The unsustainable costs of cheap & fast fashion (review of Fashionopolis)

sweatshirts-428607_1920Want to save the planet? Start with your closet and skip next week’s Boxing Day sales.

We’re making and buying more clothes than ever before. Between 2000 and 2014, worldwide production doubled to 100 billion items. Twenty per cent of those items go unsold and get buried, shredded or incinerated.

And we’re not holding on for long to the 80 billion clothes that we do buy. On average, we wear clothes just seven times before burying them in our closets, giving them away or tossing them in the trash. Each of us throws out around 36 kilograms worth of clothes annually.

We’re on an epic shopping spree thanks to fast fashion. Our malls and big box stores are continually restocked with trendy and inexpensive clothes made and shipped at lightning speeds from subcontracted sweatshops that run on the cheapest labour in the world’s poorest countries.

fashionopolisThe clothes may be cheap but they come at a steep and unsustainable cost, says Dana Thomas, journalist and author of Fashionopolis: The Price of Fast Fashion and the Future of Clothes.

“Every day, billions of people buy clothes with nary a thought – nor even a twinge of remorse – about the consequences of those purchases.”

Fashion is big business. It’s a $2.4 trillion industry that employs one out of every six people around the world. Yet less than two per cent of those workers earn a living wage.

“Since the invention of the mechanical loom nearly two and a half centuries ago fashion has been a dirty, unscrupulous business that has exploited humans and Earth alike to harvest bountiful profits. Slavery, child labor and prison labor have all been integral parts of the supply chain at one time or another – including today.”

Along with exploiting the poorest of the poor, we’re wrecking the planet every time we buy yet another cheap t-shirt, hoodie, dress or pair of jeans.

The World Bank estimates that manufacturing clothes accounts for nearly 20 per cent of all industrial water pollution and 10 per cent of carbon emissions.

One-fifth of all insecticides are used to grow cotton. Manufacturing a single cotton t-shirt requires nearly half a kilogram of fertilizer, 25.3 kilowatts of electricity and 2,700 litres of water.

Synthetic fabrics are no better. Up to 40 per cent of microfibres from these fabrics wind up in rivers, lakes and oceans and worm their way up the food chain. Nearly 90 per cent of 2,000 fresh- and seawater samples tested by the Global Microplastics Initiative contain microfibres.

“We, as consumers, play a pivotal part,” says Thomas. “It’s time to quit the mindless shopping and consider what we are doing, culturally and spiritually. When we ask ourselves ‘what am I going to wear today?’, we should be able to answer knowledgeably and with a dash of pride. We have been casual about our clothes, but we can get dressed with intention. It is time to really care.”

We can show we care by joining the slow fashion revolution. Thomas showcases a growing movement of makers, designers, merchants and manufacturers who are championing localization and regionalism, honoring craftsmanship, respecting tradition, embracing modern technology to make production cleaner and greener and treating workers well.

Yes, we’ll pay more for slow fashion clothes. But it’ll be worth it if you care about the planet and the people who do the work. And really, how many t-shirts, hoodies, dresses and jeans does one person need?

This review ran in the Dec. 21 edition of The Hamilton Spectator. I’ve reviewed business books for the Spectator since 1999. By day, I’m communications manager for McMaster University’s Faculty of Science and call Hamilton, Ontario home.

Published by Jay Robb

I've reviewed more than 500 business books for the Hamilton Spectator since 1999 and worked in public relations since 1993.

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