We need clothing like we need food and shelter—it’s a basic necessity. But what if you knew that basic necessity was destroying the planet and failing to meet the needs of workers all over the world? Would you feel different about the way you buy clothes?
Listen to this episode for an honest look at the ways fast fashion—pumping out a near endless supply of inexpensive clothing that isn’t exactly built to last—has destroyed the way clothing is made, sold, and digested by the Earth. It’s not pretty...but it’s worth knowing. And our guest, style writer Dana Thomas, has all the insight you need.
You might never think of the apparel industry the same way again. Fair warning.
Kinsey Grant, Morning Brew business editor and podcast host [00:00:08] Hi there, everybody, and welcome to Business Casual. It's your host, Kinsey Grant, and I'm dying to know—who are you wearing? Think about it, and now, let's get into it. [sound of a ding]
Kinsey [00:00:17] Everyone buys clothes. They're typically considered a basic need, right alongside food and shelter. The ways we buy clothes, though, differ tremendously. Some people shop at Gap, others at Gucci, and others still at Goodwill. But for the most part, we all do it. And someone is profiting off of it. In fact, they're likely profiting significantly.
Kinsey [00:00:37] The apparel industry is worth some $3 trillion by some estimates, but there exists this really interesting bifurcation of fashion that's sort of splintering into two main categories: fast fashion and slow fashion. The former consists of the Zaras and H&Ms of the world. These retailers are pumping out a near endless supply of inexpensive clothing that might not really be built to last.
Kinsey [00:01:00] These fast-fashion retailers play an enormous role in the clothing industry's production of 100 billion new garments every single year. Now, 100 billion of anything has an impact on the people and the world around them, and fast fashion is certainly no exception.
Kinsey [00:01:16] So today, we are going to introspectively head into our own closets. What's hanging on your racks and folded in your drawers? Where did you get it? Do you know who made it and where they made it? And were they paid a fair wage for their work? Do you know where that piece might end up when you've decided it's no longer worth keeping?
Kinsey [00:01:33] Now, you might not be able to answer all of these questions, but they're all incredibly important to ask as we come to grips with the business of fast fashion. That is what we are up to today. And I'm thrilled to welcome an incredible guest to help us do that. Dana Thomas, award-winning journalist, best-selling author. You've spent a huge chunk of your career covering fast fashion and its impacts on the world around us. Dana, welcome to Business Casual.
Dana Thomas, award-winning journalist and best-selling author [00:01:55] Thanks for having me. It's a pleasure to be here.
Kinsey [00:01:57] So before we get started, I want to give a quick primer to people. [laughs] GQ wrote this about your book on the fast fashion industry called "Fashionopolis." Quote, If you read her book, you will never look at your closet the same way, end quote, which is quite the [laughs] intro here. And it's a promise that I hope we can live up to today in this interview as well. So, should we get started with it?
Dana [00:02:17] Absolutely. Let's go.
Kinsey [00:02:19] I would love to rethink my closet. I want to start with the basics here. What is fast fashion, how it fits into the broader retail and clothing ecosystems, and why do we care? Those are some big ones. So let's take them one at a time. Number one, what is fast fashion?
Dana [00:02:32] Well, fast fashion is the production of trendy, inexpensive garments in vast amounts at lightning speed in subcontracted factories to be hawked in thousands of chain stores worldwide. Think of H&M, Zara, Gap, Mango, Topshop. These are fast fashion brands and the stores are everywhere you turn.
Dana [00:02:59] The key part of it is subcontracted factories, meaning that they don't own—most of them do not own their factories. They hire out the manufacturing, and they lose track of how and where their clothes are made. And if they don't know how and where their clothes are made, how are we supposed to know how and where our clothes are made?
Kinsey [00:03:16] Absolutely. And there are certainly some negative connotations to that sentence, just in the definition [laughs] hawking prices, and they can lose track of where these things are made. And I want to dig deeper into all of that. Before we do that, though, I think it's also important to go to number two on my list of big questions to start with.
Kinsey [00:03:33] How does fast fashion compare to the other fashions [laughs] around the world in the world of retail? And I've seen it referred to as slow fashion, but how do we differentiate between what is fast fashion and maybe what is a better alternative than fast fashion?
Dana [00:03:49] Well, fast fashion—there's two things that are super-important to remember. Fast fashion rarely generates its own ideas. It takes its style and trend ideas, colors, shapes, prints—everything—from mainstream fashion, from Paris fashion, what they see at the Paris and London and New York fashion shows. What they see on Instagram put up by major brands.
Dana [00:04:13] And they reinterpret them in super-cheap fabrics and they do it so fast they will get the knockoffs, as we call them, out into their stores before the originals are actually produced and sold in the main brand stores, like Chanel, Celine, Gucci, Prada. You'll see the fake version of Prada's new, hot dress in Zara, H&M, months before it actually gets to the Prada store.
Kinsey [00:04:41] That's pretty [laughs] concerning. How long does it usually take these higher fashion, higher-end fashion retailers and clothing companies to actually get something to stores? Months?
Dana [00:04:51] Six to eight months. Basically, when you're seeing the fashion shows in March, you're seeing fall/winter clothes. And those clothes are ordered and then put into production and then delivered to the department stores now, in the summertime. But they're fall/winter clothes that you're seeing in March, and the shows that you see in October, September and October, are spring, summer—the following year's collections.
Dana [00:05:13] But, when the fast fashion brands see that fall winter show in March, they'll say, oh, the new trend is going to be this and that. And they will knock off some of those items in two weeks and have the clothes in the stores in April, which is months before the originals would have gotten to the department stores or their own stores.
Kinsey [00:05:35] Right.
Dana [00:05:35] Because it's before the season. And they'll make it in a lighter fabric or they'll come up with a newer version of it, or they'll take items that are for any season, at any time. They'll take the ideas from the Paris and London runways, but then they'll make it a seasonless item so it doesn't fall into fall/winter or spring/summer. It's just now.
Kinsey [00:05:55] Right. And there are so many examples of this. Every summer we have "these are a dress that everybody is going to have" or the Amazon jacket that we all have read about before, that you know what it is by its name, but it looks like a lot of other things that exist [laughs] out there on the market. I'm curious how much of the apparel industry is made up of fast fashion retail. Is there any way of kind of putting a number or estimating what share is from fast fashion?
Dana [00:06:24] I'm not sure what the total share is, but just to give you an idea, Zara and H&M do both about $20 billion a year in sales. Their next biggest competitors would be Louis Vuitton and Chanel at 10. So they do twice as much sales as Louis Vuitton and Chanel.
Kinsey [00:06:41] Yeah.
Dana [00:06:41] And that would include Chanel's makeup, skincare, perfume, and same with, you know. And they do four to five times more than Gucci.
Kinsey [00:06:53] Right.
Dana [00:06:53] So it really does show that it's a big chunk of the business. When I wrote the book, we said that the fashion industry was a $2.4 trillion industry. That number is now three or four years old.
Dana [00:07:05] By the time I got the book done and it was published, it was inching up to 3 trillion before the pandemic. I'm not sure where it stands now because everything's all topsy-turvy and upside down. So of a $3 trillion industry, two brands make up $40 billion of sales. That's a lot.
Kinsey [00:07:26] Quite significant.
Dana [00:07:28] Yeah.
Kinsey [00:07:28] Yeah. And I think in any other industry, that would be reason for pause, for us to say, is that fair? Is that right? Should we [chuckles] reconsider how all of the chips kind of fall?
Dana [00:07:38] Yes. And I think that's the case. There's a lot of times we should ask those questions, like, why is it OK that these clothes are being made in unsafe factories by people who aren't paid a living wage? If that was the case in the automobile industry, that factory would be shut down tomorrow, no matter where it is.
Dana [00:07:56] That the factories have to be safe if you're building automobiles. And the factories have to be safe if you're building computers. And the factories have to be safe if you're building cell phones. But they don't have to be safe if you're selling clothes. Why?
Kinsey [00:08:06] Is there an answer?
Dana [00:08:07] No.
Kinsey [00:08:07] Is it a lack of regulation?
Dana [00:08:11] A lack of regulation. No oversight. Yeah. And in a way that you would go like, that's what? Like, you know, the pharmaceutical industry has to meet standards all around the world, but the fashion industry doesn't in production of their items. And I find that shocking.
Dana [00:08:27] And, of course, brands are taking great, great advantage of this and making so much money. When I was working on the book, five of the top 55 richest people in the world owned fashion brands. Luxury fashion, but also fast fashion.
Dana [00:08:45] The H&M family, the folks who own UNIGLO. The owner of Zara. When I was working on the book, he was the second-richest person in the world, after Bill Gates. Those numbers shift around, but he's usually in the top 10. LVMH owner Bernard Renault, who has 75 luxury brands. The Kering family. I mean, lots and lots and lots and lots of money. They make a lot of money.
Kinsey [00:09:12] Right. Yeah. And I think, you know, obviously the scale is a huge part of that—that they have this enormous chunk of the fashion and apparel industries. But also the ways in which these companies are doing business plays a huge role in that as well.
Kinsey [00:09:25] And that's why I want to talk a little bit more in detail about these supply chains. It's more than just popping into Zara and buying a sweater to wear that night. These decisions that we have do have impacts on the people who are tasked with making those clothing items, making that pair of shoes.
Kinsey [00:09:41] Can you walk me through what the supply chain might look like for, say, let's keep going with this example, a sweater from Zara. Where does it typically start its life? How does it get to the consumer in New York on Fifth Avenue? What's that process like?
Dana [00:09:55] Well, Zara is very secretive, so it's hard to really parse it, but from the best that I can put together, they have their design teams in Spain—northwestern Spain—and they have a whole campus there. A bit like Google campus or Facebook campus. They have a campus. And they have their design studios.
Dana [00:10:16] They also have a small factory to make prototypes to see if things are working, and some distribution, mostly domestic for Spain. And then they have all the computers crunching numbers and telling them what's selling where. They have a crazy data system where every time something's sold somewhere, they crunch those numbers and they say, OK, that item is selling really well. So let's order up some more.
Dana [00:10:42] Oh, that one's not. And they'll just kill and pull it out of the store within days. You won't see it again, and destroy all the leftovers. And put new stuff in when they see what—they can analyze trends all the time, 24/7. So they'll design the garment there, like that famous coat was designed probably in the design studio in Spain.
Dana [00:11:01] And then they'll source the fabrics. They will source the cheapest fabrics possible because every step of the way, they are trying to save as much money as possible and cut the cost of that garment. Because the lower the cost, the bigger the profit.
Dana [00:11:16] So they will find the cheapest khaki cotton twill that they can find that will hold together, and they will line it with the cheapest fabric lining they can find. So it might be a cotton that's conventional cotton, which is among the most polluting crops in the world. It takes one kilo of chemicals to grow one kilo of conventional cotton. Pesticides, herbicides, fertilizers—we just drown those plants.
Dana [00:11:45] And then defoliants so we can make the cotton pick easier. Like it's just a deluge of chemicals, which then runs into the water table and poisons the rest of the earth. And it all goes around. So they'll use the cheapest cotton possible, which is probably very polluting.
Dana [00:12:04] They will use the cheapest fabric possible, probably a polyester, which is petroleum-based, for the lining. Polyesters—petroleum-based meaning it's essentially plastic. It never, ever biodegrades. Or if it does, it won't be in our lifetimes.
Dana [00:12:18] And then they will print this or dye this with the cheapest dye possible, which chances are means it's not going to be terribly great for the environment either, because as one of my great sources told me, the cheapest way of doing business is polluting. And the cheapest stuff is the nastiest stuff. So they will cut costs, cut costs, find the cheapest buttons and the cheapest zippers, and then they will find the place to have it made en masse.
Dana [00:12:46] And they will calculate with computers how to take that bolt of cloth and get like, almost zero waste out of it, which is good in the fact of the zero waste part. But they'll shorten the sleeve by a quarter inch if that means they can get 20 more sleeves out of that bolt of fabric. And they will then have it made in a factory.
Dana [00:13:07] Sari uses a lot in North Africa, in places like Tunisia and Morocco, because it's close to Spain. But they also source in Asia, India, all over the place, Central America. And they will go in and talk to the contractors and say, OK, how much will it cost you to make this jacket? And the contractors will bid against each other until somebody comes up with the lowest bid.
Dana [00:13:31] And, you know, if it's in Bangladesh, the workers will be paid what is considered half a living wage. A living wage is what you are paid—what economists calculate is what you need to house, clothe, and feed your family. So say you need to do that in Bangladesh. $10,000 a year to pay your rent or your mortgage, if you own land, feed your family, get everybody coats and shoes. And not savings, not vacation, not leftovers—just the basics.
Dana [00:14:03] And you will be paid $5,000 a year. So basically you need two full-time jobs in order to take care of your family financially. Now you say, OK, so both parents work, but then what do you do with the kids? So the kids wind up in the factories, sleeping under the tables, doing their homework. Or the parents work nights—take turns some nights and weekends, the other works during the days.
Dana [00:14:24] In any case, everyone's working themselves to the bone for half of what they really should be paid. That would be the barest minimum that they should be paid. And then it will be shipped in containers from the docks of Bangladesh back to a distribution center, maybe in Spain, maybe in the United States. They have various ones around the world.
Dana [00:14:47] And then it's shipped out to their stores. And that all will happen in less than two weeks. I think they have it down now to two weeks. At one point it was sort of three or four weeks, but I think they've now crunched it down to two weeks. In any case, in less than a month from day one to the store floor would be less than a month.
Kinsey [00:15:03] That's crazy.
Dana [00:15:04] And then they will monitor—that's the lightning speed—and then they will monitor how it's selling. And if it's selling, they'll re-up and flood the stores with another hit of it. And if it's not selling, then they'll yank it. And in any case, that item will not be on the sales for more than two weeks. And then it's gone forever. And so it draws you in to the store more often.
Dana [00:15:27] When Zara created this—the system for mid, mid-range or inexpensive fashion—before it did it, they did a study and the average customer went into their stores, which were in Spain at the time before they had really gone global, five times a year, which makes sense. You're like OK, it's summer, like need a new bathing suit. It's winter. I want a new coat. It's spring. Let's get a nice Easter dress.
Dana [00:15:53] And then maybe there was a holiday visit. So, you know, five times a year, that seems perfectly normal. Well, when they started doing this cycle where new items came and lasted only two weeks on the store floor—and it was a constant cycle, it wasn't spring, summer, fall, winter, and then maybe some holiday—it was every day new clothes were put on the floor.
Dana [00:16:15] And that there was this constant cycle—two-week cycle. It drew customers back in the store so much more. And they've discovered that now people went into their store 17 times a year. And if they went in 17 times a year, that meant they were probably buying 17 articles instead of five.
Kinsey [00:16:34] And that's enormously impactful. It's three times plus what you typically would go into a store for. And when you think about the scale of a chain like Zara, that's insane. That's a huge amount of money.
Dana [00:16:46] A huge amount of money. And it really trained the consumer to shop in a different way—that you went shopping as a pastime, like what are we going to do today? Oh, let's go see what's new in Zara. Just like let's go to the movies or let's go out to a cafe and have a coffee. Let's go see what's new in Zara because there's always something new in Zara.
Kinsey [00:17:02] Yeah, I'm guilty of it. [laughs]
Dana [00:17:04] Right. Hey, I got a hot date on Friday night. Maybe I'll go pick up a new dress in Zara. It's cheap, and they'll have something that nobody else has because it's just dropped in yesterday or today. Brand new. So it's not seen—it's not all over the place yet.
Kinsey [00:17:19] Yeah.
Dana [00:17:19] And often, the other thing that changed dramatically was that they then dropped the prices. Because they could. I mean, I think now to what my daughter pays at Zara and H&M, when she was allowed to shop there [laughs], and it was the same price I was paying at the local department store Bamberger's when I was growing up in Pennsylvania.
Dana [00:17:40] And that was in the '70s—the same price—because the cost has dropped so much that they can still make such a gigantic margin that they can drop the prices. So then you're buying 10 of something instead of two of something because you can afford it. And you're buying more.
Dana [00:17:55] You spill something on it, you just go out and buy a new one because it's cheaper to buy the new one than it is to get that one dry cleaned.
Kinsey [00:18:02] Yeah.
Dana [00:18:02] And you always have to dry clean their things because they're made of these chunky materials that if you put it in the washer, it will fall apart.
Kinsey [00:18:08] Yeah, absolutely. The pricing, I think, is one of the most unsettling parts of this conversation, because we have certainly had this sort of lack of transparency [chuckles] from the retailers themselves. But we do know for a fact, from work like yours and of your peers, that people are not being paid a living wage.
Kinsey [00:18:24] The fashion industry employs tons and tons of people, and so few of them are actually making money—enough money to live. And the way that we would know they might be making what they are deserving of is if the prices increased in the stores.
Kinsey [00:18:40] And that is kind of this disconnect that I think a lot of us probably have had trouble understanding is—I love Zara because it's cheap and I can get something to wear a couple of times, but that has so many ripple effects [laughs] that are really, really bad. And the way we know that the problem is starting to be solved is increased prices in the stores.
Dana [00:18:59] Yeah, exactly. And people say, but I can't afford clothes, because we've been conditioned to think that these low prices are normal and how much clothes should cost. In 1960, we devoted a far larger piece of our income pie to clothes and we bought one-fifth the number of items. We spent five times more money than we do today on clothes.
Dana [00:19:24] We've been conditioned to think that these low prices are acceptable and normal, and that it's also acceptable and normal to buy tons of clothes and throw them away very easily. The average garment today is worn seven times before it's thrown away.
Dana [00:19:39] And a study in China says that there, it's only three times, which I find remarkable given, you know, two generations or a generation ago, everyone was still—or not everyone, but a lot of people—were still wearing a Mao suit, like they were anti-fashion. So three times before it's thrown away.
Dana [00:19:55] And they throw clothes away—like less than 10% of clothes are recycled. As much as you'd like to think that they are, they're not. Even if you put them in a bin or send them to a charity shop, they still wind up in landfill.
Kinsey [00:20:05] Yeah, yeah. So I want to get more into how we have kind of become complicit in this system and allowed it to perpetuate. We're going to do that in just a second. Before that, going to take a short break to hear from our partner. —
Kinsey [00:20:19] And now back to the conversation with Dana Thomas. So, Dana, how did we become so addicted to fast fashion? Obviously, we've gotten used to a certain pace of buying new clothes and a certain price tag that we like to see. But it's a quick Google search away to understand how impactful fast fashion has been in a negative way on people trying to make a living wage in Bangladesh and the world around us [laughs] in general. Why are we still doing this?
Dana [00:20:46] Because we never even consider how our clothes are made. Do you know how your car—when your car breaks down, do you open up the hood and know how it works? No. [laughs] Your computer breaks down. Do you know how your computer was made? No. So why would we consider how our clothes are made? And that's because we've lost the notion of making things and making clothes.
Dana [00:21:08] When I was a kid, my mom made me clothes, and she didn't do it because we were poor or anything. She just thought it was fun. She was given a sewing machine at 16 and she made pretty little dresses for me. And we don't do that anymore. We lost home ec classes in schools at about the same time that manufacturing was moving overseas and the jobs were leaving neighborhoods and towns that we grew up in.
Dana [00:21:30] There was a time, not that long ago, a generation or two ago, where chances are you knew somebody in the garment industry, whether they were working in factories, they were in the design side, they were growing cotton, they were growing [indistinct]—something.
Dana [00:21:45] You knew something somewhere that—you've watched "The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel." I mean, Mr. Maisel, her father-in-law, has a dress factory in the heart of New York City. So everybody, somehow, not everybody, but—or maybe they were at your church, or maybe they were at your school—but you had a connection somehow to the garment industry.
Dana [00:22:06] Well, of course, that's all gone now because all those jobs went offshore and all those factories got closed and a lot of people lost their shirts and towns died. Entire sections of America died when all those factories closed because they would lose thousands and thousands of jobs.
Dana [00:22:21] And they didn't just lose thousands of jobs in the town. They also lost the support of a brand in what we called a corporate paternalism. So it really did wound towns when they left.
Kinsey [00:22:32] Yeah. I think what I'm struggling to understand is that there are so few winners from this.
Dana [00:22:36] I know.
Kinsey [00:22:37] It seems that, sure, we might pay a little bit less for a sweater [laughs], but at the end of the day, there are so many more negative impacts than there are positive impacts. The only people who are really benefiting from this are, to your earlier point, the people who own Zara and H&M and all these CEOs who are becoming some of the richest people in the world.
Dana [00:22:56] And their shareholders. Yeah, absolutely. Now, you asked how—why do we put up with all this? And I said, because we don't know about it, but also because of the marketing. The marketing is just fantastic. And it's in our face.
Dana [00:23:10] And it was interesting this week, I listened to a conference and somebody in the business said I would love to see regulations in fast fashion marketing, like fast food is regulated, or alcohol is regulated, or cigarettes is regulated. And there is no regulation in fast fashion advertising, none whatsoever.
Dana [00:23:30] And so they're just pushing this product on us without telling us what it really is and how it impacts the planet. And they'll advertise like they have a conscious collection and it's all organic and sustainable, but it'll only make a single digit percentage of their production and therefore their sales.
Dana [00:23:48] Like, it's just minimal, but they'll trumpet this and it'll get a big, splashy coverage. And so you think, oh, they must be doing a good job, when actually it's what we call greenwashing. So there's a lot of greenwashing going on, where they're trying to make themselves sound cleaner and safer than they are. And we just buy it because we don't question it because nobody's really blown the horn on it. Thus, why I wrote the book.
Kinsey [00:24:14] Yeah [laughs], and a lot of this speaks to public perception of fast fashion, which certainly, in a lot of ways, we all have been guilty of perpetuating. You know, like I was getting dressed this morning thinking [chuckles] I gotta avoid the fast fashion in my closet because I don't want to be part of the problem. But I am.
Kinsey [00:24:29] Like, sure some of my stuff is vintage and some of the things I stole from my mom's closet. But at the end of the day, I have to be on video here hosting a podcast. Most days I want to not wear the same shirt every day.
Kinsey [00:24:41] So you go pop in and you buy something. And I think part of why I wanted to hear your perspective on this sort of public perception of fast fashion is because in my view, it has changed a little bit. You know, maybe five, 10 years ago —
Dana [00:24:53] It has changed a little bit.
Kinsey [00:24:54] Yeah. I wouldn't have considered that. I wouldn't have considered that the sweater that I'm buying is going to impact the life of a family in Bangladesh. Now, it's a different kind of understanding of how these brands are selling us things. And part of it is having conversations like this.
Kinsey [00:25:08] But I also think part of it has been this sort of trend that we have seen, especially from young people, younger consumers, Gen Z, younger millennials, away from fast fashion. They favor sustainable companies. They favor companies that are trying to make things ethically.
Kinsey [00:25:22] And that might have an impact on the fast fashion industry, but I'm curious how big that impact could possibly be. You know, has this sort of new trend to favor the more sustainable brands had any impact on the fast fashion empires?
Dana [00:25:37] I don't know if it's had any impact yet. Well, yes, it has, in that it is pushing them to be more sustainable, but they're not truly sustainable because they're still overproducing—that their entire business model is based on volume.
Kinsey [00:25:52] Right.
Dana [00:25:53] Moving volume, moving volume, moving volume as fast as possible. And so as long as that's their business model, they'll never be sustainable. But, H&M has been investing in tech companies, really cool startups that are doing things like regenerating old cotton shirts back to their molecular level and then creating brand-new virginal quality cotton out of it.
Dana [00:26:19] Or the same with polyester—not just recycling polyester, but regenerating polyester to virginal state so that we don't have to keep pumping oil out of the planet to make polyester. We can keep using the polyester that we have in what we call a circular system, meaning that it's birth of the product, use of the product, rebirth of the product, use of the product, rebirth of the product.
Dana [00:26:42] And so we're doing that with polyester. Now, 60% of our clothes contain some polyester in it. So there's a lot of polyester out there to regenerate and reuse. But it's still a terrible, terrible product [laughs] for us. When we heat it up in the washing machine, in hot water, it releases microfibers, which go into our water systems, and then we eat them when we eat the fish.
Dana [00:27:03] And it's raining microfibers in the Rocky Mountains, and you can breathe microfibers now in the air in London. And that all comes from polyester. So while H&M is finding a solution for the existing polyester so we don't make more, they aren't backing away from polyester whatsoever. Do you see it what I mean? It's like a Band-Aid.
Kinsey [00:27:20] Right.
Dana [00:27:21] But they are being pushed to explore or support startups that are coming up with solutions that are more sustainable. And they're investing in them, which is great. So we can't completely dismiss them. But still, they're going to use these systems for the wrong reason, because as long as they're still overproducing, we still have a problem.
Kinsey [00:27:47] I think this is arguably one of the biggest sticking points for me in this conversation is, and we referenced it very early in this conversation, in any other industry, this would be a huge red flag—that there are a small number of people getting this rich.
Kinsey [00:28:00] We think about the ways that we at least attempt to regulate big tech. We can debate the pros and cons of capitalism all day long. People are going to want to get rich. That's just in their nature, especially when they are driven to be entrepreneurs. But, even in something like big tech, where you have billions and billions of people using these platforms, they're regulated.
Dana [00:28:19] Yeah.
Kinsey [00:28:19] They have government entities to step in and say this is OK and this is not OK. Why doesn't that exist for the fashion industry? Is it because it is such a global industry?
Dana [00:28:28] Yeah. And because they work really hard to avoid the regulation. Now one of the reasons that fast fashion—there was a little back-pedaling by consumers on fast fashion, but a bit because they bounced right back and is now reaching record volumes even after the pandemic—was the collapse of Rana Plaza, this factory that collapsed on workers in Bangladesh seven years ago this spring, this coming spring.
Dana [00:28:55] And that made the front page worldwide. And there were certain brands that were spotlighted as producing there, and they got called out. And everyone in the world was horrified. Anybody who had a television or newspaper saw this and said, oh, my God, I had no idea it was that bad. And so there was this sort of brief awareness of the violation of human rights in the garment industry because of that.
Dana [00:29:22] But this still goes on all the time. There's still factory fires. There's still factory [indistinct]. They're not as big and horrible as that. Maybe nobody's in the building at the time it happens. But, you know, these things happen all the time still, and they always have. It's just that it's moved offshore, so we lose track of it.
Dana [00:29:37] And for me, one of the most telling stories that I came across—and I put in the book—was when Tommy Hilfiger was cornered backstage at this fashion show by ABC News. And they said, did you know that your clothes were made in this factory that just went up in flames and 100 people were killed? He said, I had no idea my clothes were being made in Bangladesh.
Dana [00:29:56] Now, if Tommy Hilfiger had no idea his clothes were being made in Bangladesh, how are we supposed to know that our clothes are being made in Bangladesh? But that was because the big conglomerate that owns Tommy Hilfiger did all these different things to bypass the rules.
Kinsey [00:30:10] Yeah, and all of this seems so discouraging in a way. We're all kind of complicit. There is this lack of regulation, and it's really hard to figure out realistically how bad things are in fast fashion. I want to talk about what we, as individual consumers, can do to lessen our footprint. But first, let's take a short break to hear from our partner. —
Kinsey [00:30:30] And now back to the conversation with Dana Thomas. So, Dana, what can we do to try to solve this problem?
Dana [00:30:36] There's a few little things you can do as a consumer that are so basic and will have such a huge impact. First, as I said, if there's a hashtag for my book, it's "by less, by better." Don't buy 10 cheapo T-shirts. Buy one really good one. Buy the $70 organic cotton T-shirt that's made of a really thick weave and it's going to last your lifetime as opposed to 10 junky ones that will fall apart in three months and will cost you $100. In the long run, you are saving money by buying better.
Dana [00:31:06] Buy the $300 pair of jeans. You go, what, why should I spend $300 on a pair of jeans? Because that's what they should be costing, and they're made of a superior denim. They will last much longer than the 10 pairs of $30 jeans that you buy that crack in six months.
Dana [00:31:22] My daughter is still wearing my jeans from the 1980s. My old 501 Shrink to Fit Levi's. Levi's were invented to be as the original sustainable garment. They should last a lifetime. They were made for miners. They're not fashion items.
Dana [00:31:35] So buy solidly made, solid good denim, and then break them in yourself and invest in them. But more importantly, do things like wash your clothes less, and use the short cycle, and wash with cold. They'll still come out perfectly clean. You are using less water.
Dana [00:31:56] You are using less electricity because it's the short cycle. You aren't heating water, which means you're not using electricity to heat the water. You are not boiling your clothes to death [laughs] so they fall apart and fade really quickly. And the short cycle means you're spinning them less, so you're not beating them to death too, so they don't fall apart so quickly. So they last longer.
Dana [00:32:17] And you're not releasing microfibers—as many microfibers from the polyesters—because those are released when the water gets hot. And if it stays cold, then they don't release. Just like when you're washing dishes and use hot water when you need to scrub off the hard stuff.
Dana [00:32:31] So if you just do that, you will have already made a huge impact because you are keeping your clothes longer, they're lasting longer, they look better. You're saving money, you're saving energy, and you're saving water.
Kinsey [00:32:44] All good things.
Dana [00:32:45] All good things. And a little thing like that has an enormous impact.
Kinsey [00:32:51] Yeah.
Dana [00:32:51] You'll see a big difference just on your electric bill.
Kinsey [00:32:53] Right. Right. And part of, I would say, one of the biggest themes that we've seen in the past couple of years in the business world at large is this more conscious consumer. So when we can actually take steps to be that more conscious consumer, those steps will have an impact on the businesses that we interface with, inevitably.
Kinsey [00:33:12] So I would just encourage people to keep all of these tips in mind, and to buy less and buy smarter. And keep that at your front of mind every time you walk past a store window, and you might be tempted by one cute top or one cute dress or one nice-looking pair of jeans.
Dana [00:33:27] Exactly. There's also what we call the three Rs in fashion: repair, resell, and rent. And those three things are super-important if you just want to be a bit more of a conscious consumer. If your sweater has a hole in it, get out a needle and thread and stitch it up. Don't throw the sweater away.
Dana [00:33:48] And then resell. So instead of throwing away your clothes, put them on things like The RealReal or Vestiaire Collective, or take them—you know, resell yourself. Or swap as my daughter does. She'll walk in the kitchen in something and I'll say, I don't know that sweater. And she goes, oh, that's Maya's, but I liked it, so she gave it to me and then I gave her my thing instead. I'm like, oh, there you go.
Dana [00:34:08] So it has a second life. Try to give your clothes a second life or even a third life. And then rent. Rent for special events. There's a big uptick in renting wedding dresses. This is a big, growing business. This is fantastic because most wedding dresses are worn once and then that's it.
Dana [00:34:28] I wore my mother's, so I wore it twice. I mean, that's doesn't happen often, right? But the idea of sharing that joy to the next bride is a fantastic—you know, talk about good energy, right? And you can rent a glorious gown that you would have never been able to afford for one-tenth the price. If your budget is $500, you can rent a $5,000 gown, which is gorgeous, right?
Kinsey [00:34:55] Yeah. And I love ending this conversation on actual, tangible ways to make a difference and to impact the world around us. It has been so incredible to hear your insights, Dana. Thank you so much for taking the time and for really shedding light on this for so many of us.
Kinsey [00:35:10] I think for me, at least personally, for a while, this was kind of a back-burner issue, and that should not be the case. This needs to move to the front burner, absolutely. So thank you so much for all of this incredible information. I really appreciate it.
Dana [00:35:23] My pleasure. Thank you.
Kinsey [00:35:32] Thank you so much for listening to this episode of Business Casual. Dana had some pretty crazy concepts laid out in this conversation, many of which a lot of us probably hadn't considered before. I hope this episode has inspired you to think about the way you spend your money a little differently. It sure has for me. I'll see you next time. [sound of a ding]