How Fast Fashion Is Destroying the Planet

FASHIONOPOLIS
The Price of Fast Fashion and the Future of Clothes
By Dana Thomas

There is that old saying, usually attributed to Yves Saint Laurent: “Fashion fades, style is eternal.”

Literally speaking, that actually may no longer be true, especially when it comes to fast fashion. Fast-fashion brands may not design their clothing to last (and they don’t), but as artifacts of a particularly consumptive era, they might become an important part of the fossil record.

More than 60 percent of fabric fibers are now synthetics, derived from fossil fuels, so if and when our clothing ends up in a landfill (about 85 percent of textile waste in the United States goes to landfills or is incinerated), it will not decay.

Nor will the synthetic microfibers that end up in the sea, freshwater and elsewhere, including the deepest parts of the oceans and the highest glacier peaks. Future archaeologists may look at landfills taken over by nature and discover evidence of Zara.

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CreditValerio Mezzanotti for The New York Times

And it is Zara and other brands like it that have helped plant flags on the farthest reaches of the planet. In “Fashionopolis,” Dana Thomas, a veteran style writer, convincingly connects our fast-fashion wardrobes to global economic and climate patterns and crises, rooting the current state of the fashion biosphere as a whole — production methods, labor practices and environmental impacts — in the history of the garment industry.

Her narrative is broken up into three manageable sections. The first focuses on today’s global fast-fashion and regular fashion industries and how they came to be so enormous, voracious, so seemingly uncontainable. It includes a fascinating account of how NAFTA made possible the international success of fast fashion. The second presents alternative, even opposite, approaches to making clothing that Thomas terms “slow fashion”: locally grown materials, often domestically manufactured or sourced on a relatively small scale, like the farmer and entrepreneur Sarah Bellos’s American-grown indigo. Lastly, she meets people who are trying to reform the system entirely, from the materials we use to how clothes are produced and the ways we shop.

Throughout, Thomas reminds us that the textile industry has always been one of the darkest corners of the world economy. The defining product of the Industrial Revolution, textiles were crucial to the development of our globalized capitalist system, and its abuses today are built on a long history. Slave labor in the American South supplied factories in both England, where they were notorious for child labor and other horrors, and the United States, where factory fires took the lives of recent immigrants at the turn of the 20th century. Thomas reports that there are immigrant workers in Los Angeles today who are victims of wage theft and exploitation, not to mention the Bangladeshi, Chinese, Vietnamese and other laborers who face working conditions that are at best grim and at worst inhumane. Fashion is an industry that has depended on the toil of the powerless and the voiceless, and on keeping them that way.

In one of the most powerful parts of the book, Thomas recounts the tragedy of the 2013 Rana Plaza factory collapse in Bangladesh, told through the harrowing experiences of two survivors. The explosion killed 1,100 people and injured another 2,500. And this was not a one-off: “Between 2006 and 2012, more than 500 Bangladeshi garment workers died in factory fires.” And, she notes, none of this news — the Rana Plaza catastrophe was widely covered — diminished Americans’ appetites for cheap clothing. In fact, Thomas writes, that same year Americans “spent $340 billion on fashion,” and “much of it was produced in Bangladesh, some of it by Rana Plaza workers in the days leading up to the collapse.”

Not all of the book is this pessimistic: There is plenty of bubbliness and glamour for fashion lovers to get excited about. Thomas displays her skills as a culture and style reporter as she visits the visionaries who are attempting to remake the industry, if not from whole cloth, then maybe from lab-grown or recycled fibers of some kind. She conjures a pastoral idyll, for instance, in her depiction of the designer Natalie Chanin and her business, Alabama Chanin, a line of cotton clothing produced almost entirely in Florence, Ala., once the “Cotton T-Shirt Capital of the World.” In Thomas’s telling, these garments are both environmentally sustainable and humane, though with a revenue of just over $3 million last year, the 30-person company is no replacement for mass production when it comes to dressing seven billion people.

CreditTomas Munita for The New York Times

Among the book’s delights are Thomas’s sketches of her individual subjects. I can’t get her description of a woman as “peaches-and-cream pretty” out of my head; I know exactly what she looks like. The author also has a gift for bringing luxury to life: She conjures Moda Operandi’s London showroom so vividly that I felt as though I’d moved in.

In the last section, Thomas marvels at the ingenuity of those trying to “disrupt” fashion. She makes a strong argument for the importance of science applied to (what are often seen as) the frivolities of fashion, especially if we want to move away from the unartful excesses of mass production.

Stella McCartney gets a disproportionate amount of attention here, and for good reason. McCartney has long been committed to sustainable practices, in her own business and others’. As the head designer at Chloé in the late 1990s, she refused to include leather or fur in her collections, which many executives then considered a death wish (some still do). She made it work, and has amplified those practices in her eponymous company, using, for instance, only “reclaimed” cashmere, refusing to use polyvinyl chloride or untraceable rayon.

However, it is in contextualizing this single industry from a broader climate perspective that the book falls short. Some statistics are exaggerated: Livestock are not responsible for “at least half of all global greenhouse gas emissions,” but rather closer to 15 percent of them; nor is fashion production alone consuming water at a rate that, if maintained, “will surpass the world’s supply by 40 percent by 2030” (not even the world’s total water demand necessarily will). And much of the discussion of new materials and production methods raises further questions. What are the differences between organic, conventional and “Better Cotton”? (Organic cotton is periodically touted as a sustainable alternative, though it currently makes up only about 0.4 percent of the cotton market, making it nearly impossible for any company to rely on now or in the near future.) Another: Does the landfilling of non-synthetic clothing matter? Thomas doesn’t say, but in fact it does, because it contributes to global emission of methane, a potent heat-trapping gas.

A lot of faith is placed here in the idea of “a circular — or closed-loop — system, in which products are continually recycled, reborn, reused. Nothing, ideally, should go in the trash.” But the practical considerations — cost, efficiency, resource limitations — are often left unaddressed. Ultimately, Thomas finds that renting clothing is the most sustainable model, and that feels like a more realistic solution than the futuristic materials she describes at length. In the end I was left wondering: If the fashion industry is this damaging, and none of these developments alone will fix the problem, shouldn’t governments be regulating production beyond enacting stricter pollution standards?

That may be a question for another book; it is not the goal of “Fashionopolis” to provide all the answers. Thomas has succeeded in calling attention to the major problems in the $2.4-trillion-a-year industry, in a way that will engage not only the fashion set but also those interested in economics, human rights and climate policy. Her portraits of the figures who are transforming a field that hasn’t changed all that much in the last century or more sound at once like messages from the future and like nostalgic reveries of life in a smaller, simpler world. If we can combine them, this book suggests, the envisioned “fashionopolis” could transform from an urban nightmare into a shining city on a hill.

Girl AAT

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