Here is an April 2023 article from Harper’s Bazaar about declining quality in the “fast fashion” sector.
But increasingly, most clothing on the market is, simply put, no good. According to a viral tweet, “Most Gen Z consumers don’t even know what quality fashion looks & feels like.” And while that may be a massive generalization, it’s inarguably true that clothing quality has dropped precipitously over the past 30 years. A pair of jeans purchased at the Gap in 1995 was made of thick 100 percent cotton and constructed to withstand years of heavy wear. Now, the same pair of jeans costs $17 after multiple discounts, has added elastane, and is liable to fall apart after several washes.
“I love raiding my mom’s closet, because she keeps all her clothes in such good condition, whereas mine will break quite easily,” Maya Hall, an 18-year-old political science major at the University of Oregon in Eugene, says. “From freshman to junior year of high school, I was big on buying PacSun jeans, but I would have to buy the same pair [pretty] often, because they would shrink really fast and looked demolished just from me walking around in them.” Hall loves her mom’s vintage Levi’s that hail from the 2000s, because they’re a thicker, more durable material than what she’s used to, and stay true to size after a wash.
Given the success of fast fashion in the retail market, I wonder whether it’s motivating “quality” producers to move down-market in order to compete with products designed to last a year or less. Also, perhaps, fast fashion has created an expectation among customers that clothes do not last, so they’re not upset when products disintegrate after a few washings.
The tendency to cut cost of goods in manufacturing in order to hit a lower retail price point or increase margins is powerful and deeply ingrained, particularly in the U.S. MBA culture. A vintage example, dating from the 1930s, probably responsible for hundreds if not thousands of deaths, is the “All American Five” AM radio receiver. The radios had no power transformer and worked on both AC and DC power, which allowed them to run on ancient power utilities or farm battery banks that supplied DC current. But the main motivation for eliminating the transformer was to save money, and no transformer-equipped radio could be price-competitive with a “hot chassis” design where one wire of the AC line cord was connected directly to the chassis. Now, any sane and responsible electrical engineer would connect the “neutral” wire to the chassis, since if the radio was equipped with a polarised plug and plugged into a polarised socket, the chassis would be close to ground potential if accidentally touched. (This was easy to do—if, say, the volume or tuning knobs were damaged and you tried to turn the control shaft with your fingers, you were effectively touching the chassis.)
But, in fact, a few years after these radios came on the market, most of them connected the “hot” wire to the chassis and switched the neutral wire, which meant that not only was the chassis carrying lethal current when the radio was turned on, it was equally hot even when turned off. Why was this done? Because due to the way the power switch was combined with the volume control, switching the hot wire would require one extra solder lug, which would add a fraction of a penny to the component cost of the radio. So, out with it, and in with electrocuting unwary customers!
At least shoddy jeans don’t kill you.