When Will Fashion Have Its Plastic Straw Moment?

Talking to Dana Thomas, the author of 'Fashionopolis: The Price of Fast Fashion and the Future of Clothes'

It's no secret that the fashion industry is a leading contributor to the environmental mess we currently find ourselves in. From unethical sourcing to unjust labor practices to the poor quality of materials which leads to a high throwaway rate, it's an issue best tackled sooner rather than later.

Dana Thomas' new book, Fashionopolis: The Price of Fast Fashion and the Future of Clothes, lays out in impressive detail just how bad things have become, along with all the work that designers and companies are doing to reverse the damage, and what still needs to be done. It's a complicated, often convoluted topic, but it's an important one to be well informed about. As Thomas stresses in her book: "We all have been casual about our clothes, and it is time to get dressed with intention."

Ahead, we talk to her about the most upsetting things she learned during her reporting, what companies are doing sustainability right, and what readers can do today to help.

What was the most shocking or eye-opening aspect of the industry that you learned through your reporting?

I kept hearing that clothes have never been cheaper, but I didn't realize how much that was until I was reading a piece in The New Yorker from 1940 that was a profile on Hattie Carnegie, the New York retailer. And it talked about how, during the 1920s, she was bringing in Paris fashion and also buying the patterns and selling them in her shop for between $800 and $2,000 a piece. Half couture, half ready to wear clothing that you ordered and had made for you. And it was selling for the same price that luxury ready to wear is sold today. But more importantly, during the Depression, when she lost a lot of her clients because they lost their fortunes, she came up with a more accessible ready to wear line called Spectator Sport which cost $19.99, which is exactly what we're paying at Zara and H&M these days for a cute little suit. So I thought, Wow, that's crazy that at the height of the Depression, when nobody had any money, almost 100 years ago, ready to wear for the mass consumer was exactly the same price as today. And I thought, Well, the price of eggs has gone up and the price of ground beef has gone up, and yet clothes have stayed typically the same price.

And back [then] when it was $19.99, that was an investment for a secretary. She bought one really great suit, she didn't buy 10 of them. She changed it up: Wore a brooch with it one day, wore a scarf the next day, wore a blouse with it one day, a turtleneck the next day. But today, because it's $19.99, we can go out and buy 10 of them even though the target audience of Zara and H&M has 10-times more spending power than the secretaries did during the Depression, maybe more. And that's the difference. We have this throwaway culture mentality for clothing.

The average garment is worn seven times before it's thrown away. I wear my stuff to death so that means, for everything I wear, there's how many pieces that are never worn. And in China, I recently learned from an executive, the number is three times before it's thrown away. So this is the most shocking and the most upsetting, that we just burn through clothes. In the bin it goes.

The other most upsetting thing that I was reading about is the microfiber issue. Like 80 percent or 60 percent of clothes contain polyester, whether it's a blend or 100 percent, and that's plastic. And that doesn't biodegrade, so we have big problems. We thought fleece was great because it took recycled plastic bottles and turned it into fabric, but what we didn't realize is that plastic now winds up in our water because it sheds in the washing machine. And the greatest contributor to the microfiber disaster is clothing. So somehow we have to get rid of polyester. There is a great company that's recycling it, and I think that's fantastic because then we don't keep pumping oil out of the ground and making this stuff that then we throw in the ground and it doesn't degrade. They take it and they keep it circular, but we have to figure out something about the microfibers if we're going to keep using polyester or we just have to get rid of polyester.

I was talking to a fashion designer just last week, and she was like, "What are we going to do without polyester? What will we do from a clothing standpoint without it?" And my quick response was we go back to the original big four of cotton, wool, silk, and linen. Go back to natural products. Then I thought, Well, polyester's only been around since the 1930s, so there were centuries of clothing without polyester. I think we can go back to that. It is possible to have clothing without polyester as many of our forefathers and ancestors have proven, so maybe we need to figure that out.

I think a surprising part for me in the book is when you talk about your friend at WWD who called Inditex almost every day for 10 years looking for an interview and never got a response back—that's very telling. In the book, you write that it was reported in 2017 that Zara did just shy of $19 billion in sales. Do you know if that number has dropped at all? Because I do think people are becoming more proactive about avoiding stores like Zara, H&M, Forever 21, and the like.

They haven't published any numbers yet, so it's hard to say. I've heard some rumblings that H&M is having a wee bit of trouble, but they're not like Macy's, they're not closing stores. The stores still seem busy to me when I go in them.

That's upsetting because people can't really say they're ignorant anymore to the way the fashion industry is affecting the environment. In your opinion, why do you think people are so hesitant to stop shopping fast fashion?

Well, my 19-year-old tells me it's because it's all she can afford on her student budget, and she wants to be cool and fashionable as the Instagram and the glossies put forward that she should be. And all the influencers are telling her that you need to not wear your outfit more than once, so to keep up with that she has to go shopping, because she hasn't found her own identity yet. She's a teenager, and she can't afford a $100 pair of jeans, she has to buy the $29.99 ones. But then they only last 18 months max.

In the old days, when I first started covering fashion, designers built on what they did the season before. So if you bought a winter coat from the 2019 collection, it would look great over the suit that you bought from the 2018 collection. The designer had a certain voice, look, style that was theirs, and they're briefed on that in different ways, but it all worked together. So you could have a Saint Laurent from 10 years ago with something from last season, and they spoke to each other. That all changed in the '90s with Miuccia Prada and she did it with this crazy, radical collection. And next season she did something completely different. The idea was that what you bought last season is over, you need to come back next season and buy what's new. The industry then adopted this cycle where things just come and go really fast, so people keep coming into the store and buying more.

In the book, you talk about greenwashing a bit and how most brands make it look like they're more sustainable than they actually are. Are there brands that you think are going about sustainability in a good and positive way?

Definitely Stella McCartney. She's done that from day one because of her upbringing as a vegetarian and living in the country and being conscious of the impact of everything on nature. And people thought she was out of her mind when she first said this 20 years ago: no leather, no animals, no fur, no PVC. They thought she was absolutely nuts, but they indulged her. And she proved that you could have a viable business without using leather or fur. She was ahead of the curve. And furthermore, she's pushing the industry to think more green because, if Stella McCartney is only buying one specific sequin because it's the only one that's non-PVC and she's got all of Kering to do the same, then the industry has got to come up with more sequins that aren't PVC, because they don't want to lose that market. So through her, I guess, tenacity, but definitely through her business practices, she has pushed sourcing into being cleaner, and that's great.

Reformation is another one. Yael Aflalo is using deadstock and making clothes in the fast fashion way of short-turnaround. When something is selling, then she makes it, but she doesn't make a bunch of stuff and it sits on a hanger and then has to be destroyed. So it's kind of like made to order, but they're watching the numbers.

Natalie Chanin in Florence, Alabama, with her using organic cotton and zero waste and made to order and direct to consumer. And doing it in the middle of the countryside and sourcing locally as much as possible. That's great. She's got it down.

What's interesting, and I didn't mean for it to happen, but most of the change-makers in this book are women. I guess it's sort of our nurturing instinct, mother nature and mothering. But if you stop and think about all of the people I wrote about... it's women, women, women.

How would you define true sustainability in fashion at the moment?

I don't know because there are so many different angles to it, whether it's paying workers well and sourcing nearby. But then, in some cases, robots seem to be doing good stuff that's sustainable, too. Whether it's hiring women in Alabama to sew that outfit by hand or spinning organic cotton in a mill in the Carolinas or England. It's a wide range, but all with the same intention, which is to lower waste.

I closed the book feeling informed but also overwhelmed. The conversation is such an intimidating one because, as your book outlines, there are so many things wrong with the industry and so many things to consider and take into account. Obviously, the topic isn't simple, but, in your opinion, what are the top things consumers should be doing in order to help?

First is, when you're thinking about buying something, just look at it and say, Do I really need this? Do I need another gray pullover? Do I need another pair of jeans? Just have a long hard think before handing over the plastic or the cash about stuffing our closets with more. And instead, maybe open our closets and say, "When was the last time I wore that gray pullover and those jeans?"

And when we do tire of something, don't throw it in the bin. Resell it, give it to charity, think about other charities other than the regular Salvation Army. Take a box over to the house for battered women. Think about trading among friends. You're tired of this blouse, but maybe your girlfriend has always loved it.

And if you think you don't need it, start thinking about renting. If you're just going to buy a cocktail dress that you're going to wear three times, rent it instead. If you need a dress for a wedding or prom or some fancy clothing that you go to once a year, rent it instead of buying it and wearing it once and it sits in your closet forever. These things don't change your life much and will still have a major impact.

Another thing, super simple, is wash our clothes less. And when we do wash them, wash them on shorter cycles and on cold when possible. The shorter the cycle, the less microfibers go into the water system and our clothes still get clean. And the hotter the water, the more microfibers go into the water system. When you think about it, polyester and fleece melt, so if you put it in hot water, it loosens everything up and sheds more. Something as simple as that is already gigantic.

Your book ends on a somewhat optimistic note, but are you hopeful for the future of fashion?

Yes! And in fact my agent and I and my editor, the whole mantra that was going on while I was working on the book was, remember, this is a book about hope. I think that if we put our mind to it, we can change anything. And this book isn't just about fashion, it's about everything. I use fashion as a way to talk about much bigger issues and talk about society as a whole. For me, it's a book about humanity and the planet, it's about our future and our legacy. And I use clothes because we all get up in the morning and get dressed, so it's something that everyone can relate to. But if you switch out the word clothes for anything else that's manufactured in a global business, it's the same story. And we just need to think about that and change it across the board. And we can if we put our mind to it. I mean look how long it took to get rid of plastic straws. They've been around for, what, 70 years, and in a year they were gone. I had one yesterday, and I was kind of shocked by it. So if we can do it with plastic straws, we can do it with everything.

Fashionopolis: The Price of Fast Fashion and the Future of Clothes is available for purchase here.

NYLON uses affiliate links and may earn a commission if you purchase something through those links, but every product chosen is selected independently.