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The environment and economy are paying the price for fast fashion — but there’s hope

Companies like Zara, Forever 21, H&M, and Boohoo make cheap, disposable clothing, but the cost is higher than we think.

A two-story storefront of the fashion company Zara, with pedestrians walking by.
Zara, owned by the second-wealthiest person in the world, makes inexpensive, disposable clothes.
Alex Tai/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images

The fashion industry, if you haven’t already noticed, is a dreadful mess, and big-toe shoes and other go-home-fashion-you’re-drunk trends are the least of its problems. Apparel and footwear production currently accounts for 8.1 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions, or as much as the total climate impact of the entire European Union. Euromonitor analysts warn that the fashion market’s annual 5 percent growth risks “exerting an unprecedented strain on planetary resources” by raising annual production to more than 100 million tons by 2030. If no action is taken, emissions from textile manufacturing alone are projected to skyrocket by 60 percent, according to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change.

Dana Thomas, a veteran journalist who has written for the Washington Post, the New York Times, and the Wall Street Journal, among others, doesn’t mince statistics in the early chapters of Fashionopolis: The Prices of Fast Fashion and the Future of Clothes. “Fast fashion” — which is to say cheap, disposable clothing, made indiscriminately, imprudently, and often without consideration for environmental and labor conditions by companies like Zara, H&M, Forever 21, Nasty Gal, and Fashion Nova — is a disease, and both the planet and its people are paying the price. Zara alone churns out roughly 840 million garments every year for its 6,000 stores worldwide, often at sub-poverty wages for its workers. Once-thriving rivers in China, India, Bangladesh, wrecked by wastewater effluent from factories, have transformed into biologically dead zones replete with cancer-causing chemicals. Tiny plastic microfibers, shed by synthetic garments during laundry, are inundating our water supply and food chain. But how did we wind up here? Through her reporting, Thomas pulls together disparate geopolitical and anthropological threads to compose a gripping narrative of the complex world we live in, and how it’s changed the way we dress through the decades.

Don’t worry, it’s not all doom and gloom. As the author makes clear, solutions are available. Thomas makes her own journey around the globe speaking to designers, scientists, and activists who are trying to right the ship before it’s too late, whether it’s through breakthroughs in fiber-recycling technology, cruelty-free lab-grown materials, hyperlocal manufacturing, or alternative retail platforms such as resale and rental, which can sate the Instagram generation’s desire for novelty without piling on fashion’s negative impacts. “This is a book about hope,” she tells me. What follows is our conversation, which has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.

Let’s talk about the name of your book, Fashionopolis. You wrote that it stems from both “Cottonopolis” in Manchester — the world’s first major manufacturing center during the first Industrial Revolution — and Fritz Lang’s dystopian film Metropolis. Both paint pretty sobering pictures. Is today’s fashion system equally an indictment of capitalism and greed writ large?

My husband, who is in finance, read the book, and he teased me and said, “You know, this book is a little bit Marxist.” And I don’t know if I think of myself as a Marxist, but I do think the book reflects what’s going on right now, which is the unbridled capitalism that we’ve had for the past 20 years with globalization and the digital age. That you can become the second-richest person in the world, like Amancio Ortega, who owns Inditex and thus Zara, by selling gobs of throwaway clothes and paying pennies to people to make them — that, to me, is the ultimate snapshot of wealth disparity that everyone’s complaining about. If a piece of clothing costs you $19.99, that means the person who made it was paid 19 cents.

I do think that this book is about fashion, but it’s also about society today. I see myself not only as a fashion journalist but also as a cultural social anthropologist. Clothes are easy to relate to because we all buy them, wear them, wash them, have them in our houses, and you don’t need an MBA or an engineering degree to understand what I’m talking about. And so I use clothes to talk about a bigger-picture story like globalization, the backlash to globalization, global warming, wage and income disparity, you know, capitalism — unbridled capitalism — and its impact on the planet and society as a whole.

People ask me what this book is about. I say it’s about humanity. And they’re like, “What?” But it is, it’s about humanity and how it really hasn’t changed. It’s been this way since Richard Arkwright first launched his Water Frame spinning machine back in Manchester 250 years ago [to mechanically spin thread with minimal human labor]. He started something that we thought was great but in fact put us on the path to where we are today politically, socially, and economically.

It’s hard to believe that “fast fashion” only started really in the late 1980s — Zara gets a lot of the credit or blame for taking the idea of quick-response manufacturing and really running with it. Now it’s practically the norm. You mention in your book three main casualties of the business model: jobs in developed economies, human rights in developing nations, and the environment. How did we, as a civilization, become so inured to these levels of destruction?

Because it all went offshore, so it’s not in our face. What was in our face was the economic disruption. We saw the fallout in places like Lowell, Massachusetts; Florence, Alabama; and the Carolinas, where we had manufacturing in America before it went offshore, but we didn’t see the rest of the destruction. We don’t see the landfills, we don’t see where all those clothes that we donate go, we don’t see the poor people and how miserable they are in the places where they’re sewing these clothes.

One of the women I spoke to for the book, Dilys Williams, who is the director of the Centre for Sustainable Fashion at the University of the Arts London, told me that in the old days — and not even in the old days but pre-offshoring — we always knew somebody who was in the garment industry, whether it was your cousin, a neighbor down the street, or someone at your church or at your school, so you had a person related to what you were wearing, and you thought about them. But once we removed that emotional investment from the equation, we cared less about our clothes. And so then we started treating them like fast food.

Yes, the generations that came before, especially the “make do and menders” of the Second World War, had a much different relationship with their clothes.

Exactly. We used to take Home Ec classes, so then you knew what it took to sew clothes. Once even that went away, there was a big change in our regard toward them.

You used the term “fashion bulimia,” which encapsulates the bingeing and purging that’s happening. This is learned behavior, though.

It is. It is. Because we have been living in the land of plenty for so long; there hasn’t been a Depression or war where we’ve had to rip out our lawns and plant Victory Gardens. We can just get in the car and go drive down the road and buy vegetables. We’ve raised whole generations to put convenience and cost ahead of anything else. And so we want disposable and we want cheaper, cheaper, cheaper.

A young woman with a breathing mask over her nose and mouth sits and works at a sewing machine in a garment factory.
Bangladeshi workers work at a garments factory on the outskirts of Dhaka. Bangladesh produces much of the world’s fast fashion.
Mehedi Hasan/NurPhoto via Getty Images

But it’s what designer Maria Cornejo, who used to fly halfway across the world in business class to source a 30-cent sweater for other fashion companies, refers to in the book as a “false economy.” You think you’re saving money by giving everybody plastic cutlery that you can just toss, but the environmental impact of making and throwing away all that stuff is actually very costly to society in different ways.

So that’s what I think I’m trying to talk about in this book, that we need to consume less, better. If I were to have hashtags besides #Fashionopolis, it would be #buylessbetter and #keepthingslonger and #makethingsbetter. We need to put integrity back into everything we do. We have to dial our consumption and disposal back because the world just isn’t big enough to hold it all.

You note in your book that creative theft, greed, and a lack of regard for people and the environment have always been a part of fashion. Has technology like social media — and the influencer culture it has engendered — accelerated this?

Yeah, definitely. And that whole Cinderella syndrome — where you wear it once, you post on Instagram, and then you get rid of it — is a disaster. And that there’s a whole culture that says if you’ve been seen in an outfit three times, you need to rid yourself of it. That’s why the study that said the average garment is worn seven times before it’s thrown away — and in China, it’s three times, as I was told by YCloset — is very disturbing. We’re not investing value into the clothes that we’re buying. And we need to start doing that.

But my two favorite women on the planet right now are the Duchess of Cambridge and the Duchess of Sussex because they’re popularizing the “royal rewear.” These are the two most high-profile women on the planet today, the biggest of the biggest influencers. And they’re trotting out the same coats and dresses over and over for high-profile events and showing that you can wear that Alexander McQueen coat about 10 different ways and it always looks great. I love this. And I think they have decided to try to change this consumption monster, attach value to their purchases, and sort of put those Cinderella-syndrome influencers on Instagram to shame, which they should. Another hashtag: #royalrewear. Let’s just embrace it and do it.

Forever 21 recently announced it is filing for bankruptcy; should we celebrate this or bemoan the fact that it’s being supplanted by digitally native faster-fashion players like Boohoo and Fashion Nova?

Forever 21, as I learned when I was going around the sweatshops in LA, was one of the companies that was taking advantage of the underground workforce in Los Angeles. Yes, we have sweatshops in LA; I’ve seen them with my own eyes and it’s pretty dreadful. Not quite as grim as Bangladesh, but not far off and just up the street from some pretty posh offices and restaurants in downtown LA. So if that’s one less company sourcing from those places and will help shut them down, great.

And it kind of proves that the fast-fashion model isn’t sustainable. If you’re turning out domestic made-in-sweatshop clothes for pennies instead of dollars an hour and you still can’t survive, then that model isn’t the right business model. H&M is in trouble. All these companies are sprinting. I think they’ve been sprinting for a long time, and they’re all gonna run out of gas pretty soon.

I feel like the companies that are going to do really well in the future are the ones who are not following the economies of scale but instead producing only what they need, making to order, and producing near their markets. I don’t have an MBA, but for me, that makes sense, and it’s good business.

There are other alternatives to the typical retail business model, too, like rental and resale, which are both catching on like gangbusters. Rent the Runway hit a $1 billion valuation, traditional retailers like Ann Taylor, Express, and Urban Outfitters have launched their own rental schemes, and even hallowed department stores like Macy’s and J.C. Penney are dipping into resale with ThredUp.

People ask me how I’ve changed the way I dress since I started working on the book. I’ve got some nice clothes from Alabama Chanin, I’m going to buy some colored cotton from Sally Fox, who is a genius, genius person, and I’ve been renting for special events. When I had to go to a black-tie gala at the Cannes Film Festival I rented a Diane von Furstenberg gown that I probably would never have bought because it would have been too expensive and I’d be like, “How many times am I going to wear a gown like this?” But I felt like a princess, got a bazillion compliments, and then the next day packed it off to the people I rented it from. And I push my daughter, who’s 19, to do that. If there’s a prom or a wedding, let’s rent the dress, let’s rent the suit. Let’s look fantastic for a fraction of the price and then put the clothes back into circulation like taking a book from the library.

There are little tiny changes in behavior we can do, like washing our clothes less. When we do, wash them with cold water on a short cycle. They’ll still get clean but they’ll use less water and less energy and release fewer polluting microfibers. And our clothes will last longer.

Resale is huge. I just did a huge Marie Kondo purge. I put some things on The RealReal and I put some things on the Vestiaire Collective and it was great. As my friend Cameron Silver says, they’re pre-loved — not used, not vintage: pre-loved. And most of what I put up sold and somebody else is loving them.

One thing that’s been in the headlines is the G7 Fashion Pact led by Kering, which has 32 companies representing 150 brands pledging to tackle climate change, ocean protection, and biodiversity. But an argument several NGOs have put forth is that the time for voluntary commitments for corporations is over and what we need are legally binding commitments, like the Accord for Fire and Building in Safety in Bangladesh or government regulation, as recently suggested by the Environmental Audit Committee of the UK’s House of Commons. Where should the onus for fixing fashion lie?

On brands, without question. Especially the super-mega ones run by people who have made billions; they will not change a thing unless they have to because they’re reaping so much profit. And it doesn’t have to be forced by law, it can also be forced by shame, or by just pressure from within. Look at what Stella McCartney did with Kering. I don’t think Kering would have necessarily embraced sustainability had she not been there poking executives with a stick. When she first started her company 20 years ago and said she wouldn’t use fur or leather, everybody thought she was out of her mind. And when she said no to PVC and got the whole group not to use PVC, sequin companies who used PVC said, “Ah, if we’re going to lose the whole Kering group, which buys sequins every year, we better come up with an alternative for them.”

The exterior of an H&M story with pedestrians walking by. SOPA Images/LightRocket via Gett

So for shifts to happen, it has to be really strong-minded changemakers like Stella McCartney poking people with a stick, it has to be economically viable, or it has to be put down in law. But it’s on the brands. And the poking can come from consumers; it can be something as simple as a boycott — “We’re not going to buy this stuff anymore, this stuff is terrible, change it up.” Look how quickly we got rid of plastic straws. It shows that consumers can push brand new companies and businesses to change very fast if we put our minds to it.

So here’s the $3 trillion question: What would a Fashionopolis that is equitable and just look like?

That’s a good question. Well, I would not be visiting some of those sweatshops that I saw in Bangladesh and Vietnam, which were just appalling. And I wouldn’t be going to see dead rivers filled with runoff from jeans-washing factories in Ho Chi Minh that made me want to vomit. There would be fish in that stream. You wouldn’t have bedridden 26-year-olds who can’t have children because a factory collapsed on them. You wouldn’t have landfills full of clothes. You’d have more fields of indigo and organic cotton.

Gosh, if we could just go back to organic cotton, I feel like most of our ills would be solved. We wouldn’t have fashion entrepreneurs who possess more wealth than many countries. And the divide between the people who make clothes and the people who are telling them to make the clothes would not be so vast. And there would be more accountability and fewer containers of clothes falling into seas because they wouldn’t be shipped all around the world. And ideally we would have sewing classes back in school so everybody knows how to sew on a button and repair a hem. And it’s good for you! It’s been proven that you can reach the same state of zen doing needlework as you can by doing yoga.

I also feel like if people sewed more, they would have a more realistic idea of how much things should cost, rather than these artificially deflated prices.

After the stock market crashed in 1929 and all the rich people lost their fortunes, Hattie Carnegie, the retailer, to stay in business, started an off-the-peg ready-to-wear collection for the middle market called Spectator Sports. Raymond Chandler referred to it in The Long Goodbye as the “secretary special.” And one of those suits or dresses from Spectator Sports cost $19.99 — and this was in the early ’30s. And that’s the same price you pay at H&M or Zara [despite inflation over the decades].

Is anything else we buy today the same price as it was at the height of the Depression? Of course not. Is anything we’re buying today the same price it was in 1928 before the crash? Of course it’s not. Eggs were, let’s say, 20 cents and now they’re $3. A pound of ground beef was less than 30 cents. Everything’s gone up 100 times but we’re still paying the same price for ready-to-wear, off-the-peg “secretary specials.” That for me was clarifying, no matter what the book was going to be about. How did we get to that point where we’re still paying the same price as we were during the Depression?

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