The first time I stepped into Forever 21, I was amazed: A store at the mall actually had clothes I liked, at affordable prices, bearing “Made in the USA” labels! (At the time, I naively believed “Made in the USA” meant sweatshop-free. I later learned this is far from true.)
Though I still prefer thrift stores to “fast-fashion” chains like H&M and Forever 21, I have found them increasingly difficult to ignore. I’m not alone: Their winning formula has earned them a growing chunk of the clothing industry, with H&M alone reaching $19 billion in sales in 2010. Journalist Elizabeth L. Cline’s new book, Overdressed: The Shockingly High Cost of Cheap Fashion, provides some perspective on how their meteoric rise has affected workers, the environment and our everyday lives.
A fast and easy read, Overdressed is nonetheless eye-opening. True, for those who have paid any attention to the poor treatment of the workers who make our clothing, Cline’s tours of garment factories in China and Bangladesh will yield few surprises. But her visit to the Alta Gracia factory in the Dominican Republic–in which workers are treated and compensated more fairly–and the improving conditions she observes at some Chinese factories provide a surprising snapshot of how global labor standards are changing.
In a novel twist, Cline also follows clothing after we’re done with it. She traces our clothing’s post-consumer journeys: into second-hand stores that cannot handle the amount of clothing we are donating, then into sorting facilities. These facilities route clothes to Global South marketplaces, the growing vintage resale industry and recycling plants to become rags for industrial use or, when they do not meet any of these needs, off to clog our landfills (an increasingly common fate as clothes become lower quality). It turns out that so much “disposable” fashion incurs staggering environmental costs.
Although I am keenly aware of the many problems with the global garment industry, I still unapologetically love fashion, and I was worried that this book might not acknowledge that it is both an art and a form of expression. I’m aware that the fashion industry can be deeply offensive at times, furthering racism, sexism, cultural appropriation and fatphobia. But the pretense that this is unique to fashion–and not endemic in all fine arts–is connected to the public’s belief that that fashion is by and for “feminine” people (whether that be feminine women, feminine men or people of any gender for whom femininity is a dominant form of expression). The idea that fashion is mere frippery seems, to me, very clearly sexist.
Halfway through the book, fashion-as-art-and-expression had hardly been mentioned, and I was sure that this would be just another fashion-bashing treatise. Fortunately, I was wrong. Cline ends by looking at the effects of mass-production on our self-expression. She acknowledges that the dominance of both ultra-cheap mass-produced garments and “luxury” designer goods—whose high prices are no longer indicators of high quality—cramps our style, making us choose between looking like clones or maxing out our credit cards. Anyone who has looked at pictures from the ’50s would be hard-pressed to disagree with Cline’s argument that having fewer, higher-quality pieces made us better and more interestingly dressed. And as one might imagine, higher-quality garments require a higher-skilled, less replaceable workforce–one better able to demand fairer wages and work conditions.
Cline focuses on systemic rather than individual solutions, which I found refreshing. Not all, or even most, consumers can invest in just a few well-made pieces. Particularly for parents on a budget, whose children outgrow clothing long before wearing it out, spending more on lasting garments is both unaffordable and unreasonable, as Cline notes. At the same time, Cline traces the rise of cheap fashion to the loss of sewing and mending traditions, and encourages readers who have the time and inclination to learn these massively useful skills.
On a systemic level, she notes the current methods of production driving the “fast-fashion” revolution are probably unsustainable. The environmental and labor costs are already beginning to catch up with us. With the cost of labor in China alone surging by as much as 10 to 30 percent a year as the labor pool shrinks and young people have access to college and better-paying office jobs, the global garment industry will be experiencing some shifts in the near future.
The book still leaves the reader with questions. Where do those landfills full of fast fashion end up? What communities are most affected by this environmental degradation, and how? What Overdressed does well is provide a thorough history of how we got here and the increasing cost as Americans keep demanding cheaper and cheaper clothing. If you are a person who buys clothing and cares about the world, this book will likely prompt you to make a few small changes to your buying habits.
Photo of Elizabeth L. Cline’s Overdressed: The Shockingly High Cost of Cheap Fashion.