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DAY 2: The High Cost Of Cheap Clothes

Why you should avoid fast fashion

By Lewis Kelly (with files from Kate Black)

September 04, 2020 •

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 Lori Moran, UAlberta human ecology lecturer. 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.

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. 

Easy ways to reduce waste

1: Learn to sew buttons and small tears. Take a trip to a fabric store to stock up on sewing basics. Thrift stores and garage sales sometimes have jars of old buttons. YouTube is your friend, so make the most of how-to videos for simple repairs.

2: Donate used textiles. From the Salvation Army to Goodwill, most cities and towns have places where you can donate intact, clean clothing for resale in thrift shops. Some animal shelters take old blankets and towels to use as bedding for animals. 

3: Get creative. Grab some scissors and bust cotton and cotton-blend clothing down into shop-rag size. Contact art collectives and schools to see if they’ll take these as donations. 

TOMORROW: Learn to shop sustainably. 

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