Currently Reading – Overdressed

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.”


Filed under Currently Reading

18 responses to “Currently Reading – Overdressed

  1. Oh I am SO glad that there is a book on this very topic! I’ve been yaking my head off to friends about this topic. I do hope it gets as much attention as Fast Food Nation did. I couldn’t agree with her message more. I recall watching a documentary in a sociology class in college about the garment industry and it horrified me. I was already aware of what places like Wal-Mart were doing to our local economy (ruining mom and pop shops and the like) and had begun to shop second-hand in order to support our economy and was only slightly aware of the horrible labor conditions. The documentary really brought the situation to the forefront of my mind. I don’t recall the film title though. Another good documentary (although the end sadden me a bit because it took a swing at Disneyland, but rightly so) on the economy and industry is What Would Jesus Buy.

    Oh look at me, writing a novel. Thank you for sharing this book. I think I’ll have to go pick it up myself and read.


  2. Succinctly put Lizzie. I totally agree with everything here, and Janey is right – it’s great that a book has been written on this very subject.

    We’ve experienced exactly the same issues with out own textile industry (that was) in the North West of England. However, there are things that are being done (very slowly of course). For example, there was a recent series of TV programmes on Channel 4 (UK) with Mary Portas, an English businesswoman, retail expert, and broadcaster. She’d had enough of seeing clothes with ‘Made in China’ labels, and decided it was time to take the lead and set up a knicker factory in Manchester. The programme was called ‘Mary’s Bottom Line’. It was brilliant. She employed local people – most hadn’t worked for years. She also brought back the old seamstresses that had worked in the factory before it closed some 8 years previous. They helped with the training of new staff.

    The knickers weren’t the cheapest on the market but the brand was quality and she used materials that were all made here. If only there were more businesses that followed this example. I think most people wouldn’t mind spending a couple of quid more for something that was made here. I’ve a feeling that manufacturing in China isn’t as high as it was, but have no figures to back it up. I try not to buy anything if it was made there.


    • Cline writes a lot about the Chinese clothing industry. She actually made up a company and got appointments with Chinese factories and traveled to the huge factory area of China to see for herself the ways these factories operate. What she found was a huge range of quality; there are factories that produce for the likes of Michael Kors, and others that do Forever 21.

      She also found that wages are improving for Chinese workers, which sounds great, but what is happening is that now some of the factories are actually piecing work out to other (cheaper labor) countries, like Bangladesh, where there just is not the infrastructure to maintain the level of production we see in China. She actually thinks that the fast fashion system cannot be maintained if this trend continues.

      So, yes, you are right to think that manufacturing in China has at least leveled off, but conditions are just not any better, or are worse in places like Bangladesh and Vietnam. The good news is that clothing and textile production is making gains in the US, at least. This year, for the first time since 1990 there has been a growth in textile jobs in North Carolina.

      Part of it is due to hipsters, bless their hearts. Cone Mills in Greensboro makes denim, and due to increased demands for selvage denim, they were able to pull out their old machines from the 1950s and resume production of it.

      Some American companies, like Karen Kane, have moved most of their production back to the US, mainly because the increased cost of producing in China is no longer the “bargain” it once was.


  3. Thanks for the review of this book, Lizzie. I’m going to check it out!


  4. I’ll be reading this for sure. A similar book came out in the UK last year called To Die For by Lucy Siegle. It has turned me off ‘fast fashion’ for good, and I’m ever-more enamoured of my vintage that was made to last (and not by a 3 year old in a fire-trap factory).


  5. Like Penny Dreadful, I was going to mention the Lucy Siegle book that came out last year – also on my list of books to read.

    I was just speaking with a (vegan) shoe manufacturer about where their shoes were made and some were made in Brazil and others in smaller factories in China, where workers apparently have more leverage and better conditions – but I wouldn’t have assumed that about China without a vendor having told me so.

    I heard the NPR thing – I do always think the suggestion of sewing everything ourselves falls on deaf ears but I’m glad people can be introduced to the concept of shopping consciously.

    Also, at the farmers’ market this morning I had a discussion with a friend who works at one of the stalls as to whether the city-collected textile recycling was the best case scenario for unwanted textiles. I have been trying to “tier” my unwanted clothes/textiles through the most appropriate channels (resale shops first, swaps next, then goodwill or housing works, then city textile recycling where they sort by fiber) but it’s impossible to know what’s right 100% of the time.


  6. ourdailydress

    This is so interesting. I’ll have to get the book. I now try and avoid ‘fast fashion’. Just because something is cheap it doesn’t mean it’s a bargain. The quality of the product and the way it is made is not worth it.


  7. Thanks for the recommendation. It’s a topic I find very interesting, too. Every year the quality of the clothing in the shops seems to be lower and lower, and so are the prices, of course. A large retailer here advertises that “Australians are still paying too much”. It makes me angry because what they are selling is garbage, and the environmental cost the world is paying for producing that garbage then disposing of it is so unnecessary!


  8. blackberry

    Have saved this for my daughters to read, excellent article. Thank you.


  9. Wonderful post! Thank you so much for the book recommendation. Off to Amazon…


  10. This is a topic I’m very passionate about, so I can’t wait to read this book. Thanks for blogging about it!


  11. Reblogged this on The Home Gnome and commented:
    What a fabulous article! Always buy quality clothing–used or new! As Lizzie says, learn to spot quality goods when you’re shopping. I despise buying clothing that falls apart or needs repair within weeks of buying it.


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  13. This is an issue I have been steaming over since the mid 90s when China started dumping stock to destroy our industries. No wonder the economy imploded. Where else are people who are trained in industrial production going to work – Applebees and Walmart?

    Thanks for the review – this book is going on my to read list!


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