During my Covid-related quarantine earlier this month, I stumbled into a fascinating book written by Maxine Bedat that tells the story of supply chain of a clothe that begins from a cotton farm in Texas, processed in countries such as China, Vietnam and Bangladesh, before finally being shipped to consumers around the world. Maxine details the consumerism culture’s impact towards the environment, and how we could participate in increasing the labor welfare in poor countries by demanding a more responsible practice from clothing brands.
In the rich world, we are used to discard our old and unwanted clothes without even knowing where our clothes will end up and its negative impact for many in the third world countries. Reading this book should make us think twice before buying clothes from “fast fashion” brands, if we still choose to buy them anyway. Below are some excerpts from the book that serves as a personal note to my future self.
Environmental degradation and poverty, for example, were both tied to how our things are made and paid for and how we use them. How global trade relationships are structured are a major determinant of whether people have the opportunity to make things and earn a living to begin with.
The story of a pair of jeans is the story of modern fashion and capitalism, another reason why they make a particularly fitting hero for our journey. Today, 1.25 billion (yes, that’s billion with a “b”) pairs of jeans are sold globally every year, and the average American woman has seven pairs in her closet. They are evidently a big player in the fashion world, which is itself a major player in the global economy.
One of the promises of capitalism—which, as we know, fashion helped create—is shared prosperity. Yet according to the Edelman Trust Barometer in January 2020, 56 percent of respondents found that the economy in its current form was not working for them. By 2020, when I completed the majority of the work on this book, a tsunami of conflict, upheaval, and loss had made the notion of “shared prosperity” seem utterly fantastical. The pandemic and its related societal and economic quakes exposed the fragile seams of our global fabric woven from exploitation and deception. And it laid bare how manufactured our desire and need for more is, and how quickly our craze for clothing can shift once the stakes get higher. At one point, jeans may have represented an ideal of democracy and equality, but the jeans our society is wearing have become frayed to the point of distaste. If we want to reclaim true democratic values, we need to reexamine how our political and economic systems are woven into the clothes we buy, wear, and discard.
There’s a whole world, full of people, plants, microorganisms, chemicals, and carbon, that also gets bought and sold each time we say “yes” to a new item of clothing. When it comes to cotton production, the United States comes in third worldwide, after China and India, thanks to the pillowy fields of white fluff like those on Carl’s farm. More than half of all land used for cotton in America is in Texas, and that land produces 40 to 50 percent of all the domestic harvest—in 2019, 8.8 billion pounds are estimated to be grown stateside. Worldwide, it’s grown in eighty different countries, and 2.53 percent of all land used for agriculture is planted for the sake of our jeans (and other cotton things). In 2019, the USDA estimated worldwide cotton production reached 58.5 billion pounds.
To battle the variations in price and output, the cotton industry has successfully lobbied for crop subsidies, which has amounted to an average government transfer to cotton farmers of $2.1 billion annually since 1995. The subsidies are primarily twofold: First is a guaranteed floor price for cotton, which takes the form of a payment the government gives to farmers when cotton falls below that price in the global market; second is government-financed insurance to protect against the vagaries of nature. Subsidies are a good reminder of how, when people (like cotton farmers) rally their political power together, they can get the government to institute policies in their favor. And these subsidies are a significant reason that cotton is even grown here; there are a lot of other places in the world where it’s cheaper to get our cotton.
Organic cotton farmers face significant risks, from the drawn-out certification process to the shrinking organic premium, to the unreliability of the harvest. And, for all this work and risk, researchers are finding that the organic label is not a perfect arbiter of sustainability.
After D-day, with war demand all but ceased, those factories stockpiled with nitrogen found a rather ingenious (though perhaps short-sighted) solution: converting all that ammonia-rich nitrogen into synthetic fertilizer. This development was revolutionary. Farmers got a way to replenish nitrogen in their soil artificially that didn’t require keeping the land fallow or using cover crops. Synthetic fertilizers not only perked up tired soil but seemed to make it better than before; chemically treated farms produced more and bigger crops than ever. Chemical insecticides (to control bugs) and herbicides (to control weeds) were developed around the same time, beginning with the well-known pesticide dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane, or DDT. Its insecticidal properties were identified in 1939 by Paul Müller, a Swiss chemist who would win the Nobel Prize for his discovery. DDT was yet another answer to the world’s demands for more. DDT kept crops pest-free, which increased yields. Off the farm, it was used as a delouser for returning World War II soldiers and as mosquito repellant in suburban backyards. A 1947 ad proclaimed “DDT Is Good for Me!,” with an image of a singing milkmaid beside her cow, an apple, a potato, a rooster, and a dog; it explained that DDT could (and should) be used everywhere, from the farm to the home.
In one survey of the countries that grow 90 percent of the world’s cotton, all listed at least one hazardous pesticide as routinely used in cotton production. Behind just one T-shirt made with conventional cotton, there’s one third of a pound of chemicals; there’s three quarters of a pound in one pair of jeans.
Cancer is a big part of why Carl is an organic farmer today, but the lessons he’s learned from his family’s ordeal have brought him to a different conclusion about best practices when it comes to synthetic chemicals. On the one hand, not using synthetic chemicals—that is, organic—can help to improve soil health and thereby prevent the need for fertilizers and pesticides to begin with. Within five or six years of being organic, Carl said, you can start seeing changes in the soil—its crumble, ability to retain moisture, nutrient level, even the smell are all different.
Taking things one step further, the marketing model of the cooperative could connect farmers to clothing brands with greater transparency; and if we make over the system the way this book aspires to, the brands will relay that information to their customers. In Carl’s ideal world, “there would be a vertically integrated relationship between farm production methods to the consumer. Where there is transparency where everyone from top to bottom makes a good wage and the end user has a good product. And that transparency would deliver the economic stability that the farm needs, and it will give the consumer a unique connection and awareness of how their money spent is being used. There’s a healthy balance of the total cost of what it takes to make a garment.”
If the US spinners were just old and hard to maintain, that would be one thing. But these older machines had not caught up with the times in many other ways that put them at a clear disadvantage when it comes to the global scale of production now required of textile mills. As my host pointed out, the US machines were short. Shorter machines have fewer spindles, which translates to smaller outputs of fabric. China, in stark contrast, has the latest, and biggest, machines, hence immense outputs. Qing Mao was just a small speck of the 73 million meters of fabric in the galaxy of clothing (and all things) manufacturing that happens all over China 24/7. Between July 2019 and July 2020, China produced 45.86 billion meters of fabric. That’s enough fabric to wrap around the Earth more than 1,219 times. In 2015, China exported $284 billion worth of textiles and clothing and it commanded 43 percent of the global market. Growth has declined slightly in the sector since then due to a variety of circumstances, but in 2018, it still exported $119 billion worth of textiles that comprised 37.6 percent of the global market, far greater than the second-largest exporter, India, which has just 6 percent of the market. Hence its nickname, “the world’s factory.”
Levi’s no longer really makes anything. While the brand name has stayed the same, behind the name, the entire business has completely changed. Levi’s has transformed from a manufacturer into a merchant brand, the primary function of which is not to produce, as was the business model for clothing brands up until this point, but to design and execute on the best product assortment. This new business model—the merchant brand—was precisely what made the MFA go sour; since the model was less concerned with where and how things were made, CEOs closed their own manufacturing plants and were willing to drop longtime American manufacturers, like the kings and queens of denim in El Paso, for their less expensive counterparts overseas. We now see this business model reflected in the leadership of major fashion brands.
When you consider all of the clothing we buy, the number of energy-intensive steps to make the textiles of that clothing, and that China, which has such a carbon-intensive energy grid, is the leading producer of textiles, it’s simple math to see how, according to one report, textile production creates more than 75 percent of the clothing industry’s carbon footprint, and why the fashion industry more broadly is believed to contribute between 4 and 8.1 percent of the world’s total carbon footprint.
People, including those in the environmental community, tend to think of our climate impact as things that take place within our own borders. But this is deceiving. As we see with our clothing, our carbon footprint extends far beyond our borders and must be taken into account when developing carbon reduction policies.
It was a grassroots movement in the United States protesting this dangerous pollution that led to the Clean Water Act (1972) and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), which created laws and an enforcement mechanism to limit pollution from the textile and energy industries. And yet, when American companies moved their production to China (and elsewhere), these protections were disregarded. Governments seeking to attract Western businesses were disincentivized to create the same costly environmental protections. So while we no longer see this type of pollution in our backyards, and hear fewer Erin Brockovich–esque reports of cancer pods in suburban America, we shouldn’t boast about lowering US pollutants. We just shipped them halfway across the world (and for the pollution that does still happen here, we tuck that away in poorer and minority communities).
The first study ever to research microfibers released from clothing during a laundry cycle found a single garment could release more than 1,900 microfibers. A subsequent study found more than 700,000 released in a single load of laundry. Consistently, synthetics released more microfibers than natural fabrics. As much as 209,000 tons of synthetic microfibers enter the marine environment in a single year.
In one study, a quarter of fish in a California fish market were found to have synthetic microfibers in their systems. Microfiber-eating fish have been found to reproduce less, and their offspring, even if they were not exposed to plastic particles, also have been found to have fewer offspring—a big ripple effect in the marine ecosystems. Remember, plastic was beloved because it sticks around forever.
All told, Rima works about sixty-two hours per week, which is about average for garment workers in Bangladesh, according to a recent survey. At 8,000 taka a month—less than $100—Rima’s total income is just barely the minimum monthly wage in Bangladesh, even with the maximum overtime pay. But for Rima and many other workers in Bangladesh and Sri Lanka, overtime is the only way that they can come close to earning the legal minimum salary despite the very long hours it requires. And don’t forget the unpaid domestic work she is still expected to do for her family—that’s another conversation, or book, entirely. Rima is thus among the 64 percent of garment workers who did not receive legal minimum hourly wages in Bangladesh, according to a recent survey. What’s worse, a report from the Clean Clothes Campaign (CCC) found that the government-set minimum wage is less than half of what’s considered a living wage in most Asian countries. For all of that work, Rima and her husband can barely afford basic expenses: rent, food, and their children’s school fees. And she is not alone. In Bangladesh one study found malnutrition among garment workers to be rampant. A quarter of the garment workers were underweight, and of garment workers who are women, 77 percent were anemic.
That the garment and sex industries have a symbiotic relationship is really no surprise, since these offer the lowest-paid work and are done mostly by women. Without other skills to give to the patriarchal society, it’s the horrific reality that the only thing left they have to sell is their bodies.
The first and most critical thing to understand in today’s globalized world is that there are no strictly enforced universal laws on wages, worker safety, or treatment of the environment. Laws just by themselves are fairly meaningless—they are mere words. That is, their ability to get to the desired behavior exists in proportion to the extent to which they are enforced. Some things that we may think of as laws in the international context—ideas that relate to fair wages and protecting the environment, like the Universal Declaration of Human Rights or the Paris climate agreement—are really just “agreements” that countries sign on to. Countries may sign on to these declarations to protect a belief or principle, but it’s all on the honor system to see that those beliefs are respected.
Europe offers an example of how we might put domestic law into practice with more success. France’s 2017 Corporate Duty of Vigilance law sets forth regulations for human rights and environmental abuses for France’s largest companies (based on number of employees), the law requires that these organizations must establish a “vigilance plan” to identify and prevent “severe violations of human rights and fundamental freedoms, serious bodily injury or environmental damage or health risks resulting directly or indirectly from the operations of the company and of the companies it controls.” Companies must be able to identify risks for violations, have protocols in place for assessing and remedying violations, work with labor unions, and have a monitoring system. Any stakeholder can file a complaint against companies in violation. If deemed guilty, they have three months to rectify the situation. Originally, the law could fine companies between 10 and 30 million euros; but fining has since been removed, so penalties are unclear. That said, companies can still be held responsible for paying compensation to wronged workers.
The ascension of these working-class voices laid the groundwork for the even more sweeping, but not entirely inclusive, New Deal reforms under Franklin D. Roosevelt, in the wake of the Depression. (The New Deal left out many workers, a discussion we will continue in chapter 5.) As the market collapsed, the protective policies first demanded and secured by workers—specifically garment workers—were expanded into dozens of new government agencies, the most significant steps ever taken by the government to protect and advance workers. Frances Perkins, who played a crucial role in the initial factory review commission and would go on to become the secretary of labor responsible for crafting and implementing the New Deal herself, said that the New Deal began with the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire. Not a small win for the women making blouses.
For the unions that do exist, there is also a major qualitative difference between unions in America and elsewhere. Cooperation between corporations and the unions is one of those European things Americans just don’t get, like vacation from work and sitting down for coffee, which creates a checks-and-balances system in terms of demands. Contrary to Cesar’s fears of worker-based collapse, in Europe both parties know how far they can go before being shut down, so there is a much higher rate of success. In Germany, for instance, union members are also on the boards of corporations, so they are able to communicate transparently and with full knowledge between workers and managers.
Like brands’ personal shoppers, Li & Fung has been responsible for “optimizing each step in production” for companies such as Walmart, Kate Spade, Coach, Calvin Klein, and Tommy Hilfiger, among others. And yet I bet you’ve never heard of them. By playing middleman so efficiently, Li & Fung and others like them added layers of opacity to the supply chain for brands and consumers alike. Sourcing companies were not quick to reveal to the brands who was responsible for manufacturing. Likewise, the brands had equally little interest in knowing much about the factories.
In their mission statements, every company was out to do good and be the change they want to see in the world. But in their actual policies, there is a subtle but critical bait and switch: figuring out how to execute that mission falls not on the brand, but on the manufacturers. So when a factory collapses, or a newspaper reports on a manufacturer’s use of slave labor, the brands can wiggle out of the responsibility: We don’t actually make the clothes, they claim. It’s not our fault, it’s the factories’, they clamor. The space between some of the companies we think of as “ethical” or “sustainable” and those we think of as “fast fashion” collapses. All these brands seem to participate equally in shifting responsibility.
Auditing has become the centerpiece of so-called ethical manufacturing because it allows companies to show that they are doing something so they can market themselves as a company that looks out for the workers and cares about the environment. Having the audits performed by third parties provides a built-in scapegoat. If some tragedy happens, it’s clearly the factory’s fault and perhaps the auditor’s fault, but definitely not the brand’s. The game of responsibility hot potato goes like this. Brands tell their customers they’re saving the world, then pass off the world-saving responsibility to their factories and use the auditors to give them clean bills of health (though the auditors are themselves not in the business of ensuring that factories are saving the world, but rather ensuring that the brands are protected from the damning New York Times cover story if that hot potato were to get dropped). And, surprise, surprise, a lot of potatoes have dropped, which turns the whole cycle back around—the brands say, “not it,” point to their codes, and let everyone else scrape the potato off the floor.
Since brands have seemingly countless options when it comes to factories to make their garments (remember, factories are easy to set up), they have the upper hand. They make insane demands for the lowest prices, best quality, and fastest turnaround times, and factories, working with in an anemically regulated global system, have to do whatever they can to meet them if they want to stay in business. But every time a brand demands a redo on a batch of garments, or a lower price, they further compromise the factory’s ability to comply with whatever sustainability and labor codes might be in effect and limit the ability to raise the social or environmental bar.
According to the people I talked to in Bangladesh and Sri Lanka, with price and turnaround pressures so high, factories not only cut wages, they also cut costs in more indirect, and again scarcely documented, ways. First, they move workers from full-time employees (which may come with benefits) to short-term contracts, similar to what workers in the West have been experiencing when they become contractors as part of the so-called gig economy.
For a brand to really show that they are committed to labor having a voice, they have to stay committed to factories and stop shopping around for the best bargain on workers. They can give factories a more equal footing and fill in some of the gaping holes we saw earlier in the chapter. This looks like fairer purchasing practices that take into consideration the demands on the workers and the cost of environmental compliance, as well as ensuring that their auditors are well versed on what union representation means and looks like.
While some factory managers I spoke with were initially skeptical of what they characterized as outside meddling, most that I spoke to seemed to ultimately appreciate the work of the Accord, and the union leadership spoke of it in even stronger positive terms. The reasons for its success are manifold. First and foremost, it possesses the high-level enforcement power I’ve been harping on throughout this chapter that is necessary for change to occur. When brands sign on, they are legally bound to withdraw from factories that do not pass the Accord’s rigorous inspections. If they do not, the unions—the other parties in the agreement—can bring them to arbitration. Both parties, then, feel real pressure to change. If the brands do not support factory reform (by paying for the improvements), they have to find another supplier; and if the factories don’t make the changes, they lose vital business. Brands also don’t run the show, as they do with their own codes of conduct. With 50 percent of the board of Accord being nonindustry members (i.e., labor unions), the workers are actually represented when standards and other policies are created. The equal governance means policy is not overly swayed by industry.
The economist Joan Robinson said, “The misery of being exploited by capitalists is nothing compared to the misery of not being exploited at all.”
Amazon makes money from fashion in various ways: (1) by serving as a traditional retailer, where it buys garments at wholesale prices from a brand and sells them retail on its site; (2) by selling clothes under its own private label (in these two instances, the manufacturer sends the products directly to the Amazon fulfillment centers); (3) by having third-party companies sell on its platform—in this instance either the third-party company or Amazon does the fulfillment; and (4) fashion companies can sell products on their own sites (not on Amazon.com) and then pay Amazon to fulfill the orders. Amazon is becoming the infrastructure of commerce—selling things, competing against others selling things, all while owning the platform where most of the deals are done. It’s partly for this reason that Amazon has become a leading target for congressional hearings focused on unfair competition.
Indeed, managers didn’t just try to convince employees that unions were bad. Workers feared severe repercussions for organizing. They wouldn’t even speak of unions (if they had the energy at lunchtime) because they feared that everything could be seen and tracked. If she did speak out in any meaningful way, Becky worried that she could be fired from Amazon and blacklisted at its many subsidiaries. While Amazon spokespeople dispute the cause, there have been several reports of workers getting fired after speaking out about conditions within the fulfillment centers and further reports of Amazon monitoring the union-organizing efforts of their workers in Europe.
We have very clear evidence that the ability to work with a collective voice yields results. Union members earn on average 13.6 percent more than nonunionized workers. At present, Amazon management is setting the rules for everything that happens inside its walls; allowing unions would force executives and shareholders to share some of the pie—in power and in money. Unionizing would likely offer real benefits to workers, so much so that one former unnamed Amazon executive broke ranks and told Ghaffary and Del Rey that “unionization is likely the single biggest threat to [Amazon’s] business model.”
Data about the effects of COVID-19 on all aspects of life is limited and evolving, but one survey by McKinsey & Company of two thousand UK and German shoppers indicated that well over half expressed greater concerns about their purchases’ and brands’ environmental impact, and had made changes to their lifestyle that reflected greater sustainability. Durability of our clothing is also more important, as 65 percent of those surveyed planned to buy longer-lasting items, 71 percent are planning to keep what they have for longer, and 57 percent are open to repairing their clothes; there’s also been renewed interest in secondhand garments, especially among younger shoppers. Thanks to Claire’s and others’ revelations, the disposable fashion machine that produced all those cheap, nondurable clothes we’ve seen being made in previous chapters may be forced to slow.
Fashion occupies a unique place within the history of branding. We can look to the era of Louis XIV—the “Sun King” who transformed France into its très chic self—for the seed from which the market as we know it today grew. When the Sun King ascended to the throne in 1643, Spain, not France, was the regional superpower. Spain defined what it meant to be modern. As Spain expanded its trade network around the globe, and acquired lands and gold through imperialism and colonialism, its pinched and formal and mostly black (the most expensive dye at the time, and thus a display of wealth) dress was considered the most elevated among European courts. King Louis wanted France, not Spain, to be the economic superpower, so he developed his own economic stimulus plan and he used the fashion industry to get him there. Yes, the fashion industry has been a key to economic prominence from Louis XIV, to industrialized America, to modern China. He put the full strength of his court behind investing in the domestic textile industry, which would come to employ a third of Paris’s workforce. The government ensured its competitive edge by organizing guilds—the early days of industrial policy—and banned any imported goods that could be made in France, what modern economists call protectionism. Among his countrymen, Louis also took care to polish his own image as the representative of the new luxury brand France was becoming. A night at the opera was a chance for him to show off a daring ensemble, complete with his signature wig of curls and red pumps. He also circulated a series of fashion plates engraved with illustrations of French goods and garments, which could be passed around with a wink and a nod; the plates were accompanied by witty, sometimes naughty, captions. His version of our glossy magazines, TikTok videos, and Instagram posts. But to use fashion to become the superpower would require something more. The engine of fashion would need to be accelerated. And to do this the fashion season was born. Jean-Baptiste Colbert, the king’s finance minister, was instrumental in launching the two-season fashion calendar and the very notion that fashion would ever go out of style. This was not a stylistic choice, but more crucially an economic stimulus initiative to ensure that new styles were introduced at regular intervals, twice a year, year after year. The French fashion calendar was a sharp departure from Spanish culture, which took pride in its consistent look; by contrast, ever-changing French fashion meant that, by design, what you wore one season would be passé in the next. And now that Paris was the new fashion capital, France would be the economic beneficiary of all those outmoded clothes. It had a major impact. Colbert said, “Fashions were to France what the mines of Peru were to Spain.” Who’s calling fashion silly now? This was the original “planned obsolescence,” as the new fashion seasons demanded that people not only dress for beauty and the weather, but to meet now ever-changing social expectations. For a member of the French court, wearing summer ’44 (that is, 1644) attire on a warm summer ’45 day would have been unacceptable, rendering even the most luxurious clothing unusable. The manipulation of desires to promote economic growth had begun.
“When I came back to the United States [after the war],” Bernays said in an interview, “I decided that if you could use propaganda for war, you could certainly use it for peace. And propaganda had a sort of bad connotation because of the Germans using it. So what I did was try to find some other words so we found the words ‘Council on Public Relations.’” Bernays did have a bit of a leg up when it came to the PR game. His uncle was Sigmund Freud, who was turning the world of psychology on its head with his theories of the power of the unconscious mind to shape our feelings, behaviors, and sense of self. As the world erupted into conflict once again and Hitler came to power, Freud began to think that there was some evil at the core of humanity seeping out. Inspired by his uncle, Bernays signed on to the notion that you don’t buy a product just for its factual, useful attributes; rather, you buy because of an unconscious, emotional connection to the product. Frightened by how the Nazi regime channeled what Freud and his disciples believed to be the innate darkness of human behavior in World War II, Bernays decided the best thing to do was to rein it all in by distracting us with things, like pretty dresses and dress slacks. In the words of Peter Straus, one of Bernays’s employees, the strategy was this: “It’s not that you think you need a piece of clothing, but that you will feel better if you have a piece of clothing.” Shopping became a tool to control the masses.
In the words of Samuel Strauss, writing in 1924: “Something new has come to confront American democracy,” which he coined “consumptionism,” adding that “the American citizen’s first importance to his country is no longer that of citizen but that of consumer.”
Saxbe told me that she saw our relationship to stuff as analogous to our desire for fast food. When it comes to the chemicals in our brain, the dopamine-pleasure spike we feel when biting into a greasy, salty sandwich, or a sugar-loaded cookie, is identical to what we feel when we see a good deal and add it to our cart (real or virtual). Our society has become more and more aware of smart food choices, ones that sustain us for the long term instead of filling an immediate, often emotion-driven, craving. So if we can eat in a way that prioritizes nourishing our bodies for the future, can’t we also shop that way?
It’s not all our fault that we don’t know what kind of clothes we are wearing. Bernays, advertisers, and the fashion industry designed the system to be thoughtless: see ad, buy, the end. (The same mind-numbing is baked right into the production and distribution of clothing creation.) The speed of our disposable fashion cycles doesn’t help either. But educated shopping is at the core of what Paco Underhill, retail anthropologist and author of Why We Buy, predicts will lead us into the future of fashion. “Educating people at an earlier and earlier age that there are very few things that are transformative,” he told me, is going to check people before they buy, resulting in fewer regretted purchases that get returned, lobbed in the back of a closet, worn reluctantly, or kept and then tossed or donated. When people let go of the idea that one more thing will make them somehow different or better, they get clearer on who they really are, what they want, and what clothes can support that. And once those items are found, they’ll be more interested in caring for them. Finding out who “you” are style-wise means pushing against every grain of marketing know-how of the Mad Men dynasty, including the idea of market “segmentation,” in which marketers compile data about shoppers’ interests, demographics, and other likes to customize ads that make them feel like their unique needs are being met, and that the items they’re being sold are actually going to enhance their lives.
The approximately 92 percent of clothing that the Salvation Army is unable to sell is baled up on-site and sold to graders, where it is subject to further scrutiny to determine its next destination. According to the Secondary Materials and Recycled Textiles Association, 45 percent of these unsold donations is “re-used as apparel.” Why is that in quotes? We’ll get to that in the next chapter. Thirty percent becomes industrial and commercial rags. Even if clothes aren’t good enough to be reworn, they can have second lives as rags if they’re made of high-enough-quality material like absorbent cotton. Twenty percent gets reprocessed into its basic fiber content for things like furniture stuffing, insulation, and building materials, and the last 5 percent is trashed domestically. Garments that are wet, have mold, or are contaminated with substances are thrown away. Grading used to be done domestically, but as has been the case for nearly every step along our clothing’s journey, this process is also being outsourced with increasing frequency. Up to one third of all the clothes from Canada and the United States sent for grading lands at one location outside of the United States. Used Clothing Exports in Mississauga, Ontario, is a mecca of sorting (women’s versus men’s for example), grading (A/B quality or rags), pricing, and exporting, which amounts to 60 million to 70 million pounds of used clothing per year. But one goal of outsourcing, unsurprisingly, is to lower labor costs. The race to the bottom continues even at the end of clothing’s life. Instead of paying American minimum wages for people to sort and grade garments post–Salvation Army, ungraded clothes get sent to places like Panipat, in northern India. Panipat has the highest concentration of clothing recyclers in the world. Another alternative is Pakistan, where labor costs several hundred dollars a month less than in the United States.
Many retailers not only put their recycling bin in the store to encourage people to bring clothes back, but they also financially incentivize you to do so. It’s as if the recycling bin in the bathroom gave you money to put paper there, which you could use to buy a new roll of paper towels to bring home with you, in the paper towel store conveniently located next to the bathroom. But in reality, those take-back bins at H&M et al. follow a very similar path to the clothing dropped off at the Salvation Army. So the long and short of it is, while company investment in recycling material is very important, circularity as a marketing tool is the moral hazard of fashion. Don’t fall for it.