Your cheap T-shirts are killing us

Fast fashion is bad for the people who make it and for the Earth. But what's the alternative?

By Kate Black, '16 BA, for Thought Box

September 23, 2016 •

It's hard to beat the adrenaline rush you get from finding a cheap shirt online, or the smug feeling you get emerging from the mall with an armful of affordable, on-trend outfits that you scooped on your lunch break.

Our clothes are cheaper than ever, but the social cost of our wardrobes is high, says UAlberta human ecology lecturer Lori Moran. "Fast fashion" - the clothing industry's breakneck modern production cycle - is to blame, she says. And this phenomenon isn't only harmful to workers and the environment, it's dissolving the relationship people once had with their clothes.

As recently as the 1970s, the fashion world looked very different. For one thing, up to 75 per cent of clothing bought by Canadians was made in Canada, says Moran. Plus, the year was split into two fashion seasons: fall/winter and spring/summer, allowing six months for designers to produce a collection before it hit stores. (High-fashion brands still follow this routine.)

Rising wages at home and dropping oil prices in the 1980s meant retailers could outsource production around the world, setting the stage for today's fast fashion. Now, value brands like H&M, Zara and Forever 21 are turning designs into products in a matter of weeks, with stores getting new shipments of clothing every few days. Trends dip in and out of style in a matter of weeks, not years - which might explain why that top you were in love with last winter is now hiding in your closet's Corner of Shame.

And those two fashion seasons per year? Moran says there are now 52: one for every week.

We can thank clothing retailers' masterful marketing, which imbues us with the excitement of seeing new products on a regular basis, coupled with a sense of urgency. What if that piece we have our eye on today is gone tomorrow?

"People used to have fewer clothes, had to work harder to afford them and took better care of them," Moran says. Now, with clothes no longer built to last, we buy more of them and pay less - women buy four times as many pieces as they did about 30 years ago and wear each item an average of seven times before getting rid of it. The result, Moran says, is an attitude that our clothes are disposable. But they really aren't. Whether they fall out of trend or fall apart, millions of kilograms of Canadian clothing ends up in the garbage every year ,and most of it will take decades to decompose.

And it isn't until we see news coverage of tragic events like the 2013 Rana Plaza garment factory collapse that we realize our clothes didn't start their existence in the mall. Real people make them in real places and not all of those places are up to Canadian standards (in safety or human rights).

Fast-fashion companies profit from cheap labour on the backs of vulnerable workers, mostly women in developing areas with few options for work. In Bangladesh, where 80 per cent of the country's exports are clothing to North America and Europe, workers currently earn one of the lowest minimum wages in the world:about US$68 a month. The clothing industry is also the second-largest polluter of the world's fresh water, the chemicals used for dyes often ruining the water sources in communities around garment factories.

Thankfully, change is in style, and fashion-forward minds like that of Alyssa Lau, '13 BSc, are turning creativity toward promoting sustainable clothing lines that are mad cute.

Lau is an entrepreneur, blogger and champion of the burgeoning sustainable fashion movement. After finishing her chemistry degree, she opted not to embark on a master's in biochemistry as planned. Instead, she founded New Classics Studios, an online store that curates environmentally and socially conscious women's clothing and accessories. Now, she's an authority on dressing ethically without sacrificing esthetics. Her blog, Ordinary People, has caught the attention of people around the world, and her Instagram has amassed more than 61,000 followers.

Lau's approach to fashion is a direct counterpoint to the addicting breakneck cycle. If, as Moran says, fast fashion makes it easy to forget about the social and environmental impact of the clothing industry, then Lau's approach could be called mindful fashion. She prefers the descriptor "sustainable."

Lau describes sustainable fashion as "taking a step back" from the pace of fast fashion and finding ways to still have great style while making the process of making clothes better for the Earth and for garment workers. The impact of fast fashion is paving a short road to ruin, she says.

"If you look at the stats, [you'll probably think] 'How can we keep this up?' " Lau says. "The thing is, we can't. Sustainable fashion is the only answer."

Moran agrees. And, she adds, when we become accustomed to fast fashion, we lose something: the opportunity to truly enjoy, not just consume, our clothing. Those moments of truly "experiencing" our clothes - donning that perfectly fitting power blazer or slipping into a pair of jeans that holds your best memories of the past decade - are quickly becoming a thing of the past.

"If your clothes make you feel good and look good, you're more motivated to take care of them," Moran says. "Fast fashion has diminished that."

Online retail entrepreneur and fashion blogger Alyssa Lau, '13 BSc, knows it's easier said than done to swap out old habits in the name of sustainability. We asked her for a few tips on how to incorporate sustainable fashion into our own wardrobes.

Shop smart at your favourite stores, or try out some new retailers

Lau says you don't have to go cold-turkey on your favourite fast-fashion stops in the mall to make a difference - you just have to be more selective about what you buy. Give yourself some time to consider whether you're buying a piece because you love it, or because it's a steal. It's tempting to buy something just because it's on sale, but it's not a deal if you'll never wear it.

There's also a growing number of sustainable fashion shops online and in cities around Canada. Lau suggests Everlane and Zady as affordable and transparent retailers.

Don't pay an arm and a leg

Ethical designers aren't cheap - you can expect to shell out $240 for a dress, or $75 for a T-shirt at New Classics. After all, it's probably impossible to find a pair of jeans for less than $50, for example, if it's made of high-quality material by people who were paid fair wages.

But there are other ways to shop sustainably without dropping major bank, Lau says. Buying second-hand at thrift stores or hosting clothing swaps with your friends keeps clothes out of the landfills - and can land you a deal on designer finds.

Lau encourages people to think of clothes as an investment. Sure, you might be able to pick up a shirt for $6 at your favourite fast fashion store, but it probably won't last. You may even end up spending less money in the long run by committing to a few more expensive, yet sturdier, pieces that you won't have to replace every season.

Think about fabrics

Natural materials like silk are a kind choice for the environment since they'll biodegrade, unlike synthetics like polyester. Cotton is a contentious fabric. Even though it won't last long in a landfill, it takes about 20,000 litres of water to make enough cotton for one T-shirt and pair of jeans, and the pesticides we use to grow cotton are harmful to farm workers and the ecosystems. Some companies, though, are starting to use organic cotton, which doesn't use the same harmful pesticides and uses slightly less water.

One of Lau's favourite materials is Tencel (also known as lyocell), which is made from wood pulp, making it biodegradable, and it doesn't require a lot of water to make. You can even find Tencel clothes at H&M.

Remember: timeless > trends

Lau often gets asked to comment on what's trending in a particular season, but she doesn't mince words: "Trends kill me."

She says that trends lead the cycle of disposable fashion, where something's trendy one moment and trash the next. Instead, Lau suggests not paying attention to what other people like, but to what you like.

Some staples, like a classic white T-shirt or a pair of good-fitting jeans never go out of style. But any piece - no matter how daring, colourful or unique - can be timeless, too, as long as Future You still likes it. When shopping, Lau asks herself if she can see herself wearing the piece in five, 10 or even 20 years. If the answer is yes, it makes the cut.

The greatest fashion tip Lau can offer is to buy whatever you're comfortable in and whatever you like - which is pretty liberating. "Once it gets as simple as that, shopping is so much easier."

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