Recently, two friends texted me simultaneously to turn on NPR’s Fresh Air. Terry Gross was interviewing Elizabeth Cline, the author of Overdressed: The Shockingly High Cost of Cheap Fashion. It was a fascinating interview (this post's title is a quote from the interview) and one that encompasses a lot of the thinking I’ve been doing recently. The short version is that the author took a look at her closet one day and realized that she had a closet full of clothes, clothes stored under her bed, and clothes stored in her basement, none of which she wore (sound familiar?). She realized that part of the reason why she had so much was that it had all been so cheap and easy to buy on impulse. She decided to look into why this was and the result was her book.
There are a few reasons why clothing is cheaper today than it has ever been. According to Cline, in the 50’s, close to 100% of clothes sold were manufactured in the US. In 1990, 50% of clothing sold was made here. Any guesses on what percent is made in the US today? 2%. Because of globalization and free trade agreements in the last 20 years, manufacturers are being allowed to outsource to other countries. Outsourcing allows for cheaper retail prices. Workers can be paid a fraction of what they’d be paid in a non-developing country. However, there are serious safety and environmental implications, like the recent factory collapse in Bangladesh, which killed more than 600 people. This all hits close to home for me - I grew up in a family where I was taught about the Triangle Shirtwaist fire and my mom was a labor organizer in clothing factories in Alabama before she went back to school to become a teacher.
Because clothing is cheap, we often buy more than we need and then donate it after a few wears. Unfortunately, thrift stores are now overflowing with clothing and can’t actually use all of the donations they get. They end up baling up clothing and sending it to developing countries, often in Africa. I knew about this practice, but I had always assumed that the clothing was donated. Apparently, it’s often sold at used clothing stalls in markets. Terry noted that this is an ironic cycle: the clothing is manufactured in developing countries and often ends up right back there after spending a short time in an American closet. There is silver lining, however. There are lots of current, trendy pieces in thrift stores that could be purchased secondhand instead of new.
Ok, does everyone feel sufficiently ill now? Me too. In reality, most of us don’t have the budget to buy only items that are handmade in Italy or the US, or by French nuns in a monastery. I for one, have been excited by the fact that in recent years, I can purchase fashion forward items without breaking the bank. I also don’t believe in beating yourself up - we place enough guilt and pressure on ourselves to be perfect as it is. The best we can do is take in this information and then think twice the next time we made a purchase. If we all make more thoughtful purchases, we usually buy less. If we buy less, there's less demand. Here are a few other tips inspired by Elizabeth Cline
5 tips for Ethical Fashion
1. Use what you have. Can you wear the metallic sandals you got married in for more casual occasions? (wink, wink, Julia) Can you throw a blazer over a strapless dress and wear it to work?
2. Repurpose what you have. Cline mentions that the decline in home sewers has contributed to the need for more clothes. I’m lucky because my mom sewed a lot of our clothes when we were growing up and taught me how to sew as well. I’m far from being able to make a garment that doesn’t look like Edward Scissorhands got involved, but I am able to hem and take in things. One of the best gifts my husband bought me was a sewing machine, about five years ago. Using a professional tailor works too, and helps to keep Americans employed.
3. Cline says “It’s not where you shop, it’s how you shop”. Conveniently, this is the basis for this whole blog, being mindful about what you own and what you buy. Check out the mindful closet philosophy if you haven’t already. Try a buying “fast” – for a week or a month. It’ll force you to be mindful. What would you learn about what triggers your buying?
4. Change your attitude towards clothing. Cline makes the point that we have to stop seeing clothing as disposable. Quality isn’t valued as much as it might have been 50 years ago. I'm writing this wearing a top from H&M. It's a classic white blouse, an item which I've had on my wish list for several months, and which I hope to wear at least once every couple of weeks. Does that make it any better - that it's not a throwaway piece for me? Maybe, maybe not.
5. Change your spending priorities. We might feel as though we can’t afford ethical fashion (I usually feel this way), but Cline says it’s really more about the priority people place on their purchases. The average cost of a wedding in the US is $28,000, many people have car payments of several hundred dollars a month, and yet we feel as though we can’t spend more than $10 on a blouse. Cline draws a correlation between the way people have changed their priorities on the quality of food they eat – we feel as though free-range organic food is worth it, maybe our thinking towards well-made clothing will shift similarly.
At the end of the interview, Terry asked Cline how writing this book had changed her attitude towards shopping. She said that her wardrobe now consists of one third clothing she already owned, one third clothing she’d purchased from “ethical” brands, and one third from thrift or vintage stores. That doesn’t sound so hard, right?
Here are other posts I've written
about making thoughtful decisions about clothes:
My April Budget
The Happiness Project and Too Many Choices
A Closet Full of Regrets
Defining Your Personal Style