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  • Paola Scharberg

Nothing to Wear: The High Cost of Cheap Fashion

You’re getting ready for a first date, a job interview, or a night out with friends. You’re standing in front of the closet thinking you have nothing to wear, although that is clearly not the case. Clothing is a crucial part of being human, anthropologically speaking, and throughout history we’ve seen how our dress indicates our individual identity. We choose our clothing in order to express something about ourselves, who we are, in a sense. We dress a certain way to go to a job interview, a different way to go on a first date, and a different way to meet our friends.

The fact is that we own more clothes than we need. Movinga, a relocation and removals company, performed a study with a total of 18,000 people in 20 countries and concluded that 82 percent of the items that sit in the closets of Americans had not been worn within the last year. Within the last 20 years, textile consumption has doubled, from 15 to 28 pounds per person and currently the fashion industry is responsible for 2 percent of the global Gross Domestic Product (GDP). Consequently, just as this industry generates wealth and revenue for some, it generates waste and social and environmental adversities for many.

Countless garments at Remains, photo by Paola Scharberg
Countless garments at Remains, photo by Paola Scharberg

The fashion industry has drastically changed where stores like Zara or H&M used to release a few collections per year (one per season) now produce over 20 collections a year, making consumers constantly feel out of style. The clothing is cheaper than it used to, allowing more people to purchase more often. However, the price is also an indication of the quality. Our garments last less, propelling us to return to the store and buy new and trendier attire more frequently than n the past. What is the social and economic cost behind that $5 cute top? The answer is sweatshops, extremely low salaries, child labor, and precarious working environments.

Most of the big name brands that we buy in the United States are not manufactured here. The four main garment exporters, where employees are scarcely paid and work in unsanitary and unsafe conditions, are in China, Bangladesh, Vietnam, and India. In Bangladesh, one of the cheapest countries to produce clothing, the minimum wage is 32 cents an hour. The garment industry in Bangladesh produces $35 billion a year in exports, mostly to the Unites States and Europe. Some of the companies that manufactured their products in Bangladesh are H&M, Walmart, Zara, and Gap. In 2013, a garment factory collapsed in Dhaka killing over 1,100 people. A couple years later, in 2015, a fashion factory in the same country burned and killed over 100 people. Many of these buildings don’t contain sprinkler systems or evacuation exits, posing a safety hazard for thousands of workers.

Besides the social cost related to garment workers, the $2.5 trillion fashion industry is also one of the largest polluters. The production process consumes high levels of energy and water, over 5,700 pounds of water are needed to produce a cotton T-shirt. Soil degradation, water pollution, greenhouse gas emissions, high levels of carbon footprint, and high levels of waste are some other of the environmental costs related to our clothing consumption. Nikolay Anguelov, a professor of economic development in the Department of Public Policy at the University of Massachusetts, explains how CO2 emissions are noteworthy because the United States is the largest exporter of cotton, however, over 80% of the raw cotton that is exported returns back to the United States in the shape of a ready-made garment. In his book, The Dirty Side of the Garment Industry, Anguelov describes how weaving cotton into fabric is extremely damaging due to the chemicals that are released during the textile manufacturing process. The wet-finishing process is the most harmful, environmentally. This process involves bleaching, mercerizing, which consist of dipping the bleached fibers into a bath of sodium hydroxide then neutralizing in a bath of acid, and dyeing. The wet processes require large amounts of water for all the steps as well as petrochemical products. He states that on average, “200 tons of water is used for every ton of textile produced.” This water is loaded with chemicals and travels into the groundwater system of large areas harming entire ecosystems.

After the environmentally damaging portion of creating the product and the heartless treatment of the garment factory workers in developing countries, comes the disposing of the clothing. According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in 2017, 8,900 tons of clothing and footwear were landfilled; this is an 85% increase from 1960. The EPA estimates that only 13.6% of the amount of clothing and footwear is recycled.

In my search to gather more information about cycle of clothing, I toured Remains, a clothing and post-industrial textile recycling business in St. Louis. I met with Paul, who has been working at Remains since 1997, and we toured the facility. He says everyday Remains runs 40,000 pounds of clothing down the line; most of this comes from charities, it’s the things they can’t sell or surplus. Once it gets to Remains, it goes down the line and sorters separate, piling shoes, removing what they can’t use such as carpets or mildewed clothing. After separating, some of the materials are used to make rags and others are sent to the mills. The clothing that is in good condition is made into bails, which will be sold to countries all around the world.

Paul describes Remains as a consolidator; they add value to the products and find a home for the things that no one wants. After the tour we stand outside, away from the loud noises from the machinery, and chat a bit. There are large containers filled with big garbage bags, donations. He opens a bag and pulls out a pair of GAP denim pants, in perfect condition. No stains or rips and he asks, “Why am I getting this?” in a rhetorical way. He pulls out a pink shirt, with lace around the neck and shoulder area and explains how women’s clothes are difficult to recycle because of all the different materials, like zippers or lace, if it had a stain it would go to the landfill. They only landfill 4-6 percent of what they get. Before clothing gets shredded all these materials need to be removed, and from a business standpoint, it is not cost-efficient.

There are companies that work on reusing the clothing that Americans no longer want, companies that work because of the throwaway culture of disposable fashion. But, what is the carbon footprint of this? Shipping the used clothing back to across the globe, perhaps even to the country that manufactured them. Nike has a Reuse-a-shoe program, where people can send in used athletic shoes (of any brand) and they separate the materials for these to live on. Zkano, a company nestled in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains, manufactures socks in the U.S. They also recycle textile and have an overall waste of only 2 percent. Zkano has the resources to recycle old socks and accept mail to their recycling facility in Alabama.

How do we contribute, as consumers, to lessen the amount of clothing that ends up in our landfills, polluting soil and groundwater? How do we contribute to improve the working conditions of those who manufacture our apparel? Donating is a good practice and so is purchasing second hand items, but there are other options like refusing to buy that dress that we’ll only wear once. We can choose to minimize or impact by shopping higher quality clothing that will last longer or shopping from sustainable companies. We can educate ourselves about the cycle of the products we purchase, in order to make sustainable decisions. We can decide if the way to solve our problems or be happy depends on our disposable possessions. Or perhaps we need to reevaluate our values.


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