Department of Environmental Studies and Sciences

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Environment, workers pay huge price for cheap fashion

Last weekend, I made a trip to the shopping mall with friends. Although it was practically a four-hour shopping trip, I left completely empty-handed. I had planned to buy some new clothes (not that I needed any), but I found that I was increasingly overwhelmed by the heaps, rows, aisles and stacks of cheap, poor-quality fashion.

Don’t get me wrong: I spent a good part of those four hours sifting through it all, but I did so half-heartedly. It wasn’t just the workmanship of the clothes that bothered me. Everyone knows that low prices come at the cost of well-made clothing. It was the feeling of excess, waste and of another, more hidden, cost of “fast fashion.”

Let’s say you buy a cute top. Sure, it’s not put together well, but it’s only $10 and you figure you’ll get a few uses out of it. After a few washes, you realize that the material has deteriorated and it’s not even worth handing down to your little cousin. If you don’t donate it, it’ll most likely end up in the trash along with nearly 13 million tons of clothing annually. Taking into account the cheap labor as well, you realize that the cost of that shirt was much higher than what you paid.

Flooding the market with this type of clothing is practically the same as sending it straight to the dump. The polyester, nylon and even cotton materials used are more unfriendly to the environment than they are to your wallet. The synthetic fibers are made of petrochemicals, which are not biodegradable. Cotton is a pesticide-and-water-intensive crop. The dyes used to turn your favorite shirt pink also end up coloring rivers.

In order to drive down labor prices, clothing production occurs overwhelmingly in developing countries such as Bangladesh, Cambodia and the Philippines. The pollution created by transporting the raw materials to these countries and the final product to developed countries is huge.

The allure of inexpensive, fashionable clothes is hard to resist but it’s time that my generation, especially, recognizes that just because the industry offers something that seems cheap and convenient, it doesn’t mean that we have to take the bait. For the majority of us who cannot be spending hundreds of dollars on organic cotton and locally sourced leather, we need to apply the concept of the three R’s (reduce, reuse, recycle) to our wardrobes.

Thrift stores and secondhand shopping must take the forefront of our buying and become the norm. Finding affordable fashion can be frustrating but it doesn’t have to be the end of the world.

Photo: Kim Komenich, The Chronicle

Clothing for sale at the Issosf ("Is So San Francisco") store at 3789 24th St. in San Francisco, Calif., comes from local second-hand sources. Sales associate Josie Lazo arranges displays at the store on Tuesday, Nov. 25, 2008.