BY KATRINA RODABAUGH // There are few books I can wholeheartedly recommend the way I can recommend “Overdressed: The Shockingly High Cost of Cheap Fashion” to anyone interested in sustainable fashion. That’s right, anyone. I first came across this book by Elizabeth L. Cline when I heard her interviewed on NPR a few years ago. I promptly bought the book and read it cover to cover. I actually think it should be required reading for anyone interested in the slow fashion movement. Can we have required reading for sustainable movements?
Overdressed follows Cline’s journey as she comes to the realization that her own closet is spilling with cheap clothing and she needs a major wardrobe overhaul. But then the book follows her journalistic research into the history of the fashion industry in America, and why and when it moved overseas; the shift in American ideals around value and scoring a bargain; the shift in consumer habits to shop all the time, all year round; the life of secondhand clothing once it leaves our closets; and her own solutions to reclaim her closet and better align with the ethics and ecological values of sustainable fashion. But mostly, this book changed my life.
I’ve now read dozens of books on sustainable fashion and I certainly have a handful of favorites, but Cline’s remains at the top of my list as essential slow-fashion reading. It’s so important that we understand the history, politics, economics and psychology that led to fast fashion, and that we better understand the potential of our impact as slow-fashion supporters. So, I imagine it comes with very little surprise that I’m absolutely thrilled to share this interview with Elizabeth Cline. Welcome, Elizabeth!
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It’s not every day that I get to say that someone’s book changed my life, but I can confidently say that Overdressed changed my life through my relationship to fashion. I stumbled upon it in spring 2013 just after the Rana Plaza factory garment collapsed in Dhaka, Bangladesh, and your book offered exactly the information I was craving. How did we get here in fashion? How did we get to this place where nearly 1,200 people died in a structural failure and simultaneously t-shirts sell for only $5? Your book so eloquently addresses these questions and so much more. Can you talk about the initial questions and concerns that lead you to research and write Overdressed?
That’s so wonderful to hear! When I wrote Overdressed I had no idea the kind of impact the book would have. People are continuing to discover it, which makes me very happy. It also changed my life beyond imagination too, so it feels good to know that there are many people on this journey together and with me.
My own extreme shopping behaviors led me to write the book. When cheap, fast fashion came along in the early 2000s, I went from being a mostly secondhand shopper to buying only cheap fashion and buying exponentially more clothing than ever before. I was binging on cheap fashion, without even thinking about it, as was everyone around me. As a journalist, it got me curious what had changed in the fashion industry and what the hidden costs were behind all this cheap clothing.
Your book is comprehensive in its exploration of the development of fast fashion. You write about the history of the American fashion industry and the shift to manufacturing overseas but you also write about the American psychological shift in overconsumption—how we crave a bargain and simultaneously undervalue fashion to the point of its being disposable. I think this straddling of the international and the personal is really what we’re trying to tackle in slow fashion. Can you talk about this balance? About how your closet became a symbol for tackling a global industry while you personally refocused your fashion habits?
One thing I really enjoyed about writing Overdressed is digging into the history of retail, shopping and consumerism in America. It’s so fascinating to me. Many people, prior to reading the book, think it’s an investigation into the environmental and human rights catastrophes of fashion. But it’s also a story about consumerism, globalization and shifting American values.
One of the legacies of writing Overdressed is trying to bring people back to a place of connection with clothes. It’s not easy nowadays, since clothing is made overseas and engineered by massive conglomerates that have supply chains so huge that no one really knows where or how anything is being made. It’s hard to be a responsible consumer citizen now, as tracing the origins of what we wear is murky at best. Because consumers aren’t as interested in value for their money and quality, because everything is cheap, I think a lot of consumers have lost their vigilance as well.
I think that one way to get people to care is through slow fashion, because caring about clothes feels good. And owning and wearing good clothes feels even better. Asking questions, getting engaged in clothing and seeking out well-made clothes can be a source of joy in our everyday lives. That’s one thing I couldn’t have fathomed at the beginning of this journey, is that there is this whole world of better clothing outside of cheap, fast fashion. Slowing down and buying for quality and caring for your clothing is better for the planet, but it can also make you better dressed, help you save money, and make life more enjoyable.
Your work is often compared to that of Michael Pollan — claiming that your work does for fashion what Pollan did for food. Do you agree with this comparison between Slow Food and Slow Fashion? Do you think fashion is on a similar pathway?
Michael Pollan is such a great writer. I always appreciate the comparison. What food and fashion have in common is that they’re both essential human needs and completely vital to culture and society. These are both crucial sectors to hold responsible to our values. That said, there are some important differences between these two industries. First of all, our food supply was never globalized to the same extent as the fashion industry. Much of it remained in the United States. Creating a more local or traceable food system is simply easier because of that. Secondly, most crops and meat production have been highly mechanized, so labor costs don’t impact the final costs of food as much as fashion. In other words, because food is less labor-intensive, you can make local food and traceable food without driving up the cost of food. With clothes, everything we wear requires labor from many people. On a typical store-bought t-shirt, as many as 14 different garment workers sewed each seam on that item. So it makes a huge difference if you make that shirt in the Dominican Republic versus the United States. This means that our movement has different challenges.
In Overdressed you write, “Ethical fashion of years past was associated with such style-blind, drab clothes as hemp shoes or plain organic cotton t-shirts that put the politics before good design. Not surprisingly, it had only a niche following. Organic and local food is popular because it adds to the experience of eating. Today’s slow and local fashion movement is finally promising the same enhanced experience for pursuers of style.” Can you talk more about the enhanced experience for consumers of slow fashion?
Sure! This question is much easier for me to answer nowadays. When I finished writing Overdressed, I was so new to the experience of shopping slow that I was almost guessing at how it was better. But let’s first think about the experience of fast fashion. Fast fashion offers very little in terms of a lasting emotional reward. It’s fun in the moment to buy something cheap, but there are major downsides in that it fills your home with clutter, is a waste of money and can land you further away from a working wardrobe that reflects your personal style. Shopping at fast-fashion chains reminds of that feeling you get when you’re in a technology loophole and you can’t stop checking Facebook and Instagram. It’s this compulsive, low-level habit of wanting things because they’re cheap.
Slow fashion as a practice is much more about the big picture and discipline and creativity. You have to start with the premise that clothes matter, and that your self-expression through clothing is legitimate and important. And that the lives of the people making your clothes are important. And that the environment is important. Slowing down helps you find treasured wardrobe pieces that you want to wear for a long time. It’s just a totally different philosophy that is about engagement and it just feels better as a result.
I absolutely love how your book addresses the trajectory of thrift-store garments — what happens to our garments once we donate them, and how there’s a glut of low-quality garments clogging up the charity thrift shops and recycled textile market. In Overdressed you summarize this journey ,“Chapter 5: The Afterlife of Cheap Clothes,” and this section was a revelation for me. I realized I couldn’t just donate my castoffs anymore with a clear environmental conscious. Could you summarize the life of clothes after our closets?
The story of secondhand clothes continues to blow my mind. I now work in the secondhand industry as a sorter and a seller on eBay. I’m also filming a documentary on textile waste and traveled to Kenya, which is just one of the dozens of countries that buy up tens of millions of items of our unwanted clothes every year.
Back to your question of what happens to donated clothes. Thrift stores and charities are only able to sell about 10%-15% of what we donate. The rest is sold to other countries like Kenya or, if it’s not in wearable condition, to textile recyclers. Why don’t thrift stores sell it all themselves? There’s simply too much of it. Just to give you a sense of the scale, Americans are donating or recycling the equivalent of 20,000 t-shirts a MINUTE in the United States. The volume we donate in a year could fill more than 250,000 Olympic size pools.
Donating is a perfectly acceptable way to part with unwanted clothes. Clothing should never go into the landfill. But as you can see, we also need to reduce our consumption of new clothes and get far more life out of what we wear. The cycle of consumption and waste is moving way too fast.
I follow you on social media and I notice that you are willing to mend, alter or otherwise repair your garments to keep them in good working condition. You’ve even mentioned mending garments before donating them to thrift shops to increase their odds for resale. Can you talk about this shift in tending to the garments we already own instead of buying new?
Mending is so much fun, and contrary to popular belief, you don’t need to be an expert sewer to do most common repairs. Working in the secondhand industry, I see a lot of “broken” clothing that gets thrown away because it needs a very simple repair. For example, I see a lot of small holes in sweaters, ripped linings in jackets and missing buttons. These are all things that can be fixed with a needle and thread, and by just giving it a go. Most repairs don’t require some high level of expertise. All clothing will get some sort of wear or damage in time, so mending skills are essential, in my opinion. And yeah I would say once you slow down and decide to spend more time with the clothes you already own, mending and cleaning come into the equation pretty quickly.
In Overdressed you write, “I checked the label on my eggs, but not on my T-shirts.” Why do you think this is so common amongst so-called environmentally minded folks? It seems like organic food and LEED platinum buildings are becoming more and more mainstream but somehow fashion has been left out. Why do you think this happened?
I answered some of this in the question about Michael Pollan. It’s just easier to create a local and transparent food industry than it is for fashion, but people are also motivated by their own health to choose local, organic, responsibly sourced products. And with LEED platinum buildings, there is an incentive to owners and renters to do the right thing because the buildings actually save money on energy costs. You’re probably noticing a pattern here: These movements offer something to the consumer in return for doing the “right thing.”
With responsibly sourced fashion, we are at this crossroads where it often costs the customer to buy into it. Brands are starting to offer products that are superior to fast fashion in terms of design and quality, which is helping to close this gap.
What do you think is the first step towards creating a Slow Fashion wardrobe? If someone was just going to make one singular shift what would you recommend?
Here’s the easiest slow-fashion rule: When shopping, stop and ask yourself if you really want or need that item, and if the answer is “no,” skip it. Skipping those impulse purchases has many benefits. It saves money, cuts down on clutter, and helps you zero in on your style and what you’re really looking for. The vast majority of fashion purchases are bought on impulse, and according to consumer studies those impulse buys are very likely to end in regret. Cutting out those regrets does wonders for the environment, as we’re consuming less and creating less waste. It’s actually a very powerful consumer act to just refuse something.
I love the Vivienne Westwood concept to “Buy Less, choose well, make it last,” but I know that some individuals or families simply cannot afford to buy garments at a higher price point regardless of their desire to support slow fashion. I think of this particularly with small children who outgrow their clothing quickly. I think your book and your ongoing work does a really great job of offering several solutions and alternatives to fast fashion. Can you speak to the opportunity to engage with ethical fashion at various price points? What can folks do to support slow fashion if they’re on a tight budget and/or clothing young, fast-growing kids?
To anyone out there who needs clothes, I would say buy them! And buy them at a price point you can afford! The fashion industry is not going to be saved by conscious consumerism alone. We need better regulations, better laws, better trade deals, better options, and to actively pressure the brands that make our clothes. It’s just as important for us to engage as citizens with fashion’s problems, as it is to purchase “ethical clothing.” All that said, secondhand (AKA the sharing economy) is the perfect on-ramp for ethical fashion enthusiasts on a budget. As I’ve mentioned, there are billions of items of clothing in circulation at any moment in the United States. Getting these items into the hands of the person who might want them is a technology hurdle that we’re finally able to meet. There is a growing number of websites like thredUP, Swap Society, and Swap.com where parents or anyone else can find fashionable and nearly-new, pre-owned clothes for dirt cheap. I am blown away by the amount of children’s clothes that I see given away in like-new condition. This tells me that we need even more tools that make it easier to share and swap kids clothing.
There’s so much great writing and organizing happening around ethical and ecological fashion. Can you list 3-5 of your personal favorite authors or organizations furthering this work?
Yes! Project Just is one of my favorites. They vet major brands and rank them on their environmental and labor efforts. I also love Fashion Revolution, which has just launched a MOOC or online education course to help consumers research brands. I learned a lot about how to trace the supply chain of the fabric in clothes, for example. Fashion Revolution also does an annual ranking of brands called the Fashion Transparency Index which is very handy, as is Rankabrand. Lastly, I love Livia Firth’s Green Carpet Challenge, which puts A-list celebrities in sustainable gowns at high-profile award shows and brings the much needed celebrity exposure to our movement.
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Thank you so much, Elizabeth!
PREVIOUSLY in Slow Fashion Citizens: Sonya Philip
Photos © Elizabeth L. Cline, used with permission