We are living in an age of fast fashion. Retailers are inexpensively and quickly producing clothes in response to the latest trends. However, these cheap clothes come at a high cost to our environment and our health.
Veteran journalist Dana Thomas reveals the good, bad, and ugly of the global clothing industry in her new book 'Fashionopolis: The Price of Fast Fashion and the Future of Clothes.'
"There was that great moment when the Speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi, pulled out an old Max Mara coat and everybody wanted that Max Mara coat. Max Mara was like: we can't get that back into production until next fall." In the age of fast fashion, consumers aren't often willing to wait and situations like this can be a missed opportunity for brands.
The global clothing industry produces 80 billion new garments a year, but fast fashion comes at a high risk to those making the garments ー sweatshops.
In 2013, an eight-story commercial building in the Dhaka District of Bangladesh, known as the Rana Plaza, collapsed due to structural failure. The catastrophe trapped and killed 1100 people. Thomas visited Bangladesh on the fifth anniversary of the disaster. "It was a bit like what I guess the Lower East Side of New York City was like in the late 19th century, that it was just building after building after building of sweatshops."
The Bangladesh Accord on Fire and Safety was established that year, after the collapse, in order to assure safe workplaces. As some conditions in garment factories have greatly improved, other problems still remain. The sweatshop that Thomas inspected didn't have raw wires hanging from the ceiling, no cotton on the floor (which is highly flammable), there was light, and it had its own pump and reservoir. As companies might not want to pay for these improvements, "it saves lives and that's the most important thing," Thomas said. "Workers should be well treated for making our clothes, we should appreciate what went into it, and know that they weren't slaves."
However, sweatshops aren't just a problem internationally. Cheap labor and poor conditions are prominent in the U.S. as well. "I went and visited them in downtown LA in the Bendix Building. Down the hall from cool art galleries there are people, undocumented workers, sewing clothes for a dollar or two an hour," Thomas said. "So, [a label] says 'Made in the USA' you think, 'Oh, that's great.' It's not necessarily great. It's really hard to know."
As fast fashion impacts people's health, it also takes a toll on our economy. Thomas believes the fast fashion operation isn't sustainable and it all stems from "the economies of scale." Why not produce more of one product if it's cheaper than producing less of it? Reportedly 20% of the clothing produced each year goes unsold. "How can that, in the long run, make good business sense," she said.
As New York Fashion Week wraps up, it is clear that many brands are focusing on sustainability. 'Fashionopolis' looks further into the steps consumers, designers, and retailers can take to reduce the industry's carbon footprint to create a brighter future.