Overdressed: Elizabeth Cline on Fast Fashion, Overconsumption, and What We Can Do About It

cover of OVERDRESSED showing  a black heel breaking at the tipIf you've ever felt disturbed by how cheap the tank tops were at H&M—but bought one anyway—you're not alone. In her illuminating new book, Overdressed: The Shockingly High Cost of Cheap Fashion, Elizabeth Cline writes that the average American buys 64 pieces of new clothing a year, or a little more than one item a week. Much of it comes from "fast fashion" chain stores, which produce cheap clothes in massive quantities for the purpose of creating new trends that cycle out every few weeks, then sell them for next to nothing. Even secondhand stores can't keep up with the clothing we discard anymore, Cline writes; she visited one Salvation Army in Brooklyn that processes a staggering five tons of used clothes a day. 

So how did we get here? In a phone interview with Bitch, Cline explains what's happening with the U.S. garment industry—and what it means for our jobs, our shopping habits, and our sense of responsibility to the world around us. 

Bitch: The chapter on knock-offs is fascinating. You describe how there's no copyright law in the U.S. to protect a clothing design, so stores like Forever 21 are often able to get away with copying whole fashion lines. It's dishonest, but do you think many people who'd like to wear nice clothing justify fast fashion because they're angry about the price of designer stuff? 

Cline: One of the reasons consumers have gotten so cheap is that we're constantly being marketed to by luxury and designer brands, and we know how expensive and overpriced those items can be. It makes us feel justified in shopping cheap. In the back of your mind when you buy that ten dollar dress, you know that you could spend a thousand dollars for a dress—or even more—and it really makes you feel savvy, like you've gotten away with something.

A lot of high-end designers mark their clothes up to seem luxurious, and I hate it. I've started a list of alternative brands on my blog and I list the price points, because brands that are made well with price points that reflect the work and quality of the products are crucial to the ethical fashion and the slow fashion movement. You're not paying mark-ups to pay for the name, you're paying what the garment is actually worth. 

You wrote on your blog that we love fast fashion because so many of us are feeling broke these days, but that these clothes are really both a symptom and a cause of our suffering economy. That sort of hits at the heart of what this book is about. 

It's not unlike the argument that people use about Walmart. Basically, huge fast fashion chain stores like Target, H&M, Forever 21, or Old Navy—the places most Americans shop in today—are importers. They're huge corporations that are obsessed with lowering their production costs, so they scour the world looking for the cheapest places to produce their products—and they're not in the United States. The more we patronize and support these corporations, the harder it is for U.S. industries to survive. That's why we've seen, in a very short period of time, most of our garment/textile trades disappear. In 1990 we made almost half of our clothing here; today it's two percent.

The connection among wages, jobs, and where we shop is huge, and people don't often acknowledge it. But factory jobs are really what used to make up the middle class, and that's gone now. When we ship off our garment jobs we're essentially shipping off our middle class, and in a way we're sort of forced to shop at Target. While it initially might have been a choice to shop cheap, as we've become poorer and poorer because of these consumer decisions, it's no longer a choice for a lot of people.

I saw some headlines recently about H&M's new "sustainable" line of clothing. Can we believe big retailers when they make these claims? 

ad for H&M's conscious collection. A white woman is in the jungle surrounded by garments

H&M has its Conscious Collection, which is made mostly out of recycled polyester and organic cotton. I think it's really great publicity for sustainable fashion, so in that respect I totally endorse it. But fast fashion as a business model is fundamentally at odds with sustainability. The whole system is built on speeding up the fashion cycle, so they're putting more clothes throughout the year and luring consumers into the store on a continuous basis. I think the reason they're making these efforts is they knew that it was just a matter of time before their customers were like, "Wait a minute. You're turning clothing into a disposable good; I buy things here all the time that I wear once or twice and they're either sitting in the back of my closet or I'm tossing them out!" I think they're trying to ward off criticism because their business practices are totally unsustainable. 

But then there's the slow clothing movement you mentioned. You met some designers who use sustainable or recycled materials and order in smaller quantities. It's heartening, but does it represent a real change? 

It's too early to tell, but I would say that all signs point to this being a real change. Shopping cheap is certainly a thrill, but the result is you own so much clothing and you love very little of it; there's no connection there. I really believe that people crave connections to their consumer goods. I think that's the reason that with food, people have gotten so into the local food movement and home cooking, because it's more satisfying. It's the same thing with clothes. There's something about knowing the designer who made your clothes, or knowing that it was made in your city, or supporting a brand that can tell you about the entire supply chain: Here's where I got my fabric, here's the factory that produced the clothes, here's the energy and environmental impact, etc. When you have that story, it's a much more fulfilling way to shop. 

You point out that it's completely legal for companies in the U.S. and Europe to pay factory workers in other countries no more than their minimum wage, which in the developing world is almost never a living wage. Can consumers do anything to change this?

Consumers have the power to create alternatives like Alta Gracia [a sewing factory in the Dominican Republic, owned and operated by American company Knights Apparel that has allowed its employees to unionize] and more sustainable designers. But we also have the ability to hit major retailers like H&M and Forever 21 at their bottom line. When a company that big realizes it's under fire for the way it sources textiles, or the toxins in the fabric, or the glues in the shoes—those are things that H&M is starting to address—that's really huge. If there's consumer criticism or demand for an alternative, they will change their practices. 

This is not commonly understood in the industry, but all of the sweatshop activism that happened in the late '90s has improved things somewhat. The factories that I saw overseas—even though the people are not making good wages—were much safer and cleaner than they used to be, and that's because of consumers in the West. So yes, consumers absolutely do make a difference!

How can we shop differently?

A main rule of thumb is to really try not to buy on the spot, or on impulse. A lot of the problem is just that we're over-consuming and we're not making very good use of the things we own. So no matter what price point you're shopping at, you should never treat clothing as disposable—it took resources to make, and human beings had to put it together. Partially it's just a matter of respect—making sure you actually need the thing you want, and that you really like the thing that you're buying. 

There's also a website called FashioningChange.com that is a fantastic resource. You can go on there and say, "I like Forever 21, H&M, Marc Jacobs, and Chloé," and it will give you a brand or designer that is the ethical alternative. That is a big step in the right direction—support brands you like that are doing something good.

 

 

Comments

11 comments have been made. Post a comment.

I think another great way to

I think another great way to shop differently is to support thrift stores and second hand stores. In this way, you are purchasing more affordable clothing that isn't fresh out of a factory. Also, you are given the opportunity to spruce up your style with what you is attractive to you, not just what is trendy. In addition, I think it's important to weekly give or consign clothing or items in your home. In all, I believe this supports the community and takes the pressure off of needing a name brand item.

I agree with Grace

I agree wholeheartedly with Grace. We need to create an American industry that refurbishes thrift shop stuff like new. I'd buy the stuff. We could live on what's existing in the country right now for probably thirty years. And I (seriously) miss my old 1990's clothes when I'm feeling nostalgic.

I can't remember the last

I can't remember the last time I bought something new. I think I always get my clothes at thrift shops. But I don't buy clothes very often.

Gorras To look fashionable

Gorras To look fashionable in the market we have to use different type of cloth which is also unique in the market.

Thrifting

Another solution to the problems of fast fashion is to purchase it from thrift or resale shops. Thrifting is an inexpensive way to expand your wardrobe as well as keeping clothing out of the landfills.

One treasure trove of reused clothing is the Goodwill "Bins"--the last stop for items before they are shipped out to their final resting grounds. I have found brand new clothing items for pennies at the Bins. Everything is piled up on tables, and people from all walks of life sort through it all. It is great fun, especially if you like to scavenge. It can be quite zen-like. Be sure to take rubber gloves.

I think you've

I think you've (inadvertently?) brought up an important point: digging through piles of 2nd-hand clothes looking for things you like in your size can be fun, but it can also take forever and feel frustrating, especially if you're looking for something specific. The kinds of stores being discussed aren't just benefiting from our lack of funds, they're feeding off our lack of time too, and while thrifting provides a comparable (or cheaper!) alternative on the price front, it can't compete in terms of how easy and quick it is to run into H&M and find that navy blue tank top in a size 10. I'm not sure what alternative there is or could be on that front, so I'd love to hear if anyone knows anything or has any ideas.

Additionally, I wanted to mention that people aren't always buying new clothes just for the hell of it, as this interview seems to suggest. The clothes made by these stores aren't made to last, and in my experience they frequently don't. They're not sitting in the back of my closet, they're sitting in a landfill or my cleaning-rags collection, full of holes. Just one more way they've got us cornered.

forced labor?

I can't help but wonder if there is yet another undisclosed cost in the form of forced labor and human trafficking? Anyone have an idea about this?

Eileen Fisher

One designer that I know of that tries to use as much sustainability and ethical means is Eileen Fisher. she pretty much only uses natural fibers, natural dyeing, and some of her clothes are made in the US, but sometimes China, sometimes India, and sometimes Italy. Unfortunately her clothing is expensive, I'm talking $58 for an organic cotton t-shirt, $158 for a cotton/rayon blend long skirt, etc. You can check out her website where it talks about her commitment to the environment:

http://eileenfisherampersand.com/

It's such an accurate

It's such an accurate observation to describe how modern consumers treat fashion as a disposable purchase. Personally, I treat my cheap clothes with the same care as my regularly priced clothes. I wouldn't buy a $10 tanktop unless I really planned to wear it - and after that I'd wash it, keep it on a hanger, and even sew the strap if it broke. Admittedly, that's probably because a) I can't afford to think of clothing as disposable, even if it's cheap, and b) I find it difficult to find clothes I genuinely like, so I try to get the most out of what I buy.

I loved a lot of the clothes

I loved a lot of the clothes from your list of alternatives, but they were, for the most part, in no way affordable to me (I am not in a position to spend $200 on a dress), and the vast majority weren't available in my size. Same problem with fashioningchange.com, which I had high hopes for but which is available only for people sizes 16 and under.

I think this Q&A is useful for people at a certain upper-middle-class income level who want to be able to shop ethically, but for those of us below that level, it feels like being lectured to buy things we can't afford. And it doesn't address the issue that, below a certain income level, the options for where to buy clothing (and other staples) are extremely limited. Though I hate Wal-Mart with a fiery burning passion and have the resources to shop elsewhere (to a limited extent), I'm not going to admonish my low-income clients who can barely make rent that they should order their children's clothing from an online boutique where a T-shirt will cost more than their weekly grocery budget.

Overdressed: Elizabeth Cline on Fast Fashion, Overconsumption,

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