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Opinion

Column: Fast fashion is cheap, wasteful and hurting the planet — and you can stop it

Los Angeles Fashion Week begins in October in the biggest clothing manufacturing center in the country. But what do you find when you go beneath the clothes — not the nudity but something much more revealing: how the world’s wardrobes are made, and what real damage is done to the planet and to humans who create your $10 “bargain”?

Before Dana Thomas, there may not have been a job description for an “investigative fashion reporter,” but she has certainly claimed it. In her new book, “Fashionopolis: The Price of Fast Fashion and the Future of Clothes,” she goes inside sweatshops, boardrooms, washing machines, stores, laboratories and showrooms to find out about the ravages wrought by cheap, disposable fashion, and the work of both technology and conscience to remedy it.

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The good news for L.A. is that it’s the largest apparel manufacturing center in the country. Part of the bad news is half of the people who work in it are undocumented, apparently working in sweatshops. What are the consequences and the impact here in L.A.?

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Well, the consequences: You can see these sweatshops; they’re sort of like in plain sight. It’s a shame for L.A. because it is such an important garment industry, that so much of it is underground essentially.

Because the things are made in the USA, they get to carry a “made in the USA” label — and it begs the question of, maybe we should be IDing our clothes by how they’re made, not where they’re made, because obviously “where” doesn’t really confer anything.

It’s also a great loss for Los Angeles just simply in terms of things like revenue; because these folks are undocumented, they’re paid poorly — they’re paid so poorly. They’re paid $1 or $2 an hour, maybe $3 an hour. They’re not paid for overtime, and sometimes at the end of the month they aren’t even paid what they’re due.

So it would be really wise of the city to crack down on these sweatshops that are in plain view. I know Los Angeles has a lot of big problems, but considering it’s the largest garment industry center in the country, you’d think that this would be a really important issue for the city.

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In the last 20 or 25 years, the mania for fast fashion, for more and more clothes, has sped up. Between 2000 and 2014, you note that the number of garments doubled to a hundred billion made annually that’s 14 new garments per person per year on the planet. How have the consequences of this gone unreckoned with for so long?

Because we have so many other fish to fry, and also because we don’t really know how our clothes are made, which is why I wrote the book. My inspiration for this book were two other books that I just adored. One was “Fast Food Nation” and the other was “The Omnivore’s Dilemma,” which were both about the food industry.

When you read those two books, you go, wow, I had no idea that the fast food industry was so dark and treated people so badly and the food was really scary.

You knew it wasn’t good for you, but you didn’t know it was that bad for you, on so many different levels — socially, economically, financially, health-wise, lots of different ways. The same thing with “The Omnivore’s Dilemma” and industrial farming.

So I wanted to write the same thing about the fashion industry, because we all get dressed every day, and we don’t understand what’s behind a pair of blue jeans or how our clothes are made, where they’re made. We know that it says “Made in Bangladesh,” but what does that really mean? So I went to Bangladesh, and I tell you: This is how it is, and these are the survivors of the Rana Plaza factory collapse [the 2013 collapse killed 1,134 people], and here is what is a sweatshop really looks like.

There are very good people trying to change the system with slow fashion, growing indigo in Tennessee, spinning organic cotton in Manchester, England, in an old mill. There are change-makers trying to make it better.

There’s some good stuff, and there’s a lot of bad stuff, but mostly we were just really ill-informed about something that was a major part of our lives: What’s in that dye that made the synthetic indigo that made your blue jeans blue? If you read what was in there you might go, hmmm, am I putting that up against my skin? I’m not so sure.

Part of your story begins with NAFTA, and how NAFTA was supposed to create this great free-trade zone. You began to discover, as many clothing manufacturers and designers did, that you could save money by sending jobs out of the U.S.

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In theory, on paper, if you were an economist and you crunched the numbers and you lived in your air-conditioned conference room with the other PhDs, a free-trade zone between Mexico the United States and Canada made perfect sense, like we have in Europe.

But the wealth inequality and the income inequality between Mexico and the United States, and Mexico and Canada, was just too great to make this an even trade. And business saw the great advantages of moving everything to Mexico, and then farther down the peninsula through South America, and then across the Pacific to Asia.

What they discovered very quickly, too — which is a very key difference between NAFTA and something like the EU — is that there was no oversight. So these jobs moved offshore, the prices were cheap, and there was no oversight. There were sweatshops. There were no health inspectors. safety inspectors, and then that carried on across and around the world.

And that’s when it really did spin wildly out of control, at the time that globalization was taking off.

What was striking too was how the chain of manufacture gave the designers plausible deniability. It walled off each part of production, with contractors, subcontractors, sub-subcontractors, so they could say, “I didn’t know this was a sweatshop.”

Or “I didn’t know that it was happening there.” That’s what even happens in L.A.

We call it the fractured supply chain, because they contract somebody, and then those contractors subcontract and subcontract.

They do these raids in in sweatshops, and they find the labels of these companies, and then the companies say, “Well, we had no idea. We just contracted A and sent it to B, who sent it to C, and we lost track of it.”

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Now that’s one thing if you’ve had your manufacturing done halfway around the world and you’re doing everything by email and you never even see what’s going on. But this is within the city limits of Los Angeles. If you don’t have control of your supply chain and it’s just around the corner, you’re not running your company very well. And you should be held accountable.

Fast fashion can be environmentally damaging. You have a striking figure about water use it takes 5,000 gallons of water to make a T-shirt and a pair of jeans. Some chemicals, the byproduct of denim, are killing off streams and rivers in parts of the world.

I’d always heard that the garment industry was one of the greatest users of water. But I had no idea to this degree. Thank goodness there are innovators like a company I write about in the book called Jeanologia, out of Valencia, Spain, who have come up with a super-cool high-tech way of reducing water to process jeans — their finished jeans, as they say — and it reduces the [water] use down to one about one glass of water per pair of jeans, and that’s recycled for several weeks. They’re working on reducing it to zero waste of water.

This is super important for L.A., because it is the center for jeans finishing in the country and one of the largest in the world. Jeanologia [and] some competitors who’ve come up with similar systems are going to work with these finishing houses in L.A., wash houses, to reduce their water use, especially in a state like California, where water is so precious.

And, happily, one of the companies that has recently contracted Jeanologia is Levi. They are going to reduce their water usage around the world to one glass of water per pair of jeans. This is immense, as Levi is the largest blue jeans producer in the world. I hope it leads the industry into being a cleaner, greener business.

In the book you bring out how much waste there is, because in fashion, you never know what people are going to like, what they’re going to buy. Things get made that don’t get sold and get thrown away. And people buy immense amounts and get rid of those after wearing them once or twice.

The average garment today is worn seven times before it’s thrown away, which is crazy. And it must mean there’s a lot that are never worn. In China I recently heard the average is three times.

What’s more, we throw them away in the trash. Only 1% of all garments are recycled, which also is kind of crazy. So we have to come up with ideas, new ways to extend the life of our clothes.

It could be swapping, and that’s what my teenage daughter does with her friends. You can resell on consignment. And then then there’s renting; we can rent our clothes instead of buying them, so when we’re tired of them we don’t throw them away — we just return them.

There’s loads of alternatives to throwing away our clothes. You can give them to a home for battered women, women who run away with nothing but the clothes on their backs. They could use it.

There’s so much waste with leather, too 50 million animals killed every year just for shoes and handbags. You have pioneers, like designer Stella McCartney, who go leather-free and insist on leather-free. H&M, the huge retailer, has temporarily stopped buying Brazilian leather because of concerns that that industry contributes to deforestation of the Amazon. Talk about changes that designers are making to put the brakes on this waste, with leather and animals’ lives, in fashion right now.

Absolutely. The leader in this, or the godmother, the fairy godmother in a way, is Stella McCartney. And she is a woman of conviction, in part because she was raised in a household where her father [Paul McCartney] was probably the most famous hippie in the world. This was her upbringing: no leather, no fur, super-vegetarian.

She has been godmothering a really cool company out of Brooklyn, and now New Jersey, called Modern Meadow. And they create what’s called bio-fabric material that is essentially leather grown in a lab. They code the DNA. They can grow it to shape, which is very interesting for things like the automobile industry, where they grow it into the shape of the car seat. You just slip it on like a book cover.

It’s clean, clean, clean and less damaging to the environment.

3-D printing seems to hold so much promise. If you like a dress, you can order the instructions, download that into your 3-D printer and make it at home.

That’s what it is, at least in theory. We’ll see if that’s how it comes out. It still feels a bit George Jetson-y, right? But then if you told somebody 30 years ago that we would be walking around with iPads, iPhones, and you had everything in your whole life in this little thing, a little bit bigger than a credit card, they would say, are you crazy? So maybe this isn’t too outlandish either.

The one thing that you advise, and the easiest to remedy some of this, is for people simply to buy less.

Buy less! We used to buy less. Sales of clothes have quintupled or more in the last 20 to 30 years. If you walk into an old house — L.A. has these fabulous Craftsman houses from the ’20s — and you look at the closets, they’re small! And now we take the second bedroom of the house and we turn it into a walk-in closet, because we have so many clothes that we don’t know what to do with them all.

Clothes have never been cheaper than they are today. I discovered while working on the book that Hattie Carnegie, a wonderful New York retailer in the 1920s and ‘30s, had a mid-range, middle-market line called Spectator Sport that sold for the same price, about $19.99, that clothes sell for today. It was known then as a “secretary special.”

Eighty years ago! And I’m not talking about the same price adjusted for inflation — the same price! How much has the price of gasoline gone up since then? How much has the price of a home gone up since then? And yet we’re paying the same amount for clothes. That kind of puts things in perspective.

We seem to overdo everything about our clothes, including washing them.

One of the things we can change that’s very simple, and will have an enormous impact, is that we just wash our clothes less. The man who told me this works for Procter & Gamble.

They want us to wash our clothes. That’s their business. He said, wash your clothes less for several reasons. Wash them on the short cycle, not the long cycle, because you’re saving energy and you’re giving longer life to the garments. Wash in cold water instead of hot. You’re saving energy not heating up the water, and they will still get clean.

When you wash your clothes less, and wash on the shorter cold cycle, you’re releasing less microfibers into the water system because the heat warms up the fabric and releases them.

It’s weirdly like [the household advice column] “Hints From Heloise” but on a global level, and I urge everyone to do it.

Do you think people really care about the misery of sweatshops, the impact on the environment and all of the consequences of fast fashion, disposable fashion, when they go shopping?

I do — when they know about it. When you don’t know about it, you don’t care. But when you do find out, then you look at the clothes a bit differently.

A generation or two ago, before NAFTA, we knew people who made our clothes, and we knew how to make clothes. We had home ec classes. We knew how to sew.

That all disappeared in the last 30 years, and therefore we don’t invest any sort of value or emotion into our clothes like we used to. We don’t understand what it takes to sew a button on a jacket, and therefore we don’t care. We’ve been very cavalier and casual with our clothes simply because we don’t know.

And that’s why I wrote this book, to inform consumers. People, this is what’s on your back! This is what you’re putting on in the morning. This is what goes into it, and we should really have a long think about it.

Did writing this book change the way you shop and dress?

Absolutely. I’ve always kept things a long time. But I also started renting for special occasions. I had this event at the Cannes film festival and I rented the gown for it. When I speak at conferences, I rent a new suit so I look really snappy. I come home, I send it back, and I’m not cluttering up my house with stuff I don’t need because I don’t wear it very often.

I’ve changed a lot of the way I look at my wardrobe and how I’m living and dressing every day, and I hope that readers will too.


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