The Lifecycle of Your $25 Fast Fashion Impulse Buy

By: 
emily
Wednesday, November 9, 2022
 
Alyssa Hardy’s provocative, compelling, deeply researched debut Worn Out: How Our Clothes Cover Up Fashion’s Sins investigates the intersecting labor exploitation and environmental devastation of the fashion industry. The fashion world now has 52 “micro seasons”; workers have to produce at breakneck speeds in unsafe conditions for poverty wages to meet the public’s demand for style at rock-bottom prices. 
 
Alyssa writes, “When looking at fashion from a personal perspective—thinking  that you just like what you like, when you like it—it’s hard to  see how we are all influenced by the super-fast trend cycles. It’s  that feeling when you go to your closet and look at all of the  clothing you have and wonder why you have nothing to wear.  You might pull out a pair of pants you bought recently, holding  them up and knowing you’ll never put them on, but you keep  them in the hope that, someday, you’ll like them again. The  next day you scroll through the internet and see a pair of pants  that feel more trendy, more of-the-moment still charged with emotions around not feeling cool enough  wearing what you already have, you buy them. Fashion brands  count on that emotion for sales and have twisted the idea of  seasons to keep us feeling this way. “
 
But our clothing has a lifecycle long before we buy it and long after we decide it’s too dated, or “what was I thinking when I bought this?” Where does your $25 impulse buy come from? And what happens to it when you don’t want it anymore? 
 
Step 1: The building blocks 
 
Materials for these clothes generally involve cheap, toxic textile dyes. And dying the clothes is heavily water-wasteful. Approximately 200 tons of water are needed to produce one ton of textile dye; most of which returns to nature laden with residual dyes, hazardous chemicals, heavy metals, and microfibres.  And the textiles themselves tend to be polyester, which is derived from fossil fuels and produces microplastics as they break down. Many of the materials are dangerous for the workers who handle them. While in the US and Europe, there are stricter regulations against using these materials, many brands that are sold in the US are manufactured in countries were regulations are very lax. For instance, garment “homeworkers” in Indonesia were given carcinogenic materials to work with. And - as has recently been widely covered- ultra-trendy, ultra-cheap brand Shein’s clothes contain elevated levels of lead, phthalates, and per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS). These substances may lead to negative health outcomes for consumers and damage ecosystems- but they’re especially dangerous for the workers who deal with the raw materials day in and day out. Some brands which contract homeworkers send the dyes directly to these women’s homes without informing them the dyes are dangerous, causing the women to unknowingly expose their children to these toxic materials. 
 
Step 2: Production
 
“Management understands that the need for work is  often greater than the number of jobs available and uses this disparity against workers who are asking for the most basic  rights. This has been exploited by factories for decades, and  it’s how they went from working with unions to circumventing  them to hire vulnerable workers who could not fight back. And  it’s more than just low pay that these workers are up against.” - from Worn Out
 
Because the fashion world now has 52 “micro-seasons”- meaning the industry pushes new trends constantly, to keep consumers wanting more- workers have to produce at breakneck speed in appalling conditions. Maria, a garment worker in Los Angeles works at a plant that manufactures clothes for Fashion Nova, Forever21, and Guess. In Worn Out, she describes typical working conditions: “We go out in the morning and we leave at sunset. We don’t see the sun. There is so much work to do, and we get paid by each item of clothing. We can’t stop.” Hardy describes how workers are made to work off the clock, to ensure that the monumental quotas are met without going over budget. Maria describes factory conditions: 
 
“There’s usually no cleaning happening in the factories. Sometimes the kitchen or the area for meals are dirty. Sometimes you even have employers who don’t have a dining area, and so they [employees] would have to eat outside in the parking lot. Or try to find a corner for you to sit down and eat. Sometimes you will see rats running underneath your feet or near tables because the factory is so dirty and they’re not cleaning enough,” she said. “The employers don’t buy toilet paper, and there’s no soap in the workplaces, so sometimes we have to bring our own soap and toilet paper into work and sometimes they only sweep one time per week, and so the floor is filled with all the fabrics of the garments, and the trash ends up accumulating because a lot of workers take food to work and nobody throws out the trash until that time to clean and that happens once per week.” 
 
3. Distribution
 
Spanish fast fashion giant Zara was founded to completely transform the way clothing was distributed- and ever since, they’ve set the pace for other fast fashion retailers like Forever21 and Fashion Nova. Instead of changing styles by season, Zara cycles them in and  out week by week in response to customer feedback; they bring twelve thousand styles to market annually, shipping twice a week from warehouses to their stores. In the stores, workers have to switch out styles almost every day, as there isn’t enough physical space to store them. “They make enough items that anything you could ever imagine searching for is available, fresh, and new. The entire ethos is that clothing is disposable. Nothing is meant to last….This cycle teaches us that every winter we should get a new sweater or a new jacket and that each year a new trend would leave last year’s jeans in the dust,” Hardy writes. 
 
4. Disposal
 
This is where the vast majority of the clothes being produced end up. Every year, over eighty-five percent of the clothing consumed by the United States is discarded––a figure which has quadrupled in the last five years. Most of it- billions of articles each year- is shipped to Ghana, Rwanda, and other African countries. Through applying economic pressure, the United States forces these countries to accept the castoffs of American consumers. These bursting secondhand markets, where children as young as ten or eleven carry enormously heavy bundles of clothing to support their families, have displaced the thriving garment industries which used to exist in many African countries. It is more clothing than anyone can ever wear, and much of these items are only made to last a couple of years at most. Most of these clothes sit in the warehouses for years, before ending up in a landfill, where those very carcinogens which infected the workers who made them now leech into the soil.