We know that fast fashion creates exploitative conditions and is destructive to the planet. But it turns out that even for those who we think may be “winning” in this system are facing a toxic work environment, too.
In this episode, Amanda McCarty of Clotheshorse is giving us a closer and unfiltered glimpse into the realities of working for fast fashion corporate. She’s also sharing a firsthand look at some of the practices used by these fast fashion companies that are driving so much waste and power imbalances.
Amanda has had nearly 20 years of experience in buying, product development, visual merchandising, and merchandising planning in fashion, including for some of the biggest, most iconic fashion brands we know today. So obviously, she has a lot to share on this topic.
And, there were so many things that I could have asked Amanda about in this episode, but what you can expect in this next hour is Amanda talking about things like:
- How overproduction is embedded into the business model of fast fashion
- Why deals at most fashion brands today are really a delusion
- What was behind the dramatic drop in quality, not just in fast fashion, but in Big Fashion overall
- What conditions are really like at many corporate offices of thes fast fashion brands
- How Amazon is taking the fashion world by storm (and not in a good way)
- And why small business is the future, if we want a sustainable and equitable future, that is.
- #PayUp Movement
- The Rana Plaza factory collapse
- The Amazon That Customers Don’t See
- EP22 Aja Barber on Colonialism, Consumerism, and Changing the Fashion Industry
Tune in to this episode of the Conscious Style Podcast below, or on your favorite podcast app
Quick Links: Listen on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Pandora, or Google Podcasts
Read the Transcript From This Interview:
My name is Amanda, I am the host of a podcast called Clotheshorse. If you’ve never listened to that, you might have encountered my content on Instagram where I operate as @clotheshorsepodcast.
And Instagram has turned out to be a really big part of what I do, it feels so strange to say that out loud, but that’s, that’s my life now.
So, before Clotheshorse, which I started in 2020, that’s a big year for a lot of us, right? And I definitely started Clotheshorse pretty early in the pandemic, before Clotheshorse, I was a career buyer in the fast fashion arena.
Now, if you had come to me in, say, 2019 and said, Amanda, what do you do for a living, I would not have said, “Hi, my name is Amanda. I’m a career buyer in the fast fashion industry”, I would have said, I work in the fashion industry, I’m a buyer in the fashion industry. Because even when you’re a buyer in the fast fashion industry, there is a level of shame to admitting that you work in fast fashion. And I’m just going to say, I’ve worked my whole career in fast fashion.
I began with a very large retailer that I will not name here, but we’ll just say it’s like a hipster retailer, it’s a really pretty big shade. After that, I moved on and worked for a variety of smaller, iconic millennial brands like ModCloth and Nasty Gal, worked for some other startups and clients in between.
And most recently, I’d actually helped launch a rental concept for a big, fast fashion retailer. And I lost my job as soon as the pandemic began, because guess what, no one wanted to rent clothing, because we’re all staying home. Right?
But before I got laid off, I had the extreme displeasure of canceling every single item we had on order. Which I knew was wrong. I mean, people, I had sales reps and vendors crying on the phone with me.
They were going to go out of business, they’re going to lose their jobs. And I was thinking about the factory workers overseas who weren’t going to get paid, and weren’t gonna have food or medicine.
And the reality was that this company that employed me had upwards, way beyond $100 million in the bank, I could have paid for all of those orders, and just moved on from there. But instead, we were canceling it all so that we can guarantee high profit margin, despite lowered sales. And…
…that, for me, the combination of doing that and then losing my job during a pandemic, getting the bare minimum of severance and having my health insurance cut off immediately, it really lit this fire under me, because before I knew there were a lot of unethical, irresponsible things happening in the industry that I was a part of as a buyer that we took for granted as just the way we ran business.
And it had always been sort of gnawing at the back of my head, like there it was, I would fall asleep at night and think about it. And to see how even I, a person who had made so much money for the company that employed me was now being cut off with like no regard for my well being.
You know, immediately at the beginning of the pandemic, I realized, we’re all disposable to this industry. Someone needs to do something about it.
And at the same time, I had been spending a lot of time on Reddit. And I found myself explaining to a lot of people, how the industry works, how partnerships work, how orders, like how long it takes to make clothing, all these things. And I realized that all of this knowledge that I had from this long career in fashion was knowledge that the vast majority of people don’t have, even though all of us are participating in that industry on a daily basis.
I thought what if we pull back the curtain and average people could see what happens there. I think it would make them change their relationship with clothing and shopping quite a bit.
So I’ve been doing that now since 2020. I mean, I also see clients, I also have a full time job now, I’ve got a lot going on but Clotheshorse and the community that has surrounded it is so important to me. I can’t imagine ever giving that up.
Yeah, wow. And you definitely do pull back the curtain quite a bit in your episodes of Clotheshorse podcast and I’ve just so appreciated that I’ve been sort of, I don’t know on my conscious fashion journey or whatever, for several years, but still there’s like not, you just don’t know what goes on behind the scenes truly.
And we hear a lot about the bad working conditions in garment factories, in the fields, in the cotton fields, in the mills and I feel like listening to your podcast has illuminated just how far reaching those exploitative practices go, like it’s even happening in the corporate offices, like, where you would think that people are actually benefiting from the system? Even there, there’s like, a lot of shady stuff going on.
So I really am anxious to talk to you about your experience as a buyer for these big fashion brands. And something specifically that I’ve heard you talk a lot about is overproduction as a business model, like at every stage of the process.
So can you speak to that and what you think that we should all know?
Yeah, now this is an interesting point of the intentional overproduction.
In the beginning of my career, when fast fashion was just coming up, like think the early days of Forever 21, right? Our practices, I mean, I will say that the retailer that I started my career is 100% fast fashion, everything about the way they work now, right?
But maybe not quite there in the arts and they just had to go along for the ride with everybody else. It was still a company that engaged in a lot of shady practices and had a pretty exploitative toxic culture, but they weren’t quite where they are now.
And so with time, I saw that we started getting these sales plans every year that seemed just really unachievable. And I could never understand: why are we being challenged to meet the sales number, which… Why are the sales important? Because you have to make enough product to hit that sales number, right?
So if you’re going to sell a $100 million this year, then you need to have at least $100 million dollars worth of product to sell to people, or you won’t get there.
The problem is if you say we’re going to sell $100 million worth of clothing this year, and you only sell 50, or even 75, you have 10s of millions of dollars worth of clothing that never got sold, but got made, traveled across the globe, had ticketing and dyes, and poly bags and boxes, carbon footprint, all of this work and materials, resources. And yet, no one’s ever going to wear it, right?
And I saw this starting to happen more and more each year where the sales plans seemed even more out of reach. And we were producing products to get there.
And I remember finally asking my planner, for those who haven’t worked in buying, it’s totally fine. If you haven’t, a planner is sort of like the buyer’s best friend. And they manage all of the money. They give you your budget, they tell you how much to mark down, how much to buy, you create the product and assort it into that budget, but like they’re there to give you the financial guidance.
I asked my planner, why am I being asked to meet the sales plan that just seems totally unrealistic? I’m buying all the stuff. I don’t think it’s going to sell. And then what are we going to do with it, we’re going to destroy it – like this just doesn’t make any sense. And she said, honestly, these big sales plans come because that’s what looks great to shareholders. That they’re going to see that they’re going to get a great return on their investment; that stock prices are going to increase; that their own net worth will increase, because we have this great sales plan.
But when we miss it, we have all this stuff that we made. And I started to see that we were destroying stuff. We were selling things off to places like you know, TJ Maxx or Ross in hopes that they would liquidate it. We were just sitting on things in warehouses. We were donating, sometimes not even. We were opening outlet stores to deal with all of this excess inventory.
And we were just having like the crazier and crazier sale events every year. Where it was like, okay, this year, we’re just gonna throw everything in cardboard boxes on the floor and let people come and shop it. I mean, it was just so out of control.
Sometimes, on the other side of the coin, we would say, okay, well, we told you that we’re going to do $100 million in sales this year. We’re only doing 50. So we need you to go back to the vendors and cancel these orders because we’re gonna have too much inventory.
And so, you and I were talking before we started recording about PayUp. So PayUp for all of you who missed it, is in the early days of the pandemic, retailers canceled all their orders on vendors and factories and didn’t pay for them. A lot of these orders were already produced, or at the very least, the factories had already bought the materials so they were losing either way.
And it happened all at once, so it was really just stark and shocking. But the reality is that this was happening constantly. I have had jobs, where we managed our budget, just by canceling on vendors, constantly. And so sometimes the order would already be done.
And we were like, Oh, we don’t like it anymore, it doesn’t match the Pantone, it’s coming late. It’s coming one day late, you know, it’s canceled. And this became not only the factory’s burden to dispose of, but also like, how are they going to recoup the losses?
And in those situations, one way they recoup those losses is they don’t pay their workers. And this was happening week after week, year after year.
So we were creating all this product, we were canceling on factories, workers weren’t getting paid and it was just, it just kept escalating. You know, I would see it happen more and more. I remember talking to a buyer and saying like, ‘Hey, what happened to that huge sweater order?’ And she was like, Oh, we just decided to destroy it before it hit the dock. And I was like, what?
Oh my gosh
You know, and this was just par for the course, we were doing it every job I had, managing by cancelation, rather than creating a sales plan in the beginning, that was achievable and would require just the right amount of product to get to it.
I know that’s like a lot of boring math talk. But what I’m really talking about is, kind of just like greed, leading to waste and exploitation.
Yeah. Wow, it’s like, as bad as I thought, but in some ways, even worse than I anticipated or like thought that was going on. Gosh, it’s just, it’s so overwhelming. I feel like to think about how embedded these practices are.
And like what that resulted in both on the environmental side with all the waste, and of course, on the human side with how that impacts the workers that are working at these vendors, at these factories.
And, you were mentioning that it’s happening again after holiday. So can you tell us more about that?
Sure. I mean, I think the most important thing to remember in all of this is: the retailers have all the power here. The workers, the factories, the fabric mills, anyone who’s working for those companies has no power, right?
We’re all sort of — whether you’re working in the corporate office, in the store, or overseas, we’re all so desperate for our jobs that we’ll, we’ll take whatever comes our way, right?
So at the beginning of the pandemic, like I said, a lot of vendors canceled orders, and a lot of retailers canceled orders. But some did something that’s almost more sneaky, which is that they sent surprise letters. Like for example, I know Ross Dress For Less did this. They sent surprise letters to vendors that said, Hey, I know we have a deal where we pay you within 30 days of receiving our order. Well, surprise, we’re extending that to 90 or 120 days. So what we’re saying is that you’re not going to get paid in the month, you’re going to get paid in three or four months, which means factories probably don’t have the money to pay their workers.
And I think some people were talking about that as part of the PayUp movement. But I don’t think there was a larger awareness of that, that payment terms are another way in which retailers can exploit and take advantage of factories and workers, right?
So what’s happening again, is that it seems less like retailers are canceling orders because there are all of these supply chain issues. So they’re kind of like we’ll take whatever we can get whenever we can get it. I heard a crazy rumor that this week, Michaels, the craft chain, received all of their Halloween and Christmas decorations from last year.
Oh my gosh!
And then if you are looking for decor go there because it’s like 90% off. It’s all they have to sell but they have to sell it because they have nothing else.
And I’ve been starting to hear from vendors, from friends of mine who work in other parts of the industry on like the production side, that retailers are starting to say, ‘Hey, I know we said we were going to pay you in 30 days, now we’re going to do 90 or 120 again, because we missed our sales plan for holiday because we didn’t have product to sell, we don’t have the cash flow to pay you’, which in most cases is completely untrue.
Once again, going back to my employer, before the pandemic having $100 million in the bank that they could have used to pay for those PO’s, it’s the same kind of thing. It’s really about making their books look good, so that their stock price is good. It’s not about saving money.
And as a result, the priorities are really skewed here, right? It’s all about like profit and not people. And we’re all people, I think it’s time for us to say, ‘hey, what about us?’
Mhm. I mean, with the payment terms, it’s just madness. I think about my relationship with brands as like a creator, you know, I like to get the payment before or at least partial payment before I even start doing the work at all.
Because there have been cases where the brands never pay. And so I don’t want to like have done all that work and then not receive any payment.
And it, it’s just like, there’s just such a power imbalance with the brands and the vendors. And it just doesn’t even make any sense to me like a 120 day payment term.
Can you imagine, if you have a regular like nine to five, and your boss said, ‘Hey, just so you know, all the work you did this week, we’re not going to pay you until May for it. You would be like, wait, what? And that’s how absurd it is.
And that’s what we’re really saying to these vendors, to the sales reps, to the factories, to the garment workers, to the fabric mill, to the people who work in the button factory, everyone, we’re saying, Okay, you’re gonna wait a few months.
And sure, there are some factories that might have enough money like in the bank, like enough liquidity that they could be like, that’s fine,we’re still gonna pay everybody on time and we’ll just wait. But it’s not a lot of factories — I’ll tell you that.
Because the majority of factories are actually family-owned smaller businesses, because you have to remember, retailers don’t own their factories. The factories are just someone they’re contracting to do their work.
And so when the retailer denies them payment or pushes it out really late, we’re really looking at a lot of companies that don’t have the savings to be like, ‘Okay, I can still pay the fabric mill, I can still pay the box vendor, the labels, the shipping stuff, and the workers.’ It’s just not going to happen. And so factories close, and then the only employment opportunity in town for so many people is gone.
Mhm yeah and there’s some really dark stories about that and then what these workers have to turn to when these factories close. And it’s like there’s such a ripple effect and it is so infuriating when you hear things like oh, yeah, that brand still had $100 million in the bank and they were just hoarding that as people were going hungry, because the factories were closing…
And yeah but conversations like these, I think are really important in just like raising awareness about all of this.
And I know something that you’re very passionate about increasing the awareness around connected to this whole overproduction as a business model is discounts and the myth of deals. So can you tell us about that?
Sure. I’m going to start by saying that I love a deal as much as everyone else. But I have found my enjoyment of deals dropping considerably year after year after year, because I started to realize there were no deals anymore.
Like I remember when I was a teenager, there was a Delia’s outlet in Pennsylvania. And it was the most exciting thing I could do is go there and get all of these T-shirts for like 50 bucks, and it was in fact a real deal. Because it was just excess that they hadn’t sold. But then deals started to become an illusion. And I saw this happen in the span of my career.
So you have to travel back to 2008. Which analysts, experts, even I would agree is the year that fast fashion really took hold, and began to become the rule rather than the exception.
And in 2008, we had the Great Financial Crisis, the beginning of the recession here in the United States, and really a global recession. And what happened that year — it happened in the fall — is all the stores had just received all of their fall and winter and holiday inventory. Which, when you work in retail, that is the most amount of inventory that you’re gonna receive in the whole year. It comes in that part of the year, for the holiday shopping season, right?
So all the retailers have just received so much stuff. And then it was like a light switch. Suddenly, we were just like in a recession, and no one wanted to pay full price for anything. And retailers were stressed because they were stuck with so much stuff that no one was buying.
So what do they do? They put everything on sale, and then they put it on sale even more. It’s what we call a fire sale, like go as low as you can.
The way we have always looked at it is if you can at least get $1 back on it, that’s better than getting zero. It’s really complicated accounting for sure. And so people were like, oh, okay, like they were responding to these deals. And so retailers were like, okay, so noted, we have to give people deals. The deals were still real then.
But what happened is the next year, retailers were like, oh, we can’t sell anything to anyone if it’s not a deal on sale now, right? Like we as a society, we got very addicted really fast to deals.
At the same time, we had Forever 21 and H&M and Zara was starting to move in. And these companies were picking up so much momentum.
They offered the opportunity to come into a store, spend 50 bucks and leave with like a sack, like multiple outfits. I remember it. I remember being like, this is amazing! I don’t have any money, but I just got a whole week’s worth of clothes, you know.
Alongside that, like, you know, we had Instagram coming up and social media in general. And so we had like influencers and outfits of the day and a lot of tropes that we’ve become accustomed to. Like, you know, only wearing something once for social media, all this stuff began to come up.
And it was really like social media was fueling fast fashion. But fast fashion was also fueling social media.
So we have fast fashion, and it’s low prices becoming sort of standard. At the same time, the regular retailers are like, ‘Oh, we can only sell stuff if it’s on sale.’ And fast fashion is gaining all this momentum.
Well the retailers who wouldn’t have considered themselves fast fashion at that point and might still not now if you asked them, they realized that no one wanted to come in and buy full price from them. And even the deals they were offering could not compete with Forever 21, like where you could get a tank top for $1.90.
And so they had to have a lot of internal discussions like I was at work participating in these discussions where it was like, we can’t go down to those Forever 21 prices, because we’re going to damage our brand forever. We’ll always have to be that cheap. We won’t seem aspirational or interesting or anything. We need to stay at the current prices we’re at.
And then the idea was sort of born: What if the price is on the price tags always stay the same? But the price that we are selling them at was a lot lower, because we planned on selling most of our inventory on sale. So we would rarely sell something for the actual full price on the price tag.
Customers would feel like they were getting a deal and our brand would still seem aspirational. But you can’t sell stuff, most of the stuff you buy on sale and make a profit if you’re making it to be that price on the price tag, right?
So what happened is we would say okay, this dress is gonna say $60 on the price tag, but we’re gonna sell most of it for $30. So we need to engineer that dress to be profitable when we sell it for $30, which means we need to make that dress for $8, as opposed to before, we could have made it for 16 or 24.
And this is a big difference. This is a very big difference in terms of quality. So suddenly, we’re like, okay, we need to substitute the cheapest fabric we can find, it’s always the fabric that goes first. And it almost invariably becomes a thinner, less desirable super synthetic fabric, right? Because it’s cheaper.
So we actually saw in this century, this is the most polyester consumption in the history of polyester and we think of polyester as like a 70s thing, but it’s really a 21st century thing. Isn’t that interesting to think about?
And so, we switched into these synthetic fabrics, we started to get cheaper zippers that might only last a couple of wears. We took out the linings. We’d say ‘okay, can we get this price to work if we take an inch or two off the skirt?’, ‘what else can we do here to make this cheaper?’.
And another thing that we stopped doing was focusing on fit as much as we had because fit is expensive and it takes time. And those are two things that fast fashion never has. So, in the before times, we would get a sample from the vendor, they would have already received the designs, the tech packs — this would be their first pass.
We bring in a model, a fit model, the fit technician come in. They’d fit it on the model, you know, maybe cut it, make some modifications, take measurements, send a whole series of notes and feedback back to the factory. They would send another sample. We would do all that again. Maybe it would be ready to go, but probably not. And generally would take two or three passes of this fit process to get it right.
And that was costing money. You know, those fit models are expensive, fit techs are expensive. Sending samples back and forth, expensive — and we pay for those samples. And as we had to get faster and cheaper, it was like, ah, it’ll fit someone.
I had jobs where we would just have one of the buyers try it on, and we’d be like, it’s good enough.
Oh my gosh…
And it’s been interesting to talk to my friends who worked in design or tech design or production to see their side of it. And they are like, my job has completely changed as fashion got faster, it became significantly less enjoyable, less creative, less satisfying, and way more stressful.
Yeah. Wow. So much there that I would love to touch on. Like, it’s so interesting hearing that sort of behind the scenes look at what was going on in those boardrooms.
Because it’s like, I feel like those things are sort of what I experienced firsthand. Like, I grew up in the Forever 21 generation, I feel like…
…when I was in, in school, I would, on the weekends, we would go to the mall and shop at Forever 21, all these stores and yeah it was like everything there was kind of crappy, like, I don’t know. I remember even the designs were not that great, nothing ever fit well. But it just was so cheap. And it was almost an addiction. It was just fun. It was the thrill of a so-called deal.
And yeah, I’ve been going into a store like Express, which is maybe more mid-market and being like, oh my gosh, $40 for a blouse. It’s so expensive.
Totally, totally. And it confuses you about the value of things. But I think you hear a really great point there that nothing you were buying it Forever 21 felt that great, right?
And this is where it starts to get really dangerous. And we start to go over this cliff of overconsumption where we are now where it starts to create this illusion in our minds that clothing can be disposable. Because it would be like, ‘Oh, I was out last night and my dress ripped, but whatever is from Forever 21. It’s only going to be worn a couple times.’
And we got used to that idea that, ‘Oh, it was only $1.90. I mean, I can wear it once and throw it out. It’s no big deal.’. It’s like we were saying the price was the indicator of the timeline, the longevity of that item in our closets.
And what we didn’t think about is all those $1.90 synthetic tank tops are still in a landfill somewhere, even though they stopped being worn a long time ago. And it’s not like Forever 21 is gonna say, ‘hey, just as a reminder, yes, this tank top is $1.90, but it will be around for a few hundred years’. Like no, right?
Because that was the thing, the garments themselves weren’t usable for more than a few wears, right? I agree with that. The problem is that they weren’t going to go away for a few hundred years, you know?
Yeah, that’s like the big I don’t know irony, or like really dark irony. But yeah, right, it’s disposable fashion, but like, fashion that will, you know, these garments will be in our environment, as you said maybe a couple hundred years, and they went out of style in a few months. It just doesn’t make any sense.
It doesn’t make any sense. And even as a buyer, you know, we saw, we had to copy what Forever 21 and everyone else was doing. Like in the beginning, we would start to plan our product assortments six months before it actually be in stores for customers to buy.
We would have design meetings, we would choose from the line, we would develop these like strategic plans, we would write the orders, there would be all those fittings and sample reviews. And four or five months later, the product would arrive.
But soon, our employer was like, uh actually, we’d really prefer if you didn’t write any orders more than two or three months in advance. And then it was like, we would prefer if you didn’t write any orders two months in advance, and then it was, we would prefer that at least half of your orders are written the same month, they’re going to arrive. And so things got faster. They got shodier.
They didn’t get cheaper, like in terms of the price the customers paying, they just got less good. And we had to constantly… it was just like before, we had a pretty set number of styles we would deliver every month from every category. And we saw that number just growing and growing every year.
And it forced us into a situation, we would have to buy into every single possible trend out there, no matter how fleeting. And I look back, and I’m like, oh, remember cut-outs? Remember, high-low skirts?
Oh yes, high-low skirts!
Like these are things you wouldn’t be caught dead in now, right? You’d be like, I’m so embarrassed. We made so many of those!! Or like the side cutouts, or like, I hate this term, but this is what the industry was calling it as ‘tribal print’.
We sure stole a lot of prints from Indigenous people around the world in order to come up with new product to sell everyone. And we were stealing ideas from other designers, because there was no way our design team could ever make enough product to fill this void.
You know, your boss would come in with like a bunch of sweaters she bought on a trip and be like, copy all of these. I mean, it was just, it was so much everything just got worse and worse every year.
Even for those of us who like you said early in our conversation, who you said, you would assume that the people in the corporate offices would be benefiting from this system. And in fact, we weren ‘t either. We were still underpaid. Our benefits weren’t great — they got slashed every year. We had no flexibility around working or not working.
My one job had a maternity leave plan that was so terrible, no one could afford to have children. It was really, really bad. And I stepped back, you know, I was talking to someone this morning and they said, you know, the reality is there is only one type of person who benefits from fast fashion, the fashion industry as it exists now.
And she said it’s white male Republicans, and I was like touché! Because all the offices I worked in, all the buyers and designers and planners and production people, they were all women. All of the executives were white male Republicans. Every time. And the gender divide there was really interesting.
And in terms of how we had to live our lives versus how they lived their lives, it was pretty remarkable. That struck me really early on in my career that just by virtue of being a woman, I was gonna have a pretty low ceiling on what I could accomplish in that industry.
Mhm,yeah and it feels like the more we learn about different sides of the fast fashion industry, we see that it’s actually not benefiting as many people as we thought. Like it’s a very small subset of people that are benefitting, that are winning “from fast fashion”.
So I know that you touched on this, but could you dive a bit deeper into what it’s really like working in the corporate offices of many of these fast fashion brands.
I mean, I want to start by saying that exploitation and underpaying workers is what fashion runs on right now. It’s yes, the garment workers overseas and all the other people in the supply chain are, they’re bearing the worst brunt of it all.
But even here, think about retail workers: vastly underpaid, rarely paid a living wage, often not given full-time hours intentionally so the retailer doesn’t have to give them benefits. When we get to the corporate offices, I mean, I had one job, where I literally did not have health insurance. And I asked my employer about it. And she said, unfortunately, profitability is our number one focus. So there will not be health insurance.
Meanwhile, we had a really serious illness in my family that had basically almost bankrupted us. We were in a really, really bad position financially solely because my employer didn’t offer health insurance. And the health insurance I was getting, as part of the ACA had declined so much over the last few years that it didn’t cover a lot of things, even though it was costing me like $1,000 a month.
So that’s an example of like, here I was, at that point, I was a Director level in the fashion industry, which is a pretty high level of responsibility, managing millions of dollars every year, and I wasn’t even offered health insurance.
You know, I told you about the job, where the maternity leave policy was so bad, I remember my friend crying to me. She said, I really want to have a baby, but you don’t get paid, you get the maternity leave plant policy was something like, you can have three months, you don’t get paid during it, and you’re responsible for your own health insurance while you’re out.
But when you come back, if you stay six more months, then we’ll pay you half the salary you could have had in that three months. Like he was like punitive. It felt punitive to me. And she was like, we don’t make enough money — my husband and I— to live off of with no pay for three months. And…
Plus no health insurance.
Yeah I mean, just, it’s just, this is just how it goes. I have found more often than not, whether you’re a buyer, a designer, a production person, a planner, you’re often really underpaid. The benefits are not good. The work life balance does not exist. And then it’s also just this really toxic environment.
There’s a lot, like I had an executive throw a rolling rack of scarves at me, because he was angry, he would yell at people and humiliate them all the time. That guy went on to be the CEO of J Crew. He’s not there anymore. But like he was a rotten person who was really cruel to all of these women working in our office. And he didn’t need to be that way.
And unfortunately, that was my experience, more places I’ve worked than not. The only place I’ve ever worked, where people were really nice and we had great benefits, and it was really supportive was ModCloth. I’m just gonna say that. [laugh]
It’s a really bad culture. We see a lot of mental health and substance abuse issues within the fashion industry in these offices, because people have just working so hard under difficult conditions. And much in the way these retailers have squeezed the factories and the workers and the retail workers over the years trying to do more with less.
They’ve done the same thing in the corporate offices where they’ve cut the staff down to bare bones, but we’re dealing with twice as much responsibility because we have to create twice as much product now.
And so for a lot of my friends who went to fashion school — I didn’t go to fashion school — these are people who had like, fashion was their passion, you know, their dream, the burnout, the disappointment. It’s just even sadder.
And it takes, I don’t know, I feel like fashion is supposed to be this fun, creative expression. And it turns into just the source of misery for so many people that it almost makes you like, like, there were days I would leave work and I’d be like, what if I just became a nudist? Like I don’t want to be a part of it anymore, you know?
Yeah, yeah, no, I mean it just like, I feel like I went through something similar. Like I didn’t go to fashion school but when I was younger, I sort of dreamed of working in the fashion industry like I got Teen Vogue, I even got there like career book like about all the different jobs in the fashion industry you could have.
And I, I was so into that and yeah, learning about you know, the Rana Plaza factory collapse and like discovering all the exploitation and modern-day slavery even happening in the fashion supply chain. It was just so — it was so like depressing. It was just such a disappointment, I think is the, you know, the right word.
It’s like this industry that looks so glamorous and beautiful, and then there’s like this dark side behind it.
But, I think that’s what the slow fashion movement, the sustainable fashion movement is. I feel like we are all in that boat that like we engaged with fashion at some point, maybe we even really enjoyed fashion, learned about the harms, but like still believe it that fashion can be a force for good. If we, you know, advocate for it.
So I would love to shift gears here and talk a bit more about small businesses and why you think — because I agree with you here — why you think that small businesses are the future.
Sure. I mean, I’m so passionate about this. Because what we’ve seen over the past few decades is our options for where to spend our money, specifically on clothing, but on lots of things slowly become smaller and smaller and focused on just a few brands in comparison to where we used to be.
And so what we’re doing, when we’re still shopping with Zara or Amazon, or any of these other retailers, is we’re kind of without knowing it, we’re actually helping income inequality just flourish. Because more money is going to just a smaller and smaller group of people.
And I often find with small businesses that they can make changes that are beneficial for people and the planet a lot more easily than a big retailer. Like I look at any of the companies I’ve worked for, and to decide that we were going to be ethical and pay the factory’s like, and the workers, all the workers a living wage, let’s say that’s all we decided to do, the company would just like explode.
Like the money there, the money’s there to do it. But it would require so much change that like I don’t even know where they could begin. Or if we were like, we’re gonna actually have sustainable, true sustainable practices, and we’re gonna make better quality products that lasts a long time. And sure, people will come and buy less things for us, but it’ll be better for the planet. That is not going to happen, right?
These retailers are so bought into this model of overproduction, exploitation, you know, the model of fast fashion really is selling as much stuff as possible, as often as possible. They can’t just suddenly say, ‘Hey, we’re gonna turn this around, and we’re gonna sell a moderate amount of stuff’. Not too often, right?
But that’s where small business comes in. Because small business, a business that’s just owned by a couple people or one person has 10, 20, 50, even 100 employees, isn’t beholden to stockholders.
And so it can actually do good things, pay a living wage, offer a great product to their customers and not be caught in this trap of like, we have to sell even more than last year, we just sell 10 times as much as last year. And we need to make this much more profit margin. And we need to cut costs here and there. Like it’s, it’s just not the same process.
And I love that small business can make these changes, can be more responsible to the communities around them, and slow that income inequality by getting more money into just regular people’s pockets rather than all of it going to Jeff Bezos.
For sure. I am 100% with you on that one. And it’s sometimes scary to think about how Amazon is sort of dominating the world. I mean they’re in every industry, and they’re taking over fashion. I think I heard about it on your podcast that they’re now the biggest clothing retailer in the US? Which is just like what? How did that… how did that happen?
It’s true. They are the biggest clothing retailer in the United States and have been for a couple years now.
I would say like five or six years ago, there was this a lot of anxiety in the industry that Amazon was going to start selling clothing because they really didn’t then, like they had socks, maybe underwear. There’s a lot of anxiety about it.
But what the industry was afraid of is that all of the good brands would start selling exclusively to Amazon and freeze out all of the other retailers. So there’s a lot of anxiety that like what if you can only get Nike at Amazon, you know, like that kind of thing.
But what they didn’t realize is that actually Amazon was just going to start selling even faster, even cheaper fashion. And people would just go to them because then it would show up in their house the next day too like, they would offer free shipping. It’d be super fast, it would be the cheapest price and the reviews like infinite selection.
And so actually, the retailers that have been most hurt by Amazon being the biggest retailer in the United States of clothing, are the fast fashion brands. Because they like H&M, Forever 21, Zara, these companies are already really facing a lot of anxious times right now. The irony, I enjoy it in a weird way. A lot of schadenfreude there.
They are seeing that Amazon can outdo them. They are seeing that Shein you know, Shein is like killing them by being super fast and super cheap. Zara is like we’re old timey. How do we… now we’re slow fashion in comparison!
Oh my gosh.. What a world!
I know. What a world it is so bizarre, right? It’s disturbing, but also a little entertaining but also disturbing again.
Yeah and I mean, I think it’s really important when we talk about what we can do as consumers is like, spend our money in the places that match our values, right? And I would say that probably for a lot of us, our values do not align with Amazon’s right?
Like we know, notoriously horrible worker conditions, both in the factories and in their corporate offices, just go give it a Google… the number of articles are endless. The New York Times did an incredible series, I want to say like in November, maybe December, about an Amazon warehouse in New York, that literally made me cry.
Amazon, unfortunately, because of their massive size, is now dictating what it means to be a worker in the United States. You know, like warehouses and offices and delivery services are all copying what they’re doing. And so they’re making work for many, many millions of Americans worse than it was before.
On top of that, man, I have worked with a couple clients over the years, who have decided to sell their products through Amazon and it makes it so hard for them to be profitable, because even though they themselves are making the product, and shipping the products, they might be sending it to Amazon to ship but in a lot of cases, they’re not either.
The fees that Amazon charges to be a part of their website, to take out ads to have a listing just to make a sale are so high, that it’s really hard to make any profit on selling on Amazon, which means we’re getting into that like fast fashion trap of like, okay, well, we got to make the product cheaper, so that we can still make a living off of selling on Amazon.
And so what does that do that suppresses prices even more for everyone. And so if you’re paying $2 for this thing to resell on there, well, the whole industry is going to start paying $2 for that. If you’re selling dresses for $20 on Amazon, not only does everybody else on Amazon need to start selling dresses for $20, every retailer out there needs to start selling dresses for $20.
And so Amazon has just reached this level of scale, that it really has an impact on every single person’s life, whether you shop at Amazon or work for Amazon, or neither of those things.
Yeah, yeah they just have so much power and so much influence. And they’re not necessarily using that for the betterment of these things. And I guess what I sort of don’t get is why aren’t more people talking about this?
I forget which company did this research, but there was a company that did a survey trying to find out what company consumers have the best perception of and Amazon scored #1, like they had the best reputation. Which sort of surprised me… I mean I know that it’s really convenient. Especially for people who don’t have a lot of stores by them, or during Covid, and they have two-day shipping and it’s fast and whatever.
But I remember when I was shopping on Amazon, I would get frustrated that there was like no vetting of the authenticity of a product, a lot of knock-offs, there’s a lot of low quality stuff on there and it’s kind of difficult to sort through..
Mhm. It’s true. They have so many knockoffs and just like disappointing products on there. And it’s really hard to even distinguish what is good or bad because there also are sellers on there who like, do all this weird scammy fake reviews stuff.
So it’s like, why are we shopping there? I understand. You know, and I don’t want to be shamey right, because sometimes that’s all you have access to, especially during the pandemic and I get it, listen, there were times during the pandemic where we were buying stuff, I mean, the pandemic is not over, but like there have been times during the pandemic, where we were buying stuff from Amazon because we were like, we need it, no one else has it, it’s not safe for us to go look for it, whatever. I get it.
I think something I’ve noticed right now is that a lot of smaller companies will be sold out of a really specific item and Amazon has it. And I think that is only intensifying the situation. And I’m really sympathetic to everyone out there who’s trying to like break up with Amazon, but it’s like backed into a corner.
Right yeah I mean it’s so true. It’s really like an effort to try to avoid them. And they’re like in everything so it’s really really difficult. You might not even know that you’re supporting them.
And it’s just.. yeah, as you mentioned with Covid, and um also I think depending on where you live it might be more or less difficult, so yeah..
Absolutely. Because another, I don’t know if you know this, but the actually the most profitable part of the Amazon business, which is like their into everything, like you said, is not selling us stuff. It’s their data services.
And so, honestly, most of the companies I’ve worked for, and most of these social media platforms that we interact with, are hosted on Amazon data servers.
And so I remember at one of my jobs, the whole, like, Amazon Web Services went down for a day, and we literally couldn’t even do transactions on our website. So it’s weird like, I get creeped out when I think about that. It’s starts to get like, I’m like, am I in the matrix? Is the matrix Amazon? Like, what’s going on?
Yeah, no, that’s so true. Like when I was working at a company a couple years ago, I remember that we were switching to Amazon Web Servers, like the whole company was switching. And so that shift also happened.
And I realized, so if any listeners are also like, bloggers or have a website, I realized that the hosting provider I was using was relying on Amazon Web Servers. And I switched hosting providers anyway, and I was like, really trying to find one that wasn’t using Amazon Web Servers.
But then of course, I find one that’s like using Google’s!
I know, right? [laugh]
But yeah, Google is at least I think they’re really really investing heavily into renewables to power their web servers. And so I felt like that was like the lesser of two evils. Since I’m not going to build my own web server! [laugh]
AMANDA[Laughs] Yeah, yeah. No. And I think, unfortunately, for a lot of us, like, that’s kind of where it is. And this is the conversation that my husband and I have all the time. Like, we need cat food. What’s the least evil place we can get it? I mean I know that’s horrible, right? But that’s like where we are right now.
And I actually, it feels like a burden sometimes and really stressful. And there are definitely times where I’m like, I wish I just didn’t care and then I would just get everything from Amazon and never think twice. But I have to say there is, there is this level of satisfaction — and I might even call it joy — in making thoughtful decisions about where you spend your money and where your things come from.
And I just like we talk about clothing, like style is so important to me, it’s always been just like a massive creative outlet for me. And I feel more confident, I feel like my outfit is better when everything I’m wearing I really thoughtfully chose from a thoughtful source.
And that doesn’t mean expensive clothing. Like for me a lot of it is secondhand or like thrifting and then modifying it myself or swapping with friends and or support you know when I can supporting ethical sustainable brands. And I just find that like everything feels better when you feel good about where you got it.
Yeah, oh my gosh, I totally resonate with that. I feel like there was a part in my fashion journey that I kind of fell out of love with it.
Like I you know, I enjoyed it so much growing up and with the rise of fast fashion everything was just kind of terrible. Even as a shopper, I just sort of fell out of touch with it because I’ve never been into chasing the trends. I just loved style and putting together outfits.
And it was just like, everything was so cheap. And so I don’t know, it didn’t even make sense. Like, some of these trends are just so weird. I was like, this is ugly. Like, I don’t get it.
And, like, yeah, there’s evolution of like getting into slow fashion and being very intentional, as you were saying, maybe hunting for that secondhand gem or waiting, like a few months to invest in a piece. And it just, like, feels so, so much better.
And even if you don’t have, obviously, there’s a lot of privilege at various levels with all of that, but even just slowing down and not going to the mall every weekend and not constantly checking the new arrivals pages.
Just even stopping to do that was liberating. You know, it allowed me to just find so much more joy in clothing instead of constantly feeling stressed about getting the next thing.
Absolutely, I think that’s so true. And I think we buy a lot of clothing for a lot of different reasons, right? But most of it stems from our own insecurity or pressures we feel around us, or just unhappiness.
Like I found in my last couple jobs where I was working in a really toxic culture or feeling really stressed out, feeling really anxious about what I was doing every day, that I would sometimes just sit during my lunchtime and like eat my sad salad and just scroll through Zara every day. And once a week, I’d buy a whole bunch of stuff from Zara, it would come the next week, and I would return 99% of it.
And I realized that I never actually felt happy. Like maybe the looking at the clothes made me feel happy kind of, I didn’t need to go as far as buying them. But then it’s that would be even weirder, right?
And when I started to unpack that this was part of a cycle for me of just feeling unhappy, and started to address the root causes of my unhappiness. I didn’t miss Zara. You know I wasn’t like oh, man, like, I haven’t looked at Zara in close to two years. And I’m totally okay with that. Like, I don’t, I don’t ever get a longing to be like, Oh, I wonder what Zara is up to?
ELIZABETH[Laughs] Mhm yeah. At the end of the day, is it really even making us happy to acquire all of that stuff and then have to deal with it? Especially once you learn what happens to clothing donations…
Yeah, exactly. It’s true. It’s just like we think we’re being freed of this burden of all this stuff but it we’re just passing it on. And then when you know that it makes having a lot of stuff even less appealing.
Also, I just would give you all a life tip here. I recently had to move from Pennsylvania to Austin, Texas. We did move all of our stuff. And I hated everything we owned when we had to do that. [Laughs]
Yeah, no moving definitely, I think Aja Barber said that when she was on the podcast, like, there’s nothing like moving to kind of remind you that you don’t need that much stuff. And it really becomes a burden when you have to move…
It’s true! You know what I learned from… I mean, I’ve moved a lot. I’ve moved all over the country for my career. But for some reason, this move really like reinforced it for me, I think, because it was the pandemic, you know, we just like it was just on us, there was no one who could come and help us. We didn’t want it, we wanted to be safe.
I realized that there’s so much stuff in our lives — whether it’s clothing or decor are just random stuff we got for free, or who knows what else — that we don’t even see or interact with on a day to day basis. And we don’t know of its existence, or really deal with its existence until we have to pack up every single item in our home to leave it. And then you’re like, oh my god, we have so much crap.
Why do we have so many reusable water bottles, only two people live in this house, you know? Like stuff like that, that just like accumulates and you’re unaware of. And for me, I just want to continue that journey of being more and more mindful of that. And it’s hard. It’s a process for all of us, but it’s a journey that really feels good to take on.
Yeah, yeah, totally.
So, Amanda, thank you so much for all of the amazing perspectives and insights that you shared with us. I got so much out of it and I know listeners will get so much out of it.
So can you tell us where we can find you, how can we learn more, and where can we connect with you?
Sure. So you can find me on Instagram at @clotheshorsepodcast. I also have a website where you can find all the episodes, show notes, a lot of other resources, the Clotheshorse brand directory, and information about consulting services. And that’s clotheshorsepodcast.com.
If you’re just like, oh, I can’t even hold my horses. I need to talk to you ASAP. You can drop me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Amazing, okay, and all of those links will be in the show notes.
So my final question for you that I asked to all guests that come onto the show is what would a better future for fashion look like to you?
Wow, that’s a really big question!
You know what it is? It’s everybody out there, feeling good about what they’re wearing. Meaning that they have clothes that fit them well, that are comfortable, that lasts a long time and reflect who they are.
And they’re so happy with those clothes, but they’re making a lifetime commitment to them by repairing them, caring for them properly with laundry, and just wearing them over and over again.
And we’re all on Instagram constantly, or whatever the new social media platform is in this future we’re talking about and we’re all wearing the same clothes and every picture and everybody loves it.
They’re like, the way you look in that outfit today is even better than you how you looked at it seven times ago.
Like that’s the world I want to live in where we love our clothes, and we build a long term relationship with them.
And that’s a wrap for this episode with Amanda. We would love to hear what you thought about this conversation. You can connect with me over at @consciousstyle on Instagram and Amanda is at @clotheshorsepodcast.
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Amanda McCarty had a career in fashion that began as a seasonal part-time sales associate in the fitting rooms at a fast fashion retailer. With nearly 20 years of experience, in buying, product development, visual merchandising, and merchandise planning, she has honed her skills at iconic millennial lifestyle brands. She is currently working as a consultant, content creator, rabble rouser, and host of the Clotheshorse podcast.