How Cheap Fashion Is Changing the Way We Shop

Stores like H&M and Zara are selling mass-produced fashions sold at rock bottom prices—and retraining shoppers to buy low-quality clothes.

Where did you buy your last top or pair of pants? If you're like most Americans, you probably popped into a cheap chain like Target, H&M, Old Navy, T.J. Maxx, or Forever 21 and walked out with more duds than you meant to buy and a still-full wallet. Cheap clothes were once a niche in the retail landscape, and not particularly fashionable. Now, low-cost retailers H&M and Zara are the largest clothiers in the world by sales and cheap clothes have become cool: Consumers have bragging rights about landing a deal at "Tarjay" or a $10 frock at H&M for date night.


H&M and Zara are the pioneers of fast fashion, a retail model built on rapid cycles of mass-produced fashions sold at rock bottom prices. Most clothiers today are scrambling to sell goods cheaper and faster than ever before and to retrain consumers to shop continuously, compulsively, and on-the-spot. Our consumption of clothing has gone through the roof as a result. Americans are now buying 68 garments and 8 pairs of shoes per year on average.

Disposable purchases have largely replaced long-term investments. Clothing used to be as personal as it gets—handcrafted, locally made, customized, kept for years. Clothes are now bought on a whim, barely worn, and tossed aside. As supply chains have spread out around the world, our understanding of clothes has been packed off along with our garment trades, and we feel adrift as shoppers—unsure of what to look for and unclear on when we’re getting a good deal for our money. This is partly why we just opt to shop cheap instead.

Sewing clothing is very labor intensive, which is why a $10 or $20 price tag on a dress should be raising eyebrows instead of just opening our wallets. Companies like H&M place their orders in a network of factories in countries such as Bangladesh and China, where poverty wages are legal (Bangladeshi garment workers are paid $43 a month) and workers have little choice but to put in the exhausting hours needed to feed the 24/7 fast-fashion machine. Not only does this debase the skill and craftsmanship of sewing, but factories in the United States cannot compete. Between 1990 and 2012, the United States lost half of our garment and textile industries. We now make 2 percent of our clothing here.

Trends are now changing constantly, and producing clothes with quality and workmanship have become passé. Large corporate fashion chains have yearly growth demands that are largely at odds with producing well-made products made in an ethical way. It's become increasingly difficult to find quality and timeless pieces at any price point. Consumers are largely left with a landscape of corporate, mass-produced fashion (overpriced designer goods are our other "option").

As anyone who’s bought a $10 dress and put it through the wash knows, many of our purchases are essentially disposable—and we’re now tossing 68 pounds of textiles per capita a year. Our landfills are being filled with toxic, non-biodegradable duds and our charity thrift stores are awash with disintegrating and discolored garments that won't have much of a second life.

To feed our clothing addiction, approximately 82 million tons of fiber is now being produced worldwide, largely in countries with very minimal environmental standards. In China, I've traveled through an unimaginable landscape of factories along highways enshrouded in smog and saw dyes dumped in ditches in Bangladesh. The environmental toll of the fashion industry is being taken out on countries most U.S. consumers will never visit and is not reflected in the price tag of a $10 dress.

Amazingly, Americans now have closets brimming with clothes and yet we often find ourselves thinking, "I have nothing to wear." This common refrain is the clothing equivalent of eating a high-calorie fast food meal and feeling hungry a half hour later. Just like fast food, fast fashion feeds on our basest urges—thriving on impulsiveness and our sense of scarcity in bad economic times. We need an alternative to fast fashion not only because it undermines the environment, the economy, and human rights, but because it clutters our homes and our minds with stuff we don’t really desire or value.

But how do we begin to address the problem? If we shopped a little less (even if we cut our consumption in half, we’d still be buying almost three new garments a month) and instead diverted more of our dollars to locally-made designers and companies who have strong environmental and human rights records, the rest of the industry would be forced to take notice. Fashioningchange.com is a fantastic resource that directs consumers of popular brands like H&M and Forever 21 to ethical alternatives.

Consumers could also make a difference by supporting brands that are not simply stylish but also have some semblance of a shelf life. Part of being a responsible fashion consumer is thinking about the entire life cycle of clothing, and owning well-crafted clothes that are more of an investment motivates us to repair, refashion, and maintain them. Good clothing is not unlike a home-cooked meal. It takes a little more thought and planning and costs a little more, but leaves us feeling more satisfied.

Elizabeth Cline is a journalist based in New York and the author of Overdressed: The Shockingly High Cost of Cheap Fashion.

Photo via (cc) Flickr user Sarah_Ackerman

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