The inconvenient truth about bargain shopping

I just finished a book that blew my mind. It’s called “Overdressed: The Shockingly High Cost of Cheap Fashion” by Elizabeth L. Cline, and it explores the deep, dark problems behind the cheap ‘fast fashion’ that dominates today’s clothing industry. The book examines big retailers like Zara, H&M, Forever 21, Old Navy, Target, and Walmart, and how selling what are essentially ‘disposable’ clothes has horrendous consequences for the whole world.

First, there’s the problem with North American consumerism. Because clothes are cheap, everyone shops a lot. Quality doesn’t really matter because, when a new $15 shirt stretches out in the wash or self-destructs after a few wears, it can be easily replaced by something else that’s just as cheap. So people just keep buying, accumulating, and throwing out. There’s no incentive to take care of anything because it cost almost nothing, plus it’s pointless because there’s nothing to take care of! Clothes practically disintegrate from lack of quality.

Second, there’s the problem with outsourced production. The reason these stores can sell such cheap clothes is because they’re produced cheaply overseas. Up until 1997, 50 percent of clothes worn by Americans were still made in the U.S. Now it’s only 2 percent; and yet, unemployment rates are higher than ever. According to Cline, if Americans spent 1 percent of their disposable income on domestically made products, it would create 200,000 new jobs each year. But we’re too hooked on cheap prices to be willing to pay more for domestic production, and smaller, local retailers and designers can’t possibly compete with those prices.

Third, the garment factories are awful places where employees often earn less than minimum wage. They’re essentially slaves to the industry, unable to make enough money to feed their families and pay rent, let alone save anything for the future or for their kids’ education. But companies won’t increase the wages because consumers won’t pay any more for clothes. It’s a vicious cycle.

The book makes me glad to live in a small town where there are few retailers, which makes it easier to avoid the temptation of shopping. It also explains the often frustrating experiences I have with clothes – jeans tearing the first time I put them on, shirts stretching out, fabric getting bally and fuzzy, shoes that sit in my closet permanently because they’re too uncomfortable to wear, etc. I actually feel better after learning it’s a question of quality and doesn’t always have to be that way.

I liked Cline’s proposal for a “slow clothes” movement (similar to “slow food”). People need to wean themselves off the fast fashion diet. The solution is either to start investing in locally designed and made clothes (yes, ‘investing’ – because it will be a major financial outlay, but will likely be far more attractive, better fitting, and last longer), or start sewing, mending, and altering their own clothes. I especially love that last idea, even though I know nothing about sewing. To be able to sew is fabulously liberating and useful, just like knowing how to cook.

I recommend this book, although be prepared to start looking at clothing labels, fabrics, and styles in a disturbing new light.

You might also like:
Fashion Angst
It’s time to pitch the stuff
One last splurge on shoes


36 thoughts on “The inconvenient truth about bargain shopping

  1. You should listen to NPR’s Planet Money – they just did a four or five podcast series on how they made a t-shirt, interviewing people at every step of the way (cotton farmers in the US, women in spinning factories, women in manufacturing in Bangladesh and Colombia, and men who work on docks in the US.

  2. Love the painting on the header!

    This disposable mentality applies to almost everything in our culture today. I am not a clothes-horse, mostly because I hate shopping, but still, I find my closet filling up with amazing amounts of low-quality items. Fewer, better quality, fair-traded…that’s a better way to go!

    btw – have you considered writing a post on cookware? My mother told me recently she has had the same cookware (reverware and stainless) for almost 60 years! Today, lots of cookware has nasty chemicals that leach into food…

  3. If you shop at normal stores these days, you don’t necessarily get better quality when you pay more for your clothing. It’s super frustrating.

  4. How I felt about clothing was greatly influenced by my shelling out $60 for a turtleneck on sale while I was in law school. While other clothing faded and tore, that tutleneck stayed with me for a decade. When I finally donated it, it was because I’d grown out of it. I decided I wanted more clothing like that: made to last, so that it winds up being much more cost effective in the long run.

    1. I’m afraid I don’t know the answer. I’m sure there are at least a few small-scale fabric-making operations in the US, but I wouldn’t be surprised if the majority comes overseas, even for those who make clothes domestically.

    2. There is some. SOS cotton in northern Texas sells organic cotton items and clothing. It is really well made and long lasting.

  5. I have made (some of ) my own clothes for years. It’s a great way to get customized fit and one-of-a-kind items that no one else has. That being said, it’s also a painstaking, time-consuming, enormously frustrating process that can leave me in tears when I’ve invested hours and money in a garment that, in the end, doesn’t always work. I will continue to sew and encourage others to. But don’t for a minute think it’s easy!

    1. I agree with maryjurmain. I have knitted consistently (many hours per week) for over 25 years, and sewn off and on for longer than that. Neither one is easy – at least it’s not easy to create a garment that fits in any medium. To attain the level of proficiency required to make a well-fitted garment, one needs to approach a craft as developing a skill, not pursuing a hobby.

      And, as katiebird implied, it’s very hard to find fabric that’s not produced overseas, at least in quantities to cut apart and sew a garment.

      Thanks, Feisty, for reviewing this book (I’ve been intrigued by it when it’s popped up as recommended to me), and for your excellent post on knitting at treehugger!

      1. Thank you very much! I’m always happy when someone can connect with my articles in some way. It is indeed sad that sewing has become such a lost skill, but hopefully it can make a comeback as more people realize how important it can be. You should pick up the book if you have a chance because it is very informative. I was especially interested in the clothing recycling process in the U.S. and the small-scale, high-end garment production that continues in NYC.

      2. I source almost all of my fabric second hand. Same with my patterns. I thrift most of my clothing. I also sell second hand things on Etsy. It makes a difference. It’s a small difference, but a difference. I also knit, because I love it! As a broke student I can’t afford as much of that nice local yarn as I would like. *sad face*

    2. I think that’s wonderful. I’d love to learn how to sew, but don’t know anyone who can teach me. I was happy to find a local seamstress, however, who does clothing repairs, so that’s the next best option if I can’t make them myself.

    3. Nor is it cheaper to make your own clothes any more like it used to be. The cost of Patterns alone is absolutely outrageous even on sale.

    4. I sew a lot too but can’t afford a dressmakers dummy, which would help a lot when you sew by yourself. I like it though and it’s super easy for summer pants in hot weather, wrap skirts, etc…I have more trouble with tailored blouses.

  6. Reblogged this on viv the fish and commented:
    I will keep an eye out for this book. Seems like an idea that really hits the mark on how I’ve been feeling about the modern clothing industry for a while now.

  7. I am enjoying this discussion so much! I take really good care of my clothes — I haven’t used a dryer for shirts/blouses, dresses or slacks/jeans since the 1970s (when I realized all that lint was my CLOTHES disappearing!) ….. I used to sew all the time when I was a teen but, didn’t have a sewing machine for many years after leaving my parent’s house. Now I do but, I haven’t been happy with the fabric choices available in my city (Kansas City) ….. I think I should pick out a collection of patterns and the next time I visit my sister in NYC, we should visit Fabric Places to buy specifically for those patterns.

    The same with my knitting. Keep Knitting Patterns handy so if I am at a place with a good selection of locally produced yarn, I can buy just what I need for upcoming projects.

    I LOVE giving these sorts of projects a name, “Slow Clothes Movement” — I’m not in a hurry.

    1. Me too! I line dry nearly all the time, unless it’s raining or winter. The crispiness of clothing and the great smell is lovely. Love my sewing machine.

  8. I’m a knitter & crocheted and have been for about 30 years. I’m lucky, my knitter friends have kids that are not interested in what their moms make. My kids could keep me in business for years just keeping up with their wants.

  9. Your article is interesting, but in the 90’s there was a buy USA movement.,I agreed with the idea and so I did. You’ve never seen such overpriced garbage in your life. Yes a lot t of what’s out there is poor quality, and also cheap in price, but under the Made in USA standards, the quality was no better and for the most part neither were the working conditions. There was a sewing factory where I went to College and the majority of the women working were the illegal aliens and they were paid very poorly, just S in other countries.

    1. That’s interesting about the Buy USA movement. While I think it’s great to support the domestic economy over imports whenever possible, I’m certainly not an advocate of buying low-quality crap, no matter where it’s made. And you’re right about many factory conditions being bad, even over here. In “Overdressed,” I read about American Apparel, which markets the fact that its clothes are all-USA made, and yet its employees give a different picture. It’s still a bad company, with nearly impossible quotas for people to complete and very few breaks throughout the day. It seems that the whole system needs to be revamped, but consumers also need to be willing to pay more for those fairer wages, lower product quotas, etc. As long as people feel entitled to cheap prices, I doubt the system will change.

      1. Yes! You are so right that the final responsibility rests with the consumer. And most people, if they’re honest, would rather save a few bucks and not ask too many questions about how their stuff was made. I have a family member like that: she buys everything she can at Wal-Mart, and doesn’t really care how badly their workers are treated or what kind of third-world hellholes they buy from. Her attitude is that it’s too much trouble for her to pay attention to all that information, and everybody treats their workers poorly anyway, so what’s the use? She grew up during the Depression, and squeezing a nickel until it screams is too deeply embedded in her psyche for her to change now.

  10. I’m 65 so I grew up learning how to sew, crochet and embroider. Later I got an interest in spinning, weaving and knitting, but never really learned much until last year when I embarked upon a journey into learning these skills. Parallel to that was an interest in woodworking and woodburning, so my husband started making drop spindles. This year we determined to learn to weave together. It opened up a whole new world of “slow clothing” to us as we got to know sheep and alpaca ranchers, and even one lady who raises and breed angora rabbits, we’ve gotten to know a lot of spinners and weavers, knitters and crocheters and were delighted to see that those crafts are making a comeback. So yes, there is hand spun, hand dyed, hand woven cloth to be had in the U.S. and a lot more of it than I ever imagined. Its beginning to look like maybe next year I will start selling my own yarn and possibly woven pieces and I’m already doing a little designing. I’m interested in creating heirloom clothing, accessories and home goods that last long after I am gone and that I will be proud to pass on to others. I’m all for a slow clothing movement, but why stop there? How about hand made blankets, coverlets, sheets, pillowcases (gloriously embroidered with crocheted edging), and just about anything else you would use to beautify your home and that includes rugs. The pleasure and sense of accomplishment that comes from adorning yourself and home with useful items made by your own hands cannot be beat and has far more than just financial value. I encourage anyone to try it. If an old granny like me can do it, so can anyone else.

    1. I agree…I also am 65 and sew and knit. In fact I have my own sewing based business. I will close it someday to retire and can find no one to give it to because few have the skills anymore. Honestly, my studio is in the fashion district in Los Angeles and it is true that many of the sewers there are immigrants, some no doubt illegal, but it is also true that there are basically no US citizens with decent sewing skills. A good pattern maker or swimwear sewer can earn a good living, even with less than a high school education but sewing is a skill our citizens have lost. Sad, because it has provided me with a good living. It IS true that unless you are a very good seamstress it is not worth it today to make your own clothes, but alternations and sewing for the home are still money saving. Maybe we’ll see a revival….that would be lovely!

      1. Hi Ann: Might I tenderly suggest that in order for you to have someone to pass your business on to it might be necessary to pass on your knowledge to the next generation. Why did we learn these skills? Because our mothers, grandmothers, aunt’s and other elders taught us. Now it is our turn and if we do not teach these skills they will die out and at least here in the U.S. become lost arts..That would be a great tragedy indeed. So I recommend choosing a protege` that you can lovingly train…choose someone young…or …start teaching classes…even better….by the way, I didn’t start learning to spin and weave until after I retired because really retiring only means you get a new set of tires. Big Wink!!

  11. I read this book over a year ago and it has completely changed the way that I shop for clothes. I no longer buy clothes from fast fashion stores. I look for quality and consider each item an investment. I make a great effort to buy American Made clothing. Like another commenter said, Made in USA does not guarantee quality or fair working conditions. But it is for more likely to mean those things than something made in a developing country with little to no labor laws.

    I am very wary of sales now. Retailers are not dumb. Sales prices are taken into consideration when they set the full retail price. They are not losing money on sale prices, they are just not making as much versus full retail prices. So if you buy a blouse on sale for $10, it is probably really worth $5.

    I think that ultimately the responsibility lies with the consumer. If we don’t want poorly made clothes, then stop buying them and manufacturers will start producing quality pieces. If we don’t want clothes made in sweatshops, then start researching brands online and buying from companies whose labor practices you support. This means you will probably not be able to shop at the mall, although I’ve had luck with higher-end department stores. Another plus to higher-end department stores? They have a very generous return policy. I just returned a heavily worn year old sweater to Nordstrom because it got a hole on the sleeve. They took it back, no questions asked.

  12. I sew a fair bit (clothes as well as home accessories like cushions, blankets, placements, etc.). It is time consuming and not necessarily cheap, but there are ways to make it less expensive:

    1. Buy patterns on sale. (which also sells Vogue and Butterick patterns) has regular sales where patterns are sold for about $3 each. If you can wait for them in the mail, you can easily get patterns at a decent price.
    2. Buy sewing books that come with patterns. For a $25 book you can end up with good instructions and patterns for a dozen things you’ll want to wear or use. But make sure you like the style first.
    3. Sewing, knitting and crocheting magazines are also a good way of getting patterns you like for less money.

    That said, I do often buy independent patterns full price, because I often find them nicer (Colette, Deer & Doe, etc.). But then I use them to make multiple garments, so it evens out in the end.

    For sewing lessons, if you have a local sewing studio, that’s your best bet. You’ll have a small store with sewing machines to rent by the hour and a small selection of fabric; they usually offer classes of various kinds that are a good way to learn basic skills, especially if you don’t want to fork out for a sewing machine before figuring out if you like it or not. Also, I find these shop owners very knowledgeable about how the fabric is made and where it comes from. They are people who really love textiles and have made a personal business investment in local production.

    Sewing (and crocheting, which I also do) are definitely harder and more expensive than just buying it, but it’s also a lot more fun, and when it works, it really works. I’m a bit of a sewing evangelist, so I’ll stop there. Loved your knitting piece on Treehugger, and good luck. 🙂

  13. I only buy clothes for my five year old daughter in H & M, Target, Wallmart and in Carters. They grow out it so quick. Those clothes don’t wear out fast from what I have noticed and if too small after a while, they will get worn by a cousin. I buy my clothes at a store that is expensive just because I am overweight but the basic shirts there are awefully made. I would buy and do buy made in USA whenever I can.

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