I first read about Elizabeth Cline’s work through her blog, The Good Closet. On it she has been encouraging people to send her photos of their closets, the point being that it was a graphic demonstration that we all have too much stuff.
Turns our she’s been busy writing more than a blog. Yesterday her book, Overdressed, The Shockingly High Price of Cheap Fashion was released, and due to the very good press the book has been receiving, I knew I’d be interested in her message. So I downloaded the book to Kindle and quickly read through it. I plan to go back and re-read it, as there was just so much information it was hard to absorb it all.
So what exactly is the high price we are paying for fast, cheap fashion? There are quite a few things, starting with the collapse of the American clothing and textile industries. We went from having almost all our clothing made in the US in 1960, to an estimated 2-5% today. Living in a state that was highly dependent on textile jobs, I can tell you the negative effect this has had on the economy of North Carolina.
But the problems go much, much farther. Much of the textile and clothing production moved to countries when environmental laws are practically nonexistent. It is an ecological disaster of major proportion with piles of polyester scraps littering the landscape and dyes being dumped directly into streams. These countries also have few laws to protect workers, and the minimum wage which is the norm in clothing factories, is not a proper living wage.
None of these ideas are surprising, as these problems are well publicized. But Cline brings up a very interesting point, one that I had floating in the back of my mind, but had not seen the scope that she presented. And that is that much of our clothing has become so cheap that it is considered to be little more than disposable. And in fact, clothing is being consumed at an alarming rate in first world countries, and there are indications that the tendency to over-consume is spreading to countries like China, where clothing consumption has been very low due to the poverty of the population.
I’ve been shopping in thrift store since the late 1970s, and the increase of the amount of clothing seen in stores today is just astounding. Not only that, but there are many more thrifts in which to shop. Cline writes about a Salvation Army processing center she visited, and tells how the excess clothing is sorted and baled. Very little of what is donated ever makes it to the sales floor. There is simply too much of it. I’ve seen the very same thing at my local Goodwill Clearance Center.
So, what happens to all this clothing? The quality of so much of it is so poor that it ends up either in the trash or in donations to thrift stores within months of having been bought new. For years clothing recyclers have been selling huge bales of clothing to re-sellers in Africa (causing the collapse of the clothing manufacturing industry in several African countries), but now there are indications that cheap new clothing is making inroads in some African countries. With some of the major cheap clothing retailers selling clothing that is counted in the millions of pieces a year, where exactly is it all going to go?
It’s a troubling question.
The solution to the problem has to lie in a change of attitudes toward clothing. Cline advocates a return to “slow” clothing, much like many people have made slow food a movement. She suggests that people learn about how clothes are made so that they can tell a quality garment from all the trash that is being sold. Look for quality in the clothes you buy, and be prepared to pay a little more. Search out clothing that is made in the USA (or in the country in which you live) or that is made in countries that have and enforce fair labor laws.
In the past, I’ve put it this way: Shop responsibly. It’s the very same thing.
There is an excellent interview with Cline on the NPR program, On Point, and you can listen to it online.
Note: Cline does talk quite a bit about vintage clothing as a good way to contribute to the solution of this problem. She also advocates the refashioning of clothing, including vintage that is “stained, torn or too out-of-date to sell.”