Toxic World of Cheap and Fast Fashion

Collage of pretty girls doing shopping in department storeFast fashion or cheap fashion is a term that I never thought I’d hear. Fast food, yes, but fast fashion? Who would have thought that we’d live in a society that makes disposable clothes that we toss in the garbage because the next best trend just appeared in the windows of a H&M or Forever 21 store?

It’s true. But it wasn’t always this way.

My Garment District in NYC is gone

When I got married – 25 years ago – I made many of the items myself. And as I was flipping through my wedding album the other day, a sad reality hit me.

I noticed the NYC stores where I bought supplies for my handmade wedding are no longer in business. In fact, the famous garment district that stretched from Broadway to Seventh Ave and from the 30’s to 40’s in midtown Manhattan has shrunken down to just a few blocks. There are hardly any early morning sightings of young burly guys (symbolic scene of midtown in its heyday) hustling and pushing tightly packed clothing racks down Seventh Avenue anymore. Also, there are a very few “hole in the wall”, mom-and-pop buttons and notions or lace and ribbons stores in existence in between avenues.

But just 25 years ago, I was able to find a local bridal shop that carried affordable U.S. made wedding gowns. I added handpicked embellishments to my modest gown with accessories I bought from the garment district and I thought it was as fancy as any designer brands.

ecokaren handmade wedding

A friend’s mom made my bridal party’s dresses and I made the headpieces, the veil, center pieces, boutonnieres, and the bouquet for everyone … all with fabrics and notions I was able to buy from the garment district as well. The accessories were not fancy by any means but they were special because they were handmade with materials that I not only chose and bought but they were from the local garment businesses that were still alive in NYC.

ecokaren bridal party

I guess you can say it truly was a local and “handmade” wedding. And it was possible because the fashion industry which made midtown Manhattan famous was still in existence. While the weeks leading up to the wedding was insanely chaotic and stressful, staying up late into the night to make everything myself was worth every second.

Sadly, even if I wanted to do it again, it would be difficult. The garment industry is practically dead in NY now. And according to Elizabeth Cline, the author of the book Overdressed: The Shockingly High Cost of Cheap Fashion, it’s because of American’s addiction to cheap fashion – fast fashion – that ultimately lead to the mass production jobs that were outsourced overseas.


Overdressed: The shockingly high cost of cheap fashion


Let me just say that I couldn’t NOT put this book down. It was better than any harlequin novel. This eye-opening exposé by Elizabeth Cline highlights the psychological, financial, and environmental effects of the disturbing trend of cheap/fast fashion industry. Cline outlines the history and spews out facts on ‘when’ and ‘why’ production of cheap fashion made stores like H&M, Target, Wal-Mart, Old Navy and Gaps of the world into thriving, mega cheap fashion industry, replacing better made higher-end quality industry. When retailers discovered that cheaper labor cost overseas allowed them to produce lower priced goods, the fashion industry’s business model changed. Retailers started to produce enormous volumes to drive prices down for profit. And the cheap priced clothes made us addicted to buying new fashion items as soon as the trend changed to the next hottest. This demand increased for even cheaper – and cheaper quality – clothes and retailers had to produce more to keep up with the demand. It became a vicious cycle. And eventually, overseas overproduction killed the garment industry in the U.S. along with the trend of buying quality clothes that last a long time.

But that’s not the only effect of cheap and fast fashion obsession. The environmental impact has been profound.

For many consumers, part of the appeal of cheap fashion is that is allows them to get rid of their purchases when newer, more with-it items come long…Every year, Americans throw away 12.7 million tons, or 68 pounds of textiles per person…which also estimates that 1.6 million tons of this waste could be recycled or reused.

According to Triple Pundit, it takes 2,700 liters of water to make a t-shirt. That’s enough water for one person to drink for 900 days. That’s not even considering the toxic dyes that go into making a colored shirt or printed designs. “Between 2003 and 2007, textile industrial wastewater discharge into the Pearl River Delta rose 52 percent from 1.6 billion tons to 2.4 billion tons. By 2007, industry was responsible for 75 percent of all wastewater dumped into the delta. But China is only part of a far bleaker big picture. The United Nations Environment Programme estimates that worldwide, industry is responsible for dumping 300 to 500 million tons of heavy metals, solvents, toxic sludge, and other waste into waters each year”, ecouterre reported.

It takes 2700 liter of water to make ONE t-shirt! <—–CLICK TO TWEET!

Isn’t that insane? Think about this the next time you want to buy a souvenir t-shirt!

According to Cline,

China, where 10 percent of the world’s textiles are now produced, is an environmental disaster. When I traveled to Guangdong Province in 2011, the air pollution was so thick I couldn’t photograph anything a quarter mile off the highway – it was lost in the smog…Cellulosic fibers, a family of artificial fibers sourced from natural by–products, include rayon, viscose, acetate, cupro, and the more recently developed bamboo. To make these fibers, substanes such as wood pulp and scrap cotton must first be treated with toxic chemicals and pushed through an extruder to form strands. The second and much more dominant family of man-made fibers is made from plastic and sourced from oil, which has its own implications for sustainability, as oil is nonrenewable and plastics take hundreds of years to biodegrade. And all those blends of wonderful low-maintenance Frnakenfabrics we’re now buying – the polyester-viscose blends and the wool-nylon-acetate blends ….aren’t recyclable, as the technology does not exist to separate the fibers back into their original state.

There is a whole chapter on “The Afterlife of Cheap Clothes” that you have to read in order to fully understand the enormity of the problem of pollution due to textile manufacturing and fashion industry’s role in the destruction of the pristine landscapes in Asia.

At a recent book signing event at Eileen Fisher’s store in SoHo, NYC, Cline explains what cheap fashion is and what its environmental effects are.

*You can increase the volume to hear Cline’s voice better.

Green Crafting at Eileen Fisher

Cline’s book signing at Eileen Fisher was by no accident. Cline pointed out that she loves Eileen Fisher’s clothes’ transparency with its origin and how sustainably they are made on their clothing tags. Cline stated that she wishes every piece of clothing would provide that info. She also pointed out how she prefers Tencel and Modal, out of all fabric that are being produced right now. Did you know that 50% of all fabric produced now is plastic? Shocked? I was glad that she loves clothes made with Modal fabric (from beech tree) as I’ve sold shawls and scarves made with Modal on Etsy!

When I was invited to teach green crafting at Cline’s book signing event (and meet the author!) at Eileen Fisher’s, I had to accept. As you know, I have an eco-shop on Etsy and green crafting is my favorite activity. So I came up with an idea to teach people how to upcycle t-shirts – in light of how much water it takes to make a t-shirt – to make yarns. Fabric yarn can be made with old t-shirts that are too old to donate or are stained. You can make rugs, coasters, placemats, trivets and even doormats, prolonging its life.

Attendees were fascinated to learn that you can make one continuous yarn out of old t-shirts.
crafts at eileen fisher
Jackie, a seamstress taught how to hem, re-design clothes, and mend simple article of clothing.
Elizabeth Cline Book Signing Eileen Fisher.jpg

The event was an educational event as well as a positive occasion to meet people who was concerned and wanted to learn how they can improve their buying habits and find a better solution. You’ll have to read the book to know what Cline advises on how we can do better because she does a much better job at it.

My solution? Like I suggested before, I think if we didn’t have to wear clothes, we won’t have to grapple with issues like these. But that’s not practical solution, is it? ELizabeth Cline makes actionable suggestions that if all of us did at least one thing she mentions, we would have a different industries occupying the streets of NYC. My beloved notions and laces stores might be back in midtown Manhattan. And I may be able to find that special fabric store where I can buy supplies to make my daughter’s wedding gown one day.

Here is your chance to win a copy of her book.

Leave me your answer to any of these questions and I’ll pick one winner to have her book shipped to you.

Tell me about the last outfit you bought. How much did you spend? Where was it made? What was the material it was made of?

You have to be 18 years or old and live in the U.S. to enter. And be my e-mail subscriber. I will pick the winner on Saturday March 9th at 9AM.

Disclaimer: there is an affiliate link for her book to Amazon in this post. I was given a copy of the book to read and write this review. I was NOT paid to teach at the book signing workshop.


  1. MindfulMomma says

    What a beautiful bride you were Karen! Love that you embellished your dress yourself! It’s so sad that the NYC garment district is dying – I had so much fun wandering around there in the 1980’s – it was so vibrant then! We all need to pay more attention to where our clothes come from.

  2. MindfulMomma says

    Oh, and the last outfit I bought was a dress for a fancy party, purchased at a consignment shop. I’m a huge fan of buying used!!

  3. queentob says

    last purchase? tee at local shop, made in USA (three dots) I buy many things at consignment, trade with friends, and use hand me downs for the children. I would say fashion is my biggest “green fail” and I am starting to make a huge change in my purchasing (i dont shop all that often but do write a fashion column and accept new clothing ) I look for the fabric to be sustainable, and look for ethicial production and buy USA made when available. I am always on the hunt for brands that are “green” and think the list is growing albeit slowly!

  4. TrashN2Tees says

    Karen, thanks for sharing this post. The statistics are just staggering! I’m committed to changing the way we consume and create and to date I have diverted more than 20 tons of clothing/textiles from our waste stream. It’s not always easy- but the best place to start is showing/teaching people what they can do to make a difference right in their own homes (reusing and recycling)
    The last outfit I purchased was a polka dot dress, for a whopping…. $2.98 at the local thrift store. I honestly can not tell you the last time I bought ‘new’ clothing from a store. I buy second hand, upcycle, or sew my own. I’ll be in NYC next week and would love if you had any recommendations on shops to visit in (whats left of) the garment district.

  5. Upcycled_Stuff says

    It never ceases to amaze me how much I DON’T know! 2,700 litters of water to make ONE T-shirt?! The last outfit I bought was in the last six months and an interview suit. It wasn’t cheap but I know it wasn’t very environmentally friendly either, only the shirt was made of cotton. The rest of it was fake. This looks like a book I need and an area that I need to focus on!

  6. says

    Sad reality but unless we start voting with our wallet and resisting the diktat of big companies telling us what is hip and a must-have, disposable fashion will keep ruling because it’s cheap to make and bring in much profit. The last item I bought was a pair of silk pants, irregular, that cost me $2. I got them from an organic and ethical company that closed doors just last summer (good quality is expensive to make…). It was 4 years ago before I decided to stop buying new clothes. I have since then received second-hand items via freecycle on a need-based basis (maternity and post maternity sizes) but it was free and I passed them on when done with them. Marketing can be really persuasive at telling you you need this or that, but I found that once you just stop listening… you don’t hear the noise anymore!

  7. BoulderJulie says

    2700 liters for 1 tee shirt and 68 lbs of textile waste per person per year!?!  That is staggering.  I knew it was bad, but, wow.  My last clothing purchase was a darling organic cotton tee shirt, brand new with tags on from a thrift shop for $3.99 :)  Can’t wait to read this book, it’s on my list now for sure!

  8. greentalk says

    Sadly even eco fabrics such as recycled poly and bamboo can have environmental consequences too. If bamboo is made without a close loop system, the toxic chemicals which make the reed into a pliable material are washed into the water. Recycled poly from discarded plastic bottles contain antimony and are quite energy intensive to make clothing. It is quite complicated. The best certification in my opinion is GOTS which takes into account from seed to consumer. Look for that label.

  9. says

    I love all the photos and the idea of a handmade wedding. That is something else we have lost, besides the garment district and mom & pop stores that made it possible, the ability to make our own. I’ll admit to buying from some of the fast fashion places, but we also wear them out to death and pass them along once they’re through. I am interested in the book and how it covers that topic – when you buy those brands used or pass them along, how might that affect the numbers?
    Oh, but my last outfit was for my great camping adventure, and was bought at REI.

  10. ErinNeu says

    I have an amazon local deal for the Goodwill near me, so for $15 i got $30 worth of stuff! Much like the song, it was f’ing awesome!!!! I’m sad it was nothing organic or homemade, but at least it was pre-owned

  11. says

    This reminds me of a friend telling me last week she liked the shirt I was wearing. Turns out it was a H&M shirt bought in 2000! I had gotten a gift card and that was the first and only time I bought from them. I also got a summer dress and a long sleeve top, I have been wearing all 3 pieces for… (wow) 13 years and they are still in perfect shape. So… either their marketing is genius at making us believe we need more and different things all the time, or, they invented the “fast fashion” concept because their quality is so poor that without encouraging us customers to quickly move onto something else, we would have figured it out and THAT can’t be good for their image. While I can’t tell if the quality of their products has drastically decreased since 2000, I am guessing it’s the former explanation, which makes it even worse because people throw out perfectly good clothing items, creating a totally avoidable waste. I remember when I was young, there were 2, maybe 3 collections per year in stores: Spring-summer and fall-winter. Now new mini-collections are released every what, month or so? In any cases, if being hip matters, then let’s keep our clothes since fashion always come back.

  12. amycfh says

    I bought a dress online from Blue Canoe. It is made of bamboo, organic cotton and some elastic. Made in the US.  I don’t know where the bamboo was sourced from though. I am trying to make sure that I buy things with timeless style, so I don’t have to shop every season. (not that I could afford that anyway!) I have two daughters that are currently saving favorite t-shirts that are too small or stained to keep wearing. I will cut out the design part and make a quilt out of.  The excess will be made into throw rugs for our home. Thank you so much for posting this.  I would love to learn more.  Makes me so sad how we are treating our planet!