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Fast fashion's dirty secret—and a solution made in America

You need to know about the dark side of the biggest trend in fashion and the role that America might play in providing a solution.

If you have been following retail news lately, you will have come across some major changes happening across the fashion landscape. For years the brands that once filled our malls have been floundering. The latest news includes a massive lay offs at J.Crew and the closure of 175 Gap stores. Customers are fleeing this traditional middle market for "fast fashion," retailers like H&M and Zara, which pump out cheap clothes based on of-the-moment runway trends.

If you have been following national or world news, you may have heard about the relentless drought in California and the Pope's plea to end global warming.


A woman walks past an H&M store in New York
Scott Mlyn | CNBC
A woman walks past an H&M store in New York

While fashion and the environment are covered separately, the trend in one could be causing headlines in the other. Our demand for fast fashion has led to an explosion of production of apparel: In fact, we consume 400 percent more clothing today than we did 30 years ago. That shift from mid-market to fast fashion has also tracked a shift from domestic production to cheaper and cheaper overseas locations from Hong Kong, to mainland China and now to even lower cost centers including Vietnam and Bangladesh.

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When Gap first opened, 95 percent of the clothing we wore was American made; today that number is less than 3 percent. Of course, a lot of American jobs were lost in that transition, but we also lost environmental control of our production. Low cost means low regulation. Governments in today's textile producing countries have little oversight into what happens in their factories, so textile companies just keep those engines roaring, running largely on coal, while they systematically dump their chemicals untreated back into their local water. This has all added up to the apparel industry being the second most polluting industry in the world, behind only the oil sector, according to a 2013 study from the Danish Fashion Institute.

Speaking of oil, because of our thirst for fast fashion, we now wear more polyester—a fabric made from oil—than any other fiber.

We, the consumers, are not the ones winning from all of this. Fast fashion companies work off of a model of "planned obsolescence," that means instead of designing and creating garments to stand the test of time, they have created an industry (supported by fashion media) of micro-trends. Products are designed to go out of style quickly, often falling apart after just a few washes. Beneficiaries of the system include the CEOs of major retailers like Zara's CEO Amancio Ortega-—currently #4 on the Forbes List-—and the family behind H&M.

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So now the good news, this slide to fast fashion is not inevitable. Unlike government gridlock, we, the consumers, are the ones in control.

And America could play a crucial role in the solution. Several decades ago the textile industry in this country cleaned up its act. It developed municipal water treatment plants like the one we use in North Carolina, so that the chemicals used in the industry are kept out of our water supply. This country developed a system to tag and test every bail of cotton to allow organic cotton to bloom; a USDA organic label is one we can trust. We have dye houses pioneering low-impact water-based dyeing in North Carolina at T.S. Designs. Finally, we have regulations in place from the EPA to limit the environmental impact our factories.

At Zady we're re-envisioning the future of fashion. We're excited to bring a good dose of American ingenuity to create an alternative to fast fashion where brands compete on style and quality and no longer have frightening truths to hide.

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Commentary by Maxine Bédat, co-founder of Zady, a fashion brand and lifestyle destination trying to create a transparent and sustainable future for the $1.5 trillion apparel industry. Her background in international law and diplomacy, including serving as a legal clerk for the U.N., led her to found The Bootstrap Project, a non-profit organization that works with entrepreneurs in the developing world. Follow her on Twitter @MaxineBedat