental impact of one’s textile consumption.

Looking Forward

The future direction of the fashion industry is partly in the hands of consumers. “Consumers shouldn’t buy into this ridiculous concept of fast fashion,” says Balfour-Paul. “Slow fashion is far more environmentally sustainable and makes more sense. “Why should you throw out your clothes after a couple of months? The whole fashion world needs to turn around and reexamine the word fashion.”

Such a examination would have a very different focus than its present one of turning out new products and designs, according to an accelerating schedule. “The industry needs to think of itself in terms of the environment,” she says. “The planet can’t afford fast fashion.”

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42 comments

  1. sd

    Family used to be in the fabric business. We noticed sometime ago that cotton and wool are no longer combed for clothing manufacture in what seems an obvious choice of cost cutting by someone in an executive suite somewhere. Hence, pills and thread breaks quickly show up on a sweater or shirt, which pretty much guarantees wearing it for an even shorter time and then discarding it because the quality isn’t good enough to send on to a second hand shop.

    We are trapped in a race to the bottom, wages are stagnant, so the search for cheap clothes is on which only reinforces lower cost, repeat.

        1. MB Hayes

          The thin cotton knits are so they could reduce price. Less cotton (or other fibers), less cost of goods. Drives me crazy!! I live in cotton and it’s near impossible to find thicker quality cotton knit shirts.

          So glad to have you talk about clothing. What about that big spike in cotton prices several years ago? In my industry (cotton fabric for home sewers) the quick price jump drove sales down. Of course when the commodity price dropped, the retail price did not. Lasting effect and the sales never recovered.

  2. JM St-Jacques

    A question for sd as you have knowledge I’ve been looking for.

    Is wool yarn being processed differently now? I’ve noticed that wool sweaters now seem to invariably shrink even when washed carefully in cold water by hand. Please comment. This is having a bad effect on my warmth and wardrobe in winter in Canada. It has made the life of a sweater much shorter and I’m having to dry clean all my woolies which I’m not pleased about.

    1. Shirley Ende-Saxe

      Wool always shrinks when washed. The fibers have microscopic diagonal barbs on them, hence the shrinkage, they bind tighter and tighter together with agitation in water. Wool can get as hard as leather with repeated washing and agitation. That said, a gentle cold water wash (really more of a soak) shouldn’t shrink items too badly, but I do notice merino and cashmere don’t shrink as much as other wools. I don’t buy cashmere as it is horrible on the environment. Its good to know I have something to contribute to NC!

      1. Jerri-Lynn Scofield Post author

        Not if it is hand-spun, handwoven, and preferably naturally dyed, as is the case with some of the best producers in Kashmir. Not to mention that purchasing these products provides income to Kashmiris– who are right now living in the midst of a horrible political crisis (and one that has lasted for a very long time). Even at the best of times (when the political crisis is at an ebb), the economy is a mess (in part as a result of the political crisis; this is a circular problem).

        I agree that one should avoid cheap Chinese pashmina. And also, I should point out that it is very difficult to know what you’re getting — you must stick with the most reputable producers, and even that’s not foolproof strategy. I’ve done quite a lot of research on kani shawls for my book, and will only buy pashmina from 3 producers, each of whom I trust. There is far more “100% guaranteed pashmina” sold every year than is actually produced (e.g., what’s sold as pashmina often isn’t).

        I believe the best stuff is worth buying, but it is very expensive. The cost of the raw fiber is high. And considerable inputs of highly-skilled labour go into making these pieces– I have some in my collection that took two men (and Kashmiri pashmina weavers are all men at the moment) 1 1/2 years to make. So a piece that requires so much highly-skilled labour to make is not going to be cheap.

        These pieces are the complete antithesis of fast fashion– and if they are well cared for, can be passed down to descendants.(Some of my Calcutta friends wear pieces that have been in their families for generations.)

  3. DJG

    This is another example of soft climate-change denial, as detailed in yesterday’s post on hard / soft climate-change denial and the ethics required to get away from “hedonic” uses of products to achieve a more sustainable market. Now that yesterday’s article defined soft climate-change denial, the working definition helps in identifying culprits.

    1. Jeremy Grimm

      Sorry — Hedonistic a. Same as hedonic [1913 Webster] … Why not just use hedonistic? I think it is the more commonly used adjective of the two. Using hedonistic in place of hedonic makes me more aware of the temptation to use the word as a pejorative to apply to others and that is a dangerous road. Isn’t it enough to pillory shoddy work and substandard materials used in making clothing for those unable to afford originals? What choices made in buying aren’t hedonistic in the strictest sense of the word? Should we wear hair shirts or plain white homespun and plain black pants and coat and maybe a white bonnet or black hat to keep off the sun — and buckles on our shoes? “Still, we cannot in the long run place ourselves completely in opposition to our own pleasures, as has been encouraged by Calvinism and anti-hedonic countermovements.” — Why not avoid the problem and reintroduce a little product quality and safety regulation. Is that really so impossible?

      I also object to the notion that “fast fashion” represents some sort of “soft climate-change denial”. I seriously doubt any more thought is given to Global-Warming in purchasing “fast fashion” than is given to the worker exploitation that went into its manufacture. I worry especially about your desire to identify culprits. What next? Stocks in the public square? I see only one culprit — the same Neoliberal capitalism discussed in yesterday’s post which made it so hard for me to read the whole thing. Neoliberal capitalism is not the only capitalism around — it’s just the most pernicious.

      I find it hard enough to avoid imputing bad motives and intent to others without the temptations of new categories like “hedonic” used in some sort of mystical economics jargon sense or “soft climate change denial” a category I find uncomfortably similar to a category like micro-aggressions.

  4. Felix_47

    This is a well known problem. And in this part of the world these jobs are highly sought after based on what I saw during my time there. Other than some sort of voluntary action there seems to be no realistic solution presented in this paper. At least the women in Bangladesh are making $68 dollars per month which is far better than what they were getting. The industry has opened up the world a bit for females in a very oppressive patriarchal environment. Before they were just sex slaves and breeding cattle and household servants and cooks for the men. One way to raise their wages and make clothing more expensive so people wear clothing longer would be to unionize the workers. This could be done if the trade agreements we sign required that the ILGWU be allowed to organize and fully function in places like Bangladesh. It seems trade agreements are pretty much about protecting our lawyers, patents and forever Disney copyrights, and pharm monopolies but there is no reason they could not be about union organizing. The I in the ILGWU stands for international. In fact had that been a key part of NAFTA and had the UAW organized the car companies would not have moved all their production to Mexico, or if they had the wages throughout Mexico would have dramatically risen through the elevator effect, consumption would have gone up and Mexicans would be able to buy the cars the manufacture in Puebla. Likewise with Bangladesh. If the clothing manufacturers were forced to pay ILGWU wages their economy would blossom, the women would truly be able to throw off the chains of their Muslim overlords, and we would pay more for clothing and not throw it out since it is often cheaper to buy new than wash the old….let alone repair. Of course all of the solutions regarding environmental degradation are simply whitewash without addressing birth control. Without a massive drop in population especially in Bangladesh and India the planet is just going to deteriorate further. Having four kids, let alone 8, and driving a Prius is not going to solve global warming. We have to get past the notion that our individual genes need to be multiplied geometrically. The only sustainable model is a worldwide birth rate of 1 for a generation or two and then perhaps 2. I think it is something like 6 in Bangladesh.

    1. Comradefrana

      “I think it is something like 6 in Bangladesh.”

      Fortunately, not since the 80’s. Quick skim of Google tells me that Bangladeshi Total Fertility Rate in 2016 is between 2.2 to 2.4 births per woman, depending on the source. That still means significant population growth, but a lot less than at 6 births per woman.

  5. Pat in California

    Something is wrong with newer textiles these days … and it is showing up consistently (at least for me) on the lint screen in my clothes dryer. It used to be easy to clean a lint screen because the “lint” was fluffy and fibrous and came off in a sheet like batting. Not any more. About 5 years ago I began to notice that the “lint” was more … I guess, granular?? Gritty? Unpleasant at best … falling apart when you try to peel it off the screen. The byproduct of a swift race to the bottom in the textile industry?

  6. Pespi

    Fast fashion is the bane of my existence. It’s killed my industry in all the most important ways.

    They do their best to kill unions and extract profit, but we have to do the rest.

    Forgive me for buzz words, but peer to peer high quality clothing manufacturing could be one point in a many point plan to make the country more prosperous and simply better. A return to fewer, better, clothes, made by people in the general area.

    It’s only when the goods we buy benefit the workers who make them rather than various rentiers and ghouls that there’ll be any chance of positive change.

    1. Ping

      I think alot has to do with education and marketing. We all know according to the brilliant documentary *Century of Self* where Freud’s nephew Bernays incorporated deep psychology to redefine mass mindset in the ’50’s and considered the father of public relations, the population has been transformed into “consumers” rather than “citizens”(with reposibilities as such).

      During the depression or times of scarce resouces, it was considered wise to buy quality that would last. The classic styles that transcended fad…. The promotion of bying something cheap for a fleeting season is not only economically foolish for individuals but only benefits a ravaging industry.

  7. afisher

    Hate to point fingers, but if the biggest problem someone faces is a “pilled’ sweater, then perhaps their life isn’t all that rough.

    Fortunately, I come from a family full of professional sewers, so I spend the my time at fabric emporiums instead of the Mall.

    1. sd

      You do realise that all fabric is made of threads and yarns. So unless you are buying home spun, you are unlikely to be immune to cost cutting manufacturing techniques. Unless of course, you can afford expensive high quality imports.

      It’s one of the reasons vintage fabrics and clothes have become so popular and why they last longer.

  8. ekstase

    On the individual consumer level, something profound has been lost as well. There was a time in America when all girls were required to learn how to sew, and as sexist as that was, it taught skills that have now been wiped off the map for most Americans. Fabric stores used to be everywhere, but as the pre-made became cheaper and cheaper, buying fabric became less and less of a bargain. Kudos to Eileen Fisher, who has been putting out a line of fantastic clothes for a long time now, a bit pricey, but comfortable, functional, stylish and long-lasting.

    I’ve gathered, from pictures, stories I’ve been told by earlier generations, and from novels, that clothing once had more emotional meaning for people. People might have one, or a few, nice suits or pairs of shoes, and they were proud of them. The clothes reflected themselves. Appreciation of textiles is a part of this. Take a look at a photo of people in an airport or train station a few decades ago.

    In a healthy culture, clothing, like food, reflects what is good for people, rather than what is fast and cheap. And of course, this is just looking at it from the American angle. The horrific exploitation of people who now make the clothes is the other side.

    1. Yves Smith

      I really detest the philosophy embodied by “fast fashion”. Even the very few times I’ve bought stuff at H&M (because it is hard finding clothes for the really hot days of summer), I guarantee I’ve worn them way longer than the manufacturer ever intended. Most of my good wardrobe consists of jackets over 15 years old, and some of my favorite pieces are over 30 years old. I hate shopping and would much rather buy fewer pieces, pay more, and have them last longer.

    2. TheCatSaid

      Your observation about people no longer knowing how to sew is spot on. It’s a parallel to many people no longer knowing how to cook. The declining quality in fabrics (such as the decline in thread count in sheets, so they tear after a year or two instead of lasting for 20-30 years or more) and the declining quality of foods is another parallel.

      Even the crappy modern clothes that could be mended usually don’t get mended, because people don’t know how to do it.

  9. SomeCallMeTim

    Not to be all America-bashing, but what does clothes consumption look like across countries? (warning – extrapolation from a single, non-random data point ahead!)

    When my wife worked in Spain years ago, her roommates used to chastise her for the number of outfits she owned and her habit of wearing a different outfit every day.

  10. MsExPat

    Love Fabindia. Their towels and home fabrics (curtains, napkins, towels, placemats) definitely work in a non-Indian context and are beautiful (I wear their shirts too). Hope they try launching in the US market.

    A friend of mine sources (gorgeous) fabric all over Asia for Eileen Fisher. They definitely are committed to supporting artisans and small family run factories–it’s not just corporate lip service.

    Those of us fortunate to live in Asia have access to great hand tailoring at affordable prices. My seamstress in Bangkok is not cheap (good ones never are) and did not take me as a customer until she was sure I saw it as a long-term relationship, not a one-off tourist order (no good tailor can produce excellent work in 48 hours). She also pointed me to her secret hole-in-wall fabric shops where I can buy Italian linen by the yard for $12-15!

    Working with tailors and buying my own fabric has changed my relationship with clothing. Now that I know what good sewing looks and feels like (my tailor is proud of her work and has educated me in that respect!), it’s really hard to imagine spending money on fast fashion.

    1. Yves Smith

      I was only briefly in Bangkok and got some nice simple camisoles made there in silk dupioni (great fabric, does not wrinkle). Wish I’d realized this could be done and had better models. Also got dirt cheap Thai school/office girl shirts, nice sturdy cotton, lasted for many many years.

      I have had tailors in NYC copy my tailored jackets. One could do it straight from what I had and did a fantastic job, but he went out of business and disappeared. The next guy needed to work from similar patterns and wanted to be creative (as in have his own value added) which was not always so hot, since I had a pretty strong idea of what I wanted. I’d love to have something like your resources here. You’d think you could get it in NYC but specialists like buttonholers have virtually disappeared, which is making it impossible for solo and small scale garment makers.

      1. Jerri-Lynn Scofield Post author

        I, too spend much of my time in Asia. In the course writing a book about textiles, I’ve met many wonderful artisans, many of whom have spent lots of time showing me their work and telling me about their lives and handiwork. I inevitably reciprocate by buying some of their products. This not much of a burden and I often have to restrain myself from buying more as their textiles are gorgeous, handmade products, often naturally-dyed or made from organic fabric. I have many of my clothes made by a talented tailor in Calcutta– he knows which of my shoulders is slightly higher than the other and adjusts everything by a centimeter to make me look even.

        The clothes are unique, long-wearing, perfectly-fitted, and last far longer than anything fast fashion throws up. They’re also often less expensive, since I’m able to source directly, but given all their other benefits, this is not a major concern of mine.

        1. Moneta

          I make my own suits. Right now I am into shift dresses. Quality textile is hard to get, but I like the idea of promoting sustainability. Do you have any suggestions as to where I can start looking for suppliers to retail? I’m in Canada.

      2. MsExPat

        I despair of ever finding someone in New York who does decent alterations. (There was a Russian woman who opened a shop in my Brooklyn neighborhood, and she was so besieged with work requests she got stressed out and quit the business!) I get alterations done now in Hong Kong (splendid work, cheap), and also shoe repair. There is a genius shoe guy in HK (Melvin on Cochrane Street) who operates from a hole in the wall. He has saved more of my beloved old shoes and boots than I can count. He’s got me now in the habit of bringing him my NEW shoes, so he can put on better soles and reinforce them to extend their life. Every time I go, I’m waiting behind some fashionista with a bag full of Jimmy Choos to be re-done.

        Wouldn’t it be wonderful if these trades somehow could revive in the USA? These are desperately needed services that withered away largely because of fast and name-brand fashion. ( Melvin learned his trade at Sears, Roebuck in Hawaii, back when Sears had shoe repair.)

      3. Steve H.

        – You’d think you could get it in NYC

        This amazes me. When I lived there as a kid (mid-70’s) it was a huge source of pride that expert specialists were available for absolutely everything. I still remember getting ice skates in a little hole in the wall, but the wall was covered in signed photos of Olympic skaters.

  11. paul Tioxon

    I heard Ralph Nader give a talk at a coop conference in Austin back in 1979. A lot happened there that year, but the relevant point is the story he told about, I think it was Sweden? One of the Scandinavian nations. He was talking about the crap that corporate America produced, the planned obsolescence which would keep us going back to the consumer well over and over again needlessly. He painted a portrait of the typical American family at breakfast. Dad and mom in a frantic rush to get out to work, the kids off to school, make doctors appointments on time etc etc. Then, the toaster breaks, or the coffee maker breaks. Some relatively simple item that we use everyday, will one day, much sooner than expected, just break down and need to be replaced.

    This was call planned obsolescence and I believe was was one of the three critical points of a Veblen paper. The aggravation and stress of having the family schedule routine thrown off, with kids late for school, dad late for work, mom missing the dentists office appointment was the stress of knowing the social penalties for such behavior. The demerits in a meritocracy, caused hostility to surface due to frustration that things in our everyday lives, the labor saving conveniences would break down. Shoelaces would snap, belt buckles would fall apart, rendered useless for keeping you pants up. Bra clasp snapping. Small indignities, but spread out across every single thing you own and have to buy to make yourself a functioning member of society will, on its own schedule, just fall apart, break down and of course happen at the worst time ever.

    Clothing failure, with zippers rendered useless, essentially destroy the wearable functionality of anything requiring one. Buttons popping off, stitches coming undone, your get the picture, cause undue stress and this happens periodically throughout the month, every year, year after year. But not in, let just say for the sake of discussion, Sweden. As Nader portrayed it, you could buy a complete set of clothing to take you through a lifetime. It would come with a suit, socks, underwear, dress shirts, shoes, belts, outer coat, rain coat, winter coat, etc etc. It would not be cheap, but within the reach of the average person. The idea was, you would not have to worry about clothing wearing out, going out of style, being seen as someone who wore ragged, thread worn, moth eaten stale clothing, but top quality, well tailored clothing that wore like iron. And you would not have to go back to the consumer well over and over to replace clothes, that if just given that extra stitch, that better quality of thread count, that sturdier button or zipper, would just not break down. I remember thinking, everything should be like this. A sort of dowry you received at the beginning of adulthood, all of the household basics, not just clothes, but kitchen appliances, gadgets, plates, etc.

    Why do we have to fill up our time replacing things dozens of times over. Why do we do so much shopping because so much breaks down all of the time? What if things did not break down all of the time because they are designed NOT to last. Shopping would be minimized and maybe even enjoyable if done out the joy of buying a gift or something special to you and how you lived. Not a weekly necessity. Everything is becoming a disposable razor blade, something you need to get in order to function in society, but wears out as you use it. My father, who would be 108 years old if he were still alive and kicking to day, had a straight razor. It used to scare me half to death, because in America, the only time you saw that antique is when it came out a pimp’s shoe in TV cop show. No one actually shaved with that, but they used to, they lasted a lifetime after you bought it just once. Now, the disposable is the norm. How many of those have you bought so far? You get the picture. We are trained to go out and shop weekly, reverting to a hunting and foraging status that kills off leisure time we could have for organizing a democratic society and having way more sex, or the perfect cheese mushroom omelette. But, that’s just my vision, I am sure such the culturally diverse audience that we have here at NC has much more noble pursuits towards the eternal verities in mind.

    http://socserv2.mcmaster.ca/~econ/ugcm/3ll3/veblen/Engineers.pdf

    The Engineers and The Price System by T. Veblen

    ————————————————————————————–

    Also, check out the 1960 book by Vance Packard: THE WASTE MAKERS.

    “An exposé of “the systematic attempt of business to make us wasteful, debt-ridden, permanently discontented individuals,” The Waste Makers is Vance Packard’s pioneering 1960 work on how the rapid growth of disposable consumer goods was degrading the environmental, financial, and spiritual character of American society.

    The Waste Makers was the first book to probe the increasing commercialization of American life—the development of consumption for consumption’s sake. Packard outlines the ways manufacturers and advertisers persuade consumers to buy things they don’t need and didn’t know they wanted, including the two-of-a-kind of everything syndrome—”two refrigerators in every home”—and appeals to purchase something because it is more expensive, or because it is painted in a new color. The book also brought attention to the concept of planned obsolescence, in which a “death date” is built into products so that they wear out quickly and need to be replaced. By manipulating the public into mindless consumerism, Packard believed that business was making us “more wasteful, imprudent, and carefree in our consuming habits,” which was using up our natural resources at an alarming rate.”

    http://www.igpub.com/the-waste-makers/

    http://socserv2.mcmaster.ca/~econ/ugcm/3ll3/veblen/Engineers.pdf

    1. sd

      Fwiw, about 15 years ago, I noticed that my Levis started getting these little “bites” in them. Random spots where small holes appeared. It was then that I realized fibers were no longer being adequately combed and carded and weak spots were now commonplace in fabric. Levis used to known for their endurance. No more. Just another pair of jeans made to wear out quickly.

      1. Eclair

        When I get a pair of jeans that fit, look good and are comfortable, it is so aggravating when a hole or rip appears. So, a friend who is a textile artist, introduced me to an old form of Japanese patchwork, called ‘boro.’ Based on the Japanese concept of ‘mottainai’ or ‘to good to waste, it has become an art form. A needle, thimble and some heavy, multi-strand white/beige thread plus patches cut from a really old pair of jeans (rule: never use new fabric for patching), and an hour or so watching a movie on my laptop while I patch. Voila … and I get lots of complements.

        I just started doing the same for my husband’s favorite jeans. I just use a more manly pattern on the patches; no flowery stuff.

    2. Jeremy Grimm

      Thanks for two great links.

      The problems with clothes and fabrics are only a small part of the deliberate waste and failure built into our consumer products. I don’t think I’ve ever read an economist discussing this “efficiency” of the market and how the “economic man” is supposed to make optimal buying decisions in a “market” full of crap.

  12. gardener1

    We used to raise sheep on a few acres, basically they were 4 footed lawnmowers – kept the pasture clipped down.

    The trade-off was of course, then we had sheep to take care of. And they had to be sheared at least once a year. This turned into a big problem.

    Sheep shearers have all but disappeared from the American landscape, they are extremely hard to find (good ones that don’t tear up your sheep). The last sheep shearer we had was an Amish guy from 2 states away. We gave him the wool for free because there is no market for it in the US. You can’t sell wool in this country for even 5¢ a pound. If he hadn’t taken it we would have had to throw it away. Believe me, one grown sheep produces half a truckload of fleece, a flock of sheep seems like a lot of wool. Without our Amish guy we couldn’t have given it away for free.

    Now it all comes from China. Poor quality wool, a lot of it used for mattress stuffings and wall insulation. Most of the wool fabric found in America is of poor quality, lightweight, and usually mixed with other inferior fibers.

    Good woolens have become very hard to find, and when you do they are quite expensive.

    Another market taken over by Chinese crappification.

      1. gardener1

        I know this market quite well, you have to keep your sheep in pristine condition with little jackets on all the time to have fleece of a cleanliness and perfection to sell into the natural wool market.

        I challenge you to raise sheep in a pasture to meet these these conditions. Sheep in the pasture are dirty, sweaty, weedy, and greasy. There is NO market in north America for standard issue sheep fleece.

        …..Although I do appreciate you enthusiasm for natural yarns :)

        1. Moneta

          All my quality tailored suits are more than 10 years old and they are starting to look dowdy. I’m now replacing them one by one and some of them with knits using quality natural yarn.

          I have been thinking of going more sustainable and this article offers the kick I needed!

  13. Brooklinite

    We are in the phase of buying new is cheaper than fixing the old one stage..

    The next phase is New clothes every year as the clothes can’t last longer than a year

    This phase will take a while and then the time will come down to a month and then to a day. Just like what we did to our utensils. Growing up in India we never bought or threw away utensils for at least 10 yrs. All the steel stuff lasted at least 20 yrs with good usage to go with it. Now I eat and throw away a box, a plastic spoon, fork, a plastic bag for every lunch I eat at work. Clothes will be the same. Enjoy the transformation if you know what I exactly meant.

    Where else can we extend this to? May be to housing? May be to transportation where car mechanics become lesser and lesser and its easy to replace a car after 50k miles without any maintenance?

    Just throwing out some random thoughts…

  14. Synoia

    This is a female problem. The constant pressure to be up to date and wear new clothes is sexist and pervasive.

    Men can, and most do, wear clothes until they drop off. Women do not.

    Here’s a simple test:

    Count the number of pairs of shoes you possess. If it is more than 10, you personally are a part of the problem.

  15. TheCatSaid

    Since women have been coaxed to enter the conventional (paid) workforce–and there are some interesting stories about how that came to happen–there has been a serious decline in the skills that are most critical to maintaining society. The loss of these basic “home-making” and agricultural skills has created a serious decline in resilience. We will soon learn the heavy price of current mainstream values.

    1. Yves Smith

      Coaxed? Women were eager to enter the workforce. Why do you think birthrates plunge in advanced economies when women have the option of not having babies (as in providing sex-related services) as their means of survival? Hint: childrearing is a job, and a hard one, and a lot of people would prefer to do something else. The dearth of househusbands should tell you about how much fun it is to change diapers and keep toddlers from killing themselves.

      My 88 year old mother would much rather have worked and her best friend in college who got a degree in international relations was saddened when she figured out no one would hire her to do more than secretarial work.

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