Americans buy, on average, almost 70 items of clothing a year, and many of those garments are worn just seven to ten times before being thrown away. This breakneck consumption of clothes is only possible because of “fast fashion,” a system in which clothing is made quickly, sold cheaply, and, for the most part, is considered disposable.

This system has consequences both for the workers who make the garments, and for the planet as a whole, according to Dana Thomas, author of "Fashionopolis: The Price of Fast Fashion and the Future of Clothes."

Of course, clothes were not always as cheap and easily replaceable as they are now. A Bureau of Labor Statistics report found that clothing accounted for 14 percent of an average household’s budget in 1900, 12 percent in 1950, and only 4 percent in 2003. In the not too distant past, if you were not rich, you had to sew and mend your garments to make them last.

Garments cost nearly the same amount today as they cost during the Depression, Thomas said, without taking inflation into account. In 2019, for example, an office dress from H&M costs around $25, much like a “secretary special” back in 1935. Except, with inflation, the 1935 outfit would be about $350 in today’s dollars.

So what happened? According to Thomas: technology and globalization.

Manufacturing moved away from the U.S. as companies discovered that it was much cheaper to produce clothes in Mexico, China and Bangladesh. Companies started to change their designs faster, with new clothes dropping every few weeks, instead of in collections being unveiled twice a year.

And fast fashion became increasingly able to “borrow” ideas from high fashion. Clothes, patterns and ideas can now debut on runways in Paris or Milan, and then can be Instagrammed, scanned and put into production by fast fashion brands within just a few days, so consumers can get trendy designs for cheap prices.

So what are the consequences of fast fashion? To start with, Thomas said, when companies moved garment production to Asia, they left behind a lot American workers. By the middle of the 20th century, American garment workers had unions, workplace protections and relatively decent salaries, and the garment industry was an integral part of many towns and cities.

Garment workers in places like Vietnam and Bangladesh, who replaced American workers, are often not treated well. They are paid a fraction of what American workers would be paid, which has allowed companies to sell clothes cheaply and make massive profits.

Thomas points to Amancio Ortega, one of the richest people in the world — worth $68 billion. Meanwhile, garment workers in Bangladesh were being paid $68 per month.

"[Ortega] had made his fortune on the fingers of these people who were being paid $68 a month and couldn’t afford to house and feed and clothe their families,” she said.

The safety conditions that these workers experience are often terrible, as evidenced by the tragic Dhaka garment factory collapse in 2013, in which over 1,000 people were killed. And according to UNICEF, exploitative child labor remains a big part of the fashion supply chain.

There are also significant environmental concerns, Thomas said. Clothing production accounts for an estimated 8 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions, and rivers can be destroyed by chemical runoff caused by garment manufacturing.

“I saw [a river] in Ho Chi Minh that was next to a former jeans processing plant,” Thomas said. “The river was dead. It was thick and black like tar because all this synthetic indigo had been dumped in there.”

Is there another way to buy clothes? Thomas says that there is.

“I do believe that when you find out ... that the $10 t-shirt means the person who made it was paid 10 cents; that they can’t even afford to house, clothe or feed their families; that it’s probably been dyed with toxic chemicals," she said, "You go, ‘Oh my God, I had no idea. Maybe I won’t keep investing in this.’”

Thomas said consumers should advocate for “slow fashion,” including clothes that are ethically and sustainably made. Though garments might have a higher price point, they will also be much higher quality.

“Yes, that t-shirt may cost $50,” Thomas said, “but it’s going to last more than five times longer than the one you just bought that’s just a crummy white t-shirt for $10. And it’ll feel so much softer and better.”

Marc Sollinger is a producer at Innovation Hub. Follow him on Twitter at @HarmonyInHead.