Last month, Florida shopper Marie Wolf got a glimpse into the dark back alley of big retail when she stopped in at Victoria’s Secret to return a pair of Pink-brand sweatpants. The clerk refunded her $70, no questions asked, and then reached for a pair of scissors and cut the pants in half. Wolf was outraged—the pants were unworn and perfectly sellable. She confronted the store manager and then the corporate office, only to find that the clerk’s biggest mistake—from a policy standpoint—was not that she’d cut up the pants, but that she’d done so in front of a customer.
If Wolf’s story were the only one of its kind, you could label Victoria’s Secret’s a bad apple in a seemingly healthy orchard; but last year, H&M and Walmart were both caught destroying clothes. In January 2010, the New York Times reported trash bags of unworn H&M clothing, slashed with box cutters, outside their Manhattan store, as well as dumped bags of unworn Walmart clothing a few blocks down the street, each garment punctured with holes.
As unsavory as it may be, destroying surplus inventory is not unheard of in big retail; the main reason is because companies want to protect their brand’s image. Ed Foy, founder of eFashionSolutions.com, told the Times, “They [retailers] want us to see that the people wearing their brands are the people we aspire to be.” In other words: not enterprising Dumpster-divers.
When stores slash leftover clothing before they toss it, they ensure they won’t be competing with their own merchandise in the secondary market and that the company won’t take losses from customers seeking refunds on merchandise they fished out of the trash. But let’s not miss the forest for the trees: calling out a company like H&M for leaving cut-up clothing in the trash is to ignore the fact that disposability is a cornerstone of its and many other big retailers’ business models. To truly understand the reason for such waste, we have to first look at the phenomenon of fast fashion.
What Is Fast Fashion?
Fast fashion is a clothing production strategy that emphasizes moving high-end catwalk trends into stores in the shortest amount of time possible at the cheapest possible price point. It was introduced in 1980s and ’90s by brands like Zara and Benetton, and gained notoriety over the past decade with stores like Forever21 and H&M. Now, fast fashion a bona fide juggernaut. H&M—which has over 2,200 stores globally—can design, manufacture, and distribute new products in as little as three weeks, a timeline that allows the company to remain agile and at the forefront of trends, and to constantly update its massive inventory. Low-grade fabrics, cheap labor from overseas, and flimsy construction allow the company to keep prices bargain-basement low, a key factor in luring customers back weekly or even daily to check out the always-new inventory.
And it works! Why pay $25 at Nordstrom for a T-shirt that’s available at H&M for $4.95? And why fret about paying $4.95, even if it’s flimsy and imperfect, when we can buy a replacement tee in a fresh new color the following week? And maybe again the week after that? Fast fashion, with its breezy disposability, makes consumption easy for the fickle and noncommittal among us, even in a time when we are all pinching our pennies.
But the true cost of mass production is always leveraged somewhere, and in the case of fast fashion, the planet is paying the lion’s share. Textile waste in the United States has doubled since 1994, and production of polyester, which is highly hazardous and energy-intensive to produce, has doubled in the past twenty years. Cotton, the fabric of our lives, accounts for a quarter of all the pesticides used in the United States. Although clothing production has never been particularly environmentally friendly, fast fashion has exacerbated the problem by accelerating bad practices—and while consumers all over the country have become more conscious of the environmental impact of what we eat and what we drive, the discussion about what we wear has yet to really take hold. Perhaps a peek into the underside of big retail, where the consequences of our consumption lie grotesquely heaped in trash bags, is just the shock we need to get a good conversation going and create a new industry standard.
In the meantime, the most effective tools we have in greening the lay of the land are to practice mindful consumption when we shop and to extend the life cycle of our purchases. Here are a few tips for slowing down the behemoth of fast fashion.
- Pay a little more for things you love: Rather than scouring the discount racks for the cheapest possible deals, shop for items that speak to you and flatter your shape. Not only will this make it less likely that your purchases will waste away in the depths of your closet, it might inspire you to get creative and reinvent your pieces with accessories and accents, rather than tossing them in favor of the latest edition.
- Shop vintage and consign your clothes: If you’ve got the itch to impulse buy, consider visiting your local consignment and thrift shops. Often you’ll find brand-name threads at a fraction of the cost and you get the added satisfaction of bucking department store trends and developing a truly original signature style. And when your favorite jeans lose their luster, sell them back; it’s good for your wallet and the planet!
- Visit a tailor or DIY: You’d be surprised at how much a simple nip or tuck can change the look of a garment. Just because a blouse has a slight pucker doesn’t mean it’s a lost cause. Summon your inner Project Runway contestant and figure out how to make it fierce. Even if your DIY efforts bring disaster, you’ll feel like a winner for having tried at all. And you know what they say—confidence makes any outfit look better.