In her book, Fashionopolis: The Price of Fast Fashion and the Future of Clothes, author Dana Thomas explores the heart of the modern fashion world – exposing a fundamentally broken system, while also highlighting those who are developing solutions to deep-seated problems, and offering options for consumers on how to improve their shopping habits.
Thomas writes in her introduction, “Clothes are our initial and most basic tool of communication. They convey our social and economic status, our occupation, our ambition, our self-worth. They can empower us, imbue us with sensuality. They can reveal our respect, or our disregard, for convention. ‘Vein trifles as they seem,’ Virginia Woolf wrote in Orlando, ‘clothes…change our view of the world and the world’s view of us.’”
Today’s modern world advances that idea through the practice of “fast fashion”, which we have discussed at length over the years. The system of producing garments that mirror current runway trends has created an expectation of immediacy in consumers. Shoppers want today’s fashions now, and they will want tomorrow’s trends next week. Never mind that garments today are worn an average of 7 times before they are discarded for the next, short-lived look.
“To keep the prices low, fast-fashion brands slashed manufacturing costs – and the cheapest labor was available in the world’s poorest countries,” Thomas says. “Offshoring caught on across the industry, just as globalization was unfurling. Though it started as a small corner of the business, fast fashion’s astounding success was so enviable it soon reset the rhythm for how clothing – from luxury to athletic wear – was and is conceived, advertised, and sold.”
Fashionopolis looks at the current fashion world in three different sections: the fashion industry itself, and how it became such a massive and ever-growing entity; the idea of “Slow Fashion” and how things can be produced locally, responsibly, and on a smaller scale; the designers and producers who are trying to reshape the system from the inside.
For years, the fashion industry in America was sturdy and stalwart. Designer and ready-to-wear collections were largely crafted in New York’s Garment District. The idea of offshoring labor gained some traction in the 1980s and within two decades, legislation like the North Atlantic Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) made exporting labor too tempting for manufacturers to resist. As a result, by the 1990s, fast fashion was becoming the norm in the ready-to-wear market. But that mass shift in production methods came at an enormous human cost.
Manufacturers subcontract a large amount of work to companies in developing nations, and those businesses have little to no oversight. Thomas writes, “Fashion employs one out of six people on the globe, making it the most labor-intensive industry out there – more than agriculture, more than defense. Fewer than 2 percent of them earn a living wage.” That means that, in order to turn the massive profits they expect, the companies that make our clothes rely on underpaid laborers who are subject to shocking human rights violations and earn significantly less than a living wage. Undocumented workers in the United States are also subject to similar conditions – most in severe violation of labor laws.
The environment has also fallen victim to our need for instant gratification. The World Bank believes that fashion is the cause of almost 20% of all industrial water pollution each year. It estimated that 10% of carbon emissions come from clothing production.
In looking for solutions to some of these worldwide problems, Thomas looks first to Slow Fashion producers, including a profile of Alabama Chanin. She defines Slow Fashion as “a growing movement of makers, designers, merchants, and manufacturers worldwide who, in response to fast fashion and globalization, have significantly dialed back their pace and financial ambition, freeing themselves to focus more on creating items with inherent value, curating the customer experience, and reducing environmental impact.” She sees the potential for success and growth in that model and others, like reshoring. Reshoring, or bringing back manufacturing that went offshore after NAFTA’s enaction, has become more popular in the fashion industry. Thomas reports that textiles and apparel were the third-most reshored industry in 2014, and the second-fastest growing in 2016, employing 135,000 people and producing 10% of America’s fashion.
From an outward-looking perspective, Fashionopolis looks at designers like Stella McCartney, who is examining ways to make a difference on a much larger scale. She, and others in the industry, are beginning to see that Millennials and Generation Z are looking for responsible brands. As a result, companies are emerging to fill the need for sustainable materials. Bolt Threads has created a lab-grown “spider silk,” made using yeast and DNA to create fibers, and Evrnu, which transforms old clothing into high-quality raw materials.
For Dana Thomas, the issues facing the fashion industry are much larger than fashion itself. Her book shines a light on the true price of capitalism and the cost of the way the world does business today. But, by the end of Fashionopolis, we are offered a way forward. She tells us, “The revolution is not only going to be born from the makers. We all have to step up. Buy less. Wash our clothes differently. Repair or upcycle them more. Consider the impact of the material they are made of. Consider the supply chain that produces them. Consider the tenets of the company that created and distributed them. We need to fashion a personal style that does more good for the world than ill.”
We believe it can be done and we are grateful to Dana Thomas for showing the many sides of fashion in the world today. We all have options to consider and choices to make. The more information we have at our fingertips, the easier those decisions become.
Pick up a copy of Fashionopolis from our store while limited quantities are available.
I am planning to purchase a copy of the book this evening. I have been wearing clothing made from Organic cotton for 25 years and subscribe to Slow Fashion. I make some of my own clothing from patterns and fabric I have purchased from Alabama Chanin. I thoroughly believe this is the only responsible way for the fashion industry to survive.