Last week I talked about the first major revelation for this work: that quality and performance in womenswear, while maintaining style is doable, just not viewed by most in the fashion industry as of value to women. I mentioned that while performance may not have been taken into account by most womenswear companies, quality was largely incorporated into apparel production before the emergence of fast fashion.
So today I talk about the truth that lies behind the dramatic decrease in quality of apparel over the last 10+ years and the increasingly concerning impact on workers and the environment.
If you are 30+, and care about such things as apparel quality, perhaps you remember a time when you bought an article of clothing–nothing fancy– say just a short sleeve top, and that top lasted you 10 years or more. In fact you frequently got rid of it, while it still looked good but was no longer in style. And then in the early 2000s, something changed. Little by little the clothing was poorer and poorer quality, manufacturing and materials. Though prices all around us were rising, clothing prices were dropping, with more and more apparel production being shipped overseas.
I remember at one point I was in a shop in Asheville, North Carolina–standard mid-priced boutique anywhere– and there was not one item that was not synthetic, extremely poor quality fabric, terrible fit and sewing quality, all made overseas. A few years later, I went to the Southpoint Mall in Durham, NC for a work blouse and left empty-handed 4 hours later convinced that the apparel selection could not get any worse for women: poor design, poor materials, poor construction, poor fit. What was going on?
Alongside all this was an increasingly concerning set of headlines about the workers who were making the apparel. The 2012 collapse of the sewing factory in Bangladesh brought the total number of apparel workers killed in Bangladesh and Pakistan in a 2 years period to 500 (The Guardian). And yet the death toll does not illustrate the true extend of the damage summarized nicely by Elizabeth Suzann, U.S. apparel designer and manufacture, in her explanation for the extremely low prices that have come to characterize fast-fashion in apparel:
What you may have noticed from the above list is that what is bad for workers is also bad for the environment. An estimated 17 to 20% of industrial water pollution comes from textile dyeing and treatment. An estimated 8,000 synthetic chemicals are used throughout the world to turn raw materials into textiles, many of which will be released into freshwater sources (Environmental Leader). 14 million tons of clothing are thrown out each year (EPA 2013), leaching toxic chemicals into the ground. What’s bad for workers, and bad for the environment, is bad for consumers. Yes we may pay thrillingly cheap prices for a whole outfit, yes we can buy more, but we spend more and more time shopping, replacing and putting together outfits that are poorer and poorer quality with toxic materials that probably don’t belong next to our skin.
At this point the above information, though sad and shocking, is no longer news to many of us. We hear about the workers and lately the environmental damage and hopefully we do what we can to withhold our support from the companies that are responsible.
However, what we often don’t hear about is how our communities in the U.S., where the textile and apparel manufacturing was previously, were impact by the massive loss of jobs that resulted when apparel companies sent their manufacturing to places where there were no safety and environmental regulations. These communities are all around me in the South East in what was the heart of apparel and textile manufacturing in the U.S. Next week we look at the impact of fast fashion on jobs in small town, rural America in the South East.
Thank you for supporting us on our journey to bring to life a dream for a better way forward for women, for workers and for our environment.