If you've ever felt disturbed by how cheap the tank tops were at H&M—but bought one anyway—you're not alone. In her illuminating new book, Overdressed: The Shockingly High Cost of Cheap Fashion, Elizabeth Cline writes that the average American buys 64 pieces of new clothing a year, or a little more than one item a week. Much of it comes from "fast fashion" chain stores, which produce cheap clothes in massive quantities for the purpose of creating new trends that cycle out every few weeks, then sell them for next to nothing. Even secondhand stores can't keep up with the clothing we discard anymore, Cline writes; she visited one Salvation Army in Brooklyn that processes a staggering five tons of used clothes a day.
So how did we get here? In a phone interview with Bitch, Cline explains what's happening with the U.S. garment industry—and what it means for our jobs, our shopping habits, and our sense of responsibility to the world around us.
Bitch: The chapter on knock-offs is fascinating. You describe how there's no copyright law in the U.S. to protect a clothing design, so stores like Forever 21 are often able to get away with copying whole fashion lines. It's dishonest, but do you think many people who'd like to wear nice clothing justify fast fashion because they're angry about the price of designer stuff?
Cline: One of the reasons consumers have gotten so cheap is that we're constantly being marketed to by luxury and designer brands, and we know how expensive and overpriced those items can be. It makes us feel justified in shopping cheap. In the back of your mind when you buy that ten dollar dress, you know that you could spend a thousand dollars for a dress—or even more—and it really makes you feel savvy, like you've gotten away with something.
A lot of high-end designers mark their clothes up to seem luxurious, and I hate it. I've started a list of alternative brands on my blog and I list the price points, because brands that are made well with price points that reflect the work and quality of the products are crucial to the ethical fashion and the slow fashion movement. You're not paying mark-ups to pay for the name, you're paying what the garment is actually worth.
You wrote on your blog that we love fast fashion because so many of us are feeling broke these days, but that these clothes are really both a symptom and a cause of our suffering economy. That sort of hits at the heart of what this book is about.
It's not unlike the argument that people use about Walmart. Basically, huge fast fashion chain stores like Target, H&M, Forever 21, or Old Navy—the places most Americans shop in today—are importers. They're huge corporations that are obsessed with lowering their production costs, so they scour the world looking for the cheapest places to produce their products—and they're not in the United States. The more we patronize and support these corporations, the harder it is for U.S. industries to survive. That's why we've seen, in a very short period of time, most of our garment/textile trades disappear. In 1990 we made almost half of our clothing here; today it's two percent.
The connection among wages, jobs, and where we shop is huge, and people don't often acknowledge it. But factory jobs are really what used to make up the middle class, and that's gone now. When we ship off our garment jobs we're essentially shipping off our middle class, and in a way we're sort of forced to shop at Target. While it initially might have been a choice to shop cheap, as we've become poorer and poorer because of these consumer decisions, it's no longer a choice for a lot of people.
I saw some headlines recently about H&M's new "sustainable" line of clothing. Can we believe big retailers when they make these claims?
H&M has its Conscious Collection, which is made mostly out of recycled polyester and organic cotton. I think it's really great publicity for sustainable fashion, so in that respect I totally endorse it. But fast fashion as a business model is fundamentally at odds with sustainability. The whole system is built on speeding up the fashion cycle, so they're putting more clothes throughout the year and luring consumers into the store on a continuous basis. I think the reason they're making these efforts is they knew that it was just a matter of time before their customers were like, "Wait a minute. You're turning clothing into a disposable good; I buy things here all the time that I wear once or twice and they're either sitting in the back of my closet or I'm tossing them out!" I think they're trying to ward off criticism because their business practices are totally unsustainable.
But then there's the slow clothing movement you mentioned. You met some designers who use sustainable or recycled materials and order in smaller quantities. It's heartening, but does it represent a real change?
It's too early to tell, but I would say that all signs point to this being a real change. Shopping cheap is certainly a thrill, but the result is you own so much clothing and you love very little of it; there's no connection there. I really believe that people crave connections to their consumer goods. I think that's the reason that with food, people have gotten so into the local food movement and home cooking, because it's more satisfying. It's the same thing with clothes. There's something about knowing the designer who made your clothes, or knowing that it was made in your city, or supporting a brand that can tell you about the entire supply chain: Here's where I got my fabric, here's the factory that produced the clothes, here's the energy and environmental impact, etc. When you have that story, it's a much more fulfilling way to shop.
You point out that it's completely legal for companies in the U.S. and Europe to pay factory workers in other countries no more than their minimum wage, which in the developing world is almost never a living wage. Can consumers do anything to change this?
Consumers have the power to create alternatives like Alta Gracia [a sewing factory in the Dominican Republic, owned and operated by American company Knights Apparel that has allowed its employees to unionize] and more sustainable designers. But we also have the ability to hit major retailers like H&M and Forever 21 at their bottom line. When a company that big realizes it's under fire for the way it sources textiles, or the toxins in the fabric, or the glues in the shoes—those are things that H&M is starting to address—that's really huge. If there's consumer criticism or demand for an alternative, they will change their practices.
This is not commonly understood in the industry, but all of the sweatshop activism that happened in the late '90s has improved things somewhat. The factories that I saw overseas—even though the people are not making good wages—were much safer and cleaner than they used to be, and that's because of consumers in the West. So yes, consumers absolutely do make a difference!
How can we shop differently?
A main rule of thumb is to really try not to buy on the spot, or on impulse. A lot of the problem is just that we're over-consuming and we're not making very good use of the things we own. So no matter what price point you're shopping at, you should never treat clothing as disposable—it took resources to make, and human beings had to put it together. Partially it's just a matter of respect—making sure you actually need the thing you want, and that you really like the thing that you're buying.
There's also a website called FashioningChange.com that is a fantastic resource. You can go on there and say, "I like Forever 21, H&M, Marc Jacobs, and Chloé," and it will give you a brand or designer that is the ethical alternative. That is a big step in the right direction—support brands you like that are doing something good.