Exposing the Dark Side of the Fashion Industry

Journalist Alyssa Hardy on how we can appreciate and enjoy clothes while still being determined to change the ways they are made and marketed.

Alyssa Hardy is a fashion journalist whose work has turned in recent years to exposing the underbelly of the industry, from the labor conditions of those who make the clothes to the colossal amounts of waste in our clothing industry and the climate consequences of “fast fashion.” Today she joins to discuss her book Worn Out: How Our Clothes Cover Up Fashion’s Sins, which is appreciative of good style but devastatingly critical of an industry where the people who make the clothes are mercilessly exploited and millions of dollars are spent trying to make consumers feel like they’re not cool unless they keep buying new clothes. We discuss “microseasons,” the lack of ethical standards in fashion journalism, and the radical turn of Teen Vogue, for which Alyssa has worked. 

Nathan J. Robinson 

Before we get to the sins of the fashion industry, you are—as I am—not anti-fashion. You think that fashion could be a positive force in the world. You like clothes. You like people who like clothes. It’s okay to like clothes. Is that right?

Hardy 

That is extremely right. I, in fact, love fashion.

Robinson 

Yes, because you can feel very guilty when you start to find out about all this stuff.

Hardy 

Sure. And I think a little bit of the guilt is okay, too. You can recognize the downsides of fashion while understanding that it’s one of the greatest joys that we have as humans. 

Robinson 

But one thing that I got from reading your book was that we should also think about the ways in which we love clothes, and what it is we love about them. You can love fashion or style while also recognizing that some of the things that we think we see in clothes might be manufactured, like the sense of something going “out of style” after a very short period of time.

Hardy 

Fashion is a business at the end of the day. And so, trends and the cycles in which trends appear are part of the business of fashion by keeping people buying and keeping you feeling like you need something more. Because if we all just said, “Okay, these are my ten pieces of clothing”—which we should be doing—and we’re wearing these all the time, then these brands would have nothing to sell us. And so, at the end of the day, of course, these trends are part of our evolving culture. But the way that they’re moving so quickly—the reason that you can walk into whatever store at the mall or go to your favorite store online and see a new set of clothing once a week—is because they need to sell you more clothes to make money.

Robinson 

There was a phrase I read in your book that I’d never heard before, but is an industry phrase: “microseason,” which I found very disturbing. What is a microseason?

Hardy 

Essentially, a microseason is a shift that happens pretty much every week now at this point. But with brands like Shein, it’s every single day. Essentially, as these brands start to put clothing out and realize, our customer likes this pattern, but they’re not necessarily buying it in a short sleeve. They’ll do another quick run that will be a long sleeve or tank top, whatever that looks like. So, every single week, these brands are putting out new styles and new runs of clothing, and it changes based on the slightest shift in what people are interested in.

Robinson 

You describe a lot of your own experiences with clothes and with the industry over the course of your life. You describe at one point the kind of feeling that you can get of looking in your closet and thinking, “Oh no, I don’t have anything that’s new, all of this stuff is so old.” I think you even describe it as thinking everything was too outdated or not cool enough, and that was when a kind of panic would kick in. So, you can even have a sense of panic of not having something that is new enough. And then it’s strange to realize that sense of panic has been manufactured on purpose!

Hardy 

I think most people can relate to this, even if it’s not as dramatic as I’m being with the panic of not having anything new to wear. I think we all have this inherent need to fit into something, whether or not we can push past it. For example, if you’re going to a wedding, to a party, or just going into work, sometimes you think, what is the perfect thing I need to be so that I can convey whatever it is I’m trying to convey? And you see new trends coming up on your social media and brands push out TikTok videos or whatever it is, and you look in your closet and say, wait, I don’t fit that, I don’t have that, I need that. It’s all manufactured to get that sort of fight or flight response from us to think, I need something new. 

Robinson 

So we have to love clothes while resisting that terrible fear of our clothes looking terrible. 

Hardy 

Yes. Because we have too many. You definitely already have something in your closet. The way that these clothes are manufactured is such a humongous issue, and the amount of clothing being manufactured is a huge issue. And so, as we buy into these trends, it allows for this cycle to just keep going and going and going.

Robinson 

When you say we “have a lot of clothes,” you mean it, especially in the United States and Europe. You have an extraordinary statistic, I think, that 85% of clothes are discarded. You trace where our clothes begin, the brief period that they’re on our bodies, and then where they end up.

Hardy 

Yes, and I think it has a lot to do with a few different things. That trend cycle is certainly part of it, and growing out of the clothes that we’re buying. But it’s also just the quality of clothes. As these brands start to manufacture things at higher rates, the quality of clothing is going down. And so, you wear something one or two times, and then you toss it. Hopefully, you’re not tossing it in a landfill, but it happens a lot, or even if you’re tossing it in a donation bin, that doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s going to be used for charity. These clothing piles up all around the world, like in landfills in deserts in Chile, or they end up in secondhand markets in Ghana, which are so overrun with the amount of clothing they don’t know what’s actually coming into these bales, so it’s not necessarily like they can resell them. It’s not necessarily a lot of value for them in these bundles of clothing, but then they just have to deal with them. 

Robinson 

It is, in many ways, just hugely wasteful and absurd. You also discuss climate change in your book. We know at this point that being wasteful is not just a matter of, we believe in efficiency for its own sake. It’s also that when you’re going through huge piles of resources and using intensive production processes, you’re actually destroying the future of a livable planet.

Hardy 

Yes. And fashion’s climate impact is pretty whole. It just starts from the beginning with where textiles are made on the farms. Cotton uses a ton of water—it doesn’t necessarily need to, but the way that it’s currently produced, it uses a lot of water. Within the manufacturing, there are so many toxic processes, and just generally the energy that’s being used in manufacturing. And then, of course, when it’s in a landfill, all the plastics—the polyesters—are going off into the water. So, it’s full circle and terrible for the environment.

Robinson 

The subtitle of your book is “How Our Clothes Cover Up Fashion’s Sins”, and throughout what you are emphasizing is the wide gap between what we see and what actually exists—the fact that we see the clothes, but all we see are the clothes. We don’t see the vast supply chain network that leads to the clothes we see, especially the workers who produce them. This is really at the heart of this book and your journalism.

Hardy 

It’s understandable in a way that it’s not at the forefront. Because of the type of society we live in, we are just taught to just consume without really asking many questions. One thing that the fashion industry does so uniquely is, because it is so glamorous, so built on individualism, and how this piece is going to work for me in my life right now, it’s so easy to set aside all the things that go in the making of that piece. As an example, to get one pair of sneakers into the box and into the store, maybe 200 people had to touch it at some point, whether that’s from the manufacturing, but also the farms because of the cotton and the rubber that’s going into the sneakers. So many people are part of this clothing system, literally millions—mostly women—throughout the world. And so, the beauty fun side of fashion is amazing, and it’s why it’s so special, but it’s also the reason why it’s been so easy to cover up the true atrocities that happen throughout the fashion industry. 

Robinson 

There’s a real irony. You just mentioned that most people in the industry are women. You have a quote from your book, “We see fashion as a place where women are empowered, but it is only certain women,” and there’s an irony that this is an industry in which women have always been leaders and able to do well, but it’s also one of the industries that most exploits and preys upon women.

Hardy 

Yes. I think that and both are true. I think fashion is weaponized against women often, of course. When we see people talking about what women are wearing in all sorts of settings, it’s used against them, but it’s also a way for women to take their own power back. And we see women as part of the industry on a larger level, whether that’s celebrities or executives, and you see this as a very cool job—a big women-run industry—but it’s really not. A lot of the executives are actually men. And then the women who are working are paid sometimes as little as one penny per item of clothing that they’re making, which is unlivable—they can’t feed their families—and it’s happening behind closed doors. It’s happening with the brands that are putting out the marketing campaign saying, we are empowering women and putting on International Women’s Day—go girls!— and then they’re not paying they’re mostly women workforce making the clothes.

Robinson 

It struck me reading your book when you wrote about the anti-sweatshop movement of the early 2000s, which gained a lot of prominence, and forced some industry concessions, but I don’t hear about a sweatshop movement much anymore. I assume, however, this is not because we established ethical conditions in the garment industry around the world.

Hardy 

No, it’s true. It exists, especially more on the worker level. It’s been really interesting to see in the last couple of years, especially since the pandemic, that workers have had a level of empowerment in terms of striking, in the US specifically for the worker advocacy movement, to getting these laws passed has been huge in the last three years. But what happened in the early 2000s and the 1990s was that a lot of these rules had so many loopholes because there wasn’t liability. The brands were not responsible for the issues that were happening in the factories. Therefore, they could just say, we didn’t know. They could always hide. The supply chain in fashion is extraordinarily complicated. There is a lot of subcontracting that happens. And so, often what happens is a factory will maybe look great, but then they subcontract to another factory that isn’t, and the brand can say, we didn’t know. Because we worked with this factory, we didn’t know that factory was happening. So, it’s a very easy scapegoat. Some of the workers have done advocacy work in the last two years to sort of change that and make it so that the brands have a little bit more responsibility.

Robinson 

Yes, because they make sure they don’t know. And it’s also possible for companies to brand themselves as ethical, making a real selling point that they don’t use sweatshop labor, and then have all sorts of other problematic aspects. I’m thinking, of course, of American Apparel, which you describe extensively in the book, which pitched itself as an ethical corporation, and then turned out to be a den of sexual harassment and misogyny. 

Hardy 

And I think, again, because fashion is so complicated, and because there are so many different elements to everything, obviously, these things are going to happen within most brands. But in order for fashion to make money, it has to grow and grow quickly. A lot of these brands sacrifice the well-being of their workers, the well-being of even their brand name, to just grow rapidly and make as much money as possible and get it back to their investors. You just see it constantly.

Robinson 

There’s something very ugly about some of the incentives that capitalism produces in the clothing industry. Clothing should be something that is fun, that we can enjoy. We all need clothes, and we should be able to produce the things that we need to cover ourselves up and look good in an ethical way. There’s the exploitation on the production side, and then on the marketing side it’s generating these terrible insecurities in people and making them think that they have to solve these manufactured insecurities through buying, buying, buying, buying, buying.

Hardy 

Exactly. That’s how they make their money. It’s a complicated problem that was made so easily just based on our own instincts.

Robinson 

I want to talk a little bit about fashion journalism because you have worked in fashion journalism. I watched the documentary, The September Issue about Vogue, and one of the things that struck me when I watched that is there seem to be no ethical standards mandating a separation between the companies and the people writing about the company. Anna Wintour was having meetings with the designers, and they’re just collaborating on what’s going to go in the magazine. And you write how in journalism, you have to have a separation because there’s a conflict of interest. That sense of a conflict of interest doesn’t so much exists, as far as I have to say. You write a bit about this from the inside.

Hardy 

It’s something that I really like to discuss. Again, not to say fashion is this unicorn, but sometimes fashion does really play by its own rules, beauty as well. Specifically in the magazine space and fashion, there really is a fine line between brand relationships and what you’re writing about. That’s kind of how the business of fashion magazines was built. And as someone who is doing the reporting myself, I have had to struggle with the idea that this brand works with the magazine, and is also something I need to report on. That kind of discerning eye is not innate in fashion magazines. But I do feel the more that it has been talked about, the more the up-and-coming journalists, and even ones that have been around, can separate the way that they talk about the brands that are advertising with the magazine and the ones that they’re actually just writing about from a story perspective. But, yes, it’s not the same as a traditional newspaper—it just isn’t because of the way advertising works in that space.

Robinson 

You mentioned in the book that there are these arrangements whereby the publication will get a certain percentage from the sales that come from running an article that says the top big clothes or whatever is it on Amazon right now; there will be these arrangements that specifically tie the company doing well to the publication doing well. Most of it is just the experience working at Teen Vogue. They’re a fascinating publication: obviously, it’s the offspring of the actual Vogue, the heart of the industry, but also there is commentary coming out of Teen Vogue in recent years that can only be described as radical left or Marxist. And it seems like a lot of the young journalists who are pretty critical of the industry work there at the same time as the publication is kind of dependent on the industry. So, what was that like? 

Hardy 

One hundred percent, and now they have to disclose it. If I was writing about tech gadgets, it would be the same. It’s so embedded into the types of fashion stories, like for example: this person is wearing a miniskirt, so buy the miniskirt on Amazon, and this magazine will get 3% of the sale commission on it. That is such a huge revenue stream for not only just magazines, but its blogs and all the influencers. That is a big way they’re making their money. And so, it’s very hard to separate criticism and how you’re going to pay the bills. And just for full disclosure, I still work for Teen Vogue on a contract level, but I freelance still. But I think the thing about writing for and with young people is that they care so much. And so, for me as just a regular old-fashioned editor, it was seeing the ways in which young people were engaging with fashion and starting to understand the manufacturing side and the labor side and caring about labor in everything.

That is kind of how I got the confidence to start writing about the labor side of fashion at a fashion magazine because the audience was young and hungry for it. And so, it was the perfect place to be able to do that, especially because, on the politics side and on the culture sides of the magazine, that was already starting to kind of happen a little bit more, especially with the 2016 election. Things changed a lot with the way young people engage with content. And so, it made it very easy to do that. And I think that also those values lend themselves to what the movement for a more ethical fashion industry is. If workers throughout the fashion industry were paid more, clothing wouldn’t be so cheap, and it wouldn’t be manufactured as much. So, those values of fair labor are one of the top ways that we can change fashion and young people care about that. Being able to kind of articulate it in the fashion context was a no-brainer.

Robinson 

That’s a positive change. I feel like there was a time when it was just “don’t talk about the sweatshops.”

Hardy 

One hundred percent. And when we talk about the movement in the 1990s, too, what I think is so interesting about that, again, is it was young college students who were protesting Nike and doing sit-ins in their athletic departments. It was Rage Against the Machine making a music video about sweatshops and alluding to Gap. I think that it’s always been there. It’s always been part of the youth movement for justice. It’s uniquely positioned to be able to talk about this, and it is how I got started talking about it. My first story on this was at Teen Vogue.

Robinson 

I mentioned at the beginning of our conversation that your book is not in any way anti-fashion, although it is scathingly critical of the labor practices in the industry, and rightly so, nor is your book merely a long exposé of all the terrible things that are happening. You pointed out very inspiring stories of people who see these things, going back to the International Ladies Garment Workers Union, people who have seen injustices and were determined to end them, who have put in a lot of hard work trying to do that, and sometimes been victorious and moved us forward.

Hardy 

For sure. And even right now, there is the Bangladesh Accord, a contract between brands and workers. It’s a huge thing for making the factory safe in the areas that have notoriously been the least safe for workers, and that comes from worker organizations. That’s where this change is happening from. And so, the point that I was trying to highlight is that, as people who are buying into the fashion industry—because we’re all wearing clothes, we’re all buying into it in some way or another—we have a responsibility to be aware of this. But also, what’s almost more important is to be amplifying these worker voices and worker movements because that’s how this is going to change. The unions are the ones that are signing the contracts and the ones that are coming up with and telling us what needs to be changed in different areas. I just want that to be top of mind in every piece of this.

Robinson 

It comes across. I mentioned that there are deep problems that you discuss in the two sides of it, first on the production side, and then second on the marketing side. Tell me if this is the wrong impression, but there seems to be some movement on some of the worst aspects on the marketing side, a greater understanding of the kind of horrible fat phobia that has always been in fashion marketing. Again, when I was watching The September Issue, they have a photoshoot at one point involving the cameraman from the film, and Anna Wintour says, “can we Photoshop out his stomach? Can we just cut that out?” It’s clear that she’s viscerally revolted by the existence of this stomach. I feel there’s a bit more awareness now of the terrible psychological effects of the beauty standard.

Hardy 

I think that is something just generally with fashion and beauty that has changed quite a bit, but not entirely. It’s still certainly a huge piece of what needs to change. But like you said, I think there is a general awareness of the social impact that fashion and beauty have on everyone and on the world. The awareness that these issues in the marketing, with the complete lack of inclusion of anybody other than just a very thin white woman, has been a shift from ten years ago. Has it changed entirely? Of course not. But it is all related to the way that we dehumanize people throughout the supply chain because they’re not the rich person who buy into the best clothing. The fashion industry has a tendency to pay attention to one type of person with one type of bank account and ignore all the rest. And so, I think they are 100% linked in that way.

I think what’s actually interesting, and I wrote about it a little bit in the book, is that that hole in the market that was left by the high-end luxury part of the industry was picked up by fast fashion. These fast fashion brands were able to start making more inclusive sizing and being more inclusive on the marketing side. And so, in a way, it’s such a detriment to the changes because they were able to just pick up right where the big brands were not.

Robinson 

As I mentioned with American Apparel earlier, they tend to be like “we have no sweatshops, we also have a terrible internal culture.” With the fast fashion, as you point out, some of it is actually better on the size stuff, and then worse on the sustainability stuff. So, there’s these terrible trade-offs, where everything’s problematic in some way. One of the things you do in this book is that you go through the many different sins in the industry, and we’ve gone through a lot of those things. But I want to go back to the beginning of your book where you wrote about how the scales fell from your eyes, so to speak, or how you went from someone who uncritically consumed to someone who was critical. Could you recapture for us how your own view of the industry came to change through being exposed to it?

Hardy 

Yes. For me, it was one of those things where when you go into being a fashion editor, like we talked about before, it’s about deciding which clothes people should buy, which clothes are cool, which clothes are in and which are out, reading trends, and talking about the greatest brands. That’s kind of how I was operating because that was the job. As I came to Teen Vogue and was writing a little bit more about the cultural impact of clothing and the ways that our clothes tell stories and tell our history, I was digging into the sustainability side as that conversation was bubbling up a little bit more about ten years ago. There was a brand that I had written about very uncritically and had just announced that they had a new collection, and then about an hour later, there was a story about how they were being accused of using sweatshop labor in Sri Lanka.

I had this realization that I had written this story for an audience of people under 25, and the position that I was put in was to give a stamp of approval, saying, this is cool, you should buy it, it’s awesome. And for me, realizing that if I’m writing these stories uncritically, I am doing a disservice to myself, I’m doing a disservice to the reader, and I’m certainly doing a disservice to the people who are working and making these clothes that I’m saying are okay. I recognize it as an “aha” moment. It was just so in my face at that moment. From then on, it was one of those things where I thought, I have to either change jobs or figure out a way to push back. I wanted to be part of that adjustment and that shift in the way that we look at shopping a little more critically.

Robinson 

You’ve talked about how it is worker movements that achieved the kind of change that is necessary in terms of adjusting power in the industry. Obviously, we don’t believe that purely changing consumption habits brings about the change that we wish to see in the world, but as consumers who have to make decisions, what do you think people ought to do to make at least the most ethical choices possible given the range of choices we can currently make?

Hardy 

It sounds so simple, but buy secondhand. It’s significantly better than buying new clothing by extending the lifecycle of the clothes that you have. Don’t put your clothes in a charity bin, and certainly don’t put your clothes in the trash. Fix them, send them to people, trade with people. It’s this community aspect of clothing that we have lost so much of in just swapping and getting people to fix, buying something from your friend who knit a sweater or the local shop down the street who makes like really high-quality clothes. In buying things you’re going to wear, think about what you’re buying a little bit more, instead of just clicking something because you saw an advertisement and it looks really cute. Really think about how that will work into your life. I’m sure you wear blazers a lot. So when you’re buying a blazer, you’ll think, this is actually going to fit into my wardrobe for a while. But maybe there’s one that you just saw on social media and thought, that’s cool, but maybe not for me. Don’t do that impulse buy. To me, that’s a pretty significant change for plenty of people—it is for me. Sometimes I also have the impulse to buy things that I just see online randomly. And so, I think that is a small habit that can make a pretty huge impact if many people did it.

Robinson 

Expensive versus cheap clothes. If AOC has a really expensive jacket, people will say, a socialist in an expensive jacket. But also, one of the things you’ve hinted at here is that, if our clothes are going to be made ethically, they’re probably also going to be more expensive, and that maybe cheap clothes could be less ethical than expensive clothes. Obviously, people buy the clothes they can afford. 

Hardy 

I’m not in the business of shaming people for buying clothes they can afford. But I do think that the reality is, if a piece of clothing is that cheap, it was most likely made by somebody who was not paid a livable wage. And so, I think that having that understanding when we’re talking about if someone is going to buy an expensive piece of clothing and keep it in their wardrobe, that is probably the better way to shop. The caveat is just because something is expensive does not mean that it was made ethically. There’s certainly a balance, and there are brands that you can look into that are very transparent about their supply chain, and those are probably the ones to go for. Just because it’s a luxury brand does not mean that it was made well. So, I think that is the nuance in that conversation. But I think buying better clothes is ethical, and you can get things secondhand, but it might take a little digging.

Robinson 

Is there any transparency about the labor conditions and wages that various brands ultimately pay? 

Hardy 

It’s certainly complicated. Yes and no. You can be transparent about your supply chain and still not have it be the best factories. There are certain things like, did these brands sign on to something like the Bangladesh Accord, which guarantees that they have fire and health and safety checks happening? Not every certification is equal, but there are certain certifications that you can look for that are going to make it at least marginally better, or a better guarantee that someone has at least done a little bit of due diligence. That also applies to manufacturing everywhere. Like even in the United States, which I have a chapter about, there are some pretty horrific manufacturing practices in the US. So, not going based off where something is made, but instead going based off how they are laying out how their clothes are made.

Robinson 

You have a chapter titled “Made in America.” I assume there’s a little bit of irony in that. We all say, yes, good, made in America and not made in Bangladesh. So, clearly, we think with “made in America” that it’s made by well-paid union American workers. But instead, maybe it’s made by exploited undocumented people.

Hardy 

Yes, and there was a huge worker movement in California to address that very issue.

Robinson 

My final question for you is: where do we go next? What are the most promising upcoming possible developments that could fix some of the sins that you lay out in Worn Out?

Hardy 

There are a lot of policy conversations happening in a way that is just completely unprecedented. The EU has a change to policies that will change what can be in clothing and how much clothing can be manufactured. In France, there is a law about the amount of clothing that has to sell, which is impacting imports and exports and costing money to these brands. In the US, there is a new law in California, an anti-wage theft law, making it illegal to pay a garment worker per item, and there is a bill in the Senate to make that law nationwide. I think that if it’s going to cost the brands money to act poorly, that will be the biggest change. And so, just finding ways for it to cost them money to behave badly is the most promising, and I think people are doing it in new and interesting ways. The comments just closed on the Green Guides, and I think that could have a big impact on the fashion industry, depending on what ends up going in them. And then just people being more aware, obviously. It’s going to take a humongous change in consumption, but also just from a public perspective, the more that these brands are getting called out, the more they don’t like it. And so, I think that’s a big shift, and as that continues to grow, I’m hopeful that could be part of the solution.


Transcript edited by Patrick Farnsworth.

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