By Leigh Morrow
The $4.00 T-Shirt. The $7.00 jeans. These are examples of low cost clothing that are swimming in the closets of North Americans, obsessed with cheap chic. Fast fashion is the industry’s term for the speed at which trendy styles move from the catwalks to the stores.
Once upon a time, there were two fashion seasons: Spring /Summer and Fall/Winter. But a few years ago, fashion executives in an effort to increase profits, changed the weather so to speak. Now, new trends are released every week, creating 52 “micro-seasons” leaving consumers feeling “out of trend” in only seven days. The goal of Fast Fashion is for consumers to buy as many items as possible in the shortest amount of time, and the trend is showing no signs of slowing down.
This business model depends on consumers’ desire for new clothing to wear, which is instinctive if the clothing falls apart on the first wash. Fueled by social media, and the desire to post photos wearing the latest trendy clothing, retail outlets like H&M, Zara, Forever 21, the Gap, and dozens of others have engineered a three-trillion-dollar fashion industry that is environmentally and socially devastating our planet, with the cheap clothes we so casually buy and wear and throw away.
Mexico has seen a flood of the popular low cost apparel brands, with stand alone stores like Forever 21 opening multiple stores in Mexico over the past few years, cashing in on the over 21 billion dollars that Mexicans spend on clothing each year. This year H & M opened in Lima, Peru, to take advantage of the country’s growing middle class and new access to credit. Fast fashion items gross profit margins of as much as 45%, but like all bargains, there is someone who pays the price.
In the same vein as “Super Size Me” or “Fast Food Nation”, the film “The True Cost” is a compelling documentary on our other addiction, the hugely profitable fast fashion industry. When a garment factory in Bangladesh collapsed in 2013 killing more than 11 hundred workers, filmmaker Andrew Morgan connected that event to the shirt he was wearing.
Researching the growing concern, as 80 billion tops and bottoms are purchased worldwide, Morgan begins his film at the bottom of the supply chain. Through a very humane lens, Morgan investigates these fast fashion companies. All are highly tuned investment machines and have engineered a nightmare that feeds shoppers’ voracious appetites for fashion apparel that’s chic cheap.
With an annual growth rate of 15% and new stores opening 365 days a year, the cheap chic industry posts staggering revenues. The profits on these cheap clothes are all made possible by outsourcing the clothing production to countries with less than regulated conditions and wages. In the cotton fields of India, we see the dire health issues of those working the pesticide soaked fields. Cancer for field workers, and devastating birth defects for their children, are taking their toll.
As the retail giants squeeze the suppliers, they in turn crank the ratchets on their workers, many of whom subsist on inhumanely low wages. Garment workers in the slums of Bangladesh, are beaten to death when they ask for fair wages, anything more than the $3 a day they live on now. In “The True Cost”, the camera trails the cast off clothing, into the clogged landfills of Haiti, just one place where our donated used t- shirts and jeans wind up. Fashion, the film notes, is one of the most polluting industries in the world, second only to oil.
We consume 500 percent more clothing than we did twenty years ago. Compared to two decades ago, almost all of our clothing is manufactured in the world’s developing (make that impoverished) countries. Adding to the misery, the film shows the consumers. Young girls in America, in You-Tube videos triumphantly showing off their clothing hauls from the retail outlets like H& M, the Gap, Forever 21, Zara, Wal-Mart, Target and countless others. Clothing they covet for the insanely low prices, often saying they really don’t know if they will ever get around to wearing it. Then, there are the disturbing pictures of frenzied Black Friday shoppers, trampling one another for holiday bargains.
The only way to see this film and not be revolted by your own fashion buys, is to see it naked, or at least in a comfortable find from the a thrift store, although, even charitable clothing donations are seen as a dark shadow of the fast fashion industry. Many people do not understand that the vast majority of their donations, some 82 pounds of clothing per person, per year, will be traded a broad for profit. In fact, most of our clothing donations end up in the hands of for-profit textile recyclers.
You may question, what’s the harm if your discarded summer dress ends up in Senegal? However, the film argues that this tsunami of used clothing has had a negative effect on the local textile industries.
“Your t-shirt may be quite cheap for someone to buy, but it would be better if that person could buy a locally manufactured t-shirt, so the money stays within the economy and that helps generate jobs.” says Morgan. Sadly, traditional dress is also being replaced with the cast offs of the western world.
The true cost of fast fashion is that all this cheap clothing, has an enormous price tag. The staggering cost of bargain brands makes me harken back to a simpler time not so long ago, when our closets had much fewer clothes, and ones that lasted not just from season to season, but for many years. Anyone who has helped his or her parents downsize will attest to this. Things use to be made to last. Like the fridge that is still purring along downstairs at my Dad’s house, bought when I was still in diapers, that by the way, weren’t disposable. The good news is that many people, including me, find shopping for gems at thrift stores, much more of an interesting shopping experience.
At midlife, there is nothing I really need, and I certainly don’t need any more crap. I like making do with less, and appreciating what I do have, and that includes my well-worn clothes, which have a history and often, a story to tell about my past and me.
Leigh Morrow is a Vancouver writer who operates Casa Mihale, a vacation rental in the quaint ocean front community of San Agustinillo, Mexico. Her house can be viewed and rented at http://www.gosanagustinillo.com