Fast Fashion, Deregulation, and Shitty Sweaters
An interesting conversation on Radio Atlantic between Hannah Rosin and Amanda Mull, “Read This Before You Buy That Sweater,” solves a mystery that I’ve wondered about for years.
[Rosin:] For years I’ve wondered why my sweaters pilled so quickly, or why they suffocated me, or smelled like tires. And then I read Mull’s recent story titled “Your Sweaters Are Garbage.” It turns out that international trade agreements, greedy entrepreneurs, and my own lack of willpower have conspired to erode my satisfaction.
In this episode of Radio Atlantic, we talk to Mull, who writes about why so many consumer goods have declined in quality over the last two decades. As always, Mull illuminates the stories the fashion world works hard to obscure: about the quality of fabrics, the nature of working conditions, and how to subvert a system that wants you to keep buying more. “I have but one human body,” she says. “I can only wear so many sweaters.”
There’s a 27-minute, 25-second podcast of the conversation available for those so inclined, but I prefer the transcription.
Hanna Rosin: When it started to get pretty cold, I opened up the drawer where I keep all my sweaters. I have so many sweaters in there. And you know what? I hate all of them. Even the ones that are supposed to be ugly.
Because I was looking at my own closet, in my own bedroom, I figured this was my problem—I was just in my own private hell—until I saw the headline: “Your Sweaters Are Garbage.”
It was an article by staff writer Amanda Mull, who is my guru of consumer dilemmas.
Now, Amanda had done her own thorough sweater investigation, which was inspired by Nora Ephron’s great love letter to cold weather and NY city: When Harry Met Sally.
Amanda Mull: Billy Crystal is in his new, single-guy apartment, squatting in front of one of the big windows in that apartment, and he is wearing, you know, ’80s jeans and a really beautiful, cabled, ivory fisherman sweater.
And the sweater is, like, it’s incredible. It’s really lush. It’s really, like, oversized in the right ways. It is a great, great sweater.
Rosin: Recently, actor Ben Schwartz recreated the photo on his Instagram.
Mull: And he was wearing jeans and in front of a window and, you know—ivory, cabled fisherman sweater. But it was just like the sweater didn’t have the juice.
Said juxtaposition adorns the top of this post.
Rosin: Okay, so we have sweaters of yore and sweaters now. Can you walk us through how these come into the world differently?
Mull: When you look at Billy Crystal’s sweater, you can make a few assumptions about what’s going on with it. The first thing is it’s almost certainly fully wool.
What kind of wool, it’s impossible for me to say, but there is an almost 100 percent chance that what you’re looking at is a completely natural-fiber sweater.
And it’s also double knit, which is why it looks so much heftier. At the time, sweaters were much more likely to be made of not just natural fibers, but of 100 percent wool.
That is traditionally the material that sweaters have been made out of for, you know, hundreds of years. A sweater like that would almost certainly be made in a wool-producing country.
Mull: So it might have been made in the United States. It might have been made in Scotland, New Zealand, Ireland, one of the places in the world where a lot of sheep are raised, a lot of yarn is manufactured, and then sweaters are then made from that yarn. Because it was almost certainly sold in the United States, in the 1980s there were some import controls on what could be brought into the U.S. and sold as far as textiles go, which means it was almost certainly made in a relatively wealthy country, where garment workers are more likely to have significant tenure on the job, real skills training, good wages—things like that.
So it was probably made by someone who has a lot of experience making sweaters.
Mull: By someone who has lots and lots of training, lots and lots of particular skills.
Rosin: So the yarn would be wool, and whoever created it would be someone with sweater skills.
Mull: Right. Making this kind of knitwear is a very, very highly skilled task. It wouldn’t just be a person overseeing the machine; it would be a person manipulating the machine to ensure that you get all of that really rich cabling and all of those details. You know, it takes a lot of yarn to make a sweater that robust.
If you wouldn’t already have guessed where this was going, my headline probably nudged you in the right direction. Still, while I knew we were buying a lot of cheap shit from the developing world, I didn’t know this part:
Mull: Well, in 2005, a trade agreement called the Multifiber Arrangement expired. The provisions within that agreement had been sort of, like, being phased out by design over the course of, like, a decade.
But in 2005, it went away. And what that meant was that the United States had fewer import caps on textile products that were being brought in from developing nations, or less-wealthy nations. And that sort of, I mean, it ended the garment industry in the U.S. as we know it, basically, because what became possible was all these manufacturers and retailers to look for manufacturing overseas in far less-wealthy countries—countries that would allow them to, you know, release more pollution into the environment, that would sort of kowtow to their interests in various ways. You know, the United States is not a perfect country by any means, but there are basic protections on worker safety in the environment that make it more expensive to manufacture here.
So, suddenly, brands could move their manufacturing overseas. Retailers could source inventory from factories overseas that were charging far less. All of these financial incentives just changed apparel as we know it.
Rosin: This sounds like a monumental change, and yet the word Multifiber Arrangement is not something that anyone would stop and notice, even though from what you’re saying it’s completely upended our closets and our lives. Why?
Mull: This agreement was written to expire, and then when it expired, a lot changed about clothing in the United States. What it did, essentially, was placate the domestic garment industry with 30 years of protection but then guarantee that when that 30 years was up, you know, it would sort of be open season. So it got the garment industry to sort of sign off on their own eventual death.
Rosin: So 2005 is a critical year. What does the post-2005 period look like?
Mull: 2005 was a watershed moment, but it wasn’t as stark as it might have been if the protection provisions of the agreement hadn’t been designed to be phased out. But in 2005, it’s basically open season. That is the era where you get a lot of fast-fashion retailers really expanding their presence in the United States.
The first H&Ms start opening in the U.S. You get Forever 21 flourishing. You have this sort of moment when there’s this big rush into this new type of industry that can flourish in the United States, and that rush is built on sort of terrible clothing.
Rosin: Well, now you say terrible clothing. Do you mean terribly made clothing? Clothing with terrible fabrics? Because you could get a lot of trendy clothing cheaply.
Mull: When fast fashion comes to the U.S., it brings with it its sort of internal financial logic. What that means is their goal is to sell as much clothing as possible, and they need to create the prices that allow them to do that. And being able to move manufacturing overseas means that they can vastly reduce their labor costs and also use much, much cheaper materials.
Rosin: So we started with sheep and wool. What do we switch to?
Mull: In sweaters, what this means is you’re getting a lot of what is essentially plastic. That will show up on fabric labels as polyester or polyamide or acrylic. That’s what you’ll usually find in sweater weaves.
You also get what is basically rayon. And in sweater knits, you’re starting to see a lot more of viscose, which is a fiber derived from bamboo, but it’s derived in a way that is really, really deleterious to the environment in most circumstances, and that fabric can be manufactured in other countries with poor environmental restrictions on industry.
So you get a lot more of that material and a lot more plastic.
Rosin: You know, it’s funny: It’s not that I didn’t notice fast fashion—of course I have, and have bought many a thing from its demonic jaws—but somehow the sweater existed in a different category.
A sweater is such a significant thing. If I think sweater, I still think of a Billy Crystal, fisherman, thick sweater, even though I have not worn one or owned one in many, many years. That is what a sweater is. You just, we don’t classify sweater as disposable.
Mull: Right. And the basic designs of sweaters that you see have not changed much in the last, you know, 40 years. You still see cable knits. You still see turtlenecks. You still see the sort of fine-gauge knits more likely to be made from an ultra-soft wool, like a cashmere.
So, because they’ve visually changed less over time, I think that people don’t go into buying one expecting it to be disposable, because it’s still something that has the look and feel of a thing that should be able to be worn for 10 years.
Instead, we’re buying shitty sweaters that start looking like worse shit after the first wash. But, hey, it’s not all bad!
Mull: It is fun to have, like, a zillion options when you get dressed in the morning or when you are packing for a vacation. Having this type of variety and this type of choice is something that in the past was only available to wealthy people and to celebrities, and getting to sort of star in our everyday life with our own custom wardrobe is fun. Putting on a cute outfit is fun. Buying a new outfit is fun. I love clothing. I totally get why people buy all of this stuff and why it’s just a little bit easier not to look too hard at the man behind the curtain.
There is not a lot of upside to people in looking into exactly where any of this stuff comes from, or why it is ill-fitting, or why the seams split so easily, or why there’s so much of it and there used to not be nearly as much. There’s not really a lot of personal upside to looking into that, except getting depressed.
But, yeah, still mostly bad:
Mull: The things that the consumer system obscures are largely bad, especially when it comes to fast fashion. Garment workers overseas work in generally terrible conditions. They work for very, very little money. A lot of them have very little control over their day-to-day lives. Some of them live in in dorms that are, you know, owned by their bosses. There’s very little ability to sort of, like, live a happy, independent, secure life if you’re a garment worker in most of the world. It is a really, really dark system underneath the surface in order to create all of this really, really inexpensive stuff.
You know, if a sweater costs $10, that savings is coming from somewhere, and it’s probably coming from the people in the system with the least power and the least ability to stand up for themselves.
Mull: And then you also get a significant environmental impact from all of this. A lot of the countries that host these types of manufacturing outfits have fewer environmental protections.
So there is a ton of pollution that happens and a ton of human-rights abuses that happen on the front end, when things are being manufactured. And then you just end up at the other end of that manufacturing process with a lot of physical waste. In order for fast fashion to work, companies have to manufacture far more than they can reasonably sell to people, so you end up with a lot of excess clothing that gets dumped, usually in poor countries. There are, in particular, real problems with clothing waste being shipped to Ghana and Chile and then just dumped in these sort of vast piles of waste.
And the stuff we’re talking about here is stuff that was never sold. It was never used. It is pure front-to-back waste. That accounts for a lot of the textile waste in the world. But then also, fabric recycling is really, really difficult. And a lot of things ultimately just cannot be recycled, or it’s not cost effective to recycle them. So because buying habits are sort of decoupled from any actual need or want, people buy stuff that then doesn’t get worn or that gets worn once, and then it ends up being donated, and a huge proportion of that ends up just being wasted. It cannot be recycled.
So you’ve got more stuff for the great clothing-waste piles in these poorer countries that are just essentially a dumping ground for us. You’ve got plastics in waterways. You’ve got hazardous chemicals in waterways that are coming out of these garments that are just wasted. There’s a lot of waste and a lot of human suffering that comes out of this.
This presents a rather huge collective action problem. Even if I weren’t contributing to this problem—and I very much am—changing my behavior will have zero impact on any of that. But I would at least get better sweaters out of it. If I were willing to spend considerably more effort:
Mull: There are still places out there where you can find 100-percent-wool sweaters made in factories in countries that have real protections for their garment workers, that are made by companies that care about this type of stuff. It’s a tall order to have to do all that research yourself and try to sort through this. It is, in a lot of situations, maybe impossible.
But sweaters, because they are so deeply tied to certain regions of the world and to long-standing garment traditions that are ongoing in those regions—if you look for sweaters that are made in Ireland, Scotland, or New Zealand, a lot of those are going to be made with real wool from sheep that were treated pretty well and by people that are skilled workers.
And those don’t have to be super expensive. A lot of those, you can have something like that for less than $200. And for a garment that you expect to last year after year after year—and to serve not just a fashion purpose, but a functional purpose in your wardrobe—part of this is just a mindset thing. If you let go of the idea that you need or want to have a new wardrobe every season, I think it’s easier to then go: Okay, I am going to buy one $150 fully wool sweater, and I am not going to get sucked in by the email sales and by Instagram ads and by all of these constant prompts that we receive to purchase additional stuff.
Everybody that I talked to for this story said that their favorite place to get really good, quality sweaters is through secondhand shopping. Because they’re secondhand, you can get a good price on them. You can pay the same amount for one of these that you would pay for a brand-new, plastic sweater in a store. And then you’re also not contributing to this larger issue of the constant cycle of new things that are being put into our physical world.
In an Amazon Prime world, it’s really damn easy to buy way more crap than we need because it’s convenient and so damn inexpensive. And, honestly, that’s probably fine for disposable clothing items like socks and underwear. But we’re almost certainly better off with two or three high-quality wool sweaters than three drawers full of cheap ones that look and feel like shit.
Still, it’s really hard to get people to pay more for quality products when cheap imitations are readily available. A quick search for “cable knit sweaters” on Amazon shows ones that look decidedly more like Schwartz’ version than Chrystal’s going for as low as $23.00. It’s going to be hard to convince most folks that they should really spend $200 or more for a better version of what, on the surface, is the same product. (Although, oddly, I’m seeing a number of what purport to be “100% Irish wool sweaters” for prices ranging from $65 to $130 on other sites.)
I saw a video the other day arguing that jeans are no longer made in America because consumers simply weren’t willing to pay even slightly more for them than for those imported from the developing world. It rings true. The Big 3 jean companies of my youth—Levi’s, Wrangler, and Lee—no longer make any jeans in the USA. A competitor, Todd Shelton, notes that “Levi’s and Wrangler sold made in USA jeans a few years ago and were priced at $250 and $275, respectively” but discontinued them due to lack of sales.