Why cheap clothing has a hidden cost (and what to do about it)


I was driving down the road listening to NPR when I heard her for the first time. She was talking about fashion, but not in the usual way–commenting on styles or reporting on which celebrity was wearing which label at the latest Hollywood gala. The speaker’s name was Elizabeth Cline, and she was talking about her new book, Overdressed, and what she’d learned about something called “fast fashion.”

Curious by this phrase, “fast fashion,” I turned the volume dial up (yes—my car still has dials instead of buttons, which tells you a little something about how old it is). As she described what fast fashion was, I realized that though I’d never heard the phrase before, I certainly knew what it described. Until fairly recently I was a fast fashion participant and didn’t even know it.

Fast fashion is a term used to describe our modern clothing industry.

This adjective “fast” is coined because up until very recently, clothing was S-L-O-W. Most garments were handmade or at least hand-finished, which made clothing expensive. Consequently, people didn’t own a lot of garments and they shopped seasonally—maybe twice a year.

It’s not hard for us to imagine that making clothing sped up. Everything has sped up—why should clothes be any different? Now stores like Kohls, Target, Old Navy, Zara (and just about everywhere else) churn out new designs every day. The result is that we have an endless stream of new clothing to choose from, and they’re sold at super cheap prices so that people like me can hit Target on the weekend and grab something new to wear for Monday (something I used to do all the time). We’ve dropped seasonality in our shopping entirely. Because there’s always something new, people are shopping all year.

However, there are consequences to this behavior. Overdressed primarily names three:

3 hidden consequences of fast fashion

  1. a lot of clothing waste. Americans throw away about 12.8 million tons of textiles each year, which is 80 pounds for each person, according to the US Environmental Protection Agency. And much of this clothing waste is made of plastic so it doesn’t decompose. (Yes–that’s right. The clothes you’re wearing are most likely plastic.)
  2. pollution
  3. low wages and poor working conditions in factories in places like China, Bangladesh and Mexico.

It’s easy to distance ourselves from these consequences—literally we are separated by distance from them. The clothes we donate get dropped off at Goodwill never to be seen again. The people who make our garments live far away. The pollution clogs the skies of distant places. The plastic from our clothes gets buried in landfills. We don’t see the consequences, and so we don’t think about them.

Cheap seems responsible…but it’s more complicated than that

Even more, the price is so appealing that it seems responsible to buy fast fashion clothing. I hear my budget-oriented friends talking about it all the time. Getting a good deal is important when you’re trying to make ends meet, and when you’re trying to clothe growing kids (who have brand tastes, by the way).

And yet there are real consequences to fast fashion. Elizabeth talked about the families of garment workers she met. They live in hovels with lots of family members stacked on top of each other. These workers shoulder the same weight we do to make ends meet. Only they consistently come up short because fast fashion pays workers poorly. And those who aren’t living in hovels with their families spend months—even years—living far away from the people they love, staying in factory dormitories and sending money home. Yes, you could argue that their income is improved by this work. But at what cost?

7 ways to transition out of buying fast fashion

So here’s my petition: for us to transition out of the “cheap is best mindset,” because the deals we’re scoring have a cost for other families. We can start stepping out of the fast fashion stream by:

  1. going back to buying seasonally
  2. buying less
  3. buying quality from companies that pay fair wages (buying less and choosing quality are heavily preached by capsule wearers)
  4. buying secondhand
  5. buying handmade
  6. making your own
  7. going without

Stepping out of the stream doesn’t have to happen overnight. I’ve been slowly transitioning out of it for several years by doing a combination of a lot of these things, like keeping a minimal wardrobe, buying secondhand, and making some of my own clothes. I’ve also tried to adopt my husband’s discipline of wearing his clothes until they fall apart (something that’s nearly impossible to do when you have a large wardrobe).  Occasionally I’ll still buy a fast fashion garment, but I’m making strides toward foregoing them for good. They may be cheap, but they’re ultimately too costly for me.

How about you? Would you consider transitioning away from fast fashion garments?

Related: my experiences with a capsule wardrobe

Related: all articles on minimalist clothing

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