The high cost of cheap fashion

Issue 

Overdress: The Shockingly High Cost of Cheap Fashion
By Elizabeth Cline
Penguin, 2012, 244 pages
$37.95 (hb)

Every year, Americans buy 20 billion garments, mostly from mass market clothes-makers such as Gap, Tommy Hilfiger, Nike, Wal-Mart and Target. They then throw away 13 million tons of it says a reformed clothing-addict, Elizabeth Cline, in Overdressed.

Charity shops can’t soak up the excess with less than 20% of thrift-shop clothing donations sold on. Most of the rest goes to landfill.

Half our clothes are made out of plastic in the form of polyester and other oil-based synthetics, half of it will sit for hundreds of years before degrading. This waste of a non-renewable fossil fuel resource is just one of the environmental costs of budget fashion.

Water is also wasted (2 trillion gallons globally) and global warming is fuelled by the greenhouse gas emissions from fibre production (which requires 145 million tons of coal a year).

Pollution from toxic chemicals used in bleaching, dyeing, water-proofing and wrinkle-proofing is endemic, arable land for food is lost to cotton growing, and sheep farming for wool causes soil erosion and biodiversity loss.

This ecological burden is the result of a competitive race by clothing capitalists to produce cheap and to sell the low price garments in high volume to maximise profits. To assist this, the “continuous consumption” of “must-have” fashion trends is “industry determined, created and destroyed arbitrarily in the interest of turning a profit”.

Quality is also reduced to pad profit. The cheaper the garment or shoe, the quicker it falls apart and needs replacing. To further shave costs, natural fibres have been replaced by cheaper polyester.

Domestic economic costs, too, are high. Apparel manufacturing is one of the fastest falling industries in America, losing 650,000 jobs in the last decade. The textile industry shed a further half million jobs.

The human rights costs of budget fashion are also steep. A Chinese garment worker earns only one quarter of what an already lowly-paid US garment worker gets, a Dominican one eleventh, a Bangladeshi one thirty-eighth.

Overseas garment workers’ wages make up just 1% of the US retail price of the clothing they produce. Child labour and sweatshops, gramped factory worker dorms, fire-trap factories and jailing of union activists have blighted the countries contracted by US clothiers to make their clothes.

To counter the bad public relations, US clothing companies announce voluntary codes of conduct and factory audits for its overseas suppliers. They then dishonour them by pre-announcing inspections, or setting up model “demonstration” factories to reassure nosy Western investigators like Cline.

The grim cost of looking trendy is well-documented by Cline. But she does not just attribute bla,e to the “profit-hungry producers” but also to consumers who demand cheap clothes. Cline’s solution is “ethical fashion”, with people willing to pay much more for fair-trade certified clothing that meets international labour standards, plus a revival of home sewing, mending and alteration skills.

Consumers, however, should not have to wear the economic, moral or skills burden of good clothes. The right to wear good clothes needs to break from market logic including the expensive niche sector of fair trade clothes.

This does not mean fashion being reduced to a universal scruffy socialist look, rather it means a socialist reorganisation of the clothing industry to ensure that the basic human right to affordable, quality clothing doesn’t get stitched up by clothing capitalists making money.