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New York Fashion Week kicked off this weekend with designers' latest collections on full display. But global worries about the environmental impact and cheap labor involved in clothing production are sparking a growing movement in the industry toward sustainable clothing. Hari Sreenivasan speaks with Dana Thomas, author of “Fashionopolis: The Price of Fast Fashion and the Future of Clothes."
It's New York Fashion Week where designer's latest collections are on full display for the industry, the press and the public. But with global concerns over the environmental impact and cheap labor involved in clothing production, there is a growing movement by some of the industry away from fast fashion.
I recently spoke with Dana Thomas, author of "Fashionopolis: The Price of Fast Fashion and the Future of Clothes."
Fast fashion is trendy clothes made in vast amounts at lightning speed sold at rock bottom prices in thousands of stores worldwide. They knock off the top fashion designers and give you cheap versions of it but they specialize in volume their business model is about economies of scale and because of it we're awash clothes.
And what kind of stores are we talking about.
Like Zara and H&M and Topshop and Mango and Forever 21, which is teetering on bankruptcy. So it's kind of proving that this model may not be the best business model.
And how quickly are they cycling through an inventory or a fashion? How quickly does it go from the shop that's making it to the store shelf?
Within weeks, a couple of weeks. I think Zara has it down to two weeks now. Which brings customers into the store more and more often.
And they spend more.
And they spend more. You know the average store maybe gets you in there four or five times a year and Zara will get you in there two dozen times a year because you want to keep seeing what the new thing is.
So if it's only two weeks between the time that it's made to the time that it's in store that means somebody is working some serious overtime hours to try to get that fashion ready?
Absolutely and often they're not paid for that over time. And what's more, they're paid barely a living wage. If something costs $19.99, rule of thumb is it probably was it probably was the person who made it was paid 19 cents since. And that happens in places like Bangladesh and the Philippines and Vietnam. But it also happens in downtown Los Angeles. We have sweatshops here in America that are filled with workers who are undocumented immigrants and they're run by overlords and they aren't paid for their overtime and sometimes they aren't even paid for their real work.
What has spurn this most recent wave of kind of capitalizing on these market forces and finding cheap labor overseas?
Well it's all started with NAFTA really. I mean it's been going on forever. We've been offshoring and looking for the cheapest price to make clothes since the Industrial Revolution began in Manchester 250 years ago. That's the business model as it was founded by Richard Arkwright. Right then and there when we kicked off the industrial revolution. In Cottonopolis that's where I got the name the title of the book. And you know it's it's always been that way. Oliver Twist, Dickens you know talked about it then. And Friedrich Engels wrote about it in the working class and we had Tazreen Fire, one hundred years ago or the Triangle Shirtwaist factory fire 100 years ago and we had Tazreen you know five or six years ago. So these things still go on and this is how it's always been. The garment industry is something that moves around to finding the cheapest labor. Right now the hottest market is Ethiopia where if workers are paid $24 a month to make your clothes.
Now is that a living wage in Ethiopia?
No it is not.
No. So this is a job but not necessarily a job that's going to help them have a sustainable life in any way?
A lot of people argue that these jobs are pulling people out of poverty and what they're doing is really pulling people from extreme poverty but still in poverty. You know it's just half a step up. It's still a pretty miserable life and they feel trapped in these jobs often they're advanced money or they they can't get out because they can't get another job and they're not making ends meet. So they have to work three or four they're working themselves to the bone and the people who own these companies are among the richest people in the world. The owner of Zara is was at one point number two after Bill Gates with a wealth of $68 billion. So you know it's it's kind of a capitalism run amuk business model where this very elite get very, very rich on the backs and the fingers of the very, very poor.
So you know when you look at the kind of fashion industry going forward, who are the disruptors what are they trying to do to prevent some of this?
Well there's some very cool disruptors somewhere in Silicon Valley, somewhere here in New York City. One is called Modern Meadow and they're growing leather like material in labs. They're coding the DNA and it's called bio fabricated material but it looks and feels it and it's science if you look at it through a microscope it is leather but you can't call it leather if it doesn't come from an animal. And that could you know really replace industrial farming which is horribly polluting on many levels. And it also is a cleaner way of making and a more humanitarian way for somebody like Stella McCartney who doesn't want to kill animals for her and use animal products for her line. Here's an alternative so she can make leather like she can make leather shoes where without animals being involved. There's another one out in San Francisco in Silicon Valley called Bolt Threads and they are creating silk similar to spiders but also it's called spider silk. They're using the same principle and they're doing it in a lab and they too are growing it in vats of yeast and sugar and and it's and it's silk like silk. And Stella actually has also been working with them. And the first garment made of it was a Stella McCartney dress, it was an exhibit at the Modern Museum of Art about two years ago. So these are very cool ideas one. Another one that I like very much is called Ever New. And it's a company in Seattle that takes cotton and reduces it back down to its molecular level and then regenerates it into new cotton yarn so it can be used again and again and again. That's part of that's the core of the circular economy which is what cradle to cradle it talks about what we really and Ellen MacArthur and the Ellen MacArthur Foundation in England is pushing where everything is always being used again that it isn't a linear birth, use, death of a product but that it keeps going back around and around and we can do it now with polyester. There's a company in England that's doing that called Born Again and regenerating the polyester. So in theory we can have cleaner polyester because so we don't have to keep pumping oil out of the ground to make a shirt.
So that might deal with some of the materials. What about the labor question? I mean are all of these incredibly low paying jobs going to be automated away?
Yes, they're going to be automated away but they're going to be creating better jobs with better pay. More skilled jobs. I saw a great company called Gino Loggia that distresses genes with lasers and clean in boxes with vacuum so the dust isn't being inhaled, and the Indigo isn't being inhaled or it isn't staining your fingers and it isn't blowing around the room and people aren't standing by hand anymore and those jobs instead are in a clean room, run from a computer,it's a bit like a joystick you know playing a computer game and they're and they're running the lasers down these jeans and then changing the jeans out. So it's a better, cleaner, safer job and it's better paid.
Yeah. So what is something that a simple kind of end consumer can do to try to decrease their contribution to this industry in the way that it is now?
Well I think shop less and burn through clothes less. The average garment is worn seven times before it's thrown away. And in China I heard it was three times. That's kind of crazy that we have this sort of careless cavalier way of using clothes and wearing and burning through clothes. You know we used to not have such big closets and we didn't we would buy one thing not 10 things. Maybe we need to go back to that. Keep things longer, swap, hand me downs, cherish our clothes again and not just look at them as a fad that are coming and going. Because they're inexpensive we go, oh well I can always get another one or oh I'll just toss it in and get something new for Friday night. We have to change that mentality. We can do other things too like instead of buying a new dress, go rent one or buy on consignment or put things on consignment. Keep things in circulation but more importantly just be more conscious and and and caring about our clothes.
All right the book is called "Fashionopolis." Dana Thomas thanks so much.
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