Alyssa Hardy Calls Out the Fashion Industry For Falling Short on Sustainability

Louisa Wells
Louisa Wells
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Shopping in the year 2022 is about as convenient and mindless as it can get. With a quick scroll or double-tap, you're able to buy virtually anything, anywhere, at any time. The fashion industry is especially notorious for churning out new products in rapid fire — and the rise of fast fashion over the last 20 years has given consumers an insatiable appetite for new clothes at every turn. Corporations, eager to cash in on ever-increasing demand, have been more than willing to produce en masse. But at what cost?

That's one of the fundamental questions Alyssa Hardy answers in her new book, "Worn Out: How Our Clothes Cover Up Fashion's Sins," out now. The book, she explains, is the byproduct of two elements: her natural curiosity about the lesser-discussed side of fashion, and a series of personal reflections that began during her tenure as a Teen Vogue editor.

"I was writing so much about brands and shopping, obviously for young readers, and I started to see the bigger picture of the way fashion is impacting people," Hardy, 33, tells POPSUGAR. "I've always been drawn to stories about women, and women make up most of the garment industry. They're the global majority. That was such an interesting piece of the fashion industry that I wasn't talking about in my work."

". . . you can marry this love of dress with the understanding that there is somebody behind [it] helping you feel that way."

With "Worn Out," Hardy has stepped into a natural extension of her journalistic work. It's the ultimate deep dive into how our clothes are really made, and Hardy takes great care to center the voices of those who keep the industry running — and who are often left to suffer the most dire consequences. But fashion, Hardy argues, is not an individual problem. Throughout the book, via a mix of original reporting and personal anecdotes, she makes the case that fashion's sustainability issue must be reconciled at the corporate level.

"Within fashion, it's an issue of where the money is," Hardy says. "The consumption is being pushed by these extremely clever marketing campaigns. Even when they seem so stupid, as they often do, they're still working. And they're researched. These fashion brands really know how to wiggle their way out of anything."

Retailers can tout so-called sustainability efforts that fall dramatically short. One recent example is Boohoo's collaboration with Kourtney Kardashian Barker, who was named the brand's "sustainability ambassador." The reality-TV star defended her decision to take on the role, promising to reveal how garments in her collection are supposedly more sustainable than Boohoo's typical offerings. She has yet to do so.

"When I look at the fast-fashion hauls and stuff like that, obviously, people are chasing trends, but at the end of the day, what these people want is cute clothes," Hardy says. "It's all about loving clothes. And my belief is that if we can pull that out of everybody — to make them understand that you can marry this love of dress with the understanding that there is somebody behind [it] helping you feel that way — then maybe we can make some shifts in mindset."

Ahead, read through a conversation between Hardy and Mekita Rivas, POPSUGAR contributing senior fashion editor, that touches on the downside of the logomania trend, the surprising role subcontracting plays in the fashion supply chain, and more.

The New Press

"Worn Out: How Our Clothes Cover Up Fashion's Sins" by Alyssa Hardy ($27)

Mekita Rivas: In one part of the book, you talk about luxury, which we should touch on. Especially because logomania, I mean, I don't know that it ever really went out of fashion, to be honest. It definitely became much more of a thing in the early 2000s. And now more than ever, luxury fashion is this booming market. But what are you paying for, especially when counterfeiting is so pervasive? Is it really a worthwhile investment?

Alyssa Hardy: Look at the numbers some of these brands are making. They're making their money on belts and bags and sunglasses and shoes. Logomania is always about consumption and having that thing that looks super popular. It all leads back to consumption. With counterfeiting [of] luxury goods, they have more control of the supply chain for the most part, but because of so-called proprietary information on their designs, a lot of the time they're not disclosing these factories. So it's impossible to track whether or not they're safe for the workers. I have a chapter where I talk to somebody from Know the Chain, a company that traces supply chains within fashion. They put out reports about the worst offenders in terms of transparency. And often, it's the luxury brands that are on the top of the list.

MR: Yeah, that was surprising to me.

AH: It's not to say that the factories they're using are abusing their workers. But we live in a world [where it is] so common that, in my opinion, proprietary information is secondary to making sure the workers are paid adequately and not experiencing poor conditions or abuse by management. But they obviously have a bottom line. So to them, the secrecy is about keeping the exclusivity of the designs and the brand, which is understandable in some ways, but that's not the world we live in.

MR: Well, it's all so calculated. And when it comes to sustainability and fashion, it's become this topic du jour, because it sounds nice. But in reality, like you say, it's pretty much mostly greenwashing. We need to have actual regulations and laws in place that hold these corporations accountable. One of my biggest surprise takeaways from the book was how much subcontracting is involved in the garment-making process. Because naively, in my mind, I pictured a giant factory where everybody works. I didn't realize how piecemeal the process is.

AH: Subcontracting happens across industries. But especially in fashion, because of the lack of regulations, it is everywhere. Even the best brands cannot totally control how the subcontracted work within their supply chain. Unless they are completely vertically integrated, they are not necessarily controlling the factory they contracted to. [They'll go to] these villages of women who cannot get a good paying job because of the remoteness of where they are and pay them literal pennies to crochet something. And then we see that crochet piece at [a fast-fashion retailer], and we assume it's made on a machine. But it's made by a person who was a master of [crochet] who just was paid very little for it.

Getty | Future Publishing

MR: You brought up such a good point about subcontractors in the industry who take work home. The idea isn't totally getting rid of it but instead making it a transparent process and paying them a fair wage. It doesn't have to be an either/or. Why can't they just be paid what they're worth for their work?

AH: Absolutely. In certain areas, batik is a tradition that's been passed down for generations. And then, because of tourism and changing economies, that tradition is not being taught anymore because people are going into other work. So keeping it up is important. Hiring these people to do the work at rates that are living wages is the way it should be done.

MR: Yeah, especially when you factor in the discrepancy between what the subcontractors are paid — I mean, really, garment makers up and down the supply chain. But [considering] what the price tag ends up being when you see it in the store, you can't tell me that you can't afford to pay workers more.

AH: That's the other thing. It takes a lot to change the supply chains, but start it. At least start it. Because it's really cruel and lessons are not learned. But it's amazing to see garment workers, how much they have stood up for themselves in the past, and how they continue to push this movement louder. Specifically, the garment workers in LA. That [Garment Worker Protection Act] was them. They made that happen. They refused to be quiet about what was happening for years. That bill was decades in the making.

MR: That's an optimistic note to end on. We covered a lot. Is there anything else you want to add?

AH: I hope people feel they're learning something about such a powerful piece of our human experience.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.