Fashion has always been a fickle thing, and one of the ways it has historically stayed in business is to change styles up every few seasons. In decades past, this worked to differentiate time periods from one another and gave each generation the opportunity to create a defining (and in most cases, enduring) style statement.


Back in the days when mothers wouldn't be caught dead in their daughters' clothes (and with small exceptions, vice versa), fashion designers were in the business of creating lasting and unique sartorial statements.

But in the last 20 years, the seasonality, production cycles, and formerly orderly creative process that was fashion has pretty much been tossed out the window.


With fast-fashion chains like H&M, Zara, Forever 21, Joe Fresh, (and big retailers like Target and Kohl's getting in on the action), fashion now changes with lightning speed, and it has made — to the joy of marketers — a new kind of clothing. Made cheaply, sold for half of what it used to be, and expected to be trashed by next season, clothing has become as disposable as this morning's latte cup. 


How did we get here? In her new book, "Overdressed," Elizabeth Cline explores the world that created fast fashion, from the factories that pay less than fair wages in China and Bangladesh, to the "haulers" who feed the "disposable clothes" idea. She also looks at how detail and craftsmanship have been drastically reduced in the rush to get clothing to market, and examines the environmental toll that cheap clothes create.


As the book's website asks, "... what are we doing with all these cheap clothes? And more importantly, what are they doing to us, our society, our environment, and our economic well-being?"

It's an important question, and a timely one, as we watch jobs go overseas, (forgetting that the U.S. used to have a large, thriving and creative apparel industry), global warming continues to affect our air, we continue to lose fresh water resources and rely on the abuse of people in other countries — all so that we can get that T-shirt for a dollar or two less. It's time to ask if it's worth it. 


Related fashion story on MNN: Green fashion rules at 2012 Oscars


Starre Vartan ( @ecochickie ) covers conscious consumption, health and science as she travels the world exploring new cultures and ideas.

A new book explores fast fashion's deep environmental -- and human -- toll
"Overdressed" by Elizabeth Cline delves into what makes cheap clothes so inexpensive.