The Cost of Fast Fashion:  Environmental, Economic, and Safety

Americans have grown accustomed to buying poorly made clothes that have been imported for pennies on the dollar. We currently import 97 percent of our apparel; this is twice the amount of clothing that was imported prior to 1990. Between February 2013 and February 2014, the U.S. exported $5.8 billion worth of apparel and imported $80 billion according to the Department of Commerce’s Office of Textiles and Apparel. This would be the trade deficit that President Trump is referring to and infer orates people who work in manufacturing. The cost of importing 97 percent of our apparel not only affects our communities through loss of jobs, but it also increases the environmental damage that garments reek on the planet.  The loss of jobs in our communities impacts the tax base, the schools, the quality of parks, essentially the quality of life. When the jobs have been off shored, our communities suffer.

Over the past twenty years, there has been a 90% decline in apparel manufacturing industry in the U.S., from 940,000 jobs in 1990 to 136,000 in 2015. This has been in part due to Nafta and the Trans-Pacific Partnerships, which provide incentives such as lower tariffs for companies that want to produce clothes overseas—though the merits of free trade have been contested in this election cycle and the effects on American Jobs. Both Nafta and the Trans Pacific Partnerships allow for companies to benefit from manufacturing abroad rather than locally. It is highly questionable if American Companies should even be allowed to manufacture with factories that are using slave labor, children, and unsafe working conditions; unfortunately companies do use these factories and people and children get hurt. 

As we all know, manufacturing abroad drives down labor costs. But while they have cheap labor, they develop another problem: companies are forced to mark up their products because a significant chunk of their inventory will never get sold—some products will be discarded because of poor quality, slow turnaround time means that some clothes will no longer be fashionable when they reach stores, and designers often make bad bets on color schemes or patterns and aren’t able to withdraw orders. Overproduction of apparel not only cost more money, but it adds to environmental damage because we are making more than we need, polluting more that we need, and then throwing it away. 

Fast fashion, a recent trend, provides the marketplace with affordable apparel aimed mostly at young women. Fueling the demand are fashion magazines that help create the desire for new “must-haves” for each season. Women love fashion and will purchase to have a new item that is frivolous. Because it is cheap, it can be disposed of quickly. Disposable couture appears all over America and Europe at prices that make the purchase tempting and the disposal painless. Yet fast fashion leaves a pollution footprint, with each step of the clothing life cycle generating potential environmental and occupational hazards. 

There’s no way to gauge how much fuel is used to ship clothes worldwide, but 22 billion new clothing items are bought by Americans per year, with only 2 percent of those clothes being domestically manufactured. In total, some 90 percent of garments are transported by container ship each year. We cannot know what percentage of cargo garments comprise on the world’s 9,000 container ships, we do know that a single ship can produce as much cancer and asthma-causing pollutants as 50 million cars in just one year. 

Clearly, fast cheap fashion is not going away along with its negative environmental impact. This does leave room however for people to consider their wardrobe and make choices in how much they are going to buy, purchasing 10% of their wardrobe domestically manufactured, while paying attention to the environmental impact.

SQN Sport is continuously reevaluating how we can minimize our carbon footprint through shipping locally, packaging solutions, fabric solutions and quality issues to minimize how often garments have to be replaced. (Clearly this is not a great choice for selling more.) We will continue to update our blog and webpage with efforts we are making to improve our environmental footprint.



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