"The True Cost" of fast fashion

I recently watched the documentary "The True Cost", available on Netflix.

Though I have read much about the environmental and social costs of the apparel industry, especially "fast fashion"—the cheap, trendy and continually-refreshed global brands—the impact of visuals was more compelling. After the oil and gas industry, apparel is the most polluting industry.

I tried to assuage twinges of guilt: Wait, I thought, I don't want more, and I don't buy cheap, fast fashion. Well OK, except for a few Forever21 canvas tote bags. Dang, those are cute.

But though a closet check shows a good percentage of locally-made or fair-trade pieces, I can improve.

My sentiment is similar to Susan Burpee's post, "In Praise of Slow Fashion", on her blog, High Heels in the Wilderness. I sense a groundswell.

Like Susan, I searched for lists of the best ethical and fair-trade brands, though the terms are often fuzzily-defined. When I saw H&M on Marie Claire magazine's list, I wondered: in the film, their PR person could not look her interviewer in the eye and avoided a factual answer when asked what the Swedish chain (the largest of the fast-fashion merchants) pay the Asian garment workers hired via independent suppliers.

Lillikoi Basic Boatneck
Some respected ethical brands (Stella MacCartney, Edun—and ooh I like these denim trousers!) are out of my budget, and others require shipping, which shifts the pain to another environmental sore spot. A recent BBC News article reports that such retailers' return rates (when they offer free shipping and returns) average over 63%, and the biggest repeat returners are young women, ordering multiples in various sizes, to check fit.

I look first for locally and Canadian-made; some favourites include Lisette L (trousers), Lilikoi (cotton and bamboo tees and dresses), La Canadienne (shoes and boots), Vèronique Miljkovitch (chic tops and dresses) and Betina Lou (sportswear).

I'm learning more about buying jeans, thanks to Ethical Consumer's site, which publishes a scorecard for some brands. (Sidebar: Just because a pair of jeans costs $250 does not mean that's an ethical choice.) 
People Tree Zandra Rhodes top
The film has been praised, but also called "vague liberal agitprop".  While I watched, I heard nothing vague from designers and manufacturers like Safia Minney of People Tree, who create alternative business models which they explain precisely, nothing vague from the Cambodian workers and organizers who put their lives on the line to protest making forty or fifty cents per hour for goods sold for hundreds of dollars.

Economist Richard Wolff commented succinctly about the macro-economic issues of late-stage capitalism, though did not provide solutions.

When I started buying my own clothes in US, during the mid-'60s, it was taken for granted that what one bought there was made there. My small town's best shops, which catered to wealthy summer residents, sold some luxury imports: British woolens and the rare, very special French or Italian dress, but also sportswear made from fabric milled in the Carolinas, Ohio, and New York. Now, the world comes to our malls and streets, flooding them with cheap, abundant fashion that promotes a rapid spend-divest-spend cycle.

As Suzy Menkes said after the 2013 Bangladesh factory disaster, "It's not just manufacturers...it's about the consumer. We need to realize it's morally wrong to buy a bikini for the same price as a cappucino."

Many young adults are have rejected the habit I picked up as I blew my summer job's cheques on something new for a dance, a change of season or even just because I had worn the thing too many times.

Oh, that's embarrassing to admit! And that attitude is the shopper's crack: feels good at first, but then it's hell to kick.

Achilles' Heel par excellence
Assisted by retirement, I buy less than at any other stage, and plan to wear that into the ground—but still have to be careful about reflexively wanting more, especially when the weather turns cold. I get like a squirrel with acorns, but with sweaters. I recently spent a delightful sunny morning in Montréal with a visiting reader, LauraH, who, like me, employs cashmere against our frigid winters. Laura mentioned she had a few pieces that didn't get worn last winter, and I concurred.

She said, "That's the sign I have enough", and her wisdom will stay with me next time I'm tempted by "just one more" of those luscious knits.

How attentive are you to the production behind your clothes and accessories? Does it matter? What do you do, or hope to do?


John said…
Your post brings up valuable questions about where we get our clothing. We should all think about this when we buy something.

I went and visited all the lovely sites you noted and not one of them has plus-sized clothing (I know, I'm riding that horse again). It's disheartening that there is so little choice for bigger women.--Louise
Duchesse said…
Louise: I hear you! Take heart, and look a bit more closely ;)

Lisette's plus sizes are here:

Lilikoi makes sizesd up to 2X, they are on the same menu as misses'.

Though not formally including a plus line, Betina Lou and Véronique make styles that will fit an 16W-18W, though other pieces will not.

For example, this Véronique Sophie dress in XL will fit certain plus bodies, depending on bust: http://shop.miljkovitch.com/collections/ss16/products/sophie
and so would this Ivy top:
Madame Là-bas said…
It does seem that size 12+ clothing is difficult to find. I checked out Neon Buddha, a Canadian company manufacturing in Thailand. They seem to be ethical and they carry a full range of sizes.
John said…
I did miss that! I will have to take a closer look, thought in my current state, I am very possibly a little more plus than they're making, depending on the cut :) Thanks for bringing this to my attention.
LauraH said…
Since I retired, had my colours analyzed, and started reading your blog, along with a couple of others, I've been building a new wardrobe. My clothes need to work for my actual life ( I still tend to seriously consider things that are more for the fantasy life), they need to look good on me and they need to be well made as I no longer have money coming in to re buy. Within those parameters, I've tried hard to buy Canadian or American made...not easy.

My La Canadienne shoes/boots are great, I felt like a sausage in the Lisette L pants I tried, Lilikoi styles haven't suited me so far and Veronique seems a bit too dressy. I'll try the others you mentioned for sure. Miik has some great styles and checks all the boxes http://www.miik.ca/ Those in Toronto can check out Logan & Finley for more made in Canada clothing http://loganandfinley.com/

What fun to be quoted, I'm flattered! Living in a house with very limited storage space also helps to put a brake on new purchases.
Mary said…
The Guardian newspaper published an article on Monday about how washing clothes made with cheap microfibers are poisoning the oceans and food supplies as these fibers make their way through water treatment plants, etc.. Not pleasant reading.
Duchesse said…
LauraH: Though Lisette's site says to order a size smaller than usual, I had to go up one size, but they are great pants, in terms of cut and care. (I wear them for work.)

I wear my Véronique tops with jeans, but they also dress up.

Thanks so much for the recommendations.
Duchesse said…
Mary: Very enlightening; for anyone wishing to read, link is here:

Mme Là-bas: Thanks! I looked at their site; there are links to online retailers but would be even more appealing if they had a dedicated e-commerce feature on their site.
susan burpee said…
There is just so much information out there... like the stats on smoking in the seventies... it's hard to ignore. Although many people are doing their level best to ignore the info...yep...just like with smoking. I had heard about 'fast fashion' and Livia Firth et al but I hadn't heard about the "Slow Fashion" movement until I researched my own blog post. BTW...many thanks for the mention and the link.

What a good point about on-line shopping and the environmental costs of increased shipping when people order six items and keep two. I guess I should be glad that on-line shopping is not something I do much... and then only when I can return an item to bricks and mortar store. Something to be said for living in the Canadian "wilderness."

Once again a great post. Thanks.
Duchesse said…
Mme: My friend Beth uses Etsy to source small designer-producers based in Asia, who make made-to-measure things like linen jackets. She has had great results.
LauraH said…
Thanks for the details. Will re-try Lisette in a larger size, I would love it to work on me. I'll also take another look at Veronique.
une femme said…
I still have this documentary on my "to view" list, will have to make a point to get to it soon. I've often been frustrated at how so many women I know have become accustomed to ridiculously low clothing prices.

I've rarely purchased anything in recent years that might be described as "fast fashion," and the few pieces I did succumb to were ultimately a disappointment. Regarding online shopping, it's been a major point of frustration for me in recent years that brick-and-mortar shops aren't stocking Petites if the brand offers them (or Plus sizes), so those of us who can't always wear standard sizes are forced to order online. Sometimes I can find an item in a standard size that works for me, but alterations are often required. I know it's not everyone's cup of mojito, but I like that Eileen Fisher has a corporate commitment to ethical manufacturing and environmental sustainability. It does help to that so many of her pieces wear like iron.
Francie Newcomb said…
This really worries me, too. I liked the comment that if there are things you don't get around to wearing in a season, it might be a sign you have enough clothes. I also want to watch the documentary, and thanks for bringing this to our attention, Duchesse. What about Pendleton? Is that OK? I also love Doncaster/Tanner. It's sort of a scary, helpless feeling to think about this problem.
Duchesse said…
Francie: If you really get into this you will read and learn, just like some women read nutrition labels. Pendleton on where its wool comes from, and where its clothes are made: Spoiler: not all in USA.

According to the blog "The Elegant Bohemian", Doncaster clothing is now made in their China factory.

However, we should not assume all foreign factories are hellholes that employ underpaid workers; the film showed some that were not. That is the mission of organizationslike PeopleTree- to suport safe workplaces and fairly-paid jobs in various locales.

I recently bought a blouse that said "Designed in Montréal" and feel good about it; only when I was checking washing instructions I found the much smaller tag that said in tiny print, "Made in China".
Sisty said…
Yeah, that "designed in" business on the label raised my antennae, too. I've seen lots of variations on that, and of course it's all actually made in China, India or Bangladesh.

Ten years ago == when I was a few sizes smaller, in the sprit of full disclosure == I could find high quality European-made clothing at discounters such as Loehmann's, Filene's Basement, etc. Those stores have gone under, and that merchandise is nowhere to be found. Fortunately for me it coincides with a sense of satiety with my clothes and shoes, but I am truly sorry that good design, good material, and good technique have disappeared. Eileen Fisher, though made more forgivingly than the tailored stuff I used to be drawn to, does consistently use high-quality fabrics, if not very sophisticated constructions. Maybe knits are now where we should turn our attention.
Duchesse said…
Pseu: I am eager to hear/read what you think about the film, as you have long been conscious of this issue. I resort to online to get things like a coral sweater instead of predictable black, but I draw the line at multiple sizes and then returning. (Usually customer service people are helpful if I think I am between sizes.) Internet shopping is here to stay, that's for sure.

LauraH: Have you ever shopped at Ewanika? I really like her clothes, but not all are cut for my body.

Sisty: Where are those odd lots. ends and unsold sale items now that Loehmanns and my fave Daffy's are gone? I found a whole rack of EF at Winners (our TJ Maxx), however, a rather uninspired teal. When visiting San Francisco, I stumbled upon a non-big-brand off-price shop and found it crammed with Barney's merch. That stuff has to end up somewhere.
Beth said…
Good post, Duchesse. Yes, it does matter to me, and while I do buy a "fast" T-shirt or leggings occasionally at H&M, Zara, or their ilk, this is one reason I sew, check the thrift stores, and buy on Etsy or from Fair Trade and local makers on my travels, and try to keep impulse purchases to a minimum. Not always easy: I like new clothes as much as anyone, but shopping for cheap stuff is addictive and damaging.
Beth said…
Good post, Duchesse. Yes, it does matter to me, and while I do buy a "fast" T-shirt or leggings occasionally at H&M, Zara, or their ilk, this is one reason I sew, check the thrift stores, and buy on Etsy or from Fair Trade and local makers on my travels, and try to keep impulse purchases to a minimum. Not always easy: I like new clothes as much as anyone, but shopping for cheap stuff is addictive and damaging.
Murphy said…
Great post, Duchesse. I try to be careful with my purchases, but find that the available information is often conflicting. And I have to order some things online, like shoes, or I will never have any that fit! However, I do appreciate the list of brands you provided, some of which are new to me. By the way, I have that exact Bompard sweater in that exact color and I love it so - no need for me to worry that it won't be worn enough :)
It is all very sad, not to mention that many people (especially but not only women) have to look decent for work and simply can't afford the high-end solutions.

We also remember that garment workers in East, South and Southeast Asia have just as much a right to decent work as their sisters and brothers in North America and Europe.

There were as many higher-end labels in the rubble of Rana Plaza as cheap stuff from Primark and Joe Fresh...

I was glad that Duchesse brought up what for me was the very odd practice of systematically ordering and returning clothing. The only things I order online are from the distinctly unfashionable Sears chain. I'd never think of ordering a dress from there, but they carry a lot of the popular "comfortable" shoe brands, in a range of widths.

People ignore the high cost of shipping in shopping "over the internet". It doesn't come by Internet, it comes by truck or even plane.
Duchesse said…
lagatta: Readers and others I know do complain about the cost of shipping, especially when the charge is made in foreign currency. It's the free shipping both ways that engenders the ordering of more things than someone intends to buy, or the person orders with no intention of buying. (The article also mentions that things are returned after being worn.)

Free shipping is of course an illusion, the cost is factored in, as it is in a bricks and mortar store.

Our local thrifts carry a fair amount of clothing suitable for work, but you do have to look- and the women's choices IMO are more dated than men's. Recently I watched a couple of young men pick out two current-looking suits for about $16 each. Shoes for work are the hard thing to find at such places.

Rita said…
I find Eileen Fisher items and other good brands at thrift shops from time to time. Especially linen things that haven't been worn much. I think some people buy linen because it looks beautiful, but then they get tired of the maintenance. Good for me, I don't mind ironing! It's good to be old enough to be comfortable with my style, so I don't have to rush out for the newest "in" thing every week! I do find that I must usually get my boots from Zappos. Because my feet are hard to fit, I usually do order multiple pairs, then keep one or two at most.
Duchesse said…
Rita: I too love wearing linen and find if hand-smooth it and hang to dry, it's all I need.
I buy from a Canadian designer, and •try• to hold out for her sales.

LauraH said…
A bit late for a response....but....I just bought my first top from Fig Clothing, new to me. They're made in Canada and some pieces feature organic fabrics. Looks promising. I will drop by Ewanika and have a look, thanks for the suggestion. And can I ask the name of the Canadian designer where you get your linen? I love it too, it's the only thing for hot muggy weather.
Duchesse said…
LauraH: Alexia von Beck; have been a client for must be 25 years. Pricey but I have tops and skirts 10+ yrs old. Her linens eventually go on sale but probably not till late fall.
LauraH said…
Of course....I should have guessed based on previous posts. I have a wonderful lightweight wool coat from her and generally drop by to check what's new every few months when I'm in the neighbourhood.
LauraH said…
Hope it's okay to add more information, although I'm not sure if others will see this. Anyway, I came across another made in Canada clothing line called Encircled. They take a sustainable approach to their business. I plan to visit their Toronto location to check them out in person.
Duchesse said…
LauraH: Readers who checked the notification for comments box on their subscription or feed will see subsequent comments. Thanks for the link. I should also mentin It Fitz Me, by Lynn Weinfeld (who was my wonderful yoga teacher when All of her line is designed and manufactured in Toronto.

She designs yoga clothes that can also be worn on the street, and they really do fit well.
Duchesse said…
LauraH: Part of comment above was lost... "when I lived in Toronto".

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