How Wall Street Ruined Your (and the MLB's) Wardrobe | Crooked Media
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March 02, 2024
What A Day
How Wall Street Ruined Your (and the MLB's) Wardrobe

In This Episode

I see London, I see France, I see Shohei Ohtani’s underpants. This week, the MLB kicked off Spring Training with brand new see-through uniforms — yes, you read that right.

But it’s not just MLB players’ clothing that’s seemingly crappier, the uniform change is another story in a long line of corporate decisions that have made the clothing we wear worse and worse with each passing year. Max and Erin get to the bottom of how fashion got so fast, telling the story of a little Spanish retailer named Zara that changed the way we shop and a big, bad bogeyman (hint: it’s private equity) that stepped in to accelerate the decline of clothing quality.

 

TRANSCRIPT

 

Erin Ryan: Baseball players are mad this week and so are baseball fans. 

 

Max Fisher: What did the Houston Astros do now? 

 

Erin Ryan: Well for once baseball fans are mad at something that isn’t the Astros. Spring training just started and the new uniforms courtesy of Nike are pretty bad. 

 

Max Fisher: Oh. What’s wrong with them? 

 

Erin Ryan: Well, check out this photo a reporter took of Giants infielder Casey Schmitt posing for an official team photo. Do you notice anything? 

 

Max Fisher: Oh my God. The pants are see through. And are those his– 

 

Erin Ryan: –Balls in play, Max. Balls in play. [music break] I’m Erin Ryan. 

 

Max Fisher: And I’m Max Fisher.

 

Erin Ryan: And this is How We Got Here, a new series where Max and I explore a big question behind the week’s headlines, and tell a story that answers that question. 

 

Max Fisher: What we’re talking about this week is not actually baseball uniforms, although we’ll come back to what happened there. It’s the reaction that I had on seeing all this unfold and, Erin, I know that you had to. 

 

Erin Ryan: This resonated big time for us because it feels like even Major League Baseball is now falling victim to a problem afflicting all of us. It’s not just your imagination. The clothes we buy really are flimsier feeling. They fit worse and they fall apart faster. Not to mention they look cheap. 

 

Max Fisher: So our question this week why are all of our clothes suddenly getting worse? 

 

Erin Ryan: The story I want to tell you is about how two major changes in the industry, one came from within and one that was imposed on it by some bad actors in big finance converged a few years ago into a perfect storm of disaster for the fashion industry, and that disaster is bleeding out into the closets of consumers around the world and the environment and the economy. 

 

Max Fisher: And what’s happening in baseball is a little different. But again, we’ll come back to it. 

 

Erin Ryan: So, Max, I want to take you back to a time before these changes began, back to a golden age known as the 1980s. 

 

[clip of 1980’s JC Penney commercial] JC Penney knows that when you are headed for the top, you need an accomplished wardrobe, one with solid Oxford shirts, striped silk ties, and two piece suits that are expertly tailored, classically designed and have an elegant touch. 

 

Max Fisher: Wow. You can just hear the shoulder pads. 

 

Erin Ryan: Right and they’re using words in the ad like expert, classic words that convey durability and quality. For a long time, fashion mostly used highly skilled workers and high quality fabrics to put out seasonal fashion lines just 2 to 4 times a year. That sped up a bit in the ’60s and ’70s, as trendoid teens and hip youths demanded more seasons of clothing. Clothing manufacturers needed to turn things around cheaper and faster, hence the rise of polyester. But mostly the business model held.

 

Max Fisher: Well and this was all good business, right? Even if it required big overhead cost to build physical stores, supply chain, source fabrics, you had family firm retailers and box stores who didn’t mind those costs because they were in it for the long haul. 

 

Erin Ryan: This all starts to change with a Spanish retailer called Zara. 

 

Max Fisher: Ah yes Zara. 

 

Erin Ryan: Heard of it. It’s founded in the 1960s but really explodes internationally in the ’80s, and it heralds this transformative new way of running a clothing brand. 

 

Max Fisher: So I actually have a copy of the New York Times story from 1989 announcing Zara’s first U.S. store quote, “every week there’s a new shipment from Spain,” said Juan Lopez, who came to New York to head Zara’s U.S. operation. Then the Zara executive goes on, quote, “the stock in the store changes every three weeks. The latest trend is what we’re after. It takes 15 days between a new idea and getting it into the stores.” And here’s how the Times summed it up. At Zara, the emphasis is on fast fashion, merchandised in a coordinated style. 

 

Erin Ryan: And that’s actually the first time that I could find the phrase used, fast fashion. 

 

Max Fisher: So sorry, Erin. What is fast fashion? 

 

Erin Ryan: A fast fashion retailer produces inexpensive versions of high fashion trends, aka dupes, and it’s called fast because they can get a product onto shelves in a couple of weeks rather than months it might take a traditional retailer to design and ship something. 

 

Max Fisher: So a celebrity wears a particular dress on a runway. Everybody wants it, but it’s probably very expensive, and maybe it’s hard to find. But Zara produces a cheap knockoff and has 10,000 units in stores worldwide like that. 

 

Erin Ryan: Yeah, you can see why it’s popular and it’s great business for Zara, it gave people with Applebee’s clothing budgets the chance to wear styles resembling what you might see at Nobu. Take this 2004 ad for H&M’s now legendary collaboration with Karl Lagerfeld. 

 

[clip of 2004 ad for H&M’s collaboration with Karl Lagerfeld] God. Is it true? Of course it’s true. But it’s cheap. What a depressing word. It’s all about taste. If you are cheap, well nothing helps. 

 

Max Fisher: H&M is making rich people uncomfortable by challenging their exclusive access to high fashion. 

 

Erin Ryan: Yes, so soon fast fashion is everywhere. H&M, Forever 21, Gap, Asos. 

 

Max Fisher: But I’m confused because Zara arrived in 1989, right? But if it’s such a great business model, why do I remember fast fashion not really taking over until much later in the 2000s? 

 

Erin Ryan: Well, this might partially be because you weren’t in New York City in the 1990s. 

 

Max Fisher: I’m a hay seed it’s true. 

 

Erin Ryan: You weren’t at 59th and Lexington at the flagship store. Um. Trends, especially clothing trends, start there intended at the time to work their way west. 

 

Max Fisher: Ah. 

 

Erin Ryan: Um. There is, believe it or not, a geopolitical explanation for fast fashion’s sudden dominance in the 2000s. 

 

Max Fisher: Geopolitical. Okay, so I assume that you mean Fiona Apple going on stage at the 1997 Video Music Awards to declare and she was right about this, this world is bullshit. 

 

Erin Ryan: Absolutely right Fiona Apple. Great comments. 

 

Max Fisher: [laughing] No no notes? 

 

Erin Ryan: No notes Fiona Apple. Well Fiona Apple of course contributed to this. But also NAFTA. 

 

Max Fisher: Oh NAFTA. okay. Now you’re taking me back. 

 

Erin Ryan: The North American Free Trade Agreement goes into effect in 1994 and suddenly makes it much cheaper for American fashion retailers to make clothes in Mexico, especially if they’re churning out tons of product very quickly to meet fast fashion demand. 

 

Max Fisher: And then Bill Clinton, who’s president at the time, follows that up in 2000 by normalizing trade relations with China, which gives clothing brands and everybody else access to the largest pool of cheap labor in human history. 

 

Erin Ryan: And things really shift in 2005, when the world put an end to a trade deal, a very old trade deal called the Multi Fiber agreement. 

 

Max Fisher: Multi fiber agreement. What a name. 

 

Erin Ryan: Sounds like a prog rock band. [laughter]

 

Max Fisher: Catching their show later tonight. 

 

Erin Ryan: 100%. They’re playing at The Vic. It was this agreement that had been around since the ’70s that said that wealthy countries would limit how much fabric they imported from poorer countries. The idea was to protect European and American textile industries from having to compete with cheaper labor in say India. 

 

Max Fisher: Oh. 

 

Erin Ryan: But in 2005, the world’s governments agreed to end the multi fiber agreement, and the synthetic fabric heyday of the 1970s was about to get a second wind. 

 

Max Fisher: Okay, I see, so thanks to freer trade and the end of these protectionist policies in the 2000s, suddenly it is very cheap to produce huge amounts of clothing abroad and then quickly ship it into stores in New York or London. 

 

Erin Ryan: And this paved the way for a million little Zara’s and H&M’s. 

 

Max Fisher: Yeah, the fast fashion take over. So I found this New York Magazine story from 2010 about Uniqlo, the Japanese retailer opening its first big store in New York. Quote, “built on nearly instantaneous supply chains, the stores deliver the look of the moment, often stolen right off the runway for pennies on the dollar. The average Zara customer doesn’t expect to wear what she buys more than about ten times.” 

 

Erin Ryan: Well, I’m a Uniqlo apologist. Uniqlo is a little different because its clothes are higher quality and usually are staple designs rather than Fashion Week rip offs. I will go to battle for Uniqlo. 

 

Max Fisher: [?] I’ve got a bunch of their shirts. 

 

Erin Ryan: But it shows how dominant fast fashion had become that Uniqlo works within that model, consumers now expected to get whatever clothing they want for cheap, this minute, and all these chains under pressure from consumers, got in an arms race for who could be fastest and cheapest. 

 

Max Fisher: So okay, Erin, that is the first half of our story. Now it’s time for that big outside force that drives the second half. And if this were a monster movie, this would be the part where we first see the monster. 

 

Erin Ryan: It’s private equity. 

 

Max Fisher: [laugh] Oooh. Honestly, the monster in any story about the horrors of today’s consumer economy is more often than not, private equity. 

 

Erin Ryan: Unaffordable housing, collapsing news outlets, the rising price of health care. 

 

Max Fisher: Private equity, private equity and private equity. 

 

Erin Ryan: We should explain what it is. 

 

Max Fisher: So okay, private equity is a type of investment firm that buys companies, restructures them in theory to make them more profitable, and then sells those companies off. 

 

Erin Ryan: A person who licks all the frosting off the birthday cake before it’s  served to anybody else, private equity. Gordon Gekko, the slick, villainous banker from the movie Wall Street, private equity. 

 

[clip of character Gordon Gekko] I am not a destroyer of companies. I am a liberator of them. 

 

Max Fisher: Well, so what’s wrong with that? Right, well, three things. According to a new book called Plunder by the antitrust lawyer Brendan Ballou on the devastation wrought by private equity. Problem number one, private equity firms look to flip companies really quickly.

 

Erin Ryan: Which means they sacrifice the company’s long term health to extract short term profits, like by selling off a bunch of the company’s assets for a quick buck, or gutting the quality of whatever product that company makes. Sales go up, costs go down, and the private equity firm sells the company before anyone realizes what happened. 

 

Max Fisher: And problem number two, after they buy a company, they burden it with a ton of debt and make it pay the private equity firm all sorts of fees. 

 

Erin Ryan: Again, just trying to get back the cash they spent to buy the company. Even if it runs that company they just bought into the ground. 

 

Max Fisher: And number three, the private equity firms use all these shell companies and tax maneuvers to insulate themselves from the consequences of gutting the companies that they buy. 

 

Erin Ryan: There’s an example that Brendan Ballou opens his book with. 

 

Max Fisher: It’s really disturbing. 

 

Erin Ryan: In 2007, a giant private equity firm called The Carlyle Group. 

 

Max Fisher: Carlyle group ooh. 

 

Erin Ryan: Ominous. Bought Manor Care, less ominous but still–

 

Max Fisher: A little–

 

Erin Ryan: –ominous, which was the second largest nursing home chain in America. Carlyle mostly paid for the six billion purchase with loans, loans that it transferred to Manor Care. 

 

Max Fisher: Right. So that is called a leveraged buyout. Buying a company with loans that you then force onto your target. And it’s usually pretty bad news for the company getting bought. 

 

Erin Ryan: Yes. Because now Manor Care suddenly has to pay these huge interest payments on those loans that Carlyle took out to buy them. Then Carlyle sells off nearly all of Manor Care’s real estate. 

 

Max Fisher: Wow. 

 

Erin Ryan: So Manor Care also has to pay $500 million in rent to use the facilities it used to own. And on top of all that, Carlyle charges Manor Care all sorts of advisory fees for the privilege of being gutted. 

 

Max Fisher: And it’s Manor Care’s residents who suffer. The nursing homes have to lay off a bunch of their staff. The facilities become overwhelmed by pests. One resident actually dies, which their family argues is the direct result of private equity forcing unsafe practices to save money. 

 

Erin Ryan: Manor Care eventually has to declare bankruptcy. But what do the private equity people care? They’ve made their money. 

 

Max Fisher: Okay, so back to fast fashion. The fashion industry is making so much money with this new model that private equity gets interested. Carlyle, the same spooky firm that blew up the nursing home chain, actually starts the trend in 2008 by buying an Italian label called Moncler and then selling it for a profit a few years later. 

 

Erin Ryan: Private equity gets into fashion in a big way, and it’s the same slash and burn. In 2013, another firm buys a part of Aéropostale, the teen focused retailer. 

 

Max Fisher: Abercrombie vibes, big in shopping malls. 

 

Erin Ryan: I will never forget how those stores used to stink. [laughter] The private equity people, in addition to all their other tricks, forced Aéropostale to do business with the supply chain company that the private equity firm also owns. Aéropostale gets drained of cash, goes bankrupt and closes hundreds of stores. 

 

Max Fisher: This is when I feel like I started to notice my clothes getting worse, like the mid 2010s. So this is just as the clothing companies are getting bought up by private equity firms that cut costs to get that quick buck. 

 

Erin Ryan: Right. And private equity doesn’t care if over time you lose faith in the brand. By the time you realize that the quality is dropping at Aéropostale or that Macy’s has turned into a scary rummage sale, the private equity people have gotten out. 

 

Max Fisher: But we are just getting started here because there is another big change in the fashion industry that turns it into a private equity wet dream, ultra fast fashion. 

 

Erin Ryan: Like so many of today’s ills, it’s the internet’s fault. 

 

Max Fisher: Oh, it’s the internet. 

 

Erin Ryan: Online retailing provides a template for successfully starting a fashion brand without spending the money to build stores. Maybe you don’t even make the clothes. You just find overseas suppliers and connect them with buyers. And instead of running ads in Vogue or on TV, you can just buy a bunch of cheap, hyper targeted Facebook ads or spam a bunch of Instagram influencers with free samples. 

 

Max Fisher: So this is all catnip for the Gordon Gekkos of the mid 2010s, because it means that now they can buy a little online fashion startup for very, very cheap. Invest just a little to scale through social media, advertising, whatever, and then sell that company off. And that’s what happens between 2015 and 2016, the number of merger and acquisition deals in fashion double in just one year. 

 

Erin Ryan: Wow. And that’s where a little company called ZZKKO comes in. 

 

Max Fisher: Sorry, who ZZKKO? It sounds like one of those uh, like, fake Chinese brands you see on Amazon. 

 

Erin Ryan: Yeah, I thought it would be a full size couch, but it was doll sized. [laughter] Well, you’re not far off. It’s a Chinese company, and it does traffic in cheap generics. If you’ve never heard of ZZKKO, that’s because shortly after it’s founding in 2008, it changed its name to the more sound out able, Shein. 

 

Max Fisher: Oh, yeah, I’ve heard of Shein, but I so can you explain why they’re a big deal? 

 

Erin Ryan: Sure. Straight man. [laughter] Early on– 

 

Max Fisher: Me no know things. 

 

Erin Ryan: Early on Shein got compared a lot to a drop shipper because they didn’t make any of the clothing themselves. Rather, they sourced it from clothing merchants in Guangzhou, a big manufacturing city in southern China where a lot of everyday items are produced. 

 

Max Fisher: Oh yeah, that was like the iPhone place for a long time. So as I understand it, Shein’s big innovation is that it reduces quality as much as possible to these new extremes to drive prices way down below even the lows of the fast fashion boom. 

 

Erin Ryan: Yeah, like $4 for a top, cheap. $8 for a dress cheap. 

 

Max Fisher: Whoa, and Shein isn’t bound by fashion week. They can find new designs to rip off or sorry dupe every day by crawling social media, and by using these sophisticated algorithms to automatically identify fashion trends in the world, order up imitations, track how those imitations perform on the Shein app, and iterate from there. 

 

Erin Ryan: I just got a really good idea for a Shein April Fool’s Day joke. 

 

Max Fisher: Okay. 

 

Erin Ryan: Could we just, like, mess with their algorithm and have them make Spiderman costumes? 

 

Max Fisher: I think we get them to make Crooked gear. 

 

Erin Ryan: Okay, 100%. So just to recap, in the old days, you got clothes that were designed by professional designers and were made by skilled workers with natural fabrics that took a lot of effort to grow and harvest. Then in the fast fashion era, you got clothes that were designed by a corporation to mimic some new trend and were made cheaply enough with synthetic material that you’d wear them maybe a dozen or two dozen times. 

 

Max Fisher: Now ultra fast fashion dominates, and your clothes are designed by an algorithm, marketed on TikTok, and made so poorly you might wear it like once. And people like this? 

 

Erin Ryan: Boy, do they. As of 2022, Shein has more than 3000 suppliers and introduced in a single year 300,000 different items of clothing. 

 

Max Fisher: Whoa. 

 

Erin Ryan: That’s a lot. I can’t wear that much. [laughter] They’re the world’s largest clothing retailer. Their app is more downloaded in the U.S. than Amazon’s. They are valued at $100 billion. You even see this reflected in youth culture now, surely if you’re on TikTok, you found yourself in a hall of hauls. 

 

Max Fisher: Hauls, H-a-u-l? 

 

Erin Ryan: Yes, a haul which is a massive order of new clothing from a fast fashion brand like Shein unpacked and described on camera in what’s known as a Haul video. 

 

[clip of TikTok Shein Haul video] Guys, it’s time for a Shein haul. This is the first fit. So I got these jeans and oh my God. And this top, you see you see. 

 

Max Fisher: So Shein kind of creates this entire new market which investors go wild for. And they start treating fashion companies like tech startups. 

 

Erin Ryan: So when investors try to determine how much a company is worth, they use a multiple of that company’s annual earnings. Like if you want to buy, say, a construction company that makes a million dollars a year, you multiply it– 

 

Max Fisher: I do. 

 

Erin Ryan: –by, oh, good. Well, you multiply it by maybe five and you determine that company is worth five million dollars. 

 

Max Fisher: Oh, but with the rise of Shein, an ultra fast fashion, investors start applying double digit multipliers, which had been unheard of in the fashion industry. Just like, as an example, an app called Numi recently launched in India and it promises 500 new items every week, each for about $10. And investors immediately valued this app at 85 million. 

 

Erin Ryan: Max. I cannot emphasize enough that money is fake. 

 

Max Fisher: It’s pretty fake. 

 

Erin Ryan: But many, many people with a lot of money agree that fast fashion companies are worth a great deal right now. Private equity sees a new gold rush in ultra fast fashion. They start buying up fashion companies left and right, whether they’re ultra fast fashion or not, trying to get that Shein money. 

 

Max Fisher: And again, their goal isn’t actually to build like a mega profitable company like Shein, or make high quality clothes that God forbid people enjoy wearing. Like my personal favorite vintage LL Bean. 

 

Erin Ryan: I could have called that. 

 

Max Fisher: [laugh] Their goal is to grind down costs and sell off assets for a quick turnaround when it resells the company to someone else. 

 

Erin Ryan: All of this creates enormous pressure throughout the industry to make clothes that are super, super low quality. First, pressure from consumers who increasingly demand speed, lots of selection and ultra cheap items, and now pressure from investors who are barnstorming the fashion industry and want to cut costs even further. 

 

Max Fisher: And then the pandemic hits. 

 

Erin Ryan: People aren’t going out. We’re all living between whichever pair of sweatpants is least disgusting. 

 

Max Fisher: Excuse me, I had three pairs of sweatpants, so. 

 

Erin Ryan: Okay. Congrats, moneybags. [laughter] [music break]

 

[AD BREAK]

 

Max Fisher: So as this is happening, if you are say the owner of a clothing brand that has been in your family for generations, you hunker down and you ride it out. But if you’re one of the many private equity firms that got into this business in the late 2010s looking for a quick buck, you panic. 

 

[clip of unspecified news reporter] The preppy brand that rose to fame with its breezy catalog in the ’90s, becoming a favorite of Michelle Obama, is now filing for Chapter 11 bankruptcy. 

 

Erin Ryan: J.Crew goes bankrupt. Barneys, Neiman Marcus, all owned by private equity firms. 

 

Max Fisher: So when I first heard about all of these bankruptcies, I thought, come on, it’s the pandemic. Of course, it’s hard for clothing brands. Can we really blame this on private equity? 

 

Erin Ryan: Yes! 

 

Max Fisher: Yes. So it turns out the private equity people had saddled these fashion chains with billions of dollars in debt to pay for their own acquisitions, plus huge fees to the private equity people, which means that these companies had nothing left to invest in, let’s say, the shift to online retailing. And they had no cushion to survive the pandemic, hence closures, bankruptcies. 

 

Erin Ryan: Mm hmm, And just to illustrate, let’s say, Max, it was your birthday. 

 

Max Fisher: Oh, yay. 

 

Erin Ryan: And everybody bailed on coming to your party. 

 

Max Fisher: Aw. 

 

Erin Ryan: And you were sad about it. 

 

Max Fisher: Yeah. 

 

Erin Ryan: But I, a private equity friend, show up and offer to take you and your family out to dinner to celebrate. 

 

Max Fisher: Yay! 

 

Erin Ryan: However, when we get to the restaurant, I eat everybody’s food. 

 

Max Fisher: Oh. 

 

Erin Ryan: And and then I convince your family to disown you. 

 

Max Fisher: Oh! 

 

Erin Ryan: And then I leave you with the bill. 

 

Max Fisher: Oh, so [laugh] [?]. 

 

Erin Ryan: I’m a bad friend. 

 

Max Fisher: You really, you private equity. You’re not a nice friend. So in this analogy, I am J.Crew. The people who bailed on my party are the people who didn’t become my customers. You were the private equity firm buying me. Our meal is the J.Crew budget that you just ate up. My family and the customers, you scared away. And the restaurant tab you’re sticking me with is the debt you took on to buy me, J.Crew, in the first place. 

 

Erin Ryan: Yeah, I suck. 

 

Max Fisher: What the hell? [laughter]

 

Erin Ryan: And there’s a lot of this going around. A report out in 2020 found that in the years before the pandemic, ten of the largest fourteen retail chain bankruptcies involved companies that had been acquired by private equity. 

 

Max Fisher: Even the companies that did not fall into outright bankruptcy, like J.Crew, come under enormous strain from the private equity people who now want their money out. 

 

Erin Ryan: Everyday products can only become so shitty before people outside of the business page start to notice. I talked to Meredith Lynch, a writer and popular TikToker who looks at private equity’s tendency to make everything, including fashion, worse. 

 

[clip of Meredith Lynch] I look at examples like Club Monaco. For years that was a Ralph Lauren brand. And then in 2021, Ralph Lauren sold Club Monaco to Regent, which is a private equity firm based here in Beverly Hills. And if you look at the quality of the clothing that was being produced pre-sale to private equity versus what is in the stores now, you will notice that the fabrics are not as good. Things are not as lined. Things are more expensive. The experience of shopping is changing because they don’t employ as many people. And those are the immediate things that you start to notice as a consumer is that private equity, their goal is to always do more with less. 

 

Erin Ryan: So there’s a word for this uh because it’s not just happening in fashion. It’s called enshittification.

 

Max Fisher: Enshittification. Of course. 

 

Erin Ryan: Yes. The writer Cory Doctorow coined it last year to describe digital platforms like Facebook or Twitter, pivoting from attracting users by offering them services to exploiting those users for profit. But he’s since expanded it to describe quote, “a great enshittening.” And what a great word in which– 

 

Max Fisher: Love it. 

 

Erin Ryan: –the services that matter to us that we rely on are turning into giant piles of shit. 

 

Max Fisher: So this feels like that story about private equity gutting nursing homes, except happening to everything, everywhere. 

 

Erin Ryan: It’s not just a private equity thing, but it is often driven by private equity and the pressure it exerts on entire industries. Private equity has also been getting big into health care services, prisons, and buying up big blocks of rental homes and apartments. 

 

Max Fisher: Ugh. So I didn’t want to mention this when the nursing home thing first came up, because it’s pretty bleak. But there is a study estimating that private equity involvement in nursing homes is responsible for causing 20,000 premature deaths over the last 12 years, which makes me feel a little whiny for complaining about my clothes. 

 

Erin Ryan: Well, they are connected, so let’s try something. Max, do you know what your shirt is made out of? 

 

Max Fisher: Okay, let me just check. Uh oh okay. 100% cotton. 

 

Erin Ryan: Wow. 

 

Max Fisher: I’m wearing one of the good ones. 

 

Erin Ryan: One of the good ones. 

 

Max Fisher: I did peek in my closet before I uh came over here. And it is a lot of polyester, too. 

 

Erin Ryan: Mm hmm. So this is what I’m working with here, just to paint a picture for our listeners. I’m wearing Acne Studios sweater, which is a high end fashion brand. 

 

Max Fisher: Very fashionable,. 

 

Erin Ryan: That I I thrifted it, I thrifted it. 

 

Max Fisher: Okay, okay. 

 

Erin Ryan: But the fabric content is 65% polyester, 20% cotton, 15% viscose. 

 

Max Fisher: Viscose?

 

Erin Ryan: Yeah, that means my shirt is 80% plastic. 

 

Max Fisher: Ugh. 

 

Erin Ryan: It’s a fancy shirt. Thanks to cost and quality cutting measures by clothing companies trying to maximize profits, synthetic fibers now make up 60% of the material made into clothing, and that number is not getting any smaller. 

 

Max Fisher: And here I was feeling so good about trading all of my plastic Tupperware for glass, and it turns out I’m just draped in microplastics all day. 

 

Erin Ryan: This actually brings us back to the baseball uniforms that everyone’s so mad about. 

 

Max Fisher: Okay, yeah, I’m confused because the uniforms are provided by Nike, which is not an ultra fast fashion startup and is not owned by private equity. 

 

Erin Ryan: Right. But Nike subcontracts to a factory owned by Fanatics. So Nike’s not directly making them. And I think it’s partly this broader trend of enshittification, which has maybe trickled down even to places where private equity is not involved. You see that in, say, Fanatics, which Nike has hired to do all the actual manufacturing, providing players with few premade sizes now rather than tailoring each uniform. 

 

Max Fisher: Mm. 

 

Erin Ryan: But there’s also something particular to athletic apparel here. As athletic apparel gets fancier, it gets lighter, thinner, and is made from more synthetic fabrics. Natural fabrics, for all their upsides, are not particularly stretchy or moisture wicking. But these are all changes that in regular clothing, we associate with reductions in quality. Most people in their daily lives do not need their pants to wick moisture away. 

 

Max Fisher: And if they do, that’s their own personal private matter that we don’t need to pry into. So okay, so maybe the uniforms actually aren’t getting that much worse. They are just changing in ways that remind us of the ways that our clothing is getting shittier. 

 

Erin Ryan: So there’s something more important than your sweater’s thread suffering from all these changes, the ultra fast fashion model is a disaster for human rights and for the environment. The average American now produces 82 pounds of textile waste each year. Almost all of that ends up in landfills. 

 

Max Fisher: Yeah. 

 

Erin Ryan: The microplastics in those synthetic fabrics end up in the ocean, adding the equivalent of 50 billion plastic bottles every year. 

 

Max Fisher: Whoa. And water waste is a really big one, too. A shirt made with fast fashion methods requires 700 gallons of water to produce. That’s how much water one person drinks in two and a half years. And a pair of jeans takes 2000 gallons. And textile dyeing alone is now responsible for 20% of all industrial water pollution. 

 

Erin Ryan: I feel less bad about adding almond milk to my coffee. Uh. Thanks to that pressure to cut costs, 80% of textiles are produced by women aged 18 to 24 and often in countries with weak labor protections. A U.S. Department of Labor investigation found evidence of forced and child labor in the fashion industry in Argentina, Bangladesh, Brazil, China, India, Indonesia, Philippines, Turkey, and Vietnam. And Shein has long battled accusations that some of its clothing is made from forced labor. 

 

Max Fisher: Yikes. Well, and all of that waste adds up in the atmosphere, too. Like, the fast fashion industry is estimated to drive as much as 10% of global carbon emissions, and the UN– 

 

Erin Ryan: Oof. 

 

Max Fisher: –recently said that if consumption patterns continue, those emissions could rise by more than half in the next few years alone. 

 

Erin Ryan: There are other costs to the fast fashion private equity gold rush. Fast fashion is rotten with accusations that companies are stealing designs from small, independent designers who normally sell their stuff in their own proprietary stores or on places like Etsy, crowding them out of a market with a much cheaper knockoff. But all hope is not lost. Meredith Lynch, the writer creator who we heard from earlier, has pointed out that the same social media that enables [?] drunk, fast fashion brands to steal and cause harm can also spread the word about private equity and make more informed consumers. 

 

[clip of Meredith Lynch] Private equity moves in silence. So what social media does is it allows us to become more informed consumers. You can still make the choice to buy from the vendor, but at least you know who you’re buying from. And the more we can share about the ways in which private equity is affecting businesses, the better off we are. 

 

Max Fisher: So we’re seeing this awareness lead to something called slow fashion. Much like the slow food movement from a few years ago was a reaction against chains like McDonald’s and advocated eating locally made produce and meat, eating organic, eating less processed food. Now, slow fashion is a similar reaction against chains like Shein and all of the consumption habits that go along with that. 

 

Erin Ryan: Yeah, places like TikTok and Instagram are also hubs for people looking for tips on how to thrift high quality clothes, mend their old stuff, make their own clothes, and in general step back from contributing to the massive waste and human rights cost of fast fashion. But these activities take more time and effort than just clicking through an app and getting a new wardrobe in days. You can literally do that in the bathroom now. Just get a new wardrobe. So as a result of the slow fashion movement, the price of thrifted clothing has skyrocketed, which kind of undoes the entire appeal of thrifting. 

 

Max Fisher: Well. So hearing about all of this movement towards slow fashion and the rising awareness of all of the labor and environmental harms, it’s a little scary. But there is also something kind of empowering hearing from someone like Meredith Lynch, because I know it’s so easy to feel these days, like there is nothing we can do as individuals about, say, climate change because so much of it is driven by corporate polluters or, you know, coal plants in China. And what could I do about that? But fast fashion is a really big chunk of emissions, and that is a thing that I, as an individual person, can do something about. 

 

Erin Ryan: Totally. I’m going to go up to the first teenage girl I see and tell her to be less cool. 

 

Max Fisher: [laugh] That’s that’s the that’s the how we got here promise? 

 

Erin Ryan: Yes. We’re going to berate the teens into making more responsible consumer choices. Um. But if any of you are worried about the baseball players and their translucent pants because I know you were Max. 

 

Max Fisher: I was very concerned. 

 

Erin Ryan: You’ve been talking about it all week. I’ve got good news for you. The fan and player backlash might actually lead to Nike and Fanatics trying to fix the mess they’ve made before opening day. Unfortunately, the same thing can’t be said for the $25 Temu Balenciaga dupe you just bought for your cousin’s wedding, that smells like an oil slick. Which should be a lesson that when it comes to clothing, you get what you pay for. A $25 dress, if it sounds too good to be true, it’s probably made of oil. 

 

Max Fisher: [laugh] Well Erin, that was this week’s How We Got Here. Let’s go out with another blast from the good old days of box stores ’80s fashion. 

 

[clip of Burlington 1980’s commercial] Burlington, silky woven fabrics, do all the things that silk can do. Look and feel as wonderfully soft, luxurious and elegant as silk. Blouses, lingerie, dresses. So easy care and you’ll never wear silk again. Silky woven fabrics– [commercial fades out] [music break]

 

Max Fisher: What a Day’s How We Got Here is a Crooked Media production. It’s written and hosted by me, Max Fisher, and by Erin Ryan. Our producer is Austin Fischer. Emma Ilick-Frank is our associate producer. Evan Sutton is our sound editor. Kyle Seglin, Charlotte Landes and Vasilis Fotopoulos sound engineered the show. Production support from Leo Sussan, Itxy Quintanilla, Raven Yamamoto, Natalie Bettendorf, and Adriene Hill. And special thanks to What a Day hosts Tre’vell Anderson, Priyanka Aribindi, Josie Duffy Rice, and Juanita Tolliver for welcoming us to the family.