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.