Calculating the True Cost of Cheap, Fast Fashion

A trend-driven culture makes fast fashion cheap and easy, but at what cost?

fast fashion
Photos by Lauren Jeziorski taken at SOCCRA Material Recovery in Troy

The allure of fast fashion doesn’t take much explaining. You can skip into a fast fashion retailer – your Forever 21s, H&Ms, Targets – with 50 bucks to blow and walk out with a complete, on-trend look and with change leftover for lunch. And when your outfit is no longer in vogue or wears thin after a few washes or suffers a rip we can’t be bothered to have repaired because that’d cost as much as the thing itself, we go back for more. It’s intoxicating.

As I typed that last sentence, my SZA radio stream was interrupted by an advertisement for women’s boots at Meijer, “starting as low as $19.99.” A chipper voice asks, “Why pay more?” While we’re busy getting drunk on the mass-produced madness, most of us remain blissfully ignorant of the human, creative and environmental costs of cheap, disposable fashion.

“There’s some benefits to it,” Detroit Garment Group president Karen Buscemi says of fast fashion. Sometimes we just want to be able to buy something cute and not have to think much about it, and it makes us feel good. “That’s OK,” Buscemi says, “but that should be more of a once in a while thing (rather) than your regular way of making purchases.”

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It’s like fast food. Craving a fatty burger, greasy french fries and a pop with more sugar than the daily recommended amount? Fine, treat yo’ self. But that meal should be an occasional indulgence and not the routine way in which you feed yourself.

Revving Up

Gap in the early ‘90s was a precursor, but it was Zara founder Amancio Ortega who first pioneered the fast fashion model that we’ve grown to covet. Instead of new designs dropping into stores seasonally, as was customary 25 years ago, Spanish brand Zara gets fresh styles into its stores year-round.

Forever 21 and H&M receive new shipments daily, and London-based Top Shop’s website gets updated with 400 new designs weekly, according to New York-based author and journalist Elizabeth Cline’s 2012 exposé-style book Overdressed: The Shockingly High Cost of Cheap Fashion.

Fast fashion retailers are delivering the eye-pleasing goods quickly and selling them for far cheaper than their traditional competitors, while still remaining profitable. However, RetailDetail reported in January that H&M’s profits plummeted by 21.8% in 2018, down for the third year in a row. The brand sited “logistical expenses” and has planned 175 new stores throughout 2019.

“It’s hard to compete with pricing when oftentimes we’re doing short runs on styles and not as much volume, so we can’t get the bulk discounts and quantity discounts that big businesses get,” says Détroit is the New Black owner Roslyn Karamoko, whose store recently reopened touting a new sustainable model.

The savings that fast fashion retailers enjoy get passed on to the customers. Forever 21 can afford to sell a shirt for $14.50 because of cheap materials and cheap labor, but also because they sell such a brain-numbing amount of them that they can afford to spread profits. It’s the dollar slice effect. In an expensive city like New York, how can pizzerias exist selling $1 slices of pie? Volume.

But when it comes to cheap fashion, make no mistake: somebody’s paying for it. According to PayScale, a sewing machine operator in the United States can expect to make $11.69 per hour on average, $8.96 on the low end and $15.21 at the high point. A shoddy income in American standards, for sure, but compare that to “starvation wages” paid to workers in countries where the majority of our clothes are being made.

According to UK labor rights group Labour Behind the Label, garment workers – 80% of them women – can earn as little as $21 a month in countries like India, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka, and be subjected to long hours, forced overtime, unsafe conditions and sexual, physical and verbal abuse.

“It’s all yellow, brown and black people that are in semislavery making fast fashion, and we really have to consider that,” Detroit-bred designer Tracy Reese said when we spoke about her recently released, responsibly designed collection, Hope for Flowers, available at DITNB and Anthropologie.

On Nov. 24, 2012, a fire whirled around the Tazreen Fashions factory outside Dhaka, Bangladesh, killing 117 garment workers. It took firefighters all night to extinguish the blaze at the factory that made clothes for global retailers like Walmart and Sears, The New York Times reported.

Scott Nova, executive director of the Workers Rights Consortium, told the The Times, “Regardless of what sparked the fire, it is clear that the unsafe nature of this factory and the actions taken by management once the fire started were the primary contributors to the horrendous death toll.”

Karen Buscemi, who also owns garment manufacturing facility Detroit Sewn, says she makes it clear to her clients that Detroit Sewn does not intend to compete with foreign manufacturers – that’s not their game. “When we hear some of the prices that are being charged for these pieces, we tell our clients, ‘How much money do you think their employees are making? Just imagine how they are living so that you’re able to have a cheaper piece,’” she says.

Plus, for the small- to mid-sized, mostly Michigan-based brands that she works with, Buscemi says, the headaches that can come from working with foreign manufacturers just aren’t worth the savings. She remembers an incident where an Asian manufacturer didn’t sew care and content labels on a clients’ garments, and so the order wasn’t allowed through Customs.

Instead, agents stuck the batch in a warehouse near the airport. “We had to go down there with machinery and sew labels onto thousands of pieces,” Buscemi says. “And every single day that that was sitting in that warehouse, the warehouse was charging them.”

Nearly three-fifths of all clothing ends up in landfills or incinerators within a year of being produced, according to Forbes; every second, one garbage truck’s worth of textiles is landfilled or burned. Fast fashion has created this trend-driven utopia where one day you’re in and the next day you’re out.

The accessibility and disposability of cheap, fashionable, decent-enough stuff means that we buy without much thought and toss aside with little concern. I’ve bought the same pair of $20 jeans from H&M four or five times. I fell in love with the fit so I wear them until they start to break down, which doesn’t take long, and then I throw them away and buy new ones. No harm, no foul, right? Wrong.

It takes 1,800 gallons of water to grow enough cotton to make one pair of jeans, and the toxic dyes used to color the denim creates chemical runoff that pollutes our water supplies. According to the United Nations Environment Programme, the fashion industry produces 20% of global wastewater and 8-10% of the planet’s carbon emissions.

Slowing Down

In July, Zara’s parent company Inditex pledged that, by 2025, all of its eight brands would use only cotton, linen and polyester that’s organic, sustainable or recycled. An August article by Teen Vogue questioned whether that will be enough.

A commitment to natural fabrics sounds like a great first step toward sustainability, but again, it takes a ridiculous amount of water to grow cotton, and if the plan is to continue to produce trend-focused clothing that’s designed to be expendable, fabric aside, can that ever really be sustainable?  

“With cotton, even when it’s organic, I still don’t think you’re solving the water usage that comes with cotton. That’s such a major issue,” Buscemi says, but she applauds the effort. She says it’s about loving what you buy and consistently finding new ways to use it.

“We have so many things in our closet, and it’s funny, if you just go back into your closet, just start trying things on and start looking at things again, you will find that there are pieces that you just consistently overlook that you actually really like and still want to wear.”

Karamoko, who also lectures at Wayne State University in its fashion design and merchandising department says, “(Fashion) just wasn’t available to us at the prices that’s it’s available. We got here through the advancements in technology and the drive of the overall social culture toward consumption, and money- and celebrity-driven lifestyle.”

She says to move away from this will take “a mental shift more than anything.” Karamoko adds, “I think we have to start thinking about uniform. What does the daily uniform sort of look like for us. It doesn’t necessarily mean it has to be boring, but there has to be a few staple pieces that are in our closets that we’ve invested in.”

The short of it is this: Well-made clothing is not cheap. Ethically-produced clothing is not cheap. Few of us can afford a $2,000 dress, but most of us can swing one for $200 if we prioritize quality over quantity and people over things. I followed Overdressed author Cline’s example and took inventory of my closet and of my own overconsumption, something she did at the start of her book.

I have 32 dresses. And of those 32 dresses, if I’m honest with you and myself, I real-deal love only about five or six of them. If I averaged the cost for each, I figure that’d work out to be about $40. So, that means I’ve got roughly $1,300 worth of dresses – that’s just dresses – hanging in my wardrobe.

Instead of throwing out $30 here and $50 there for dresses I feel meh about just to be able to say I’ve got something new, what if I put a little money aside and shopped just once or twice a year for a few dresses that are well-made, responsibly-sourced and ones that I’ll truly cherish for years and not weeks?

If we start to demand better, and refuse to be OK with poorly and cheaply made garments that are harmful to us, the people who make them and to the planet, then fast fashion retailers will respond in kind. It’s true that we can’t point a finger at the fast fashion machine without also turning one on ourselves. Still, we can’t absolve the industry of the responsibility of cooking up the cheap dope that got us hooked in the first place.

Model: Bria Larine, @brialarine

Stylist: Marv Neal, marvneal.com, @marvneal

Hair: Genevieve Edwards, @hairlife2you

Makeup: Ashley Valentina, @valentina.mua

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