There used to be two fashion seasons: fall/winter and spring/summer. Now, there are 52. Thanks to the rise of mass manufacturing, customers can get the latest fashions weekly—and very cheaply.
But we’re starting to pay the price for this inexpensive clothing. Fast fashion manufacturers exploit underpaid labor and perpetuate a widespread culture of human rights abuse. The industry is also responsible for 10% of the world’s carbon emissions, contributing to massive landfills packed with non-biodegradable textiles and oceans full of microplastics. According to the World Bank, making a single pair of jeans requires nearly 1,000 gallons of water, and petroleum is becoming an increasingly popular ingredient in fast-fashion textiles.
Many modern-day consumers believe discarding and replacing a garment is cheaper and easier than repairing it. Figures note that 41% of 18-25 year olds feel pressured to wear a different outfit every time they go out, and people in the UK spend about £2.7 billion on summer clothes they’ll only wear once.
How did this all happen? It’s easier to blame consumers for their shopping choices than it is to recognize the centuries of flawed economic and geopolitical climates that breed overconsumption. Let’s take a look at five key moments in the history of manufacturing to understand how we got here.
1793: The Invention of the Cotton Gin
Eli Whitney is best known for inventing the cotton gin, but he actually got the idea from an enslaved man known only in history as “Sam.” It was originally created to separate green cotton seeds from the fluffy boll, a time-consuming task Sam took on using just a comb. The supremacy of the cotton gin was cemented when farmers, reluctant to pay for the use of Whitney’s cotton gins, made their own instead. These developments led to the expansion of cotton production throughout the Antebellum South—and the proliferation of Black slavery. According to the U.S. National Archives, 80,000 African people were enslaved between 1790 and 1808, mainly to grow and pick cotton, and production doubled every decade after 1800.
Several other Industrial Revolution–era inventions also contributed to the meteoric growth of textile manufacturing, revolutionizing production by developing new ways to spin and transform cotton. The appetite for cotton has now slowed, but the US remains the third-largest producer of cotton, after India and China, and the world’s biggest cotton exporter.
The Post-War Era: Mass Production
Mass production was invented many centuries ago and popularized during the first two Industrial Revolutions, but it didn’t hit its stride until factories were electrified in the early 1900s. This development accelerated the manufacturing of cars, ship parts, military equipment, and household items such as mason jars.
However, the production boom caused by World War II changed apparel manufacturing for good. Until then, most clothing was handmade—first by the wearers themselves or local tradespeople, then by factory workers in sweatshops. These sweatshops were known for the low pay and terrible working conditions that made them health and fire hazards.
Company owners searched for ways to generate greater profits when unionization efforts and the Great Depression threatened their financial stability. This led them to the progressive bundle system (PBS), which Peter Doeringer and Sarah Crean called “the most efficient mass production technique” in their 2005 paper Can Fast Fashion Save the U.S. Apparel Industry?. “It was developed during World War II when product variety was severely limited,” they wrote. “It is based on such extreme specialization and division of labor that any single task takes only seconds to perform and the total labor content of a garment is measured in minutes.”
The wheels of fast fashion were now in motion, and this development was a significant contributor to the consolidation of garment manufacturing and the growth of large-scale producers.
The 1960s: The Paper Dress and the Rise of Disposable Clothing
In 1966, a napkin and toilet paper company developed a fashion icon: the paper dress. Priced at $1 and made mostly of paper with a bit of rayon scrim for durability, Scott Paper Co. sold 500,000 units in just eight months.
The original paper dress led to the proliferation of paper clothing: bell bottom jumpsuits, aprons, vests, evening gowns, and even bikinis. As Time wrote in 1967, “for a country already accustomed to throw-away cups, plates, napkins, and diapers, paper clothing seemed only a logical next step.”
That wasn’t the only reason paper clothing caught on. Remember, this was the 1960s, a decade characterized by great social and political upheaval. Young people embraced counterculture and championed art, rock ‘n’ roll, expressive fashion, and psychedelic drugs like no generation before them ever had. “The fashion industry appealed to this variety of movements with novel, expressive fads,” notes a Cornell University blog post. “In order to keep up with the variety of ephemeral experimental trends, designers created paper clothing, which could be quickly and inexpensively produced and consumed.”
While the paper dress fad was short-lived, its ephemeral, instant-gratification quality has grown to define consumer culture.
The 1980s: Outsourcing Goes Big
Doering and Crean noted that the apparel industry accounted for nearly one in 10 manufacturing jobs in 1980. By 2020, only 90,000 Americans worked in apparel manufacturing. This shift was accelerated when large-scale manufacturers started outsourcing production to the developing and underdeveloped world beginning in the late 1970s and early 1980s.
Outsourced manufacturing was largely driven by the idea of “core competency.” Brands would focus on their specialities and outsource the tasks for which they did not have in-house expertise, paying foreign workers far less than domestic employees. They were buoyed by the political and economic climate of the time: the economic crisis of the 1980s, bookended by the rise of neoliberalism and market deregulation. And, importantly, the supply chain developed then still greatly influences how most clothing is made today.
Today, ecommerce is a $5 trillion industry, but it’s easy to forget the first Internet sale was made only 27 years ago. That’s a year before Amazon and eBay were even founded.
The Internet Age
At the time, there were about 3 million computers in the world capable of connecting to the internet. However, the ability to pay online hadn’t yet been figured out. Those developments occurred in the early 2000s and have since created the ecommerce titans of the fast fashion industry. The rise of smartphones and social media, particularly visual apps such as Instagram, have further accelerated the pace of fashion trends and the adoption of mobile shopping.
Today, in the second decade of the 21st century, the growth trajectory of ecommerce far outpaces that of conventional retail. As the BBC notes, we’re on track to discard 150 million tons of non-biodegradable textiles a year by 2030—a figure causing environmentalists to sound an urgent alarm.
But there’s good news: Today, largely out of necessity, the fashion industry is undergoing a revolutionary transformation. The pandemic forced retailers to revamp their supply chains and produce more thoughtfully, efficiently, and locally overall. Mass customization and textile recycling are growing practices as consumers become more invested in corporate responsibility and ethics. Though only time will tell where this new path leads, it’s a promising direction.