Hanging By A Thread - The Hidden Costs of Fashion


I used to be quite the shopper. I was easily lured by glossy advertisements showcasing the latest fashions, exclusive member discounts and, of course, the irresistible clearance rack. Though I mostly shopped in intermittent bouts, I managed to spend at least $2,000 per year on office attire alone. As a result, despite already having purged a few times, I have accumulated enough clothing to last me a lifetime, especially now that my work clothing mostly consists of a sweat shirt and jeans or workout clothes. 

Thankfully, I chose many professional and dressy pieces wisely and these are likely to stay reasonably fashionable for years, even decades. Unfortunately, quality and timeless lines are attributes that are increasingly difficult to find in today’s apparel and accessories. Even at exhorbitent prices there’s no longer a guarantee of quality because we’ve learned to look at the brand and not the product itself.

T.J. Maxx recently ran a commercial featuring a fashion student named Lindsay, who chirps, ‘I never wear the same thing twice.’
— p. 8, Over-dressed by Elizabeth L. Cline

We’ve moved from tailor- or handmade to ready-to-wear to now what seems like ready-to-discard clothing. Throw-away fashion is booming, thanks to the fashion industry’s aggressive marketing, evergreen supply of new threads, overseas production at starvation wages and cheap fabric blends.

Clothes are an essential part of the economy and easily the second largest consumer sector, behind food.
— p. 8, Over-dressed by Elizabeth L. Cline
The economy even at its strongest can’t keep up the retailing’s growth. Judging from the birthrates, we’re generating stores a lot faster than we’re producing new shoppers.
— p. 24, Why We Buy by Paco Underhill

And it’s costing us. We spend $1,100 USD per person per year on clothing, purchasing an average of 64 garments. This constant flow of shopping bags coming into our homes also means that we throw away or donate an astonishing quantity as well.

However, the money we spend on clothing is only the tip of the iceberg. This new relationship with clothing and accessories costs us in ways we don’t often consider:

  1. Lost time and energy.
  2. Credit and debt.
  3. Dissatisfaction. 
  4. Displaced focus.
  5. Human and environmental costs.

1. Lost Time and Energy

There was one thing that stopping shopping revealed, it was the vast amount of time the activity had occupied in my life. How many hours had been spent shopping or having thoughts of shopping?
— p. 229, Spent: Memoirs of a Shopping Addict by Avis Cardella

Shopping is a time-consuming activity. It you don’t believe me, try tracking the time you spend shopping in a given week (online and in person), from the time you leave to go shop to the time you return, as well as the time you spend planning and thinking about shopping. Regardless of whether we shop for fun or for what we would categorize as a necessity, it’s a waste of precious time we could be spending on other pursuits. 

Consumption, it is rarely noted, is a full-time job.
— p. 192, Not Buying It by Judith Levine

The activity sucks up a lot of energy as well. We can be called upon to make hundreds of decisions on a single shopping trip, not including what it takes to get to the store in the first place. Even those of use armed with a list are bound to second-guess whether or not we need additional goods and services. The decision fatigue we experience can drain our mental energy reserves, leaving us ill-equipped to do much more than get home, unpack the stash and crash on the couch staring at the wall or TV in front of us. If you’re not convinced, ask anyone you know who hates shopping for the Holidays and you’ll get a laundry list of reasons to avoid the mall like the plague.

2. Credit and Debt

My shopping habits had changed because they were forced to change. I was like a drinker who had to switch from champagne to cheap beer…I was still out there, shopping, making my plea for the next high, and promising myself this would be my last. But the caliber of goods I could get my hands on had lowered dramatically.
— p. 187, Spent: Memoirs of a Shopping Addict by Avis Cardella
My credit cards made me feel rich, even though I barely had a penny to my name.
— p. 44, Spent: Memoirs of a Shopping Addict by Avis Cardella

Impulse buys and the fear of missing out often leads us to spend money we don’t have or more money than we intended to part with. As a result, we often purchase clothing and accessories with credit thanks to our readily-available credit or store cards. And, as if to add insult to injury, the use of credit only makes us more vulnerable to distortions of value thanks to loyalty & rewards programs and the convenient disconnect between purchasing & enjoying the goods and actually having to pay for them. The final blow? User fees, penalties and interest charges, of course.

3. Dissatisfaction

‘Enough’ on the outside could never be achieved if I didn’t feel I was enough on the inside.
— p. 245, Spent: Memoirs of a Shopping Addict by Avis Cardella

The satisfaction we experience by purchasing goods is fleeting. No sooner are our shopping bags littering our foyer that we’re already thinking about what we didn’t get or what we still don’t have. This sense of dissatisfaction sometimes even results in us having clothing hanging in our closets and folded in our drawers, tags still attached.

We feel an itch, we sense a need, but no matter how much we purchase, we never feel we’ve arrived. The destination—the point in time we’ll really feel put together—never arrives because we’re always left wanting. Our shopping is the equivalent of using a bandaid and topical ointments when surgery is what’s needed. 

Master closets now average about 6 X 8 ft, a size more typical of a guest bedroom 40 years ago.
— p. 121, Over-dressed by Elizabeth L. Cline
I watched the contents of my clost swell and realized that I had more than I could ever have imagined having and probably more than I could wear. Yet I always found myself hankering for more.
— p. 79, Spent: Memoirs of a Shopping Addict by Avis Cardella

This longing for what we don’t have means we accumulate, with far more coming into our living space than leaving. As a result, we waste money, goods and personal space. The greatest symbol of this is the now-ubiquitous walk-in closet. In a space the size of what used to be considered a bedroom, we arrange our clothing by type and colour, paying more attention to whether we have a sufficient variety of the right clothes and less to whether we actually wear a good portion of this accumulation. Somehow the chaos of it all is hidden in the apparent order, unless we hunt for the forgotten bags left unopened at the back of the closet, in the guest bedroom or in the bottom dresser drawer.


Part of our dissatisfaction created by want and waste is due to availability. Cheap clothing is available to anyone who wants it. Many articles and accessories can be purchased for less than we might pay for a cup of coffee or a bus ride. This availability makes the idea of making our own clothing or saving up for a quality item seem bizarre or a waste of time.

It also means we have little to no investment in the clothing itself, which can lead us to devalue our entire wardrobe as a result, almost the way we discard the packaging once we’re done with our fast food. We couldn’t possibly dream of spending the time and effort to maintain and repair these garments, let alone make them ourselves. Yet, somehow, we hoard them as evidence of who we were, are and aspire to be. 

4. Displaced Focus

I had been trying for a long time to define myself mainly through my clothing. Yet the more I had, the less sense of self there seemed to be.
— p. 119, Spent: Memoirs of a Shopping Addict by Avis Cardella

Unfortunately, we’ve started to consider shopping as a productive activity. Somehow, shopping has morphed from the acquisition of necessities and the odd treat to a purposeful activity of building an image—a personal brand of sorts—entirely dependent on how we look as opposed to who we are and what we’re capable of. We’ve resorted to shortcuts and, as a society, we seem to have bought into the fraud hook, line and sinker.

I had been so tuned in to building myself from the outside that, silly as this may sound, it was ingrained in my thinking process. I believed that certain items of clothing or creating a certain appearance could make things turn out for the better.
— p. 119, Spent: Memoirs of a Shopping Addict by Avis Cardella

We wholeheartedly trust that we become the part if we look the part. We believe that our values—and indeed our value as a person—are reflected in the brands we wear. We are now what we wear, not only what we do.

[W]e have adopted a world view in which the worth and success of others is judged not by their apparent wisdom, kindness, or community contributions, but in terms of whether they possess the right clothes, the right car, and more generally, the right ‘stuff’.
— p. x, The High Price of Materialism by Tim Kasser, Foreword by Richard M. Ryan

We’ve somehow determined that there’s a shortcut to achieving the status we want. We believe we can buy our way into any lifestyle or group. We feel we can be more easily accepted by others if we display the necessary cues that indicate that we’re worth speaking with and getting to know. We even try to convince ourselves that if we look the part, we’ll believe we are what we want to be. 

5. Human and Environmental Costs

Finally, we can’t dismiss the environmental and human costs associated with the production of fast fashion. Over 90% of clothing worn in America is produced overseas and the labour costs of production often represent less than 1% of the total price we pay at the register. That means garments are often produced in slumlike, unsafe conditions, often by underaged workers, in countries with poor labour laws, little to no environmental regulations and an economy that is highly dependent on attracting corporate interests at nearly any cost. For more on this topic, see Last Week Tonight with John Oliver’s Fashion report.

Every year, Americans throw away 12.7 million tons, or 68 pounds of textiles per person, according to the Environmental Protection Agency, which also estimates that 1.6 million tons of this waste could be recycled or reused.
— p. 122, Over-dressed by Elizabeth L. Cline

We also need to understand the environmenal cost of cheap fashion. Most fabrics used in the production of cheap clothing is what author Elizabeth Cline calls frankenfabrics, mixtures of synthetic and natural fibers whose sole purpose is to keep the cost of materials down. Lower cost is not without a price though, as none of these mixed-fiber fabrics are recyclable. But at least donated clothing is reused, right? Think again. Most of the clothing that's donated ends up in the landfill, deemed too poor a quality to be given away or resold. Rags, new or used, are still rags.

Addressing the Problem

So what are we to do, stop buying clothes? That’s not a reasonable solution of course. What does make sense is to look for quality as opposed to quantity and to assess need versus want. Here’s how:

In 1997, Consumer Reports did a cross-comparison of polo shirts from different brands and stores…based on durability, fiber content, and wear. Why buy a $75 Ralph Lauren polo shirt when it’s not any better made than the store-brand polo on the rack at Target?
— p. 91, Over-dressed by Elizabeth L. Cline
Consumption is social—that is, it happens inside a structure larger than a single person or family. But it is also personal. And once we’ve satisfied our hunger and sheltered ourselves from the cold, shopping is emotional. There is no way to approach the problem of overconsumption without investigating the feelings that surround fantasizing, getting, and owning our stuff. My stuff.
— p. 7, Not Buying It by Judith Levine
Don’t go shopping for clothes until you have a healthy attitude toward your body, a firm grasp on your financial situation, and a finely tuned sense of the difference between your needs and wants. How we shop indicates our state of spiritual and mental health.
— p. 23, Thrifty by Marjorie Harris
Building a wardrobe over time, saving up and investing in well-made pieces, obsessing over the perfect hem, luxuriating in fabrics, and patching up and altering our clothes are old-fashioned habits. But they’re also deeply satisfying antidotes to the empty uniformity of cheapness. If more of us picked up the lost art of sewing or reconnected with the seamstresses and tailors in our communities, we could all be our own fashion designers and constantly reinvent, personalize, and perfect the things we own.
— p. 9, Over-dressed by Elizabeth L. Cline
  • Know that brand means nothing. A brand-name shirt doesn’t necessarily mean better quality than a no-name shirt. Look at the fabric and the finishing of the garment instead. 
    • Is there a proper or invisible hem? Are seams stitched over or just quickly sewn with a single pass?
    • Is it made of natural, unblended fabrics (cotton, wool, silk, angora, hemo, cashmere, alpaca, etc.)? Is it made locally or in a country where workers are paid a living wage?
  • Consider whether you’re buying the item because you need it or because you want the buzz of the buy without feeling the pain of spending a lot. If it’s the buzz, practice walking away with the knowledge that the shopping haze will soon pass.
  • Ask yourself whether the item is a quality piece that fits you properly and that you’re likely to wear for a long time. If not, is owning it worth the physical and mental space it will take in your life?
  • Put your purchase through the acid test by asking yourself whether you need anything at all, quality or not. Is the item you’re considering purchasing meant to be a bandaid? A way to feel like you’re on your way to something good, some better version of you? If so, you may want to reconsider whether or not shopping is what will provide what you’re really longing for.
  • Having less can mean buying less. Go through your closet and remove anything you haven’t worn in over a year. Put these clothes in another room and, after a six-month waiting period, donate whatever you still haven’t worn. The more we practice this, the easier it becomes to both reduce what clothing we own and prevent new acquisitions from making it through the front door. 
  • Before going out and making a purchase, shop your closet instead. Bring old, timeless favourites to a tailor or a cobbler for minor repairs and to ensure they fit the way they should. Since you already know you love the clothes, you know you’ll wear them. You may even want to try your hand at doing it yourself because repairing clothing or making our own is a virtual guarantee we’ll wear them if only because of the sense of accomplishment these activities provide.

No matter which of the solutions, if any, we put into practice, one fact remains: once we're aware of the true cost of mass market fashion, we just can't look at garments and accessories the same way anymore.

Image credit/copyright, in order of appearance: Idea go and alexisdc/freedigitalphotos.net

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