Cheap clothes may be a better investment than you think

zara jeans
Public Domain MaxPixel

Textile scientists make some uncomfortable discoveries about fast fashion.

Last month a British MP accused fast fashion retailers of driving the gross amount of textile waste that is generated every year. Mary Creagh said that "the whole industry is based on us buying more than we need, and not valuing an item of clothing when it comes to the end of its life." This is a line that we've been known to repeat on TreeHugger. When clothes cost next to nothing, people tend to view them as disposable.

But a thought-provoking rebuttal has come up against this way of thinking. Dr. Mark Sumner, a textile scientist at the University of Leeds, argues that many articles of clothing that could be categorized as fast fashion are, in fact, longer lasting than their more expensive counterparts. This finding is counterintuitive and uncomfortable for those who like to blame the fast fashion industry for rampant waste.

Sumner and his team tested four samples of each shirt and seven samples of each pair of jeans to see how they stood up in the following categories – abrasion (how easy it is to wear a hole in the fabric), fabric strength (how long it takes to rip an item of clothing), seam strength (important for tight-fitting clothes), and colorfastness (how much the colour fades during domestic washing and rubbing). Here's what they found:

"More often than not, the best products were 'fast fashion' products. A number of fast fashion products demonstrate significantly better value for money than other brands - especially when compared to 'designer' brands. Jeans from one fashion brand lasted twice as long as a designer label jeans, but cost one tenth of the price of the designer jeans. For the T-shirt work the designer label product was the worst performing product across all the tests we did, with an online fast fashion brand out-performing all other products."

Sumner's conclusion is that people throw away clothes because they grow tired of them, not because they're worn out. In fact, hardly anyone wears clothes to the point of wearing them out: "What we know from talking to some charity organisations, an awful lot of the clothing has nothing wrong with it. It has no holes in it; it's still functional." In other words, the problem lies more with us wearers than it does with the clothing producers themselves.

This brings to mind an argument I once had with my brother-in-law, who shops for many of his clothes at H&M. I had said the clothes were cheap and poor quality, but he pointed out that some of his longest-lasting pieces came from there. "I've been wearing the same t-shirts for years and I've had my pea coat for over a decade!" he countered.

While cheap fashion raises legitimate questions about labor standards (it's a safe assumption that the people being paid to make those clothes are getting very little and likely working in hazardous conditions), just because you pay more for clothing doesn't mean its production isn't plagued with similar issues. Expensive brands are notorious for unethical practices, too. Think of Burberry's burning of unsold merchandise last year and the higher-end brands whose products were made alongside cheaper ones in the Rana Plaza factory that collapsed in Bangladesh.

Don't get me wrong, I'm still opposed to fast fashion because I believe that cheap prices fuel unnecessary consumption. The more we pay for something, the more it hurts and the more inclined we'll be to take care of it. But to equate automatically a price tag with quality is a mistake, as Sumner's report has shown.

What matters more than where we buy things is what we do with them. Most important is to care for the things we buy. Buy wisely, opting for style over trends, and prioritizing natural fibers. Buy less. Choose second-hand. Launder it properly and as little as possible; hang to dry or, as Sumner suggests, air it out in sunlight in lieu of washing whenever possible; and always put it away after use, avoiding the clothing death zone, a.k.a. the 'floor-drobe'.

Cheap clothes may be a better investment than you think
Textile scientists make some uncomfortable discoveries about fast fashion.

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