This is part 2 in a blog series exploring our wardrobe and our lifestyle: who makes our clothes, where our clothes come from, and why a struggle for quality over convenience might just change our outlook on life and the world around us.
We took a flashback to the 1960s to get a glimpse of our disposable origins in part 1. But before we head off to the present just yet, let’s delve into the when and how “fast fashion” began to rear its engine.
Back to the past
Believe it or not, frumpy jackets, jelly shoes, and high hair weren’t the only things kicking into gear in the 1980s. Two of the decade’s most notable innovations (in my opinion) were quick to take society by storm: time travel and overseas manufacturing.
Many remember that fated day when “Doc” Brown’s flux capacitor hit the stage in 1985. Together with Marty McFly, this Back to the Future duo began a comic sci-fi trilogy that ran a parallel course to the business boom of fashion.
While Doc and Marty, aka Christopher Lloyd and Michael J. Fox, were out exploring the fourth dimension, an expedition to move the production of our clothing into foreign lands took off in kind. The result has led to an advancing global marketplace and a similarly paced consumer culture.
“When this baby hits 88 miles per hour, you’re gonna see some serious shit.” -Doc to Marty
The world’s first temporal displacement occurred in the parking lot of Twin Pines Mall on Saturday, October 26, 1985. Photo credit: Futurepedia.
It’s amazing to me that in 1985, the year Marty McFly made his first journey in the DeLorean, the average American was buying 31 pieces of new clothing per year. Today, that average has doubled to more than 60 pieces of new clothing per person per year. How, exactly, did we get here?
According to my research, the momentum started with the implementation of a “quick response” strategy during the latter half of the 1980s and has grown exponentially ever since. For the first time in history, retailers began linking to overseas manufactures en masse. This strategy promoted reduced lead times, low costs, and flexible, demand-driven supply chains, which consequently lead to drastically reduced clothing costs. Even though we have yet to perfect outsourcing labor to other time periods, the outcome of cheap and fast fashion has become a turn-of-the-century phenomenon.
On to the present
Since the fast fashion machine took off, the price of clothing has continued to plummet, even as prices for other goods in the market have continued to increase. Elizabeth Cline highlights an interesting comparison in her article on The History of a Cheap Dress: “A hundred years ago women were willing to drop six hundred dollars for a Parisian knock-off.” But in today’s marketplace? “…A fashionable dress is cheaper than a bag of dog food.”
The cheaper clothes got, the more we bought.
What used to be fewer selections of ready-to-wear has now transitioned into greater variety and faster responsiveness. During the 1980s, retailers began adding seasons and mid-seasons to the fashion calendar, in order to ensure consumers always have new options. But with the addition of 3 to 5 mid-seasons, suppliers began facing enormous pressure to deliver fashion apparel in smaller batches with reduced lead times. For example, Liz Claiborne developed six seasons instead of just two at the onset of the 1990s.
Nowadays, for top fast fashion retailers like H&M, Zara, and Forever 21, seasonal shifts in merchandise have dissolved into daily shipments. Keeping the sales floor “fresh” and prices consistently low, means that these behemoths of retail turn over new trends from design to consumer in as little as two weeks, all to combat competitors and keep people coming in as often as possible.
Though there can be a correlation between cheap and low-quality, it’s a misleading rule of thumb, as is equating the most expensive with the most ethical. Some of the highest-end garments have the ugliest origins and vice versa. Regardless of the faster + cheaper = better ideology that has gained momentum over the past few decades, I appreciate the fact that some fasties have been moving towards ethical upgrades. H&M, for example, now sells organic options, has chosen to ban sandblasting in their supply chains — and this just in — pressure to boost garment worker wages.
(Left) A worker in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, rests on the floor of a garment factory. More than 2,000 young women work in this factory, producing clothes for shops in Europe and North America. (Right) The owner of a textile factory in Dhaka threatens a child laborer, who works for 10 hours a day to earn US$1. Photo and fact credit: Waste Couture.
Poor working conditions for many laborers in developing countries and environmental degradation are two consequences that can be hard to manhandle for huge retailers. I’m no burgeoning environmentalist, but I know enough to know that the long and convoluted supply chain demanded by a fast fashion infrastructure can’t always be monitored. This means more ethical risks, and in the long run, more waste.
In the midst of fierce global competition, speed to market is a must for profit margins. However, running a business that values ethics and sustains life may well necessitate a halt — or at least an occasional downshift — to let transparency regain it bearings.
Where to now?
One thing that always concerned Marty McFly was how mistakes made on previous adventures might affect the existence of his family in the future. Similarly, I wonder about how my choices will affect the future, but rather, how I can make decisions that will shape the world for good.
Photo credit: Futurepedia.
Let’s make the twenty-tens a decade to get inspired by.
Stay tuned for part 3.