The fashion industry, if you haven’t already noticed, is a dreadful mess, and big-toe shoes and other go-home-fashion-you’re-drunk trends are the least of its problems. Apparel and footwear production currently accounts for 8.1 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions, or as much as the total climate impact of the entire European Union. Euromonitor analysts warn that the fashion market’s annual 5 percent growth risks “exerting an unprecedented strain on planetary resources” by raising annual production to more than 100 million tons by 2030. If no action is taken, emissions from textile manufacturing alone are projected to skyrocket by 60 percent, according to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change.
Dana Thomas, a veteran journalist who has written for the Washington Post, the New York Times, and the Wall Street Journal, among others, doesn’t mince statistics in the early chapters of Fashionopolis: The Prices of Fast Fashion and the Future of Clothes. “Fast fashion”—which is to say cheap, disposable clothing, made indiscriminately, imprudently, and often without consideration for environmental and labor conditions by companies like Zara, H&M, Forever 21, Nasty Gal, and Fashion Nova—is a disease, and both the planet and its people are paying the price. Zara alone churns out roughly 840 million garments every year for its 6,000 stores worldwide, often at sub-poverty wages for its workers. Once-thriving rivers in China, India, Bangladesh, wrecked by wastewater effluent from factories, have transformed into biologically dead zones replete with cancer-causing chemicals. Tiny plastic microfibers, shed by synthetic garments during laundry, are inundating our water supply and food chain. But how did we wind up here? Through her reporting, Thomas pulls together disparate geopolitical and anthropological threads to compose a gripping narrative of the complex world we live in, and how it’s changed the way we dress through the decades.