The High Cost of Cheap Clothes

It’s shocking: Second to petroleum – fashion/textiles is the most polluting industry in the world!

Prompted by Reanna’s comment about my “Bargain Blazer”, here are some jarring statistics and some painless but powerful things YOU can do to make a difference.  And actually dress BETTER in the process.

  • The average American woman spends $3400 on clothing each year – 64 items – and over half of it hangs in our closets virtually unworn.
  • Americans discard 11 million tons of clothing annually.
  • Only 10% of donated items end up on thrift store racks.  The rest is typically shipped overseas where it piles up in landfills.

Discarded garments are just the tip of the iceberg – producing them in the first place wreaks both human and environmental havoc.

    • Harvesting vast amounts of wood pulp to make viscose is destroying huge parcels of Brazilian and Indonesian rain forest.
    • In India, chromium used in low-cost leather tanneries has killed off the marine plants and animals in the Ganges.
    • It can take more that 20,000 liters of water to produce the cotton in a single T-shirt and jeans.  The list could go on and on…

Yet so-called “fast fashion” retailers keep flooding the market with uber-cheap imported clothing – endlessly churning “must-have” trends and throw-away garments. And that price pressure has influenced “better” retailers to lower their prices … lowering their quality and selection in the process.

So how can they possibly make money selling $5 dresses and $8 jeans?  You know exactly how – we just don’t want to think about human trafficking, child labor, slave labor, 18-hour work days and frequently-fatal working conditions.

Those companies ARE making money – more than most of us can even imagine.  The chairman of H&M is 28th richest man in the world; Zara’s co-founder  is #4 – IN THE WORLD.  And Walmart’s owners aren’t exactly pinching their pennies either.

Individually you can’t do much.  But collectively we and our friends and their friends can make a huge impact.  Here are some steps to take:

  •  Refuse to EVER shop at “worst offender” retailers – Walmart, H&M, Forever 21, Zara, Gap and Old Navy are a few.
  • No matter where you shop, don’t buy cheap, trendy things you don’t need, just because they are on sale.
  • STOP bragging about bargain prices.  Every time you say “I got it for just $__”  you tell the world that’s all you feel you’re worth and that a cheap price is more important than quality clothes or eco-friendly, ethical production.
  •  COMPLAIN!  Write or email fashion magazines and TV shows every time you see them glorifying cheap clothing.  Not sure what to say?  You’ll find a form letter at the end of this post.  Adapt it or copy it verbatim.
  •  Looking for responsibly sourced clothing is great … but the real answer is to BUY LESS.  Develop a wardrobe plan around your best colors and styles.  Spend whatever it takes to get the RIGHT items in your closet. When you do that one thing, you’ll have so many combinations that you can dress better than ever and easily afford top quality in the pieces you buy.
  • Scroll down to find a PLANNING CHART for a 12-piece wardrobe that can mix/match into nearly 100 combinations.  And read more about this wardrobe concept in LOOKING GOOD .. Every Day.

Want to know more?

  • Check out the book “Overdressed:  The Shockingly High Cost of Cheap Fashion”.  You can find it at your local library.
  • View the documentary “The True Cost”.  Find that at
  • Watch John Oliver (Last Week Tonight) rant on this topic.  Search “John Oliver Cheap Fashion” – but only if you can tolerate some salty language.  I’m endorsing his message, not his vocabulary.

Here’s the wardrobe chart – Here’s that sample letter:

Dear _____  :

As a long-time reader (viewer) I am concerned to see your magazine (program) promoting wardrobe choices from fast-fashion retailers.  Making and selling super-cheap clothing is a direct cause of human trafficking and exploitive working conditions around the world, environmental destruction, excessive waste and the loss of thousands of American jobs.

(Optional paragraph).  Fashion/textiles is second only to petroleum as the most polluting industry around the world.  An average American woman  discards 84 pounds of textiles each – over 11 million tons annually overflowing landfills.

As a leading voice in the media, you have a responsibility to promote more responsible ways your audience can meet their wardrobe needs, or at a minimum to avoid encouraging this dangerous trend. 

Use snail-mail, email, Facebook, blog comment sections and other vehicles to make your voice heard.

About Nancy Nix Rice

I help other women feel confident about how they look every day - regardless of their age, budget, lifestyle or the size tag in their pants - so they put wardrobe concerns on the back burner and go share their gifts with the world.


  1. Tess on September 3, 2016 at 9:15 am

    I completely agree with everything you’ve said here. The problem I’ve run into is where to find clothes that are actually high quality while simultaneously being styles and shapes that I like! Even the stores that used to be higher end are barely better than H&M. And it’s so hard to find fitted clothes, which are my preference. So, aside from sewing my own, where should I go to find these high quality clothes?

    • Nancy Nix Rice on September 3, 2016 at 6:18 pm

      Unfortunately it is indeed difficult. Even as a professional shopper it’s tough to find the optimal choices for my clients – especially if they have coloring other than traditional “Winter” or if they are tall, short, plus-size, full-busted or imbalanced upper and lower body.
      That situation is largely the result of our cultural obsession with paying the lowest price rather than on getting the best product. Fast-fashion retail trends put tremendous price pressure on main-stream retail, and the only way the nicer stores can profitably respond is to limit their inventory to the most basic styles and color plus an assortment of cheap, short-lived trends.
      Of course there are exceptions. In middle price ranges I find nice things at Dillards (and you may have a similar nicer department store in your area). The specialty stores like Talbots, J Jill and Chicos vary greatly from collection to collection – sometimes classic and lovely, other times garish. (Do you realize that those stores introduce a new collection about every 6 weeks, so if you don’t find anything you like this month, check back next month and you’ll likely find a whole new assortment to consider.) In mid-price direct sale, Cabi does a nice job in separates up to a generous size 16.
      In higher-priced lines, there are some good options at Nordstrom, Saks and Neiman Marcus, but high price doesn’t guarantee tasteful by any means. The direct sale lines Doncaster, Carlisle and Worth offer beautiful things with wonderful mix/match options. The pricing is higher than many of my clients usually spend, but they last a decade or more and the fabrics are usually exquisite.
      Another option is to work with a good dressmaker and have your nicer things custom-made. You may find someone near you at the web site for the Assn of Sewing & Design Professionals (
      I’m also working on creating a direct-sale line myself – ponte knit separates and dresses with jersey and print coordinates. More on that as things develop …

  2. Marsha THole on September 3, 2016 at 5:05 pm

    The article on ETHICS is most interesting, but there are a couple of things I would like to comment on. First, I agree that we can all be more aware of what we have in our own closets, and not buy (or make!) any more than we truly need. I am in that process now, and cleaning out items I don’t wear or need anymore, including throwing some into the trash! Second, until the laws of our country change, clothing manufacturers will continue to seek the cheapest source for the making of their clothing lines, which is overseas. I think it is sad and terrible what women make who work in sweat factories, but I can’t do a thing about it as one person.

    Regarding my value, as a sewer, I have never equated anything, much less my value, to a label in the back of a garment. Indeed, I couldn’t name you one designer at the moment who is alive (I recall the late Albert Nipon, because I sewed a couple of Vogue dresses of his with the pinpoint tucks). Frankly, I could care less whose name is on something, unlike a couple of consignment stores in my city that are quite snooty when it comes to rejecting beautifully hand-sewn garments because some alleged famous person’s name is not on the label. I have bought quality clothes, and prices have ranged from high to low. So the price means nothing in terms of how I value myself or my wardrobe. I am looking for fit and color mostly. I have gotten some great clothes at some thrift shops, actually, sometimes if only to remove the buttons on something I liked there.

    I have never shopped at any of the named offenders for clothes, but not because they are offenders (which I now know they are). I don’t even know if we have them (excluding Walmart) in my city, I am sorry to say, but I have seen their ads in magazines and their clothes appeal to women who are about 40 years younger than I am. As for high-priced Nordstrom (where you can get some very nice items on sale and I have–although we don’t have one where I live), the styles are often so ridiculous as to make me laugh.

    Regarding your statement that 90 percent of the donations to charities are sent overseas to landfills, would you please tell us where that statement comes from. I am wondering if that is the situation because many irresponsible people are donating terrible clothing to these places–clothes that are stained, ripped, etc., and if they aren’t caught at the backdoor, the stockers are not catching them either. If I wouldn’t wear something, then I won’t donate it.

    Finally, in the past couple of years (and previous years), I can’t remember spending a total of even $200 on clothing (and I went on a fabric diet ten years ago and have stuck to it!). I have bought good quality in the past and expect it to last through many cleanings. Classic styles that never go out of fashion, and can be updated with accessories.

    Thanks for enlightening us on this subject. I am “screening” my current closet inventory based on the 12-garment system. I love it! P.S. Where can we download a copy of the planning chart? Thanks again.

    • Nancy Nix Rice on September 3, 2016 at 7:40 pm

      My goodness Marsha – you could be a blogger yourself. Or maybe you are? In either case, I’d say we are very much on the same page. Personal flattery and garment quality are far more important than price. Virtually every woman who calls me for help with her wardrobe has a closet stuffed with far more items than she needs, and many of them still have the sale tags hanging on them. After we weed out the things that don’t really work for her, it isn’t surprising to get a call sharing her amazement that she can dress better and easier with half as many clothes (sometimes much less than half!).
      Another part of the puzzle is realizing that a big price tag or a designer name doesn’t assure flattery or quality. That’s where education come in. (A not-too-subtle plug here for the LOOKING GOOD book, this blog, my class and live workshops around the country). On the other hand, a ridiculously low price does virtually guarantee low quality and exploitive manufacture.
      As for the 11% statistic – I can’t at the moment track down my original source for that, but you can Google “clothing from resale shops to landfills” for a long list of articles with similar information. I work very closely with a high-volume charity resale shop in my own city, and regularly see more merchandise go out the back door that comes in the donations door. We tried stockpiling it for a semi-annual $1-per-item warehouse sale, but found that even with all volunteer help, the storage and set-up costs far exceeded the income from the sale, so we had to discontinue it.

  3. Elaine Earnshaw on September 3, 2016 at 7:34 pm

    Nancy, I hope you continue to supply quality knit fabrics for those who sew and love to work with the quality fabrics that you now provide.

    • Nancy Nix Rice on September 3, 2016 at 7:48 pm

      Thanks Elaine. Ironically I never intended to sell fabric online, but as I was sourcing the fabric for my anticipated clothing line, a few of my sewing buddies learned about it and insisted on shopping. the word spread, and now it’s taken on a life of its own. It’s a lot harder to manage than I ever imagined, but also great fun to hear from women like you who appreciate the opportunity to buy fabrics that aren’t normally available in retail fabric stores. I’d love to see pictures of the things you’ve been making with our ponte and jersey knits.

  4. Melanie Smith on September 18, 2016 at 7:25 am

    Great article Nancy! Shopping at thrift and consignment stores is another great option. The money you spend at Goodwill goes to help others get back on their feet. All the pants I wore at boot camp were from my local Goodwill. I needed comfortable pants that I wouldn’t mind getting messy. All I have in my closet are jeans (which are not comfortable) and pants that I want to keep intact. The best part is, the pants didn’t get messy and now I have 5 new pairs of comfy pants to wear this winter. Some of them were kind of cute too, and it took me less than an hour to find them! If I had tried to find them at the mall it would have been hours of wandering though multiple stores. Unlike most women I really don’t enjoy shopping.

    • Nancy Nix Rice on September 18, 2016 at 4:19 pm

      Great thoughts Melanie. Resale is a great way to find good clothes ethically and on a budget. And I really hadn’t thought of the easy shopping factor. When I’m building a coordinated wardrobe for a client the assortment in a resale shop isn’t very convenient. But for the situation you described it is perfect. I’m guest expert next week on a podcast for new moms, and I’ll add resale to my info – ideal for clothes that you hope to shrink out of in a short amount of time.
      And be reassured – your are by no means the only woman who doesn’t like to shop. If we were all the shopaholics portrayed in the media I’d have been out of business long ago.

      • Karen Rogers on January 5, 2021 at 5:59 pm

        Hi Nancy,
        Just a thought, there are online thrift and/or consignment stores. A few years ago I had to create a new work wardrobe in less than a month. I had just lost a huge amount of weight due to a car accident that also left me unable to sew for long periods of time. I went online and found a consignment store ( that was set up with filters for size and color. I used your book to help me decide on colors and styles for a capsule wardrobe. I then searched for clothing brands for which I knew my new sizes, filtering for my chosen colors. I found tops, 3rd layers, bottoms, shoes, a handbag, scarves, and jewelry–a complete wardrobe of 2 intermixable capsules–for less than $500 including shipping. There were only a few things that I decided to return. When I saw you at Sew Expo in Puyallup the following February I purchased fabric and scarves for a 3rd capsule that works with the 1st 2 capsules. It is possible to buy previously loved clothing in non-black, even “exotic”, colors, even in a hurry! I’ve recently put together a summer capsule which focuses on turquoise, brown, and coral.

        As a side note I now find myself in the weird position of saying “I already have something similar” when I see an outfit I like on social media. I’m having trouble figuring out what to sew! It’s so bad that I’m actually doing mending!

        • Nancy Nix Rice on January 5, 2021 at 8:00 pm

          Great saga – thanks for sharing it. Happy mending, I guess!

  5. Nancy S. on September 19, 2016 at 9:13 pm

    I will admit to having been somewhat of a label snob baxk when I was working and making good money. However, it was because I could pick the brand (Evan Picone) off the Bamberger’s/Macy’s rack without trying it on and except for some of the blouses being dreaded polyester but quite lovely, most of the fabrics were lovely natural fibers like wool for the winter suits and linen blend for the warm weather ones. I miss that company. I do not buy anything now because I am trying to lose weight. I will not sew until I get down to a decent weight. I need natural fibers, being post-menopausal and always hot, and all there is in my area is JoAnn’s. Not much non-synthetic choice. I miss Four Seasons from British Columbia, and the one from Mass that eventually merged with Fabric Mart as they had swatches by your season and it made it so easy. BTW, I was a medium-brown haired Summer, with eyes that make people want to make me an Autumn but I am not. I have fair Irish skin and am definitely “muted”. My eyes are a dusty aqua/green mix with splashes of gold. I am very happy as a Summer despite the impossibility of finding “watercolor” type prints in natural fibers in my colors. It was almost easier before the grey hair came because I was great in rose brown and rose beige but now the muted greys are best. C’est la vie. I would love a color fan like the one you show. CMB ones are so limiting. The best I ever got was from Color One.

    • Nancy Nix Rice on September 19, 2016 at 9:25 pm

      There’s nothing to “admit” about holding out for nicer things and thing that really flatter you. That’s what dressing optimally is all about. Just hate to hear you refusing to sew for yourself until you lose weight. You might just find that dressing your current shape with love would inspire you to practice better self-care in the food and exercise realm too. I know it works that way for me. Best of success.

      • Meg Kundert on January 3, 2021 at 9:52 pm

        Right on Nancy! Overdressed is an eye opening read. I’d like to add “No Logo” by Naomi Kline to the must read list as well.
        I tried to sew most of my wardrobe for years but my sewing output was just too slow for my needs. I allowed myself to picked something up at my local consignment shop or Salvation Army every few months but I never went often enough to find much in the right color, style, and size..
        Then I discovered which is a huge online consignment store. I’ll search for items I need and return what doesn’t work out, and since I sew I can alter anything that’s too big. I’ve gotten numerous pants, tees, jackets, a trench, and even a couple of bathing suits, all in my NNR color fan! Because theses are used (sometimes still with the tags on) the prices are good so I can afford higher quality pieces including brands like Worth, Armani, St. John, LaFayette 148, Pendleton, Donna Karen, Prada, etc. I get well made pieces in natural fibers saved from the landfill that I custom fit.
        I also don’t feel so much pressure to sew everything from scratch now so I can enjoy my hobby more.

        • Nancy Nix Rice on January 4, 2021 at 10:23 am

          Thanks for the recommendation Meg. And good for you for being both time-conscious and eco-conscious in your shopping/sewing decisions. I’ve played on Ebay and Poshmark but never ThredUp. I’ll check it out. Also my personal fave local resale store i soon to introduce an online shopping option. I’ll keep readers updated on that too.

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