The problems and harm created by the garment industry are not new, nor are they particularly surprising when its system is examined closely. In many ways it achieves exactly what it is meant to: sizeable and growing profits. Herein lies the true problem, because a system that successfully achieves its ultimate purpose for those in power - regardless of its consequences - can be extremely difficult to shift, especially when those consequences have been hidden or are easy to overlook, as is certainly the case in the garment industry.
Before discussing what’s broken in the garment industry, however, it is useful to examine how it arrived at where it is today. Click on the image below to view events that have shaped the history of fashion commerce around the world, from 1890 to present.
Industry leaders in the garment industry take the brunt of criticism for the problems caused by its system, and for good reason. They have exerted a powerful influence in shaping the industry as it exists today, and have reaped large financial benefits from it. That being said, this research paper will attempt to reveal how the abuses of the garment industry are strongly influenced by the forces of the system itself. The causes and consequences of these forces will be explored next.
The speed at which clothing is consumed in the West has dramatically increased over the past two decades, fuelled by business models that rely on low prices and continuously changing styles to spur ever-quickening cycles of demand and sales. In America, an average of 68 pieces of clothing are bought per person, per year – equivalent to more than one garment per week (Cline, 2012).
The “race to the bottom” pricing structure currently dominating the garment industry has produced considerable profits for major fast fashion brands, but its reliance on low prices and subsequent low production costs reduces both the tangible and emotional value of clothing while simultaneously increasing the desire for more (see the Escalation Archetype for further explanation).
How can this be so? Sociologist Juliet Schor’s theory of the ‘materiality paradox’ may shed some light. This theory hypothesizes that as we accumulate more and more goods, the symbolic and social value attached to a product become far more significant than its material worth, but also far easier to manipulate and render obsolete. As Schor writes, “...in opposition to theorists of dematerialization, the materiality paradox suggests the rising importance of the symbolic increases, rather than reduces, pressure on the planet. That’s because sign economies are vulnerable to the dynamics of rapidly changing symbolic value, through the fashion cycle” (Schor, 2010, p. 41).
The result: fast fashion brands have openly admitted to designing clothing meant to be worn less than ten times (Morgan & Birtwistle, 2009, p. 191). So, even if we wanted to keep our clothing for longer, the quality of fabrics and finishings have been slowly whittled away and replaced with poorer quality substitutions and less labour-intensive (but also less secure) sewing techniques. This has been done both to reduce costs and to speed up the cycle of consumption; the consequences of such a system, combined with our perceived lack of personal ability (or will) to repair clothing are stark.
Growing closet sizes and the rise of self-storage facilities may have legitimized the retention of more things than ever before, and even so the U.S. Environmental Protection agency reported in 2012 that yearly textile waste exceeds 13.1 million tons in the U.S. alone, with 85% reaching the landfill prematurely (Niinimäki & Armstrong, 2013, p. 190). In the UK, a study by the Environment Select Committee revealed that textile waste increased from 7% to 30% by weight in the span of five years (Morgan & Birtwistle, quoting Poulter, 2009, p. 191).
Due to the rapidly declining quality and durability of clothing made by fast fashion and “value” brands and their low-cost pricing strategies, even clothing passed on to charities and second-hand markets are not guaranteed second lives. The value proposition of buying second-hand when new but lower-quality pieces are available for the same price - especially when clothing won’t be worn more than a handful of times - is hardly an appealing one. Coupled with the sheer volume of castoffs donated or thrifted, it is no wonder only about one fifth of clothing donated to charity thrift shops gets resold in the country in which it was donated (Claudio, 2007, p. 2).
This influx of second-hand clothing, coupled with the immense pollution produced from textile processing (i.e., dyeing and tanning with substances that are often highly regulated in the Global North), are yet more cost externalizations thrust upon developing nations.
The garment industry has always “fed of the labour of [its] most vulnerable workers” (Entwistle, 2000, p. 209), but the poor working conditions, poverty-wages and increasingly unstable employment endured by garment workers in developing nations are fuelled by increasing demand for supply chain flexibility by clothing brands and retailers. Labour activists Liz Parker and Sam Maher argue that it has led to a large percentage of workers being placed on short-term or temporary contracts that offer no entitlements to the benefits provided to permanent workers - as limited as those may be. “It has also massively increased the role of labour agents and agencies,” they explain, “allowing labour supply chains to develop and pushing the responsibilities for employment conditions even further away from the brands and from factory owners themselves” (Black [Ed.], 2013, p. 142). Sadly, it is in these hidden subcontracting and home-work environments where the worst abuses tend to occur (Black [Ed.], 2013, p. 140).
Along with fuelling sales, tightly developing and controlling the means of consumption has given companies significant power in their relationship with supply chain contractors, allowing them to exert strong downward pressure on prices and easily substitute alternative suppliers at short notice (Princen et al., 2002, p. 148). In his analysis of the Rana Plaza collapse for The New Yorker, James Surowiecki writes that, “flexible supply chains are great for multinationals and consumers. But they erode already thin profit margins in developing-world factories and foster a pell-mell work environment in which getting the order out the door is the only thing that matters” (Surowiecki, 2013, para. 3). To make matters even more precarious for the supply chain, contracts in the garment industry rarely last longer than a few seasons (Surowiecki, 2013, para. 3), leaving contractors in a constant state of uncertainty.
Flexible workforces are in many ways, however, the last resort to meeting the demands of unreliable brands that regularly shift production between countries in search of lower prices. Higher prices do not guarantee ethical practices, but the public’s increasing unwillingness to pay more for clothing has not aided this situation; as prices drop lower and lower, all retailers are forced to drop their prices and perpetuate the downward cycle (See the Rule Beating Archetype).
Be it across oceans, cultures, or psychological boundaries, the current fashion system separates us from both the means of production and the impacts of consumption, and severs our links to the visceral feedback needed to make informed decisions. Without these feedback loops, we can only abstractly comprehend the consequences of our decisions. The same could be said for those operating within the middlemen-laden fashion supply chains where accountability becomes nearly impossible to achieve or enforce.
To make matters worse, Princen, et al. remark that, “Not only do [middlemen] have little ability to assume resource responsibility, they have strong incentives not to. Intermediaries in a commodity chain aim to maximize the difference between their selling price and their purchase price.” (Princen et al., 2002, p. 124). They further explain that, “When critical resource decisions are made by those who will not or can not incur the costs of their decisions, accountability will be low and what gets counted is likely to be financial capital, not social and natural capital” (Princen et al., 2002, p. 129).
Despite the increasingly individualistic society in which we find ourselves (especially in North America), and the regular touting of the “democratization” of fashion, clothing has become more homogenized, not less. Professor Simonetta Carbonaro writes that the resulting reality facing the industry is one in which, “fashion has just become fashion and repetitively refers to itself instead of nourishing our cultures and contributing to the evolution of our civilizations. Fashion has been losing its strong symbolism, its systems of signs and signifiers, its meaning and its messages. Miles of cloth are getting swallowed up by the rhetoric of fashion emptiness” (Carbonaro & Votava, 2009, p. 44).
When considered within the larger context of consumer capitalism this drop in diversity makes sense, for as Lewis explains, the paradigm of growth has no interest in distinctness or originality: “The more consumer capitalism pushes towards large units of mass production and consumption, the less sympathetic it is to diversity or idiosyncrasy. For all the rhetoric about individual freedom made by some of its protagonists, consumer capitalism has become a deeply collectivist enterprise. The power of industry lies in its ability to override what distinguishes us as individuals and appeal to – or construct – commonality (otherwise known as ‘markets’, as in the ‘youth market’)” (Lewis, 2013, Chapter 2, Section 3, Para. 14).
In tandem with increasing commoditization and efficiency comes more ease and accessibility, but what is lost in the pursuit of convenience? In an interview with Professor Otto von Busch of Parsons New School for Design, he argued this lack of friction is ultimately detrimental because it funnels us toward what is easiest rather than what is most meaningful. This commodification of fashion has also depersonalized a part of our lives that has the potential to imbue our world with expression and a sense of belonging.
At a more profound level, many are becoming increasingly concerned with the loss of cultural diversity that has accompanied the modernization (and subsequent homogenization) of global societies. In his 2003 TED Talk Dreams from Endangered Cultures, anthropologist Wade Davis explained that our most apocalyptic scenario for the loss of biological diversity “scarcely approaches what we know to be the most optimistic scenario in the realm of cultural diversity” (Davis, 2003, 2:41 [video file]). The ethnosphere, he continues, can be defined by “the sum total of all thoughts and dreams, myths, ideas, inspirations, intuitions brought into being by the human imagination since the dawn of consciousness” (Davis, 2003, 2:41 [video file]).
To Davis, the ethnosphere is humanity’s greatest legacy - one we are at risk of losing forever. The implications of such a fate are hauntingly described in his explanation of the choice we as a collective humanity now face:
“And in the end, then, it really comes down to a choice: do we want to live in a monochromatic world of monotony or do we want to embrace a polychromatic world of diversity? Margaret Mead, the great anthropologist, said, before she died, that her greatest fear was that as we drifted towards this blandly amorphous generic world view not only would we see the entire range of the human imagination reduced to a more narrow modality of thought, but that we would wake from a dream one day having forgotten there were even other possibilities.”
(Davis, 2003, 17:34 [Video File])
Dress may be but one of many important elements that make up a culture, but it is a signifier of the many ways of being human, that diversity is still alive, and that it has not yet vanished from our memories and consciousness.
The devaluing and speeding up of clothing and its cycles is not only harmful to the planet and its workers - it can also be harmful to the people who wear it. Rather than bringing us closer to joy, kinship and beauty, as fashion in its most vital forms can do, fashion commerce often deftly manipulates our anxieties and insecurities to incite purchasing behaviour. In many ways this anxiety has become an essential part of the commodification process - from its pre-programmed, short lifespan to its unstable desirability that can change at any time (von Busch, et al., 2014, p. 54-55).
Perhaps ironically, many of us turn to retail therapy to soothe the anxieties we feel in our daily lives, searching for something, anything, as long as it is new. These therapy sessions may provide temporary relief by inflating our egos and sense of status, but are ultimately detrimental to our long-term sense of wellbeing (Thorpe, 2010, p. 8-9). Tim Kasser, researcher and author of The High Price of Materialism (2002) explains that people who are highly materialistic (regardless of their age, race, or wealth) tend to have lower personal well-being and psychological health than those who are not. Far from helping us reach our idealized selves, by using clothing consumption as a relief from what ails us, we risk undermining our long-term health and happiness.
Conversely, however, Schultz et al.’s research found that instances of self-transcendence (valuing beyond the self) to be positively correlated with measures of biospheric environmental concerns (Schultz, et al., 2005, p. 470), while Zelenski and Nisbet point out that people who feel connected to nature tend to want to protect it (Zelenski & Nisbet, 2014, p.4). They’ve also begun to uncover positive connections between nature-relatedness (or connection to nature) and both well-being and happiness, suggesting that increasing the opportunities individuals have to connect with nature could simultaneously boost well-being and encourage more self-transcendent behaviour.
Cultural anthropologist Sherri Ortner has argued that culture asserts itself to be “not only distinct from but superior to nature, and that sense of distinctiveness and superiority rests precisely on the ability to transform – to ‘socialize’ and ‘culturalize – nature.” (Ortner, 1972, p.72-73), but what if culture could be “naturalized”? Fashion may seem to exist wholly in the realm of culture, but at its literal roots, much of it is deeply connected to the land. Finding ways to allow individuals to experience and understand that connection - be it to the land, animals, or people with intimate wisdom and connection to them - could thus potentially help to encourage more self-transcendental values (on a more pragmatic level, perhaps it could also break the cognitive dissonance that often exists between customer values and their purchasing decisions) and help to increase individuals’ well-being in the process.
In many ways, the system that currently defines the garment industry is broken. Its abuses may be strategically hidden in layers of middlemen and across oceans, and justified by consumerist culture, but as this analysis shows, record profits do not ensure a healthy system. Much of “what’s broken now” is hidden or distanced, and those who are most dissatisfied with the status quo are those with the least power to change it. The system is also intimately connected, with each element influencing others within it: consumer capitalism speeds up the rate of consumption and increases commoditization, which then impact supply chains, cost externalization, pollution, anxiety, and so forth (See Influence Map, above).
The system’s complexity and interconnectedness is daunting, but it is still possible to see where leverage points for change might exist. If pushed in the right direction, perhaps these points could instigate inverse cascades of positive change in the future.