Will Fashion Collapse Too?

This I Wear | Will Fashion Collapse Too?

On a long flight to Seattle earlier this spring, I re-watched The Big Short, the story of the 2008 financial collapse that led to the greatest economic downturn since the Great Depression. If you haven’t watched the movie, unfortunately I’m going to spoil it for you: the movie ends by sharing that the financial crisis we saw in 2008 could happen again for the exact same reasons with new fancier names.

There are a lot of things that are too good to be true that we somehow trick ourselves into believing…or ignoring.

The housing bubble. The Dot-com boom. Fat-free anything. And yes, the $10 dress.

After I finished watching The Big Short for the first time, I couldn’t stop thinking about how broken the financial system is and how incredible that our government allows this to happen. On second viewing, I realized a similar movie will be made on the fashion industry if we don’t change course now.

I’m not the only person in the fashion industry to take inspiration from The Big Short. New York Times Fashion Editor Vanessa Friedman recently used the movie to argue how to make sustainability “sexy” at the Copenhagen Fashion Summit. But I’d argue that the fashion industry can learn something much deeper from the movie – i.e. that all bubbles will burst.

The machines of the Industrial Revolution made the mass production of clothing inevitable. On the surface, it seems like a good idea: create jobs, make production efficient, and give consumers whatever they want when they want it. It helped too that there was a steady supply of rural migrants who were willing to work low wage jobs in hopes of a better future.

Thus begins a familiar pattern: consumer demand and cheap labor leads to rise of sweatshops and polluting factories in absence of government regulation. People die. Those who are still living protest. Local government regulations may be established. Eventually, that community has more money (or options) and demands higher wages. Companies move production elsewhere to lower costs, and the whole process starts again. This vicious cycle traveled around the world as economies developed: England to the US to China to South East Asia. Portugal and Turkey are in there somewhere too. (Sub-Saharan Africa is set to be next, so let’s end this cycle before it starts there.)

The fashion industry has been behaving badly over a few hundred years. The 2008 collapse was the result of bad behavior over 20-30 years. But make no mistake: the fate will be similar. Unfortunately, there will be more casualties (businesses, people, environment) before there is change.

When will we be forced to pay the actual cost of our clothing (or even, an inflated price for our clothing)? When will nature impose its boundaries enough to break this system – through drought, flooding, water scarcity, material scarcity, etc. – to make the $10 dress actually impossible? Have we already reached peak production?

The $10 dress is the equivalent of the subprime mortgages. It was never realistic, and the fact that it has lasted as long as it has should keep us up at night. It’s “dog shit” as The Big Short’s protagonists would say.

Some long-term focused companies see this and are moving as fast as possible to secure alternative textile supply chains with a focus on regenerated post-consumer materials. This means the clothing you’ve been donating to Goodwill could have much greater value eventually, and perhaps sooner rather than later. There is a race happening right now to be the first on the market with industrial scale textile regeneration technology. Reclaimed clothing made from a single fiber (example, 100% cotton) will be first to go up in value as the tech is closer. Recycling technology for clothing made from blends (example, 50% cotton, 50% polyester) will take longer. The business case for recycling textiles is clear, and the necessary technology is almost there.

Fiber prices have long been affected by a volatile commodities market, and they will only become more volatile in this changing world. We’ve already seen this: cotton prices go up significantly whenever there is a drought, and petroleum-based fibers like polyester are impacted by oil prices. As we look to the future, it’s important to remember that textiles start on farms – whether tree pulp or more recognizable fibers like linen, cotton and silk – and farms on arable land may need to prioritize food production to feed growing populations, especially those impacted by water scarcity. (That is, unless we make significant progress on existing problems of food waste and water availability.) Eventually we’ll see the price of virgin fibers so high, brands won’t be able to afford them.

Textiles won’t be the only aspect of the fashion industry that will be forced to evolve.

Take color, for example. There is a strong (and overly romantic) push right now for a switch from chemical to natural dyes. But don’t forget that natural dyes come from farms too. These will continue to exist at the artisanal level, grown in small gardens. But mass production could be considered unethical, because just like fibers, they’re grown on arable land and require water and other precious resources. There is opportunity, however, to use dye materials that are byproducts of the food industry, such as onion and avocado skins.

In the future, we’ll have to change our expectations of color. What is color anyway? Is it just a medium for the industry to keep us buying the “new”? Color will come from those regenerated textiles that have already been dyed. Perhaps we will find ways to use waste from other industries as dyestuff. Perhaps it will come from light, embedded computers, or even bacteria. Perhaps color will become irrelevant in the future. Who knows?

And how will your closet change?

The capsule wardrobes of today will become the norm in the future. We’ll have less stuff because the price of clothing will rise. Or perhaps, we’ll have a second wind with mass market cheap clothing if the regenerated textile technology decreases the cost of materials. But how many times can textiles be recycled and remain useable? Gwen Cunningham of the Circular Economy has said that the goal for textile recycling would be 2 rounds of mechanical recycling followed by 1 round of chemical recycling, and will likely require virgin material to be blended in to maintain textile strength. How long would it take us to run through our seemingly endless stock of clothing that already exists on the planet – both in our closets and in our landfills? If Americans are throwing away 68 pounds of clothing per year as the oft-cited stat from the EPA states, it could take awhile. But remember that the clothing that we’re making today, as compared to the clothing that was made as recently as the 1990s, is of much lower quality, so we may not be able to expect as many rounds of recycling before the fiber is useless.

All of this paints a difficult but opportunity-filled portrait.

If you’re in one of the big “banks” of fast fashion, enjoy it while you can and, for everyone’s sake, change it if you can.

For those of us who are already working to change the fashion industry, think about the big picture. What expectations and behaviors will we have to change globally as we shift to a new era of the industry? How will our concept of “fashion” – by its very nature focused on the new – need to shift? Can these shifts be made before we’re forced to make them?

If you’re trying to break into the fashion industry, especially as a designer, know that you have more power than you may think you do. If you learn to design for disassembly and design into creative materials, you’ll be ahead of the game. (For inspiration, check out The Great Recovery.)

If you’re not in the fashion industry but you’re interested in this, I have no doubt that it will be the individuals without a background in the current fashion “system” who will change it. Start thinking how you can get involved.

And for all of us who buy clothes, know that there’s only so much longer for the “stock” prices to stay this low. Perhaps clothing is the safest investment you can make right now.

I’ll be writing again soon to share a special announcement. Don’t want to miss it? Sign up for the email list here.

[Photo: Ben Rosett via Unsplash]

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  1. Theresa Campbell

    This is a great article. I wish more people would think about how all that cheap clothing they buy was made. Fast fashion is the “junk food” of the clothing industry. People are addicted to it. Though I do love to shop, I mainly wear authentic vintage clothing, preowned or new classic, quality pieces that will last and I also try to purchase USA made as often as possible. I also like the idea of re-purposing/rescuing clothing by making changes to give a new look instead of tossing. So that is another option I’m planning on attempting.
    Unfortunately these days, I feel like I am in the minority of shoppers, as most want to pay less and less to own more and more and never think twice about the origins. As a small business owner in the retail fashion industry this is a dilemma. Trying to make a living by offering more sustainable/ethical clothing is difficult when such a large segment of the market is resistant to paying for it. So the day can’t come fast enough for me when the “fast fashion” bubble finally bursts and more people come to realize quality trumps quantity any day!

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  3. Elizabeth Stilwell

    So many good points. And certainly, companies are watching and waiting to buy low (just like the financial industry). They will hoard single fiber textiles once they can use them to create capital. Clothes that we once gave away will be recycled and resold to us over and over by the companies that have the resources.

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