Why are these clothes just so bad? In this three part series, Amanda breaks down the hidden reasons that new clothing is kinda garbage. This episode covers the following:
- How are returns causing brands to create even lower quality clothing…resulting in even more returns? Yeah, it’s a really depressing cycle.
- Why are so many clothes traveling around the world in airplanes? And how does that impact both product quality and the planet?
Additional reading and listening:
“The Girlboss Has Left the Building,” Amanda Mull, The Atlantic.
“The End of the Girlboss Is Here,” Leigh Stein, Medium.
“How “Girlboss” Became A Slur,” Isabel Slone, Early.
“‘Girlboss’ went from empowerment to hypocrisy. How should we talk about young women’s ambition now?,” Amy Ta, Press Play.
Trick Mirror by Jia Tolentino
Self Care by Leigh Stein
Listen to the Girl Boss episodes of The Department
“Zara fuels climate crisis with thousands of tons of airborne fashion,” David Hachfeld and Romeo Regenass, Public Eye.
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
Did you enjoy this episode? Consider “buying me a coffee” via Ko-fi: ko-fi.com/clotheshorse
Welcome to Clotheshorse, the podcast that thinks millennial pink is forever, while girl boss is one trend that should disappear forever.
I’m your host, Amanda and this is episode 189. This is part TWO in a series about “why new clothes are kinda garbage these days.” I started this series back in December with the intention of finishing at the end of 2023, but well, covid, moving, and so many other things stood in the way of that not particularly ambitious plan.
Today we are going to pick up that conversation, and you should definitely go back and listen to part one if you have not yet. It is episode 187.
This series is turning into a three parter because there is so much to discuss, which is basically the most Clotheshorse thing I could ever say, right?
Okay, before we continue our conversation about why clothes are kinda garbage these days…I want to talk a little bit more about THE EMAIL. Yes, the email that was the entire focus of last week’s 2+ hour episode. First off, I want to say “thank you” to all of you who have reached out to share your own thoughts on the email and to give a lot of really encouraging, positive feedback about last week’s episode. There’s also been an incredible ongoing conversation on the Instagram post about that episode. So many of you have been sharing some really thoughtful responses and honestly, it makes me feel like 1000% more interested in social media. I feel like we CAN actually use it for the power of good and community building. I’ll link to that post in the show notes so you can see for yourself and even add your own thoughts. I’m hoping to share some of those comments in next week’s episode, but it takes some time to get permission, so stay patient!
One thing that did come up a few times in the conversation on that post was the writer’s use of the term “girl boss.” Now in last week’s episode, I kind of brushed that off. Not because it didn’t bother me. Because OMG it sure DID bother me. No, I was trying my hardest to keep my emotions out of the conversation. Which is silly as I say it aloud, because of course I have feelings. I am a human after all. I have insecurities, anxieties, and yeah, I’m super sensitive. That sensitivity makes me a good friend. A good partner. A good boss. That sensitivity is why I care about this shit so much that I spend hours and hours working on it.
But I also see (and feel) a lot of pressure to take my feelings out of the conversation. For one, as a person creating this kind of content, I am acutely aware that there are many people who will disconnect with what I’m saying or disregard its factuality if I also throw some emotions in there. Also, I feel that pressure to be as perfect as possible because I receive so much feedback on a regular basis. There are definitely times where I feel I am walking on the world’s shakiest tightrope while still trying to speak authentically. And yeah, I do wonder quite often if I would be held to these standards of emotionless perfection if I were a cis male. I try not to get caught up in that line of thinking too much, because it will fill me with rage. But once I start, well, it takes a few days to dig myself out of it. As a reminder, I am a nonbinary person and my pronouns are she/they. But I get that I am very feminine presenting: I have long hair and I love pastels. My wardrobe is a mashup of Laura Ashley and grandmacore, with a liberal sprinkling of witchy vibes and pastel daydreams. Not who we have been programmed to treat with respect.
Would people send me unsolicited DMs about the way I dress if I were a man? Would they be more willing to support my work financially if I were a guy? Would I be expected to respond to every bit of unsolicited feedback with “niceness” and gratitude if I weren’t AFAB?
Anyway, I’m just going to be blunt with all of you: that email hurt my feelings at first. It was really hurtful to see all of my hard work and support for our community be boiled down to “greenwashing.” The hurt feelings shifted into self doubt, like “wow, maybe I really am fucking all of this up.” That led to the next phase, “I think it’s time to shut down Clotheshorse because I am an abject failure who thought they were encouraging people to buy less stuff, but I was really selling them stuff? What is wrong with me?” That was around the time Dustin said I needed to talk to my slow fashion friends about the email, which was very sound advice.
The use of “girl boss” in that email made me super angry on the first read, even more angry on the tenth read, and by the 20th read, I told myself that I had to get past that if I was going to be able to respond to it in a helpful way. One thing I have learned–remember my nickname was once “Old Stewy” because I like to stew about things for a long time before I respond to them–is that the nuance in an issue is often NOT found in the first moments, hours, or even days. The nuance, the details, that all comes into focus with more time. And to get there, I had to stop thinking about the girl boss of it all.
To be completely honest, the thing that really bothered me about that use of girl boss is how the email implicitly calls out a few members of this community (and past guests of the pod) who are good friends of mine that I care deeply about:
- The reference to $400 sweaters was Dani of Picnicwear. If you recall, in our sweater episode a few months ago, we also talked about Dani’s tiny collection of sweaters she made with The Endery. 100% cotton sweaters made with yarn that would have ended up in the landfill. I never got the vibe that Dani was trying to sell sweaters to any of us, but rather she was talking about her love of knitwear combined with the demoralizing work of trying to create sweaters within the fast fashion model moved her to try to make a sweater that would last the buyer a lifetime. That would break down in the landfill. A new sweater that would have the least amount of environmental impact possible, while also being made ethically. And we discussed those sweaters after spending close to two hours explaining how and why new sweaters are so bad these days. It made me wonder if the writer of the email had listened to the same episode. Also, Dani does an incredible amount of unpaid labor–like many small business owners within the slow fashion community–to educate others about the impact of fast fashion and overconsumption.
- Next, people making yarn were called out. I can only assume that was referring to Kathleen of Republica Unicornia. Her episode is actually one of my favorites, because we talked about our own experiences of finding comfort in creating and crafting. Kathleen was incredibly brave by sharing her own story. I explained how making things had helped me get through my own grief after my partner died. We also talked about ways individuals could rein in their consumption of craft supplies and minimize their stash.
- Stylists were called out. I’m guessing that was a reference to the one and only Maggie Greene, the Halloween Queen, who has been a frequent guest around here. Maggie legit works with people who are struggling to feel comfortable within their own clothes. She does so much incredible work with people and thrifting/reuse/rewear are major parts of her approach. I am also just going to say that Maggie is one of the most thoughtful people I have ever met and no one gets to downplay her work as unimportant.
- Was I to believe that the “girlboss who’s selling her Goodwill finds on Instagram” was Alex of St. Evens? I’m not even going to touch that one because Alex does SO MUCH INCREDIBLE WORK sharing her knowledge around fashion history and even the history of clothing manufacturing…well, now you see why that email made me angry.
Yeah, it bothered me A LOT that someone showed up to dismiss the hard work, talent, and experience of people who mean a lot to me. People I respect and admire myself. What they do matters and wow, they all give so much of themselves back to this community.
But as I said, I also recognize that the nuance, the need for additional information, the motivation to search for that information and then kind of synthesize it all together into your brain…well, that takes time. And to give myself that time, I had to shut off the “girl boss” part of the convo.
That said–it bears discussion.
For those of you who are unaware of the term or its complex history, let’s walk through it.
The term “girl boss” was first used by Nasty Gal founder Sophia Amoruso in her 2014 memoir of the same name. And yes, on my first day at Nasty Gal I was given a copy of Girl Boss to read.
Amanda Mull explains the gist of “girl boss” best in her 2020 piece for The Atlantic, “The Girlboss Has Left the Building”
“Instead of dismantling the power men had long wielded in America, career women could simply take it for themselves at the office…#Girlboss argued that the professional success of ambitious young women was a two-birds-one-stone type of activism: Their pursuit of power could be rebranded as a righteous quest for equality, and the success of female executives and entrepreneurs would lift up the women below them.”
I read this out loud now and I’m like, “hmmm, wow that’s some really ridiculous thinking.” But back then…I was all in. I was always really into feminism–even as a kid I did more than one report about Gloria Steinem and I was always doing projects based on the fight for reproductive rights–but two aspects of my adult life had REALLY brought the systemic discrimination women faced on a daily basis into sharp focus for me:
- 1. Becoming a parent, and specifically, a single parent. Let me tell you, being a single mom in the 00s was well…let’s just say everyone had a reason to be mean to you. Republicans had been raging against single mothers since the early 90s, blaming them for the decline of family values and allegedly milking the system (spoiler: there was no system to milk for all of us single parents in the 00s). The cool hipsters of Portland, OR (where I was living then) judged me for having a kid, like having a kid indicated a lack of intelligence or some backwards political beliefs. I was a pariah to everyone. And even getting and holding a job was really really hard.
- 2. Working within the fashion industry, I learned pretty fast who had the power. Every job I have had in the industry involved an open floor plan office. That means everyone sits in a row of desks, maybe divided by like five foot walls. You know everyone’s business, that’s for sure. But the executives always have offices. They get privacy and space. And guess what? At every job, the open floor plan seats were filled with women. The offices held only men. The executives always called us “girls” and “sweetheart.” We had to engage in light flirting if we wanted a promotion. But no matter how many promotions you might earn, it was pretty apparent the ceiling on your career was pretty low if you weren’t born with XY chromosomes.
So I was pretty excited about the notion of girlboss. Could women lift one another up with their success? It seemed dreamy. Of course, Nasty Gal did not deliver on the promise of all of this girlbossing.
What girlboss DID do was sell lots of t-shirts and tchotchkes. Every retailer jumped on the feminist merch bandwagon, all while underpaying and overworking their female employees AND never ever mentioning the conditions their predominantly female garment workers faced every day to make those feminist tees.
And really, the heart of girlboss was you guessed it…capitalism. In Girlboss, Sophia Amoruso wrote, “I entered adulthood believing that capitalism was a scam, but I’ve found instead that it’s a kind of alchemy.” So I’ll tell you this: the first time I read that statement, I was like “WTF kinda word salad nonsense is this?” But if you check out the definition of alchemy you start to see what Sophia is getting at here. The Oxford dictionary defines alchemy as “a seemingly magical process of transformation, creation, or combination.” Does that mean that capitalism is magical? No, but I think we can do some really creative magical thinking to feel okay about capitalism (and even double down on it) when it’s working out in our favor. Sophia admitted that she once saw capitalism as “materialistic pursuit for materialistic people.” But as money started to go her way, as capitalism began to work in her favor, she realized “in many ways, money spells freedom.” And tbh, I don’t disagree with her, only because those of us without money often feel very unfree to chase our dreams. As I discussed in last week’s episode, we have a lot less options.
Girlboss was a form of “feminism” that really had nothing to do with social progress. It was completely uninterested in addressing larger systemic issues of oppression (once again, let’s talk about the garment workers making all of those feminist tees or the impact of making and disposing of all of those feminist tees), really the least intersectional feminism that could exist aka “white feminism.”
I’m a big fan of the Jia Tolentino book Trick Mirror, which captures a lot of the nonsense of the millennial experience. Yes, you should read it! And one of the chapters is called “The Story of A Generation in Seven Scams.” Of course, Girlboss is one of those scams. She says, “A politics built around getting and spending money is sexier than a politics built around politics.” She goes on to call out that rather than getting expanded reproductive freedom, equal pay, subsidized childcare, a higher minimum wage and so many other things we truly need to make life more equitable and to give us true freedom, instead we got feminist tees, feminist conferences of the girlboss ilk, Moon Juice, and period panties that contained PFAS.
Leigh Stein is another writer I adore. You should check out her book Self Care, which is one of my favorite books I have read in recent years. She wrote a great Medium essay in 2020 called, “The End of the Girlboss is Here.” She says, “The rise and fall of the girlboss is about how comfortable we’ve become mixing capitalism with social justice. We looked to corporations to implement social changes because we lost faith in our public institutions to do so.”
We also got a lot of really bad female bosses, which I have experienced time and time again. These leaders didn’t come at the idea of management and business with a particularly high level of empathy or emotional intelligence. They simply stepped into the mold of men in leadership, all while calling themselves “boss babes.” Amanda Mull eloquently explains it:
“America’s workplace problems don’t begin and end with the identities of those atop corporate hierarchies—they’re embedded in the hierarchies themselves. Making women the new men within corporations was never going to be enough to address systemic racism and sexism, the erosion of labor rights, or the accumulation of wealth in just a few of the country’s millions of hands—the broad abuses of power that afflict the daily lives of most people.”
As the girlboss era wound down by 2020, we had a long list of horrible bosses and toxic work environments that were the subject of many, many articles and social media posts:
Ty Haney of Outdoor Voices, Steph Korey of oh-so-instagammable luggage brand Away, Audrey Gelman of The Wing, Miki Agrawal of Thinx (who literally called herself a she-e-o), Leandra Medine of The Man Repeller, and of course, Sophia Amoruso of Nasty Gal.
In her 2023 piece for Early, Isabel Slone writes, “Over time, the girlboss revealed herself to be a Wizard of Oz-like figure who operates contradictorily behind a curtain, using smoke and mirrors to sell women’s empowerment while doing nothing materially to support this facade. For the girlboss, feminism was a brand building exercise rather than a show of solidarity.”
Oh btw…the name of that essay I just quoted? “How Girl Boss Became a Slur.”
Girl boss became an insult. And to be fair, I cringe when I see someone using it as a compliment or a hashtag. I used to be super wary (okay, maybe still am) of Poshmark marketing because it always felt very “girlboss/girl power” to me. And to be fair, take a moment to think about the term “girl boss.” It’s gross and insulting. It’s like “haha look at that GIRL over there doing business.” It’s treated as a novelty, like a dog driving a car or a horse that can do math. Okay, to be fair I don’t know if a dog can drive a car, but I have seen a horse that can do math. But you get what I’m saying…we don’t ever use the term “boy boss” do we?
Also, we can forget the proliferation of “Gaslight, gatekeep, girlboss” memes? As Slone writes in her essay (seriously, go read it),
The popularity of “gaslight gatekeep girlboss” is rooted in its ability to actively demonstrate the toxicity of girlboss culture to begin with. A girlboss is unconcerned with the dismantling of oppressive social structures like patriarchy and capitalism and instead focuses on manipulating those systems for personal gain. For the girlboss, the personal is indeed political, but to the detriment of everyone around them.
For the girlboss, feminism was a brand building exercise rather than a show of solidarity.
Furthermore, you can’t ignore the link between “hustle culture” and girlboss…this whole idea that if you just work all the time, you’ll eventually be successful. Whatever that success is as I’ve only been successful in giving myself a three month sinus infection from working without rest. Girlboss is just a rebranding (maybe in millennial pink) of the “bootstraps myth” of capitalism. As Amanda Mull writes,
“The push to move beyond the girlboss is an acknowledgment that a slight expansion of college-educated women’s access to venture capital or mentoring opportunities was never a meaningful change to begin with, or an avenue via which meaningful change might be achieved. Being belittled, harassed, or denied fair pay by a woman doesn’t make the experience instructive instead of traumatic.
So listen, I could talk about this for like six more hours because I am very passionately anti girl boss, not just because I lived it, but because I think it is very harmful. Kim and I recorded a few episodes about girl boss for The Department, and you should go listen to those for more detail.
But at the end of the day, the use of girl boss right now is meant to be snarky. Maybe even belittling. At a bare minimum, it is reductive. But one thing for certain: it definitely adds a note of misogyny to just about any email that includes it. So yeah, I was really not pleased with the use of girl boss in that particular email. For one, if the listener had been following the podcast for so long, they knew how I felt about that term. And two, even if they hadn’t, by now they know that girl boss is an insult, a way of downplaying the work of anyone who isn’t a cis male.
Furthermore, if you are existing within a space of activists, of people who are thinking an awful lot about what the best “right” thing to do…which I would say is exactly what the slow fashion community is…if you barge in like the Kool Aid man and throw out the term “girl boss,” you know that will be hurtful. Because this is the group of people that knows how problematic that term is. Start calling small business owners within the slow fashion community “girlbosses” when they are trying every day to survive within late stage capitalism while also fighting for change within it…well, you know you’re being a jerk. And you’re definitely devaluing their work.
A friend (who shall remain nameless) said to me, “It really does feel that there are a lot of loud humans who think that the only way to be good is to not exist, since existing takes up resources. It’s diet culture, repackaged for the sustainability set. The best way to be a femme/ladytype person in the world is to be as small as possible through self-denial. In some ways, I’d say it’s even more insidious than diet culture, because to consume (or make!) anything (or the ‘wrong thing’) is to be personally responsible for the death of the planet. There’s no joy in it, just guilt and shame.”
Last year, Alex of St. Evens and I did an exhaustive exploration of the ethics of secondhand reselling. And one thing that came up time and time again in our research and reading was that there was a major divide in how cis male resellers were treated online versus well, anyone else. Namely, the cis males (especially the white dudes) were treated with a level of reverence, as experts, as brilliant business masterminds and arbiters of style. Everyone in the comment sections of their posts are so encouraging. Then you go into the comment sections of some non dude resellers…and guess what? It’s a whole bunch of “you’re stealing clothes from poor people” bullshit. The use of the term “depop girlies” has the same flavor as “girlboss” in 2024.
Ultimately the thinking seems to be if you’re anything but a cis male and you’re trying to make a living, your work should not be respected.
I am obviously not a reseller, but when I first started posting about fast fashion on TikTok, I had dudes showing up to tell me that I was a loser and my memes were shitty. Or that I was stupid and didn’t understand how business works, etc etc. TBH it was the first time I had dealt with that kind of stuff in a while because a couple of years ago I set the controls on my instagram account to only allow followers to comment on posts. So I no longer had a bunch of boybosses showing up to explain chemistry or clothing to me…or tell me I was ugly (which also happenned more than I care to admit).
The slow fashion community IS primarily women, trans men, and nonbinary people. And we have a big hill to climb, right? Like not only are we fighting against this big machine that is fast fashion and overconsumption, we’re also fundamentally disrespected by so many people out there just because of our gender. Lots of people don’t think we have anything of value to say. In fact, many of us are also unpacking our own implicit bias aka internalized misogyny while we do this work. Because if you’ve heard your whole life that vocal fry means someone is stupid or clothes are silly and unimportant, of course it’s going to take some work to get used to listening to people with cute voices talking about clothing, right?
Last week I was in Albany, NY lobbying on behalf of the Fashion Act. And it struck me that for most of my life, I’ve been talked over, cut off, or just plain ignored in just about every meeting (and in some of my relationships, too). No one wanted to hear what I had to say, even though I am an expert in my field. In Albany, it felt so exciting to be working with this group of activists who were primarily women and nonbinary people. No one talked over me. People listened. That’s what I love about the slow fashion community in general: we listen to one another. We are thoughtful. We are supportive. And we never call one another girl bosses.
So it feels like it was about 1000 years since I recorded part one of this series about why new clothes are kinda garbage now. And that might be because I’ve loaded, unloaded, and unpacked about 1000 boxes since then. And I drove 1600 miles. Also, it was like six weeks ago (or so). So let’s remind ourselves of what we have discussed already:
- First, we talked about planned obsolescence, aka “a strategy of producing consumer goods that rapidly become obsolete or broken, and then require replacing, resulting in increased sales.” Which basically summarizes fast fashion, right? We talked about the ways planned obsolescence plays out in fashion, via both low quality and rapid turnover of trends.
- Next we talked about the design and production process that takes place in most fast fashion retailers, where cutting costs is the primary focus. Fabrics, trims, and details are revised until the cost meets the targets set by upper management, often resulting in a garment that is completely different from the original design.
- Lastly, we unpacked one of the several reasons why clothing is kinda garbage these days: overproduction. Every time we buy a brand new garment from a big retailer, we are also paying for the 150 billion garments that the industry produces every year that are never sold or worn. Not only are we paying for the manufacturing and materials involved in creating those garments, in most cases we are also paying for the disposal. Gross, right?
Last week in one of the meetings in Albany, a legislative liaison asked how more regulation of the fashion industry would impact consumer prices. Like, would we have to pay more to get retailers to pay living wages and not be so wasteful and gross? The answer is no. Because right now brands are wasting SO MUCH money in this rapid clip race to produce and sell as much clothing as possible, as cheaply as possible. Overproduction is one of those things that is costing these brands a lot of money.
But ultimately, all of the reasons that clothing is kinda garbage these days? They are all the direct result of this speed and quest for lower and lower costing.
Like, here’s another reason new clothing is so abysmal these days: air freight.
In the early years of my career, almost everything we bought shipped from Asia. And all of it was transported via boat: in cargo containers full of other orders for my employer, on ships. When it arrived in the port in Long Beach or New York or even Philadelphia, the containers were unloaded, went through customs, then trucked off to our warehouse. And this process took a while. Usually shipping via boat takes about six weeks, longer if there is a back up at the port or in customs. Which happens more often than you would think, especially at high volume times of year, like July/August, when large orders intended for holiday shopping arrive at the port.
So that six week shipping meant that at best, you could expect to receive an order about 3 months after you issued the official PO (purchase order) for the style. So about five weeks for production/inspection/packing, another week to get to the port and be loaded on the ship, then six weeks to travel across the ocean, go through customs, and arrive in the warehouse.
Now, that was the best case scenario. Let’s say the fabric mill was running behind. Or the label factory was waiting on raw materials. Or there was a weather issue that closed the factory for a week or two. Or maybe there was bad weather at the port. Suddenly we are looking at 4-5 months…maybe even longer if there were other issues with the production or fit. I mean, I have had orders push out a few weeks because the shipment of price tickets was lost on the way to the factory where the clothing was being sewn.
In most cases, it wasn’t the end of the world if an order took more than three months because we worked so far in advance (usually about six months in advance). So in February, we were working on August/September, maybe even November/December if we were talking about sweaters, hats, and gloves because yarn always takes longer.
But sometimes an order would be running late and that was a problem, because we needed it for a merchandising story, a marketing event, or (back in the day) for a catalog launch. So we would talk about shipping it via air, literally on an airplane. Now, shipping via plane saves so much time. Instead of six weeks, you’re looking at a week (tops) and that includes trucking to/from the airports and customs.
Here’s the thing about shipping via air: it’s so expensive. Like so much more than shipping via boat. And it makes sense, right? The fuel is more expensive and there is less space. Rather than being shipped with many other orders for the same company in a container, the order is kinda shipped on its own, so you don’t get the bulk discount. Even the truck to pick it up at the airport is going to be expensive because it might not be a whole load.
How much more? Well, generally you can expect to pay 25 cents or less to ship a garment via boat. That can change depending on other circumstances (ocean freight increased wildly in price in the first few years of the pandemic). Meanwhile, shipping via air is probably going to be a couple of dollars. If it’s a pair of shoes? Well if they are in a box it would be somewhere in the neighborhood of $10 per pair of shoes, $5 if they are unboxed. When you ship via air you are kinda paying for both weight and space, while on the boat, you’re kinda just paying by container. So it’s expensive! Now $2 for air versus 25 cents per ocean might not sound like much of a difference, but if the order is for 10,000 units, suddenly we’re looking at $20K to ship that order instead of $2500. Do that often and the freight costs get out of control.
In the early years of my career, we rarely shipped via air, unless it was super urgent. And even then, you would have to get special permission from upper management. Like the president of the company would literally (with a pen) have to sign off an air freight request. And often the decision would be made to just ship part of the order via air, the rest via boat just to save money.
My how that has changed over time. More and more, we began to ship orders via air because we couldn’t wait three months for a product, much less six months. Rather than working six months in advance, we were writing orders 4-8 weeks in advance, rushing the entire process and ensuring that we always had to ship everything via airplane.
We worked so fast for a few reasons:
- There was a lot of fear from executives that we might either miss a trend or buy the wrong product.
- By working so close to the delivery date, we would be sure to deliver the hottest, most current trends.
- And to be fair, retailers like Zara were delivering stuff in four weeks. In the Shein/Boohoo/Fashion Nova era, new product was moving from design to finished product on the site for sale in less than two weeks. So brands were trying to narrow that gap as much as possible, sometimes even dropshipping directly from the factory in China to the customers. Obviously Shein and Temu do this, but brands like Selkie also do that.
- I will also just add another reason why clothes are kinda garbage right here: no one has time to get them right. If you’re looking at a design today and know it has to arrive in the warehouse in 4-6 weeks, how are you going to get the fit and details just right? You won’t!…especially that fit which usually takes a few fit sessions and samples. You will be lucky if you get one in that compressed time frame!
But back to the air freight! I want to be clear that brands are making up that freight cost. They aren’t eating it. They do that by applying downward pressure on designers, buyers, and production to cut enough of the cost of the garment to cover that airfare. Which means, if it’s going to cost $2 to ship a dress via air instead of a quarter to ship via ocean, well, production is going to work to cut $1.75 in cost from the garment. That could mean swapping to a cheaper zipper or getting rid of the zipper altogether. It could mean a shorter lining or losing the functional buttons. These are all moves that can save a couple of dollars.
So to be clear: the majority of clothing made and sold by big brands in 2024 is shipped via airplane.
Late last year, Swiss organization Public Eye did a deep investigation into air shipping and the fashion industry. I am going to share it with you in the show notes because there is A LOT of info in there, but let’s talk about some of the headlines, okay?
- First things first: all Shein, Cider, and Temu orders ship via air. That’s how they get here! And with those retailers usually offering free shipping, I can assure that you the customer are paying for your order’s airfare via lower quality clothing.
- Inditex (parent company of Zara) seems to use the most air shipping, which makes sense because it delivers new product to its 5,815 stores around the world TWICE A WEEK. In fact, Zara must rely on air freight so heavily because it intentionally keeps in store inventory light so that customers are motivated to shop without hesitation. It creates the feeling that a product might not be there next week if you don’t buy it today. And if Zara wasn’t shipping new product to its stores twice a week every week, the stores would run out of inventory (or least look very empty).
- Zaragoza, Spain is about 270 km west of Barcelona. And its airport is a major hub for Zara shipping. In fact, Zara books about 1600 flights each year in and out of that airport. According to the person at the airport who handles the Zara shipments, around 32 cargo flights are handled for Inditex every week, with around 100 metric tons of clothes on board. About 49,000 metric tons of product shipping in from factories around the world, and 54,000 metric tons of product shipping back out to its stores around the world.
- In fact, most Zara garments see the inside of an airplane at least twice, flying into Zaragoza, where it will head off to the warehouse for sorting and packing, then flying back out of Zaragoza to stores.
- So to be clear, when you buy something from Zara (especially here in North America) you are paying for two airplane trips for the items you just bought. And yes, that means that the quality of the stuff you are buying is further suppressed by all of that air shipping.
- Public Eye also did an in-depth examination of customs data for airports around the world, and while Zara and Shein are seemingly using the most amount of air freight in total, customs information also revealed that Uniqlo, Lululemon, and URBN (Urban Outfitters, Anthropologie, Free People, Nuuly) are also shipping a lot of merchandise via air freight.
- This air shipping also has a major climate impact, obviously, right? From the Public Eye investigation:
“The Hamburg-based environmental consultancy Systain has calculated with the Otto Group the CO2 footprint involved in manufacturing a long-sleeved shirt. In terms of the study’s results, transport-related greenhouse gas emissions produced by a garment transported by air are around 14 times higher than those of an item which has mostly been transported by sea. The long-sleeved shirt has travelled a long way: from the cotton grown in the United States to yarn production, dyeing and sewing in Bangladesh, and then as a finished product transported by ship to Germany before delivery to the customer’s door. This clocks up more than 35,000 kilometres – equivalent to travelling almost once around the world.”
When it ships around the world via airplane (as Zara and many other retailers are doing), the carbon footprint increases 14 times over. This is a big deal!
So what we see here is an industry that is not only selling us crappy clothes in the name of speed, but also creating a massive climate footprint in doing so.
The speed is such a problem. And as I mentioned, it means that there is a lot less time to get the details right, especially fit! The number of times I have bought something with an egregious fit issue that meant I was uncomfortable all day or forced to compensate with belts and layering pieces to make something look “okay?” It only got worse over time. And then of course, how many times have you ordered something online, received it, and it was totally disappointing and didn’t seem at all like what you ordered? Even if it somehow magically fit?
What did you do in that situation? You returned it, right? And guess what? Those returns are actually making clothes even more garbagey…leading to more returns. It’s a sad, gross vicious cycle.
In 2022, US retail sales were…$4.95 Trillion.
$816 billion worth of merchandise was returned, 16.5% of those total sales. That means in simpler terms, that for every $100 in sales done in 2022, $16.50 worth of product was returned. That might not sound too terrible, but when you start talking about close to $5 trillion in retail sales…you end up with more than $800 billion worth of product being returned.
And while we are talking about all categories of products landing at a 16.5% return rate, clothing is closer to 24-25%…meaning 1 in 4 garments purchased is returned. Unless you’re Revolve, where their return rate (as of late 2023) was 60%…meaning that more than half of the items bought from Revolve were returned. Interestingly enough, I wandered into a conversation last week on Reddit and everyone was talking about how Revolve quality has gotten so bad over the past couple of years.
Processing those returns–an arduous and very expensive process often called “reverse logistics” –costs a lot of money. It’s hard to get a clear number because it turns out that a lot of retailers either aren’t tracking it or are trying to keep it a secret because, well it’s not good for stock prices…but analysts believe it is somewhere between $50-200 billion each year. Others say that the cost of returns is more like 59% of the original selling price of an item. So if the selling price for an item was $50, we’re looking at about $30 to process the return, including shipping. That sounds WILD, but then again…
When you think about it…well, it makes sense that returns are expensive to handle.
IF–and this is a big if–the company actually processes all returned items and puts them back in the inventory to sell to someone else–it takes a lot of time (which is money, right?), particularly when we talk about online returns:
- First there is the return shipping cost
- Next, unpacking the return, inspecting it, steaming/folding/repackaging it, then having someone put it away in the inventory.
- There’s the process of returning it in the warehouse management system and refunding the money.
- And there are the customer service teams managing the communication around returns, smoothing things over with unhappy customers.
Many retailers have found that this process is actually MORE expensive than just trashing or donating the returns unprocessed. Which speaks to both the cost of this process AND the shockingly low costs (and high margins) of the fast everything era.
So as I discussed in the last episode, buying, design, and production receive margin targets from upper management. The margin target is the markup products should have on average, and is non-negotiable. If as buyer, you don’t hit that margin target, you will not have a job much longer. Those margin targets translate into cost targets for everything you buy.
Those margin targets that upper management hands down to everyone begin in a larger budget, where things like rent, salaries, freight, and even the cost of processing returns are itemized. Basically (I’m about to make creating a P+L really simple here), after finance realizes the expenses to keep the business running each year (and profitable of course), then they use that information to create a sales and margin plan that will cover all of those expenses (and make a profit). And that includes the ever increasing cost of all of those returns. So the aggressive margin targets (meaning: higher markups) that fast fashion has right now, mean buying, design, and production have to cut the costs of every product they design and buy even more. And as we discussed in part one of this series, they do that by swapping to cheaper fabrics, cutting out details, and just generally diluting the original design.
The irony of this is of course that cutting all of those corners, like fabric, fit, details, etc, actually leads to more returns. I look at a brand like Revolve and I see entire Reddit threads about how crappy their quality is now. Then I read the article about their 60% return rate and I’m like, “Oh yeah, that makes sense.”
But it’s almost like fast fashion brands can’t see the big picture. Or don’t want to see the big picture. It’s better for them to sell us lots and lots of shoddy stuff that we will absolutely return, that they will absolutely write off on the books, that will absolutely fill up our landfills, oceans, and every nook and cranny of the earth over time…because in the short term, it drives profits, drives up stock prices, and makes a lot of people at the top very, very rich…all while the rest of us cope with the economic and environmental impact of all of these shitty clothes.
It’s no joke when you learn that in 2021, returned products turned into 9.6 billion pounds of trash heading to the landfills. That’s the equivalent of 10,500 Boeing 747s! It makes sense when you realize that at least half of returned clothing is never worn by another person. The data here is murky because obviously no one wants to admit to destroying that much stuff, so it may be even more.
But ultimately, we are all paying for those returns: the return shipping, the reverse logistics, the disposal, and the ultimately “unsold” inventory. And how are we paying for that? By getting really crappy clothes that don’t fit well, don’t last long, and ultimately need to be replaced soon. Man, life in the fast fashion era is so stupid sometimes, right?
Okay, that’s all I have for you this week. I’ll be back next week to break down even more reasons why new clothes are kinda garbage these days!