Changing How We Purchase Clothing

This is an ongoing theme with designers and in particular the nurseries of designers and future manufacturers of clothing.  The colleges and schools are wrestling constantly not only with curriculum but the mindset of how to make a more sustainable clothing item.  And this article this morning of Ms. Leonard’s talk/speech is laudable and I’m sure is well-meant, but it show’s how most leaders in this movement are missing the point.  This is a movement that is driven from the top instead of a movement that should be driven from the bottom.  The point that the top-down folks make is that this problem of unsustainability, overwhelming abuse of our resources is political and must be driven by more resistance to the current clothing manufacturing methods rather than stopping the real problem behind the unsustainable clothing model that over-produces garments for an already over-stuff market.

Here’s where I’m coming from:  If I were a non-sewing consumer and needed garments, I’m going to visit the mall – Express, American Eagle, Banana Republic, GAP and of course any major department stores that anchor a mall – to look for garment(s) to fit my needs.  As a consumer, I’m going to look for the style, size, shape and also the best price I can find – that is the nature of the consumer.  This last part is key in the consumer’s mind.

Now, for 30 years, the consumer has been treated to a steadily decreasing cost in clothing – not only decreasing in comparison to last year, or previous years but decreasing in comparison to the rise in other costs such as groceries and gas.  This means the consumer has grown accustomed to a price that is basically unrealistic with an inability to maintain this low-cost level.   This isn’t some short little 3 or 5-year trend.  This has been a major component of the consumer garment shopping experience and it’s been for 30 years — THREE DECADES!  Education, protests, the election of more sustainability candidates are all good, but folks this is like killing the flies in your home with a fly swatter – one at a time – when you have the front, back and side doors wide open.  So many flies get in that killing them one at a time ain’t gerna do a thing to solve the flies-in-your-home problem.

 

I see this so much of the time in well-meant causes.  They want to do the right thing but somehow miss the real point here.  The real point is that this fast/cheap fashion business model is not only so ingrained into the garment manufacturing and retail industry, that it must be dealt with not only from the consumer wanting to do the right thing point of view but also from the financial and business point of view.

So what’s the real answer here?  The real answer is to also approach this from a new business model.  And here’s the awful truth.  This new business model is not going to be as financially beneficial to the manufacturing or retail business as the old model.  However, it will be better for the ecology of the planet.  It will mean the end of a lot of companies.  It will mean the end of a lot of availability.  It will be the end of a whole way of thinking about how to shop, wear and manufacture clothing.  The real question here is if the consumer is ready for this.  Yes, education will help, but it is going to take more than education.

This becomes a slow re-assimilation of how to purchase clothing, and in particular how to manufacture clothing.  I think back to the 70’s when clothes were well-made and consumers were encouraged to buy one major piece or one outfit per season to update their wardrobe, not completely try and replace it.  This sort of thinking meant that clothes lasted for decades.  This is something that consumers not only expected but looked forward to it.  Yes, the clothes were more expensive, but there were fewer clothes manufactured and fewer clothes sold and when these clothes did enter into the recycling system, they were actually recyclable!  Actually, this sort of manufacturing and retail model is much better, more efficient and more profitable for the consumer.  At the same time, it requires more time, more education of the manufacturing employees, and is less profitable for the manufacturer and retailer.  That last part is the real crux of the whole problem.  This isn’t only a re-education/re-acclamation problem on the part of the consumer, it’s also getting the manufacturer and the retails accustomed to less profit.

Now, here we are.  How are we going to convince the store that sells clothes and the people who make the clothes to make less money than what they are used to making now?  Are we going to tell them it’s the right thing to do?….how about you’ll feel better making less money and using resources more efficiently?…or this is a good one you’ll get used to it after a while?    Believe me, this is like taking juicy, yummy, sugar-filled, tasty, addictive candy from an infant.  There’s going to be a lot of bawling, temper tantrums, and well a lot of resistance to this.  This is the main crux of the problem.

Possibly a political solution might be to offer tax incentives to those companies who do abide by more sustainable guidelines.   Or work out a gradual withdrawal from the addictive fast/cheap fashion model so that over a period of time, the manufacturing and retail model would change to a more sustainable model.  And also dealing with this from the consumer’s point of view:  how can the consumer be educated, assured and convinced that buying less frequently, more wisely and a more durable product is not only better for the ecology of the world but better for the consumer’s pocketbook.

Realizing that there is this tremendous resistance from the manufacturers and retailers of fast/cheap fashion from a business and financial point of view cannot be ignored.  Yeah, politicians, activists, and protesters can scream and holler all they want, but the fact is that it won’t change a thing unless this business model can be responsibly dealt with.  This fast/cheap fashion business model is so addictive to the business side of fashion that a cold-turkey withdrawal simply isn’t going to happen.  It will have to happen over years unless there’s a support group for fast/cheap fashion business model folks to go to!  Don’t know of one…..yet!  When companies, particularly publically held companies, are profiting so well from this business model season after season, year after year, it’s hard to break that dependence upon that business model.  It is the natural way of business to want to hold costs down and make more money.  When a group suddenly says, no, you have to give that up, it’s going against the very grain of the nature of conducting good business.  This is also the end of a particular model like the fast/cheap fashion store.  It will cause an upheaval and change in the nature of clothing retail and manufacturing.  This disturbance always causes financial mayhem which business hates and almost always rejects.

Here are some very worthwhile articles to read about the business side of the fast/cheap fashion business model:

Debt-Laden Retailers Stumble To Keep Up With ‘Fast Fashion’
“‘Euro fast fashion,’ featuring trendy clothing that can move from catwalks to stores in mere weeks, has taken the U.S. by storm, and distressed specialty apparel retailers are among the biggest casualties.”
“Department stores are struggling to face the changing industry too, with Sears Holdings (SHLD), Bon-Ton Stores (BONT) and Neiman Marcus Group all on the S&P list of highest-risk companies with negative outlooks.”
“‘It’s not just a balance sheet issue, it’s an operational issue and a fundamental business model issue for a lot of these companies,’ said Chris Grubb, a managing director in Greenhill & Co.’s restructuring group who focuses on struggling retailers.”

The Economics of Fast Fashion
The Fast Fashion Business Model – So how does a company like Zara get to to [sic] $19.7 billion? The success of the fast fashion model depends on low production costs. That’s how you end up with the low-paid workers and unsafe working conditions in the clothing industry revealed to the world when the eight-story Rana Plaza building collapsed in Bangladesh in 2013.”
“Despite its critics, fast fashion is still a strong economic performer. Zara’s customers visited the retail chain an average of 17 times in 2012.”
“A quick search for “haul videos” on YouTube shows the size of the appetite for large amounts of cheap clothing. ”

Believe it or not, I support the cause for more sustainable clothing.  It may sound like I don’t but I do and here’s why.  The clothes I make for my clients and teach my students are sustainable clothing methods.  That means that they last.  That means that a garment made in my classes and created by me for my clients lasts.  That means that I work at developing a garment that not only can be worn for the specific event but over and over again.  This is sustainable thinking;  to make a garment that is not only useful but useful over and over;  to make a garment that not only lasts for one or two wearings but for wearings over 5 to 10 years.  This sort of clothing doesn’t come without the expense of valuable resources for my clients and students.  It requires time, their most valuable resource, and money.  However, in the long run, the garment is cheaper at each wearing, and in a very short time is not only cheaper but becomes very cost-efficient.  It is NOT a cheap garment.  It is not cheaply made or created, however it turns out to use far fewer resources than what appears to be the cheap garment.  The reason it isn’t cheap is the same reason it’s cost-efficient – it’s sustainable.

Now if the greater consuming population understood that premise, then sewists, the value of their work and skill, the value of the garment created and most of all the value to the consumer would be so understood that it would be a given.  If that were the case, then more people might sew, but definitely more people would appreciate and value the art and gift of sewing.   That would put a higher emphasis on the skill of sewing, the art of sewing and of course the making and creating that is a major part of sewing!

 

  1. Well said, so true .

  2. We also need to retrain ourselves to accept that it’s OK to wear the same outfit/dress several times. Too often we say we “can’t wear that since I wore it to a similar event last week/last year”. It’s OK if the same people see the same outfit several times. Yes, we need to wear clean garments,but they don’t need to be new/different each outing. Yes, accessories have come to be the method of changing an outfit, but we CAN repeat. I believe this “can’t repeat” concept has been as much a driving force in the FCF world as anything.
    As always, thanks for your wisdom.

  3. I don’t know how I missed this post! This issue is precisely what returned me to the “me made” clothing fold. I read Elizabeth Clines boo, “Overdressed, The Shockingly High Cost of Fast Fashion”, then read some more and then returned to my sewing machine to make the simple clothes that make me happy to wear. Your blog is one of my favorites….thank you!

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