Why are most clothes designed to fall apart?
There’s a thing called “planned obsolescence”, which is the amount of time producers plan for their products to last before they fall apart.
Over the years, companies have spent a lot of money/effort to normalize low expectations for the quality of our clothes.
A fast fashion “deal” off the shelf may seem pretty sweet in the moment, although, if it’s cheaply made, it’ll need to be replaced, which is costly both to customers and the planet.
On the other hand, buying higher quality clothes that will potentially last a lifetime, saves both on unnecessary replacement costs and emissions.
Fiddle with the inputs in a Google Sheet we set up below.
- Scenario 1: Buy a high quality sweater at let's say $200, The item lasts a decade and you wear it 1 time/month.
- Scenario 2: Buy a low quality sweater at $75. The item need to be replaced after 1 year and you wear it 1 time/month.
The cheaper sweater saves me money, right? In the long-term, not exactly. Here's why...
In Scenario 1, the cost per wear in the first year is $17 (200÷12) vs $6 (75÷12) in Scenario 2. This is what we’d expect. Without taking into account durability or utility, the cost per wear of the less expensive item is lower than the more expensive item.
Now let’s take durability into account. Looking at the same scenarios, in the third year the cost of Scenario 1 drops below $6 to $5. While the bad quality sweater in Scenario 2 will remain around $6 in perpetuity due to replacement, the high quality sweater in Scenario 1 becomes increasingly more cost effective per wear over time.
Now let’s consider utility. When we own higher quality clothing made from higher performing materials, we can wear them more often. If the higher quality sweater in Scenario 1 is worn only 1 extra time a month, the cost per wear drops below $6 to $4 in the second year.
Quickly the cost/wear of long lasting clothing becomes cents, which is a low price to pay for a high quality sweater that we love to wear.
With the cost benefits of long lasting clothing in mind, let’s take a closer look at the sustainability implications. Have you seen the The Ugly Truth of Fast Fashion episode of Patriot Act? In the episode the host, Hasan Minhaj, pulls from a few sources to present a commentary on environmentally unsustainable fast fashion.
How bad are synthetics?
The data is staggering. It’s important to be aware of how bad synthetic materials and bad quality clothes are for our planet. In the clip above from the episode, a model walks out wearing a dress made from plastics, equivalent to a 100% synthetic material dress off the shelf. (synthetic = polyester, viscose rayon, acrylic, nylon, spandex, etc.)
We took a few of the data points in the episode and transcribed them below...
"In 2015, textile production created more greenhouse gases than international flights and maritime shipping combined."
- Sarah Butler, Guardian
"Synthetic fabrics made from oil like polyester, nylon, and spandex are the worst offenders using nearly 342 million barrels of oil a year."
- EMF, A New Textiles Economy
"In the 1980s, the average American bought about 12 new articles of clothing every year. Today that’s closer to 68 new pieces a year."
- NPR, Fashionopolis
"The average American now throws away 80 pounds of clothes a year. Of all the fabric used for clothing, 87% ends up incinerated or in a landfill"
- Alden Wicker, Newsweek
"Just by wearing clothes for 9 months longer, our carbon footprint can be reduced by 30%. If instead of buying a new clothing item this year we continued wearing a high quality long lasting one, it could save nearly 6 pounds of CO2 emissions. That's equivalent to removing half a million cars off the road per person per year"
- Christine Ro, BBC