Get ready to change the way you shop. Elizabeth Cline pulls no punches in Overdressed: The Shockingly High Price Of Cheap Fashion, her exposé of the deeper cost behind the world of fast fashion.
The numbers are startling: in 1990 the United States made 50 percent of the clothing its consumers bought. Today that number is down to three percent while China makes 41 percent of our clothing. We’ve lost more than our manufacturing muscle, we’ve also lost our sense of individuality and style. What happens when we opt for the $29 dress or the $15 shoes? Do these decisions have consequences on the grander scale? Cline ties the rise of fast fashion to the decline of American manufacturing but it isn’t just the lower-priced lines that are the culprit. These days a high-end designer label is no longer a guarantee of quality, regardless of price. Quality takes both time and money and the sad fact is that today’s economics of scale have essentially resulted to people walking around in would have been considered rags in any other era. Also around half of the modern wardrobe is now made of plastic, often in the form of polyester and other synthetic fabrics.
When prices are lower we tend to buy more. What has been dubbed the Costco effect can result in overconsumption. To tempt the fashion appetite, fast fashion stores will often sell items that are very similar but have enough key differences that the consumer may be tempted to buy both. Fast fashion lines also copy high-end fashion. The rapid cycle of trends require people to buy more and more clothing. Often these clothes are only worn a few times, many end up being donated to thrift shops but many also end up trashed. The EPA says Americans throw away 68 pounds of textiles per person each year. Even those items sent to a thrift store often only have a month or so to sell before they are also trashed. Due to our current rate of overconsumption there are always fresh donations.
Similar to Dana Thomas’s book Deluxe, a few years back, this is a well-researched look at what our clothing really costs. There are bright spots like the Alta Garcia factory in the Dominican Republic, one of the few factories paying its workers a true living wage. More and more up-and-coming designers are creating clothing that is eco-friendly and either fair trade or made locally. There is hope that the more consumers that are made aware of the real price of fast fashion, they may be willing to pay a little more for something that is a little better. Education about food production has lead to the increasing adoption of organic food choices, could a similar movement happen in the world of clothing?
Cline also investigates vintage fashions and the growing community of people learning to sew their own clothes. For her, the solution to her fashion conundrum has come through a mixture of sewing her own clothes, buying from thrift stores, and buying less clothing but better quality items. On her blog she details the purchase of a $575 Helmut Lang blazer. A good-fitting, well-made garment is worth spending the money on, worth taking the time to find. Fast fashion is the equivalent of fast food, it satisfies a temporary urge but in the end it’s no way to build a body or wardrobe.