People do not give much thought to how their clothes are made, shipped, and end up in their homes every day. The world’s appetite for fashionable apparel has grown exponentially in the last three decades from $500 billion in trade to $2.4 trillion.
The key to this speedy growth is trends, sales and profits. The fast-fashion industries have reaped massive profits from the linear model of take-make-dispose. Globally, the fashion industry churns out more than 100 billion items of clothing each year, while 20 per cent of leftovers are shredded, incinerated, or buried in landfills by producers. With the quick turnaround of new styles, Americans disposed of 14 million tons of clothing in 2018.
Dirty secrets are embedded in this high-speed production process, argues Dana Thomas – a Paris-based fashion journalist, in her book, Fashionopolis: The Price of Fast Fashion and the Future of Clothes. The book examines the supply chain management systems behind the fashion industry – brands, contractors, subcontractors, retailers and workers, and suggests some methods in response to fast fashion.
It is a fast-paced read. In the first half of the book, Thomas presents a set of far-reaching problems, including human rights in developing economies, environmental abuses, and job loss in developed countries.
She explains how the clothes are made through labour abuses. Corporations evade direct responsibility by allowing their contractors to hire subcontractors, who unscrupulously exploit the underpaid and often underage garment workers. The 2013 Rana Plaza factory collapse in Bangladesh exemplified this dirty business. The corporate leaders then claimed that they had no idea that this was happening. Only when confronted with evidence and international shaming were concessions made to provide monetary aid and medical care to workers. In her travels to Bangladesh in 2018, the author witnessed labour abuses in the subcontracting factories where no monitoring is in effect and bribery is common. As of January 2019, Bangladeshi worker’s minimum wage is $95 a month – half a living wage. These workers are expected to work in intense heat and provided with unsanitary drinking water.
She further illustrates how cotton – the primary material that most clothes are made of, is a notoriously filthy crop. It takes 10,000 litres of water to grow one kilo of cotton and almost another 20,000 litres to produce a T-shirt and a pair of jeans. Thomas discusses the production of denim in detail, as blue jeans are made of 100% cotton, while toxic runoff and wastewater are released into local rivers. Such is the case of Xintang, a town in Guangdong province in China, where the roads are covered in blue dusted, and the riverbed contains high levels of lead, copper and cadmium.
Thomas also looks at the offshoring issue when the North American Free Trade Agreement entered into force in the 1990s. Companies like Levis, employing thousands of US workers, laid them off, closed their factories and moved overseas in search of cheaper labour.
The second half of the book proposes different methods as a response to fast fashion. For a shift to happen, she advocates for ‘slow fashion’, which produces items with inherent value and reduces their environmental impact rather than chasing the fast fashion industry trends. She contends that it “honors craftsmanship, respects tradition while embracing modern technology to make production cleaner and more efficient.”
Instead of offshoring, companies should practice ‘right shoring’, Thomas claims. For instance, Alabama Chanin – a US women’s wear brand, refurbished abandoned factory buildings and brought in new technology. The company circumvents labour abuses by turning to robotics. The problem is that their green and sustainable products are extremely expensive. A hand-sewn double-layer organic cotton jersey costs around $800.
She moves on to discuss the sustainability model of luxury products. The British designer Stella McCartney invested extensive funds in Research and Development and established the environmental profit and loss system analyzing greenhouse gas emissions, air and water pollution, and many other environmental issues caused by the production process.
Moreover, breakthroughs of 3-D printing have modernized the fashion industry. Nike, Adidas, and New Balance, for example, use 3-D printing on some components of their running shoes.
Fashionopolis offers some insights into the lucrative fashion industry, which has far-reaching implications on social and environmental issues. Yet, this book is not for the lower-middle class and the poor. If one cannot afford the green, sustainable clothes, they can either purchase them second-hand or rent them, Thomas suggests. But, the second-hand clothes of Stella McCartney, Gucci, Louis Vuitton, and other luxury brands remain much more expensive than Zara and H&M clothes. People with a wage of $300 a month still cannot afford it.
Thomas focuses on the brand’s side to tackle fast fashion and expects consumers to change their behaviour. Instead of providing solutions to deal with the developing countries’ working conditions, she advocates setting up the slow model in developed economies. But, this does not solve the current prevalent labour abuses. Moreover, the unintended consequence of ‘right shoring’ is that it hits the developing countries’ economy, which depend on the garment industry for economic growth. For example, 83% of Bangladesh’s foreign currency comes from this industry, and 50 million people rely on it for their livelihoods (Chapter 2, Section 6, para 2). This means after a wave of factory closures, unemployment rises, and poverty will follow.
Most importantly, there are other challenges in terms of reforming supply chains. For example, the recent alleged forced labour of China’s Xinjiang Uighur has made western brands come into conflict with Chinese consumers. Companies under The Better Cotton Initiative- a Geneva-based non-profit organization advocating for better human rights and higher ethical standards in cotton farming, have issued statements condemning Xinjiang’s cotton industry. Consequently, there is a backlash against western brands, including H&M, Nike, Adidas and Burberry, following their statements not to source Xinjiang’s cotton. In particular, H&M products were dropped from major e-commerce platforms such as Alibaba’s Tmall and Taobao, Pinduoduo and others, which tremendously affected sales.
The author seems to oversimplify the problems at hand. As seen, the fashion industry seems like the whack-a-mole problem – fixing one thing at a time, while another problem occurs. From start to finish, it is a vicious cycle.