Who is paying the real price of cheap fashion? (Illustrative) Bloomberg

An Israeli Fashion Reporter's Journey to the Dark Side of the Clothing Industry

Jobless masses who once worked in developing countries' textile industries, unmitigated waste and severe damage to the environment are among the destruction wreaked by the global fashion industry. A conversation with fashion reporter-turned-sustainability vigilante Michal Arbel-Levy.

Michal Arbel-Levy, you were fashion reporter for the mass-circulation newspaper Yedioth Ahronoth for four years. What made you leave?

That was seven years ago, when I was 28 and didn’t know much about the world. You need tremendous dedication to be a fashion reporter, and with time I felt my connection to the industry was no longer authentic.

What did you suddenly learn about the world that made you become a critic of the fashion industry?

I started to look at what goes on behind the scenes, and something about the emptiness of it turned me off.

Is the media coverage of fashion defective? Did you give your readers a warped account?

Not warped, heaven forbid. And the situation is also not so unequivocal; there are many dimensions. It’s like writing about meat: You can describe the negative side, the abuse of animals, but there’s also a fun side to it, I suppose. People get pleasure from eating steak.

So you switched to the vegetarian side?

I am at present investigating the environmental damage and the real cost of consumerist fashion. It’s a tricky field to examine in Israel, because awareness here of the connection between fashion and sustainability is still in its infancy. Visit secondhand stores and you’ll see the change we’ve undergone. Instead of quality clothes that last, today humanity is forced to cope with masses of cheap, low-quality clothing that’s manufactured that way deliberately – so we’ll have to keep buying new clothes.

David Bachar

Do you see yourself as being like Michael Lewis, who was a Wall Street investment banker before switching sides and writing highly critical books about the financial industry in the United States?

I suppose you could see it like that, because I moved from covering ultra-commercial and ultra-popular fashion to examining the damage caused by the industry. Still, I am not an ascetic who eschews every type of capitalism and consumerism, although I no longer feel connected to the abundance and overload that characterize the craze for fashion.

What’s the problem with cheap clothes?

The low price we pay shows a disconnect from a chain of production. If a blouse costs 10 shekels [$2.50], someone is paying a steep price for it. It’s not the consumer who absorbs the true cost of the item.

Who does, then?

The environment, the workers and all of humanity. The numbers are incredible. It’s estimated that one of every six people in the world works in some aspect of the fashion industry. It’s a market that’s worth around $2 trillion annually.

But obviously someone with a limited budget and little time will look to buy cheap.

I too have a limited budget and zero time – there’s no connection. I expect people to think, buy smart and buy less, only when they need to, and to buy quality, not be a prisoner of the dictates of the fashion chains. Once a year I go to a boutique, when the prices are discounted. Don’t respond to the sales, respond to your needs. Don’t buy junk that you’ll discard after wearing it just a few times; the item you throw out becomes someone else’s problem. It’s no longer in my closet, but now it’s a problem that someone else has to solve. No one thinks about that.

Many people don’t throw out old clothes but leave them on a bench on the street – thinking maybe someone needs them.

Bench charity is appalling: My conscience is clean, I’ve contributed, and even secretly. But who wants the moldy item? So now the municipal authorities have to solve the problem of all the clothes that no one wants. It’s better to put unwanted clothes in a recycle bin or take them to an appropriate nongovernmental organization. I worked in a place like that and saw the huge amounts of clothes that were collected and the kinds of clothes that were thrown away.

‘Cultural distortion’

What happens to the clothes that are collected?

That depends. The idea of some NGOs is to collect clothes from the community and sell them back to the community, then use the revenues to fund projects. The bins in the cities belong to recycling corporations that separate the unwearable items – which are used to make rags for industry or for textile recycling – and wearable items, which are sold to developing countries, mainly in Africa. So it’s a twisted world: Poor people in developing countries make the cheap clothes for a low salary, we in the West buy them without thinking and soon discard them, and they return to the indigent populations through the recycling corporations. This phenomenon is known in Africa as mitumba – Swahili for “bundles” – and it reflects the cultural distortion by which everyone buys the clothes, rich and poor wear the same shirts with the Nike logo.

Dreamstime

Is that so bad?

One repercussion is the total destruction of the local clothing-manufacturing industry in those countries: Whole textile industries are wiped out because it no longer pays to manufacture clothes there, and local know-how and traditional production methods are also lost. The process also wastes fuel and causes air pollution, because everything has to be transported in airplanes. There’s no consideration for the environment. Yet these corporations give the impression of being the “saviors” of their countries’ environment and of saving the authorities money, because they collect the used clothing that we no longer want.

Are we talking about large quantities?

Vast. The NGOs are drowning in clothes, because we buy plenty and junk items fast. Goodwill reported that it is able to sell only half of what it receives. In 2014, cast-off clothes were worth around $4 billion worldwide. Marie Kondo, a Japanese organizing consultant, wrote a best-selling book that teaches people how to create order in their closets and their home. The fact that we’re enthusiastic about this should make us consider what’s happening to us. The new American initiative called Give Back Box [the name of a company that works with the Goodwill charity], which is ostensibly positive, also bothers me.

How does it work?

After you receive shoes or clothes that you ordered on the Web, you fill out a form with your details on the Give Back Box site and print out a prepaid address label [with the Goodwill address on it]. You then put your old shoes or clothes in the box the new ones arrived in, paste on the address label and take the box to the local post office or a UPS site, or UPS will pick it up from your home [for free].

What’s wrong with that? Doesn’t it aid recycling?

This is another case of taking less responsibility – don’t feel responsible for the shoes you’re throwing out, don’t worry, we’ll cope. It’s also free. It makes you feel better when you buy new stuff; you don’t even have to go to the recycling bin with the old things.

A study done in Britain found that a third of the apparel that people buy in a year, hundreds of thousands of tons, goes to the garbage. That has significant repercussions for the planet. Think of the resources needed to manufacture clothes that barely get worn.

But otherwise the clothes just stay in the closet, which is also a form of waste.

Yes, it’s money lying in your clothes closet not being utilized. Another result is that larger closets are being made, unnecessary closets, which demand bigger homes. In the end, I have to hire someone to organize the house for me, or I buy a book about decluttering.

Chain-store clothing is designed, planned and intended to be worn about 10 times, no more. A British site called Love Your Clothes shows that extending the life of clothes by nine months – just wearing them a little more – would save the British economy £5 billion [$7.2 billion] a year.

Are there other, similar ideas?

In Denmark, there’s a site for organic children’s clothes, chemical-free and clean. The idea is that you rent the clothes for a monthly fee, and when the child outgrows the items, you return them and get larger ones. This is the next best thing in sustainability: You buy the service, not the product. Like the municipal bike-sharing system. You are asked to discard the concept of ownership. A Wall Street Journal report [about the U.S.] noted that 80 percent of the time, we wear just 20 percent of our clothes.

And all the rest?

Dreamstime

Stays in the closet and moves with us from home to home. The report found, based on what’s contained in the average closet, that there are 211,000 possible clothes combinations at any given time, a totally unreasonable number. But we have [an average of] only four minutes to decide what to wear in the morning, so most people are influenced by cognitive biases of what goes with what. Another problem is that the closet is usually messy and I don’t see all the clothes. In the end we wear the same items, which makes us feel bored and drives us to buy new things again.

So in your ideal world there are no fashion shows, nothing new, just old, expensive, non-trendy clothes?

Definitely not. I don’t disqualify the fashion world, because we do need to escape reality sometimes and see colors. But you can also go to stores without buying, just to have the experience and get ideas. Sometimes I see something really nice and then find a similar combination in my closet – that is a true celebration of creativity. I just find it hard to accept the world of fast fashion. I’m against the idea of going to a mall for an afternoon’s entertainment. Go to a park, go to a movie, have an experience.

Wearing a new item of clothing is an experience, too.

True, and I am careful not to be a party pooper, because there is fun and a sense of renewal in buying a new item of clothing. But it’s also hard for me to live with zero responsibility. We have what’s known as “disposable fashion”: within three to four weeks, 70 percent of the inventory of a clothing chain store will be replaced. This cheap fashion also cures our sense of guilt. If a dress only cost me 99.99 shekels [$25], it’s not so terrible if I end up never wearing it. You have zero responsibility as a consumer, because it’s so cheap. We just forget that someone is paying for this cheap item, which is full of chemicals and dyes, made with extremely harmful methods.

‘A kind of cosmos’

How does buying via the Internet fit into all this?

Responsibility on the Web is the worst of all, less than zero. I don’t even have to leave the house in order to buy clothes. All the horrible-quality Ali Express and Deal Extreme items that come from China in containers, with horrific air pollution caused by planes, and the whole approach of “What do I care, it only costs pennies, and if I don’t wear it I’ll pass it on to someone else.” And when it arrives, it isn’t exactly what we thought, so we don’t wear it and it’s a waste of money and resources.

Where do you buy, if at all?

I go to end-of-season sales in boutiques and buy the good items. I prefer one good blouse for 250 shekels over five at 49.99 shekels each. I look for classic, quality goods that will last several seasons. I too want to buy cheap, but in a fair, smart way.

Have you reduced your closet space?

I get rid of things, give things away and don’t buy much. When I do buy, it’s mostly basic things in neutral colors like blue or green, that will be comfortable and pleasant.

And if you get clothes as a gift?

I say thank you. Sometimes I re-gift.

But if, say, you wear the same jeans day after day, people might think you’re not clean, because no one washes jeans every day.

Good point. The fact is that 60 percent of the total energy invested in an item of clothing, from the moment the cotton is grown until the moment the clothing is destroyed, is expended after its purchase. We must do fewer washes, or launder clothes at lower temperatures, because those things also affect global warming. The subject of laundry is completely absent from the public discourse, even though the data show that it consumes plenty of money and resources.

Does your baby girl wear pink?

She wears what people give us, because I’m no longer buying, and that includes things in what are considered to be boys’ colors, because that’s what my sister – whose older children are boys – brought me. Gray is the “in” color today, and I personally like gray. But the baby is only 7 months old, so I haven’t had to worry about color issues yet.

AP

What is our duty as consumers?

To look at who made the item and where it came from. What are the workers’ conditions there? Gap, for example, makes surprise visits to the manufacturers. That’s also your job in the media: to expose companies that do substandard work. In 2013, thousands of workers were killed or injured when a commercial building in Bangladesh collapsed. Around 4 million people, 85 percent of them women, work in the fashion industry in Bangladesh, in 5,000 factories. The day before the collapse there, warnings were sent to the businesses in the building, but the textile employers ignored them. They told the workers that if they didn’t show up for work, they would not be paid. It was only after the disaster that organizations and companies whose names were linked to the affair started to sign agreements ensuring safety conditions. My master’s thesis was about a new standard for fashion brands that commits “clothing” manufacturers to make products that are not harmful to humanity, the environment and the economy.

But that would make things more expensive for the consumer.

It’s expensive, but it’s a different mind-set. It works for people who are ready to pay the price and buy clothing that is not for one-time use and may not be trendy, but will last in the long run. You also know that the people who did the work were paid properly and had humane conditions. That’s what’s important to me.

Is that realistic for the whole industry?

Not at the moment, but there are things that can be changed, especially in our approach, here and abroad.

You offer guided tours – what’s the program?

A friend and I established a tour company that takes people to Dizengoff Center [a Tel Aviv mall] and then to a nearby clothes-collection site. We show how the chains easily tempt us into buying. There are plenty of marketing gimmicks.

Like what?

The new, colorful, smart items are placed at the entrance, so we see them and also see their high price. After that, everything we see will be cheaper. So we think, “Ah, here’s something similar but less expensive.” There are all kinds of strategies to ensure that the path through the store will not be smooth, like stands that make us stop. The lighting is flattering, and there’s a sense of being cut off – the store is so isolated and closed off that it’s a world in itself. Zara, or any clothing store in Dizengoff Center, is a kind of cosmos that disconnects you from what’s going on outside. You’re in a kind of bubble and you surrender to a consumer experience.

Bloomberg

But all kinds of industries work like this – the food industry, the restaurant business, the flower industry: You buy flowers and they wilt almost immediately. Maybe flowers are unnecessary, too?

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