Cost-cutting takes a toll on clothing quality

Rising manufacturing and textile costs overseas have forced clothing makers to compromise on quality. Consumers have noticed.
Rising manufacturing and textile costs overseas have forced clothing makers to compromise on quality. Consumers have noticed. (LYNNE SLADKY / Associated Press)
Posted: November 25, 2011

There's no need to count the sale signs in stores or dollar signs in Black Friday circulars to calculate whether clothes and shoes are the value they once were. Take a trip through your closet. You'll be surprised.

A few weeks ago, I threw on a tank top, stretch pants, and sneakers for the gym. It was chilly, so I rummaged for a long-sleeve cotton shirt I seldom wore.

As I pulled it over my shoulders and arms, I was amazed: How soft and thick. This is nothing like the shirts I've bought over the last few years. It was luxurious and durable, yet hadn't cost more than maybe 12 bucks from a mall store seven years ago.

Just a few days earlier, I had spent an entire weekend with a friend scouring three of the Washington area's big malls: Tysons Corner Center in McLean, Va.; Tysons Galleria in McLean; and the Fashion Centre at Pentagon City.

We got the browser's equivalent of slipping on that awesome old shirt.

Cottons and silks were scarce. Synthetic fibers were abundant, just as I remembered them in the post-recession years of the early 1990s (when the shotgun wedding of rayon and washing machine caused many a mishap for unknowing shoppers).

Shirts were so flimsy you had to buy a sweater or jacket to go on top, and those were made of loose-knit synthetic fibers. The crewnecks, T-shirts, and jerseys we did find were so thin we saw our fingers through the cotton.

As a retail-industry beat writer now in my fourth year, I have known for some time that rising manufacturing and textile costs overseas, combined with profound global economic malaise, would change the game big time for companies that make and sell clothes. And it would be only a matter of time before consumers caught on.

For several years, retailers and designers have been feverishly tweaking apparel strategies to reduce the amount of costly cotton in the equation. Once-luscious thread constructions have given way to parsimonious ones. Durable seams and stitching, which add factory cost, are also less the norm.

Retail executives warned investors that consumers would notice.

What my friend and I saw was the result of an arithmetic of scarcity, and what I've been privately predicting since the economy soured in 2007-08: Quality is down. Prices are not. You are getting less bang for your buck.

One chain store that used to hawk comfortable leather shoes had lined its shelves with pleatherlike offerings at prices evoking rawhide. No wonder there were no customers.

A department store was having a shoe sale. But selection was so thin you saw the exact same boots next to each other like soldiers in uniform. And the sale prices were no more impressive than the optical illusion of the duplicative displays.

In department stores, where designer brands used to abound, more space was set aside for no-frills fashion labels owned by the stores. Known as "private label" merchandise, such apparel is attractive to companies because it cuts out designer markups.

Private labels used to give stores an edge because the products could be made and sold for lower prices but at good quality. Yet as we shopped, we saw that even those clothes bore the hallmarks of cost-cutting.

Consumer Reports saw signs of the decline in quality in a survey a year ago. It found that some outlet stores were carrying year-old merchandise that was better made than the newer fashions hitting the floor at the companies' non-outlet stores.

"They had to cut costs, so there isn't an extra button" on the newer garment, said the magazine's textiles specialist, Pat Slaven. "The seam finish is different."

The hunch was that the quality difference stemmed from cost-cutting, she said, but researchers did not know how pervasive it was in the industry.

"We don't know that in every case," Slaven said. "But this is something that we've heard from a few industry insiders, and we've seen it."

Slaven has studied the denim in blue jeans and found that it is constructed in less durable ways than it was several decades ago. "Especially women's jeans," she said.

A few years ago, Consumer Reports found flaws in men's button-down dress shirts made for a major department store, suggesting cost-cutting had affected quality control, she said.

Today's T-shirts, too, are made of flimsy textiles but marketed as fashionable, Slaven said, presumably to conceal the decline in quality.

One bright spot, she noted, was in swimsuits, outdoor, and intimate apparel. But those items generally cost more, which might be why construction quality has remained high.

"Shopping's really bipolar right now." There's junk, she said, "and there's some real wonderful stuff."


Contact staff writer Maria Panaritis at 215-854-2431, mpanaritis@phillynews.com,

or @panaritism on Twitter.

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