Episode #4: This Old Thing: From Wardrobe to Wasteland

Hello, and thank you for tuning into this week’s True Style where my goal is not to tell you what to wear, but to help you figure out what you want to wear, and also instill upon you a bit of fashion education along the way. My name is Lakyn Carlton and I will be your host today and for the foreseeable future.

Last week, I explained the journey our clothes make from concept to closet, and explained every step that a garment takes in order to become an item for sale. But, what happens when it doesn’t sell? Once upon a time, unsold or slightly imperfect overstock would be put in outlets at heavily discounted prices. You may think that’s what happens now, but, unfortunately, times have changed. Today’s fashion fact centers on the truth about outlets.

In 2014, four members of Congress wrote to the Federal Trade Commission, or, FTC, urging them to investigate the potentially misleading marketing practices of outlet stores. In their letter, they cited analysts who estimate that over 85% of merchandise sold in outlet stores was manufactured exclusively for those stores, and was overall much lower quality than the goods sold in the non-outlet locations.

Some retailers use different brand names for these goods, also known as diffusion lines, however, many do not. Because of this, it’s almost impossible for a customer who may not typically shop designer goods at full price to discern whether or not they’re actually getting a good deal, or getting sold a cheaper version of a brand name item that would’ve never been sold in that brand’s main stores to begin with.

Essentially, luxury brands are knocking themselves off, and selling those knockoffs to you, without your full knowledge.

So, how can you get high quality goods for less without unintentionally allowing yourself to get ripped off?

I recommend going to the source. Check out sales on actual luxury retailer websites. Net-a-Porter, SSense, Farfetch and Yoox, among others, have at least one major sale a year, especially right after Christmas. I also

recommend going in store. Neiman’s, Nordstrom, and Saks occasionally have deals in-store that may never be reflected on any website. And, when you really want a steal, check out secondhand designer retailers like The RealReal and Designer Revival, both of which have constant promotions and discount codes.

But wait, if unsold merchandise isn’t going to outlets like we think it is, where does it go?

Don’t get me wrong, some of it does make it to outlets, and other discounted retailers. However, some designers claim that grey market goods are an insult to the luxury customer, and ruin the perceived scarcity and exclusivity of their brands. So…what do they do?

They destroy it.

As recently as 2018, Burberry was one of those brands. It, along with other luxury brands and plenty of non-luxury ones like Zara and H&M were exposed for shipping off excess inventory to incinerators, or, in the case of H&M, shredding and even dumping paint on unsold clothes before simply throwing them in the dumpster.

Burberry pledged to stop this practice, but it was one of the few. Many other brands call it a necessary evil, and some countries like Italy even give tax breaks if a company can prove their goods were properly destroyed and therefore unsellable. Mind you, they do not provide these same breaks if a brand were to, say, donate the goods.

Francois Henri-Pinault, the chief executive of Kering, which owns brands like Gucci and Saint Laurent, says that his firm attempts to reuse textiles, leading to only a quote-unquote “small fraction” of goods having to be destroyed. But the cost of recycling is high. The labor involved to separate the raw textiles from buttons, fasteners, trims, and beads essentially results in paying the same amount for a garment to be unmade as you did for it to be made.

But let’s pretend those brands had a change of heart, and decided to dump, I mean take their high-end merchandise by the truckload to a place like Goodwill, along with the 15% of our own used clothing that the average American donates every year. According to experts, only about half, if that, will make it to being sold and worn again. Of the remainder, much of it will be recycled into things like insulation, carpet padding, and industrial rags. The

rest…well…you might wanna sit down for this one.

Today, for our pod top, I wanna focus on where our clothes go when we’re done with them, and how, even donating can cause harm to both the environment and the economies of exploited countries.

Americans today buy over 5 times more clothing than we did just 30 years ago. However, as I’ve mentioned previously, while we’re buying far more, we’re also wearing it far less: to the tune of only about 7 wears per item. After that, most of it gets thrown away, with the average person tossing out about 81 pounds of clothing per year, making textiles the second highest portion of our landfills behind plastics. But we do donate a lot, and that’s good, right?

I already told you that only about half of those donations will be worn again, though some experts actually estimate that that percentage is far less, around 20%; and a large portion of it will be recycled. But, this is about the remainder. Roughly 45-70% of clothing donated in Western countries will enter what is called the global used clothing trade, where it is bought cheap by merchants in African countries like Ghana, Kenya, and Rwanda, and sold in street markets where workers can make the equivalent of $9 a day hocking our cast aways.

That…sounds fine, right? I mean, those faux leather leggings and ruched crop tops are providing jobs, at least? Except, it’s just the opposite. These used clothes arrive by the hundreds of tons to these countries, and even they can’t sell enough to keep the majority of it from ending up in their own landfills and even dumped in their oceans. Not to mention, in the past few years, there have been attempts to ban the import of our garbage clothes altogether, as these so-called bend-over markets—where one must bend over to comb through the piles and piles of last season’s wares—have steered the demand away from local manufacturers and artisans to cheap mass produced crap that we just had to have a few months ago.

This is it, this is the end game of hundreds of hours of real labor to design, create, and construct each and every garment that we own. Of course, it’s not just our fault. While no one is exactly forcing us to buy so much clothing, huge corporations are still producing far more than we can reasonably use. So, how do we stop it?

A while back on my Substack, Lakyn.substack.com, I wrote an article called

How to Fix Fast Fashion. Spoiler alert, we can’t. But, I mentioned that we should expand textile recycling to the same ubiquitousness as paper recycling. Unfortunately, that’s pretty difficult when the clothes we wear are such complex combinations of materials, finishings and fasteners. The labor involved in dismantling old garments is just, a lot. But, I believe it can be paid for by taxing corporations for their excess waste. Like, by the pound. Tax breaks for destroying unsold goods should also be eliminated, as they only serve as an incentive to overproduce knowing that it won’t be a loss.

Now, I am nobody’s politician or lobbyist. While I have many great, amazing, genius ideas, I haven’t a clue how to get a bill in front of the people that can make it into law, I’m just a girl with a podcast teaching people about fashion. At times, I feel powerless in the fight against corporations, and sometimes it’s like yelling into a void when it comes to telling other consumers what we can do on a micro level while we work to affect the macro level. I hate to say it, but the phrase “no ethical consumption under capitalism” has ruined the initiative of many.

Yes, I know, corporations are primarily to blame. However, we can all do our part to change the mindset that allows these corporations to get away with their terrible actions. At the end of the day, no, it doesn’t matter if only a few hundred people are being as ethical as possible in the most perfect way. What matters is millions of people, being as ethical as we can, imperfectly, to start planting the seeds toward a better fashion industry and society overall. So…what can we do? This brings me to today’s Q&A.

Deena in Miami wants to know how to go about overhauling her wardrobe, and where to begin when you don’t like anything you own anymore but don’t just wanna toss out all your clothes and contribute to the problems I’ve described in this episode.

Of course, I have a few ideas.

My first instinct is to ask yourself if you really don’t like what you own, or if you just don’t know how to utilize it. When performing a closet overhaul for my styling clients, I frequently stress the idea of filling in gaps by introducing more versatile pieces, rather than creating new ones by getting rid of everything and trying to start over overnight. Do you actually have a solid foundation of whatever you consider your basics? Maybe start by looking at what you have, and what you can add in order to get more wear out of it. For instance, in my own closet I recently had a bit of a crisis with my overstock of

satin pleated midi skirts. I like them, but the colors were odd and hard to match with the rest of my closet. Rather than just getting rid of them, I added one piece: a cropped white blouse, that matches them all. I experimented with the shoes I already have and voila, suddenly I had several new outfits, and now I know exactly where to focus in order to get even more.

If you truly do dislike what you have, though, I would consider trying to alter it in some way. Another example from my own wardrobe was a yellow lace dress that looked great on me but was literally not my style at all anymore. I dyed it blue, and now it’s one of my favorite pieces. There’s plenty of fixes you can do with clothes that might need a breath of fresh air. I love to crop old tops and shorten old skirts, you could even glue on trims or use what’s called Stitch Witchery and an iron to add a new hem.

But if you really, really don’t like your current wardrobe, maybe consider swapping clothes with a friend, or selling things on a site like Depop or Poshmark. There are clothes trading groups on Facebook and Meet Up as well. And, if nothing else, you can always cut it up into rags to use around the house that can be washed and reused.

Well, that does it for this week’s episode of True Style. I hope it wasn’t too much of a downer. That said, as a fashion lover I feel it’s my duty to educate about the darker side of fashion, so that we can not only be more informed as consumers, but also more thoughtful as shoppers, and focus more on a sort of timeless style that values quality and longevity over quantity and fleeting trends that contribute to over consumption.

Whew, that was a mouthful. Next week is all about denim. Be sure to check out my Substack for more content at L-A-K-Y-N dot Substack dot com. Until then, bye!

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