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The shocking price of fast fashion

The fashion industry has faced accusations of wastefulness, exploitation and environmental harm in recent years. Can it turn things around? 

If the world stopped buying new clothes, that would do more to mitigate climate change than if we stopped all air travel and suspended shipping.

Patently, this is not going to happen at Christmas and during summer, but fast fashion’s effect on greenhouse-gas emissions and environmental degradation is gradually dawning on consumers.

Those anxious about throwaway fashion’s depredations have waited in vain for a David Attenborough albatross moment – a seabird filmed trying to feed its chick with a Prada sequin, or a fragment of last season’s Crocs choking a dolphin. Curiously, it was a trip by Melania Trump to Texas last year that came closest to a mind-focusing cut-through. It wasn’t a statement she intended to make, but her choice of a Zara-brand jacket emblazoned “I really don’t care, do U?” inadvertently proved a priceless conversation starter.

The inexpensive jacket is nothing to a wealthy American president’s wife, but would have taken more than 3000 litres of water, a dollop of noxious chemicals, not to mention labour priced at well below anyone’s idea of a living wage, to reach the First Lady. It was one of 450 million similarly unsustainable garments Zara pumped out that year.

Apparel-industry writer Dana Thomas. Photo/Getty Images

Before anyone scoffs, “Hah! Those Trumps, eh?” it’s the same deal when any old Joe buys a cheap T-shirt. That’s 2700 litres of water, plus chemicals, for that scrap of cotton.

As for the latest sensation, the €1 bikini, Paris-based apparel-industry writer Dana Thomas speculates, “Whoever physically sewed that bikini would be lucky to have been paid 1c.”

Thomas’ profile of the fashion industry, Fashionopolis: The Price of Fast Fashion and the Future of Clothes, is far from a reductive call to get us all into organic boiler suits.

It’s packed with growers, manufacturers and designers around the world who are finding sustainable – and profitable – ways to produce quality, durable high-fashion clothing, and a slew of pioneers of new green and recycled fabric.

But considering the scale and relentless growth of super-fast-fashion labels such as Zara that aren’t sustainable producers, the green fashion-forward movement looks far from achieving an industry tipping point.

A Burberry fashion show in 2019. Photo/Getty Images

The human cost

Worldwide, the average consumer bought 60% more garments in 2014 than in 2000, but kept them for half as long, according to the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe. “Fast fashion is conditioning shoppers that it’s normal to burn through clothes,” Thomas says. She regrets that’s still an accelerating trend.

Social media has its part to play, with a UK survey last year finding one in 10 women would throw away a clothing item after being pictured online in it three times.

Fast-fashion trailblazer ASOS has had a profit slump this year, not because demand for its clothes is falling but because it’s growing so fast it has had logistical problems keeping up. But there have been some resonant jolts. That British luxury fashion house Burberry was found to have incinerated $55 million worth of unsold products in 2017 was a prime motivator for French President Emmanuel Macron’s G7 pact to eliminate waste.

From being a laggard on green issues, France this year decided to ban all product destruction within four years, after taking stock of the millions of euros worth of cosmetics, footwear and luxury goods being dumped and destroyed to protect markets. Companies can either sell, donate or recycle them, but dumping or destroying will attract steep fines and, just as damaging, terrible publicity. Staggeringly, France has calculated that just this one new restriction will cut its carbon dioxide emissions by 250,000 tonnes a year, equivalent to running 125,000 petrol cars.


It wants other big countries to sign up, and is also trying to broker a coalition of leading brands to commit to a code of sustainable practice. Other countries, including Britain, are mulling a per-garment tax to put towards waste reduction and sustainability.

Moral imperatives had been building up along with environmental ones, piqued by mass tragedies such as the 2013 garment-factory collapse in the Bangladeshi capital, Dhaka, that killed 1134 people and, just recently, the deaths of 43 workers in a fire in a bag factory in the Indian capital, Delhi.

The world has begun asking: do companies know workers are making their products in often deplorable and lethal conditions, and if not, why not?

A further quasi-albatross moment came when the charity Barnardo’s commissioned a survey on clothing consumption that found Britons bought 50 million new clothing items in a single summer season that they wore only once.

French President Emmanuel Macron. Photo/Getty Images

A stella cast

Obviously, fashion isn’t the only throwaway threat to the environment. The Global E-waste Monitor estimates developed countries junk electronic goods at a shocking rate – Britons are the worst, at 24.5kg per person, Australians dump 23.6kg and Americans 20kg.

European politicians have begun to consider legislation requiring all electronics and appliances to be repairable. For information technology, where regular “upgrades” and instant obsolescence are fundamental to the business model, this could be tricky.

But Thomas writes in Fashionopolis that it’s possible fashion, among the most conspicuous of the consumer goods we waste, could lead the way in climate-change mitigation. It’s a high-vis industry, and it’s easy for consumers to get how its dots are joined – from displaced rainforest and habitat, chemical pollution, voracious water use, labour exploitation … to that $5 T-shirt and €1 bikini.

In June, increasingly influential industry-leadership forum Global Fashion Agenda convened a Davos-style summit on sustainability for the rag trade in Copenhagen. There, the difficulties of greening the supply chain without going broke were aired. With a sense of inevitability, attendees discussed “pre-competitive collaboration”, admitting it was time to open up about supply chain effects. There was dawning recognition that if fashion giants continued to drag their Christian Louboutins, they might soon have nowhere to hide – from governments or consumers. The Sustainable Apparel Coalition (SAC), its footwear and clothing members comprising $500 billion in capitalisation, clearly does not yet come close to dominating the industry. But it’s developing a promising tool – the Higg Index – which is expected to be available for consumers to use within two years. It measures environmental and social performance throughout the production chain. SAC hopes that, in time, companies not fronting up with their supply-chain and resourcing data will find themselves at a severe brand disadvantage. The Higg criteria might also help shoppers detect greenwash – disinformation used to present an environmentally responsible public image.

The 2013 garment-factory collapse in Dhaka that killed 1134 people. Photo/Getty Images

There are now enough companies falling over themselves to prove their sustainable credentials that when Higg’s evidence-based comparisons become available, the $5 T-shirt makers could face decimation. The highly sought-after MUD jeans brand, for instance, is among manufacturers whose “new” garments are made from recycled denim and organic cotton. The famously “woke” Patagonia recycles polyester jackets into new pieces; Ecoalf and Riz’s clothes are recycled ocean plastic.

The industry’s beacon, however, is Stella McCartney, who in 2013 produced her first annual environmental profit and loss report – to considerable ridicule and hostility from industry peers. But she continues to run her profitable and influential label, despite the expense of excluding leather, fur and PVC (a near-ubiquitous plastic in garment embellishment). Her fabrics, including lab-produced cloths, are sustainably produced and don’t release microfilaments into the environment. Among her suppliers are a South Island merino farm, her sustainability chief Claire Bergkamp declaring its “happy sheep produce better wool”.

McCartney hasn’t just made a difference to her own bank account and conscience. Thomas reports that her campaign to discourage the wood-cellulose product rayon being produced from ancient or endangered rainforest has prompted all but one of the 10 wood-rayon producers to stop that logging.

She caused further ructions by beaming light on the reason the once prohibitively costly cashmere had become so affordable by the 1990s. Mongolia’s economic deregulation had brought a massive intensification in goat farming, displacing vast tracts of environmentally precious grassland into desert. Soft against the skin, tough against the planet.

Throwaway fashion has revolted other couturiers, notably the opulence-prone Jean Paul Gaultier. He became so sickened by it, he quit the ready-to-wear sector, saying, “We’re making clothes that aren’t destined to be worn. Too many clothes kills clothes.”

Stella McCartney. Photo/Getty Images

The need for speed

Thomas says there’s growing optimism that the green-motivated rise in second-hand clothing could be a life raft for the disappearing high street, as well as a further cue for fast fashion to cool its jets. British online thrift store ThredUp has estimated that, by 2028, the used market will be worth more than fast fashion. More retailers are accepting their clothes back for mending or resale, and physical retailers are beginning to give used clothing space on the shop floor. ThredUp further projects that extending the life or wear of a piece of clothing by just nine months can mitigate its carbon footprint by 30%.

In the US, it’s been calculated that keeping clothing for an extra three months would reduce the national carbon, water and waste footprints by 5-10%. The recycling of two million tonnes of clothing a year equates to taking one million cars from US streets.

The generally accepted global estimate is that, on average, 85% of clothing bought each year is dumped or burnt. We’re buying 60% more clothing, but keeping it for half as long. New Zealand is a slower fast-fashion consumer than many. Our discarded duds comprise 4% of our landfill. For Americans, it’s 7%.

But Global Fashion Agenda predicts apparel consumption will rise 63% to 102 million tonnes by 2030 if trends continue.

How did we achieve this accelerating blur of cheap clobber? Brands such as Benetton, Zara and H&M have refined the market to an intensively responsive global supply chain, enabled by digital reach and increased automation, known as “quick response”. Previously, fashion labels worked nearly a year ahead, designing, sourcing fabric and contracting – usually to Asia, the cheapest location for garment manufacturing – and hoping they’d picked the seasonal trends correctly when, months later, they hit the shops. Quick response, pioneered largely by Spain’s Zara brand, meant they could instead intensively focus-group the designs and remotely order smaller but more frequent batches from Asian factories. That, and make cheap knock-offs of couture designs. An imitation celebrity or royal frock can even be ordered online the day after its first appearance. Instead of a six- to nine-month cycle, fashion can now be a five- or six-week cycle. Keeping those pre-tested designs coming gave shoppers more choice of ever-cheaper clothing while reducing the risk of unsold inventory. This generated explosive profits. Fast-delivery online pioneers such as ASOS and Boohoo kicked things up another notch.

Fast fashion: a $15 “Christmas” dress available online from fashion brand Boohoo.

This in turn drove and accelerated new “efficiencies” all down the supply chain, perhaps the most profound being in cotton growing. When cotton first powered the Industrial Revolution, it was not a thirsty plant. The fabric in a $5 T-shirt would have required the amount of water it takes to make a cup of tea, compared with the litres it soaks up today.

As a grower explains to a shocked Thomas in Fashionopolis, cotton is a naturally rampant perennial that “wants” to become a tree. The way to make it produce its magic puffballs, instead, is to stress it by disrupting its growth.

In the 1980s, Germany-based European chemical company BASF developed a new growth-regulating chemical that turned the poor-soil perennial into an annual – but with several times the productivity per hectare.

By the late 1990s, Monsanto had inserted itself firmly into the supply chain, too, with its genetically modified Roundup Ready cotton, meaning farmers could kill weeds with Monsanto’s glyphosate herbicide without it affecting the crop. This was a labour-saving boon. The new cotton was more attractive to insects, so Bayer’s aldicarb insecticide became comparably indispensable. The fast-fashion and chemical multinationals were thus interlinked in a mutually beneficial partnership that, although we now know it to be environmentally disastrous on many levels – herbicides and insecticides have been increasingly fingered as carcinogens, water-table pollutants and pollinator inhibitors – will be hard to break. “We’ve made cotton this greedy monster,” Thomas says, “and it doesn’t have to be.”

Organic, old-fashioned, rough-as-guts cotton plants can be farmed sustainably, but the resultant fabric is much more expensive.

Thomas says perhaps the toughest mission in the campaign against fast fashion is to persuade consumers of the virtue of expensive clothing – much costlier and in less quantity.

Kowtow’s regenerated nylon swimwear, made from waste materials such as discarded carpets and ghost fishing nets. Photo/Kowtow website

The illusion of afordability

In New Zealand, where decades of heavy import control meant clothing was so expensive for most of the past century that many families had to save or budget for it, this is a hard sell. Even this month, economist Shamubeel Eaqub was lauding the affordability of clothing.

But affordability, says Thomas, is a dangerous illusion. Even discounting the disgraceful and chronic underpayment of garment workers worldwide, the environmental and resource cost is demonstrably unaffordable, she says.

“I keep hearing this view that, ‘I can’t afford to pay more for clothing.’ Well, yes, you can. If you look at the price of petrol, of food, of most things over the past few decades, and then compare what’s happened to clothes, it’s just a complete distortion.”

Fewer people sew, so fewer people have any idea how much work goes in to making a garment, let alone the invisible supply change depredations, which “afford” us these cheap, plentiful garments.

“Even jeans, the ultimate sustainable garment, made in durable fabric and riveted to last, have become a prime example of unsustainable clothing,” Thomas says. Jeans production requires nearly 38,000 litres of water per garment – nearly 7000 for the cotton, the rest for dyeing, washing and “distressing”. The synthetic indigo dye – much cheaper and less of a faff than sustainable plant indigo – contains 10 chemicals, including cyanide and formaldehyde.

Clothing made from recycled cashmere, plastic, leather and  polyester  in London’s Oxford St shopping precinct. Photo/Pamela Stirling/Listener

“I’m not a socialist or a Marxist, and I love clothes. I’ve been covering the fashion industry for 30 years, and even I have been shocked by what I’ve found in researching this book. It’s greed. It’s unbridled capitalism and unchecked globalism, and it’s just so out of kilter,” Thomas says.

Like so many other businesses, fast fashion has ignored the evidence from the 2008 global financial crisis – that chasing ever-bigger profits is commercially unsustainable. But that is because the fashion industry has proven that behaving unsustainably is sustainable.

A further contribution has been some trade deals, notably the North American Free Trade Agreement between the US, Canada and Mexico that takes no account of labour conditions and environmental effects. Thomas says the European Union’s stewardship, and sustainability and workforce provisions now built into more free-trade deals, can make a huge difference to curbing fashion’s rapacity. She’s also bullish about governmental moves towards curbing fast fashion through tax and regulation.

But Fashionopolis sharpens the impression that the definitive sustainable hemline will  be reached only when it becomes antisocial to produce and buy multiple garments and quite unthinkable to throw them away after a few wears.

Price-point revision needs a massive social nudge, to the point where shoppers accept that, say, $80 is a fair price for a cotton T-shirt; or $180 for organic linen pants; even $280 for a beautiful organic cotton shirt.

“If we pay people what they’re worth, only source from sustainable fabrics and make beautiful fashion, we can keep our garments forever.”


Photo/Getty Images

Fashionable fleece

Trees get all the headlines, but sheep actually sequester carbon, too.

Much maligned for belching methane, sheep are partially self-offsetting. For the lifespan of wool, it draws carbon from the air and locks it up, surrendering it only when it biodegrades.

And as it has among the longest lifespans of any common fabric, wool is a hero story New Zealand can proudly tell.

AgResearch textile technologist Stewart Collie is helping research a complete life-cycle assessment of wool in tandem with Australian Wool Innovation and says that, so far, it appears wool has a significant and measurable advantage over most other fabrics, especially in the “in-use” and “end-of-life” stages. It stays in your wardrobe for a lot longer, biodegrades and its fibres cause no harm.

Like hair, it’s made of the protein keratin and has surface lipids that repel water and resist stains. The crimp in the fibre insulates and also keeps you cooler in hot weather. Sweat into wool and it’ll absorb and release it.

Wool’s natural chemical compounds trap odour molecules – washing or even just airing it will release them. Collie says it also takes a lot less water and soap to get it clean, but “it’s a bit susceptible to UV degradation, so it’s best not to put it in direct sun”.

Wool not only has a near-blameless life but a laudable death. Research so far suggests the microfibres biodegrade in sea water and are probably harmless to ocean creatures. Keratin-digesting microbes are rare, but they obviously exist and do their stuff as all animal products (unless fossilised) disappear over time. “That gives wool a big advantage as a fabric,” says Collie.

Yet another sheep tick: wool garments tend to be kept for a long time, as the fabric lends itself more to classic garments than fleeting fads.

This article was first published in the December 21, 2019 issue of the New Zealand Listener.