Are Our Clothes Getting Worse?

lifestyle materials op-ed sustainable fashion Oct 26, 2023

What do When Harry Met Sally, sweaters, and Ireland have in common? Normally nothing, but for today’s blog post, they all thread together the modern theory of planned obsolescence. 

After watching a video from one of my favorite YouTube creators, Mina Le, I started to scratch my head wondering if planned obsolescence is the future of the fashion industry. In the video titled “Clothes are so Much Worse Now,” Mina explains how the iconic cream, fisherman sweater worn by Billy Crystal in When Harry Met Sally has X (formerly Twitter) users in a tizzy. Without getting too into the weeds of the controversy, people are mad that sweaters - and other forms of clothing - aren’t made like they used to be. 

The average consumer likely has no idea how their clothes are made, but they know there’s a difference in the quality of the clothing. And I think we all know that feeling - have you ever been in a store, pick up a piece of clothing, and know something is off? Maybe it’s the hand feel, maybe it’s the smell, but you know that it probably wasn’t made in the best conditions using the best material.


What would you do if you found out that brands were doing that on purpose? Now, this can’t be proven, but sustainability advocates have been calling brands out for this recently; make cheap clothes (that sometimes aren’t even that cheap) that wear out after one season and end up as waste. This forces consumers to continuously come back to the store to pick up a new pair of jeans or other piece of clothing and the vicious, wasteful system cycles through endlessly.

And when I say vicious, this cycle of consumption goes much deeper than just wanting a new pair of jeans. Because of the growing income gap, sometimes buying cheap clothes is all that the consumer can afford. The single mom working 60+ hours per week making $15 per hour doesn’t make enough money to invest in quality clothing for her kids. The student who’s $30,000 in debt from their loan doesn’t have excess income to buy the sustainable option that comes with a hefty green premium. Quality clothing blindly disregards equality.

One could argue that that is the exact reason why thrift stores exist, and while I agree that thrift stores are a great option for a number of reasons, that reason also shifts the problem onto consumers. In reality, the apparel industry has done a terrible job of making durable clothing at a fair price because of the outdated business model clothing brands have adopted.

By prioritizing margin and shareholder returns, the apparel industry has learned that they can swap out the quality materials for cheaper options that will save them money on their bill of materials, but still allow them to hike the markup, leaving consumers to incur the cost of a cheap item that was never made to last. As consumers, there’s not much we can do to change how the apparel industry works, but we can change how we shop. And if you work in a brand? You can do your part too.

Next time you’re out shopping, especially buying new clothes, be sure to look at the material label on the item. This can normally be found on the inside of the garment, near the care tag. The material label will tell you what the fiber content of the garment is and ideally, we want to look for items that are made from quality, durable materials. Fibers like cotton and wool are known for their lasting power, plus a number of other benefits, and can be found across a wide variety of textiles. Bonus points if you opt for a sustainable option like certified organic cotton or RWS certified wool! 

Remember that care tag I mentioned above? That also plays a big part in the lasting power of your item. The care tag will tell you how to take care of your item, like what temperature to wash it at and how it should be dried, which will greatly increase the lifespan of your item. And most important to know is that not every item has to be washed after every wear! Here’s a great article from Vogue outlining how often we should wash every type of item in our closet.

If you work in a brand, you can always be an advocate for better business practices. If you work in a product department, encourage those around you to adopt higher-quality materials in the material mix. Mono-material items are quickly becoming a favorite in the sustainability space, but if your brand can’t commit to this yet, do what you can to adopt preferred materials into your lines. 

If you’re outside of a product department, you can still do your part to drive change. Learn how you can communicate with your consumers on how to best care for items - through marketing tools or creating extra resources to help educate the customer will only benefit them. For those in a Senior/Executive position, you can use your experience and influence to persuade other decision-makers to come up with solutions to benefit your consumers and keep your brand’s goods in closets for as long as possible. 

Making the most of our clothes will take a team effort from brands and consumers and we have to be willing to think outside of the box to shift the current wasteful system. 

Did you enjoy this blog post? Be sure to check out our other articles here and we’d appreciate it if you gave this post a share! To learn more about our mission here at The Underswell, explore our website or send us an email at [email protected]

If you want more sustainability content for free, listen to our latest podcast episode here! We’re out to make sense of sustainability, and with the help of a few industry experts, we’re getting one step closer.

Thanks for joining me and we’ll be back with another post soon!


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