Why are these clothes just so bad? In this two part series, Amanda breaks down the hidden reasons that new clothing is kinda garbage. This episode covers the following:
- What is planned obsolescence and how does it impact cars, phones, electronics…and clothing?
- The process of clothing creation, from design to sample to finished product.
- The changes buyers make to hit the profitability targets set by company leadership.
- How fabric is a big part of the formula (and why so many garments are synthetic now).
- How overproduction is impacting product quality.
P.S. Elsyha recently did a collab with Dani of Picnicwear. Check it out here.
Thanks to this episode’s sponsor, Made by MLE, @madebymle on Instagram. Use code CLOTHESHORSE to receive 10% off your first order!
If you want to share your opinion/additional thoughts on the subjects we cover in each episode, feel free to email, whether it’s a typed out message or an audio recording: [email protected]
Or call the Clotheshorse hotline: 717.925.7417
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So much of the fashion industry is built upon illusion.
At the top level, it’s the illusion of glamour. Of self-importance. Of fashion trends being important. If things being in style or out of style.
It sells the illusion that if we buy the right thing from the right brand, we will fit in. Find success. Be happy. All of our problems will be fixed by the right pair of jeans or shoes.
It also sells the illusion that newness matters, that we need a lot more clothing and shoes than we ACTUALLY need.
It sells us the illusion of a relationship with brands. That liking a brand or store (like Anthropologie or Free People or Madewell) is a personality characteristic. I’m going to go ahead and say that yes, I at least 50% believe in astrology as a Leo with a Gemini rising (and a Cancer moon). I definitely believe in astrology WAY more than I believe that any of these brands we like and follow care about us at all. Or define our personalities. But this is a very successful illusion, because people do build intense loyalty to brands, entangled within their personalities.
It sells us the illusion of very important, never-to-be-repeated again clearance extravaganzas. We know by now that there is ALWAYS another sale.
It sells us the illusion of Black Friday deals and Cyber Monday deals and just deal after deal after deal.
And most importantly in the fast fashion era, it has sold us the illusion that the things we are being sold are good. Are “luxe.” Are necessities. Will bring us great joy. The illusion that these things are a great value.
As a person who has worked behind the scenes for so long (and now has the luxury of being able to fully process it from a distance), we use the same verbiage over and over again that actually speaks to the illusion we are creating:
“Ooohhh, that looks EXPENSIVE.” Because of course, as you know by now, it is not expensive. We just want something that LOOKS expensive.
“This feels so cozy.” Always said while touching something made of polyester or a complex, inexpensive yarn that is not actually cozy or warm at all.
“This looks so LUXE.” Meanwhile, it cost $2 to make.
“That almost looks like real leather/silk/wool/cashmere.” Followed by “it almost looks like real leather/silk/wool/cashmere.”
From a marketing perspective, we use words that further reinforce illusions:
Imported (rather than telling you where it really came from).
Size inclusive (but only up to 2XL omg sorry).
Meanwhile, as we have been discussing for so long, the clothes themselves just aren’t actually good. The zippers are already a problem on the first wear. The fabrics make us stinky, itchy, and hot. The fit is….ehhhh…I don’t know about you, but every garment helps me identify something that might be “wrong” about myself: maybe my arms are too long or too wide. My boobs are too big (or not the right shape). My torso is simultaneously to short but sometimes too long. My feet are too big to get through the leg hole. It never (or at least not for a long time) occurred to me that my body was not the problem, the way the garment was designed and made was the problem.
The reality is that new clothes are kinda garbage these days. A few episodes ago, I talked about this at length with Dani of Picnicwear in terms of sweaters. But the info we shared there applies to every kind of clothing (and just about everything else outside of clothing) that is being made these days. And there are a lot of reasons why this is happening. Some are obvious and some are hidden, but many of us are unaware of them. And that’s by design…because if we knew what was really happening, we would know what we were really buying, and it would shatter our illusions about fashion, shopping, and clothing. The industry needs us to be under the spell of these illusions in order to succeed. What would happen if we all knew the truth? How would it change our relationship with clothing? Would we see a larger social change in terms of clothing and shopping? Would the industry finally have to change its ways?
This episode is part 1 of 2, where I will break down both the very obvious (all of those DEALZ DEALZ DEALZ) and the hidden (we’re going to talk about things like air freight, returns, free shipping, and so much more) reasons that clothing is just kinda garbage these days.
Welcome to Clotheshorse, I am your host Amanda and this is episode 187, part one of two about why clothes are kinda garbage these days.
Before we jump into that, I know many of you probably want an update on Remake.
Let’s have a little bit of a palate cleanser…let’s listen to an audio essay from Elysha of Worth Mending.
Thanks Elysha, for taking the time to record such an amazing audio essay! And I gotta say, I decided to put Elysha in this week’s episode because I noticed that some people were showing up in the comments section of one of their Reels, basically doing the whole “why is this so expensive/it feels overpriced and arbitrary” in regards to their Swift Loom. Now Elysha already told you all about how these are made (and you can learn more at worthmending.com), so the price totally makes sense to me (and I hope it makes sense to you, too).
But as I have been saying for years, the era of fast fashion (and fast everything) has really messed up our sense of value and price. And I think we have become accustomed (maybe even comfortable) with the idea that many things will not be in our lives for very long, because they will break or be unrepairable. When things don’t last for a long time, it feels like they should be inexpensive because well, we’re going to have to buy another one soon. Especially since more and more things are intentionally impossible to repair. The idea of the Worth Mending Swift Loom is that you only need one…like EVER. And it will actually save you money in other ways because you can repair and extend the life of socks, pants, sweaters, hats, towels, blankets, and really any textile in your life.
We have talked here before about the idea of “planned obsolescence.” But I think we should review again (especially since some of you are new to Clotheshorse) what that term means.
The Oxford Dictionary has a great definition:
“a policy of producing consumer goods that rapidly become obsolete and so require replacing, achieved by frequent changes in design, termination of the supply of spare parts, and the use of nondurable materials.”
So what does that mean? Let’s break down the different types of tactics used within planned obsolescence using that definition.
- Frequent changes in design: This one harkens back to the 1920s. By then, the automobile industry was somewhat oversaturated. Basically, everyone who could afford a car, had one. But the industry (like fashion, like every other industry) was built upon this idea of constant growth, making more money each year than the previous year. General Motors executive Alfred P. Sloan Jr. had an idea: what if there were new “models” of cars each year, with different design changes and features, like different headlights or colors? This would motivate people who already had a car to buy a new one. And it worked! GM became the predominant car company in the US thanks to this strategy. And we see this play out in many categories now, particularly in the area of electronics and tech. Think about the constant stream of new iPhones (do you really need the newest one? Probably not). In terms of apparel, fashion as a whole, it’s all about trends, right? So if you feel like your skinny jeans are out of style (even though they have plenty of use left in them), you’ll feel compelled to buy a new kind of jeans in a different silhouette. And style blogs, influencers, magazines, and even television/film help reinforce this idea of things being in style/out of style.
- Termination of the supply of spare parts: This is a classic for many appliances, vehicles, and electronics. And many companies (looking at you Apple) have taken it one step further by making themselves the only real option to repair your devices in the first place. Often the process and waiting time is so arduous, that people end up giving up and just buying a new laptop or phone. In the world of apparel…well, fashion has lucked out in that many of us don’t know how to repair our clothing in the first place. And as an added bonus, they use a lot of fabrics, buttons, and other trims that we can’t find anywhere else. So sometimes finding the right replacement “part” for an item is impossible, especially if we are trying to make the garment look like it did when it was brand new, rather than looking at repair as a moment of customization: an opportunity to uniquely own our clothing via different buttons, thread, patches, and so on.
- And lastly, the use of nondurable materials. Remember when iphone screens shattered with the most minor falls? And then we all had to spend money on cases to protect them? In fact, the fragility of phones as a whole has created an entire industry out of making cases, replacement headphones, screen protectors, pop sockets, and so much more. So much money (and waste) has been generated by the creation of a phone that is essentially designed to break. Clothing has become very similar, perhaps not intentionally (I’ll explain why fabric and zippers are so bad now), but it is true that with many of us barely having enough time to sleep and eat because we are working so much, the low quality fabric and trims of clothing often lead to us just buying something new because we can’t repair them AND we are used to having to replace clothing pretty often.
I want to be clear that planned obsolescence is a part of every industry right now. And it exists because it gets us to buy stuff more often, to spend more money. Furthermore, low quality items are less expensive to make, and therefore, more profitable. It’s a win-win for most companies. And planned obsolescence has gotten us comfortable with things not lasting and needing replacement. We are often fine with that as long as the price is low, right? We look for value (meaning deals and low prices), but we are sold something with little value (in terms of longevity, quality, fit). It’s messed up, right?
I am hoping that this pair of episodes (as well as the episode I did with Dani about sweaters) will help you understand how messed up pricing is right now. And why it’s important for us to take that time and effort to sort of undo our current concept of value. Because I think what we have been trained to think of as a good deal (and I mean this in regards to anything we buy) is fundamentally untrue, built from all of the illusions that brands and industries are selling us right now.
The last thing I want to say is something that you’re probably already picking up here…but let’s say it anyway. Sometimes it just feels good to say it out loud, right?
There is a clear connection between this process of planned obsolescence and overconsumption. We are sort of forced to consume more than we would because we have no choice if we want to have functional items. If we want to feel good about what we are wearing.
And while some parts of planned obsolescence ARE based on the illusion of trends that fast fashion is serving us, or the illusion of the newest thing being the best like Apple is selling us…ultimately planned obsolescence is a big contributor to large global issues like the plastic pollution crisis, the high carbon footprint of all of that shopping and shipping, and even just wasted resources like water. In other words: planned obsolescence is killing our planet and making life harder for everyone living on it. It’s just not okay. And it’s time for us to push back by recognizing that we are being tricked. We are being ripped off. We are stuck on this like hamster wheel of shopping that robs us of our financial stability. But guess what? We have the power to change this: through legislation, through our own behavior, and by boycotting the brands that feel fine selling us near future garbage.
Before we start unpacking the reasons that clothing is so low quality these days, I thought we would walk through the design and production process a bit. Specifically, understand how so much disappointing clothing is created in the first place. Dani and I talked about this at length in our sweaters episode, but it bears repeating again, especially in the context of all clothing.
It’s important to start by saying that no one working in buying, design, and production gets up every morning and says “I can’t wait to make more low quality disappointing clothes that totally rip off our customer.” Nope. Not at all. We don’t even say that in meetings. We all come in with the best intentions. But our best intentions are really…reined in by the targets that come from our executive teams.
As I have mentioned before, fashion (like any other industry) operates under the assumption that this year’s sales will be higher than last year’s. And next year will be higher than this year, and on and on. This is called a “positive comp.” When your sales are lower than last year, that’s called a “negative comp.” And it’s not a happy place to be. As a buyer it means that you will probably be getting yelled at a lot. You’ll be under a lot of pressure and scrutiny. And you might lose your job.
In addition to sales being higher year after year after year, profitability has to be higher. As a buyer, your margin goal will be increased each year. Margin is a measurement of the profitability of your business. This means that either everything you buy/develop this year has to cost less than it did last year, or you have to be pricing it higher. Well, raising prices in apparel and accessories is rarely a good idea in the fast fashion realm. Even with all of the inflation that we have been experiencing globally over the last few years, clothing is still less expensive now than it was in the 90s. Because there is considerable price resistance when it comes to clothing. Customers just don’t want to pay more. Why? Because they don’t expect that they will be able to wear an item of clothing for very long, either thanks to quality issues or just fashion trends. So this means, buyers probably aren’t going to raise the retail prices to hit the margin targets they have been given. They will just source cheaper stuff.
Now these margin targets and sales goals all come from the top down, starting with the executive team, then being parceled out by category. And when they create these targets, they are looking at a lot of factors:
- The amount of sales they need to hit to make shareholders and investors happy.
- And the amount of gross profit they need to generate in order to cover operating expenses, while also paying out dividends. The expenses of running a big retailer/brand have changed a lot in the fast fashion/ecommerce era. There are sort of “unexpected” costs associated with selling stuff online that most retailers didn’t understand ten years ago. And they have had a major impact on the way these businesses budget. In fact, these costs are so high that retailers have had to make up for those costs by driving up the profitability of each item when it is initially sold. I’m talking things like returns, free shipping, and more…which I will be unpacking over the next two episodes. But what these means in terms of the buying and design process is that we are given much higher margin targets. Roughly 30% higher than the beginning of my career. So that means that customers are receiving a 30% lower quality product than they were in say, 2008. It didn’t happen overnight. It was incremental over the last 15 years…the margin targets were just a tiny bit higher each year. We almost didn’t feel it. And then 15 years later, it’s like, “whoa, we do things completely differently now.” And the quality of the clothing is completely different, even with more “premium” brands.
As Dani and I discussed in the sweater episode, the entire product development process begins with a meeting where buyers will lay out for design what they need to buy in terms of style count, silhouette, and pricing. It’s called a line plan. And we will be as specific as “we need this many color ways and we will buy this many units.” It’s actually kinda fun to put together, one big logic problem with a side of math. This is where those margin targets first begin to emerge. Everyone knows they are hard to hit, but it’s hard to say how a design will really price out until you create a sample of it.
Often at this same meeting, members of leadership will show up with “bought” samples. Now I want to be clear that despite calling them “samples,” they are actually just things that were bought from other brands (or are vintage) that they want design and buying to copy. Well, not copy so much that there is a lawsuit, but then again, not change so much they aren’t cute anymore.
And from moment one, this process is already set up for failure. Because depending on where you work, design might only be asked to copy things, and not actually design anything new. And these so-called “samples” are never bought from a brand with a similar pricing structure. No, that would be too easy. Instead they are going to be high end vintage or luxury brands, or as simple as “this is a 500 euro sweater from a Scandinavian brand, let’s make a $58 version.” Like, it’s just going to go well.
So design will take all of these “samples” and the line plan and get to work on sketching and creating tech packs, etc. In our next meeting, we’ll review the actual real samples that were created by factories. Leadership might say “this is too different from the original inspiration, make it exactly like it.” And we will all feel confused like, “isn’t that unethical.”Some samples are really bad and need so much work, that it’s hard to see the potential. Others will be amazing, like YES, BUY ALL OF THEM. And then production is like, “well, I’m glad you like it, but this has a cost of $48 to make and your target is $16.”
And this is when the dance of pricing begins. We will all have the best intentions when we begin. We will feel optimistic that we can create something very, very close to the original design/sample, even if we have been through this process 10, 30, 50 times in our career and know better. We always still hope that the customer will ultimately end up with something amazing, like the original, even though it has rarely happened in the past.
This is when we start making changes that will get us to the price we have to achieve. In the beginning, the gap between the current cost and what we can afford will be massive. We will do everything we can to close that gap, little by little because not hitting our targets is not an option.
You have to hit these if you want to ever get a raise or a promotion, or even keep your job. It’s mandatory if you want your bonus, which you do want because most fashion people are wildly underpaid, especially in comparison to the long hours, skill, and experience required to do this job well.
So we start cutting things.
It always starts with the fabric.
- This is going to surprise all of you sewists out there, but the fabric is always the most expensive part of a garment in the mass fashion/fast fashion realm. It SHOULD be the labor and skill required to create these garments, but that’s just a testament to the worker exploitation in the fashion industry. So swapping the fabric is imperative. It can get you 75% of the way to the target price. You swap the fabric to something cheaper (but we always would look for something that “looked” expensive or had a “nice handfeel”). Inevitably it was a poly blend.
- I always say (and I’m going to say it again), we tend to think of the 1970s as the golden era of polyester, but we are actually living in it right now, with about 65% of all new clothing being made with synthetic fabrics. And people are always telling me how much they hate polyester, often while wearing something that I can spot as a poly blend. That’s because synthetic fabric technology has gotten really good. Like it’s so hard to spot because it can have different kinds of textures, drapes, and washes that disguise it. And customers rarely reject it. It sells. That’s the thing: retailers would stop using so much poly if people stopped buying it. After all, they are in the business of making money.
- Now, we might swap the fabric 2,3,4 times until we find one that works with the design, meets the price target, and also doesn’t have a high duty rate. It also can’t be too flammable or not take the dye color well.
- If it’s an item that kinda has to be a natural fiber (like t-shirts), well we might try to sneak a tiny bit of polyester in there to meet the pricing. And if we can’t do that, we’ll just use a thinner fabric in the first place. This is why so many tees are lightweight at this point, unlike the beefy thick tees of the 90s. If it’s a sweater, we’ll do an open, loose knit so that it uses less yarn and weighs less.
If we have been able to find the right fabric, we are probably ¾ of the way to making the math math for this style. Next we will start playing around with the trims.
- By trims, I mean things like buttons, zippers, snaps, hooks. All the functional pieces of a garment. Most of these changes only reduce the cost by a few cents, but honestly, fashion is a pennies game. Every cent matters when you are trying to hit your sales target. In an industry that that makes 150 billion garments every year, even one penny less in cost totals $1.5 billion. It’s a numbers game!
- Zippers can often have the biggest impact, with a swap from a nice YKK metal zipper into a no-name, semi plastic zipper saving $1-2. Sometimes more if it’s a huge zipper. We might even say at this point, “hey, let’s skip the zipper all together, just add some elastic at the waist instead.” And that will save a couple of bucks.
- But we’re going to look for cheaper buttons and snaps, too. We will toy with the idea of using less buttons and snaps. Anything we can do to shave off some more pennies. Maybe the buttons are no longer functional at all, just there for the look.
At this point, the garment still might closely resemble (at least from afar) the original sample that we all loved. But we’re probably still not at the cost we need to hit. So this is when we start cutting details:
- Pockets will go first In fact, production probably already assumed that would happen and has revised costing based on that.
- We’ll probably pull out the lining (or swap to something cheaper, even notice just how bad some linings are in dresses, skirts, and outerwear these days? That’s why).
- And then things get more desperate:
- We will play around with length: the maxi skirt becomes a mini. The mini becomes a micro mini. Maybe the pants are cropped. The shirt or sweater becomes a crop top.
- Maybe we shift from a long sleeve to a ¾ sleeve. Or remove the sleeves entirely.
- We remove layers and pleats that create volume.
- And we might have to swap the fabric or yarn AGAIN.
- If it is embellished with embroidery or sequins or beading, we will remove more and more of the embellishment. Maybe the sequins are only on the front. Maybe it’s just a little sprinkle around the collar.
- This is really where the design changes so much. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: I can’t help but think this part of the process actually creates fashion trends. Not runway shows, not style bloggers. No, pricing. If we only offer you crop tops you’ll start to think that longer shirts are no longer cool. Would you feel differently if you knew we only sold you crop tops because they are cheaper?
We will do other things along the way, that honestly, we don’t even discuss as a team because they are just an understood part of the process now: we will cut sizes, maybe going from numerical sizes to just S-XL. We will agree to order more than we need to get that volume discount. Put a pin in that because it’s going to come back again. We will skip fittings because those require more samples to be made and we can’t afford to pay for more samples. We might even say “it’s close enough, just move to production. It will fit someone, right?”
But most importantly through all of this, production keeps asking the factory or vendor for a lower price. And they say, “hey, if you can’t hit this pricing, we won’t place the order. Or we will do it with someone else.” So the factory will go back and recalculate to see what they can hit. Maybe they cut some staff for the project. Maybe they pay their workers a little bit less. Maybe they subcontract to a factory that pays its workers even less. Maybe that factory subcontracts to another factory that pays even less or uses forced labor or commits wage theft. No matter what, these lower prices from the factory are really money taken out of the pockets of humans. Someone is not getting paid.
But eventually we hit the price we needed. Oh, and I think it’s also important to call out that while it seems like we might have a lot of time for this process, at best we had 2 or 3 weeks. So we were rushing through it, just doing whatever we could to create something that kinda looked okay and would meet our pricing. We don’t have a lot of time to spend on it because leadership is already asking us to move on to the next collection and delivery window. By the time it hits stores, this whole thing will be a hazy memory. We don’t get to stop for a moment to reevaluate, probably because we are all doing the work of 2-3 people in the first place.
And also, I think if we stopped to think about it, we would be too sad. Too disappointed. Imagine that you went to school for fashion because you love it. Or you legit love clothing and want to make cool, nice stuff that makes people happy. And more and more you just find yourself trying to make the numbers work. Style and art are no longer part of the equation, even though we sell that illusion to our customers. I think we kinda have to sell that illusion to ourselves so we don’t lose hope or motivation. It’s really hard after a while, and I think many of us don’t see it until we aren’t working in the industry. Who wants to believe that they just make mediocre, quasi-disposable stuff for 50-60-70 hours each week? Who wants to think that they sacrifice their personal time, relationships, and physical/mental health for this bullshit? No one does.
I would think about this from time to time, first here and there in the early years of my career, and then almost constantly in the later years. And every time I would just sort of jam it away behind a door in the back of my brain, in the most hidden corner. A handy infinity-sized closet for hiding away bad thoughts. Because I knew I couldn’t let myself truly feel those thoughts if I wanted to continue making a living. I knew that I couldn’t say these things out loud if I wanted to keep my job. And so more and more, I found myself whisking those thoughts away into that closet, slamming the door super hard and running away very fast to think about nicer things like Tumblr or Fleetwood Mac. But over the years, it was hard to close that door. The closet was bursting at the seams. I could no longer pretend that everything was okay. I reached a point of “enough is enough.” Interestingly enough, I still took a job working for Nuuly when I knew I was feeling this way. But I found it harder than ever to pretend otherwise. Honestly, Clotheshorse was born from my realization that people needed to know what I–and so many people around me–had been hiding for years: that we were selling people a lot of illusions around clothing. Once you know that, it’s impossible to turn back. My hope is that unpacking all of this for you will also shatter the illusions the fashion industry creates: the importance of trends. The emotional connection with brands. Branding/marketing as a “lifestyle” and personality type. Value. Price. Let’s break it all down and see what we really want to wear and buy.
Okay, so to finish out this episode let’s unpack one reason that clothing is kinda garbage these days.
It turns out that every time you are buying a new article of clothing from a big brand or retailer, you’re paying for a few extra garments that will never be sold or worn…45 billion to be precise.
Did you just pee your pants when I said that?
Let’s do the math: The fashion industry produces about 150 billion garments every year.
That’s about 20 garments per person on the planet. But almost half of the world’s population makes less than $5.50 per day. So they aren’t buying 20 garments each year.
Here’s the shocking part: according to the Australian Circular Textile Association (ACTA), 30% of those 150 billion garments (45 billion) are never sold. They are destroyed, burned, sometimes donated. What we are really talking about here is a lot of clothing– about 6 garments per person on earth–being made and never sold or worn.
It’s wild, right?
And after everything we have talked about today, you’re probably getting an idea of how that happens.
For one, we’re buying the wrong stuff, buying into the wrong trends because we have to create so much product, so fast, that sometimes we’re wrong. I always talk about buying being a little bit of “calculated gambling,” and sometimes you just lose.
The fast fashion model relies on selling you as much stuff, as often as possible.
This means showing you a steady stream of new stuff.
In order to do that, they have to buy into every single trend—no matter how unwearable, short-lived, or ultimately unpopular. This results in a lot of stuff that no one really wants.
It’s also coming too fast for anyone to get it right! I mean, we’re spending all that time trying to make the pricing work…there’s not much time left to make the actual item. Now that all of the big retailers/brands are selling you stuff at the lowest prices and bombarding you with dealz dealz, dealz, they are trying to remain competitive by bringing you stuff as fast as possible.
They want to be the first one to offer you the trend. This means everything comes faster than ever.
This means less fittings (so the fit isn’t great), less sample reviews (meaning there is less time to get the details right), and the fast turnaround means that no one gets to fine tune and optimize the final product. And you also know that sometimes we just can’t afford to do more samples and fittings in the first place if we want to meet those pricing targets!
All of this rushing and cut corners leads to lots of less-than-great stuff finding its way on to the website and into the store. And no one wants to buy it.
The amount of time companies are allotting to sell this stuff is shrinking. They need to move it in and out as fast as possible to make room for the next round of super trendy product.
Items go to markdown (on sale) about 6 weeks after they arrive in stores/online. Bestselling styles will stay at full price longer. And when stuff doesn’t sell after a couple of fast markdowns, it gets pulled and often destroyed, or sent back to the warehouse where who knows what happens. I was not privy to that as a buyer. I think sometimes it is sold off to jobbers who will sell it on the off-price market, but also sometimes it’s just cut up and thrown out.
Also, sometimes (okay, maybe often) buyers will order more units of a style than they actually need in order to get the pricing to work with their margin targets. So they already know that they will end up with some unsold inventory at the end of the season that will be destroyed.
Next, we have the delusional sales plans that excite investors and keep the stock price up.
Some basic retail math: the higher the sales plan, the more product the company needs to produce to sell.
Leadership will create super high, most likely unachievable sales plans. Buying and design creates enough product to hit those sales plans.
When the company misses the sales plan, there’s a ton of extra inventory that goes unsold. If we haven’t received that extra inventory yet, we will try to cancel the order with the factory. If the factory has already made it, well they are out of luck. And they will often have to destroy the product because they don’t have the legal freedom to sell it to someone else. Other times, the company will have the product trucked off to the incinerator or landfill before it ever arrives in the warehouse. Maybe the retailer will try to donate it in hopes of getting a tax write off. And furthermore, it actually costs money to dispose of this stuff, so if they donate, they will save the money of disposal. This is one reason you see so much brand new stuff from places like Target and Zara in thrift stores.
Here’s the thing: remember earlier when I told you that there are a lot of sort of “surprise” costs of operating in the fast fashion/ecommerce era that retailers didn’t expect? This overproduction is one of them. We were definitely were not overproducing to this extent before the fast fashion era. We rarely destroyed things. Then it became a regular part of managing the business. The companies began budgeting to dispose of these huge chunks of inventory. That meant that margin targets had to be pushed even higher to cover the financial liability of overproduction..which meant we had to make clothes even more cheaply. Way back in the ethics of secondhand resale episodes earlier this year, Alex and I explained that when we buy something from a thrift store, we are also subsidizing the disposal of all of the things that couldn’t sell or were straight up garbage. When we buy something brand new from a big brand or retailer, we are also paying for the production and disposal of all of the unsold items.
So this overproduction, this desire to grow the business more and more every year, to get the lowest prices possible…it’s all connected. We wouldn’t have huge sales plans if the model didn’t dictate growth every year. We wouldn’t have all of this extra inventory that no one bought if we weren’t trying to hit those sales plans. We wouldn’t have to make clothes so cheaply if we didn’t have to cover all of the stuff that never sold. And we wouldn’t have so many unsold clothes if we didn’t have to make them so cheaply.
It’s gross, right?
And isn’t “gross” exactly the opposite of the illusion that fashion is trying to sell us?
In fact, fashion kinda hopes that WE feel gross about OURSELVES, not the industry. Because if we feel bad about who we are…if we feel lonely, anxious, have imposter syndrome, worry that something is unsavory about ourselves…we’ll buy a lot more clothes and shoes and bags and makeup. It’s no coincidence that many blogs and magazines with women as a target audience are all about telling us how to “fix” our shortcomings via shopping, even if we didn’t know we had them before reading the article.
What if I told you that actually, we’re all fucking amazing, no matter what we look like, what we wear, how we smell, what our body hair situation is? What if I told you that nothing the fashion industry sells us will ever make us as powerful and smart and important as we already are? Because we are a pretty fucking big deal. We’re all out here, changing minds, spreading knowledge, building community, and getting ready to change all of this dysfunctional “fast everything” nonsense. It is happening and it’s because of all of us. That’s no illusion. That’s really happening!