Preface: Please note that I am fully aware that I have readers from all over the globe and the topic of the garment trade is a global issue, however, in this review I will be discussing the damage that has been done to the United States’ textile industry. I may use the term “your”, “ours”, “us”, “we”, etc. referring to the United States and its citizens.
I like to consider myself a good shopper. I’m not just talking about deals here. I’m also talking about how I shop and where the items I’m buying come from. In high school I took Financial Math, a course that discussed real-life applications of math, including taxes and credit cards, and we watched the documentary Walmart: The High Cost of Low Prices (which you can watch in its entirety on YouTube) and I swore off Walmart then and there. Then in college I took a sociology course where we watched a documentary about the garment industry (the title of which escapes me right now) and I was horrified. Sure, I had heard about sweatshop conditions, especially when Oregon’s own Nike was put on the hot seat in the 90s. But I wasn’t totally aware of the awful conditions garment workers were in. After seeing the documentary I became frantic about checking my clothing labels. Thankfully this information wave hit during a time when I was already beginning to shift my wardrobe to being all vintage and second-hand, so the transition to stop buying new wasn’t very difficult. All of this said, I didn’t really feel a need to read Elizabeth L. Cline’s Overdressed: The Shockingly High Cost of Cheap Fashion when it was published in 2012, but when an article came up on Facebook last week discussing what happens some of the clothing we donate (hint: it doesn’t all go out on the floor!) I felt compelled to learn more about the garment industry and of course it is always good to arm yourself with statistics when the topic of fast fashion comes up.
When I began Overdressed, I wasn’t five pages in before I knew it was a book I felt every person should read. Cline’s writing is so easy to read, and conversational and full of interview quotes from lawyers to designers to garment factory workers. She discusses how she came about to write this book, informing us of her own closet dilemma and the issues of quality. My mouth dropped when I read the following statistic: “The United States now makes 2 percent of the clothing its consumers purchase, down from about 50 percent in 1990.” Um. What!? In an era where the US is so concerned about the economy, and where their food comes from, I am constantly shocked at how few people care about where their clothing comes from, and ya know what, a terrifying 41 percent of our clothing comes from China. And it’s visible, and when sifting through clothing at places like Buffalo Exchange or Goodwill I see “Made in China” the most often and it is heartbreaking. In 1996 there were 624,000 people employed in the textile industry in America, today (or as of 2012) that number has plummeted to 120,000. To make matters worse, in 2010 America imported $364 billion worth of products from China, and costing the United States about 2.8 million jobs. Think about that. I firmly believe we vote with our dollar, and right now, China owns us and it is damaging to our economy and our livelihoods.
In the early part of the 20th century, Americans became appalled by factory conditions, especially when the 1911 Triangle Fire thrust it into the spotlight, but today, as our textile industry has shifted overseas, labor conditions for our clothing is something many just don’t think about, and to make matters worse, as Cline explains, the companies that many buy from don’t seem to care either, and state they have no legal responsibility over the conditions of the factories that make their goods. Today all consumers seem to think about is how cheaply can they get the latest fashions. And, as noted in the paperback’s afterward, since the initial publication of Overdressed, Bangladesh has seen several devastating events occur, including the fire in April of 2013 that killed over 1,100 workers.
While sweatshops are discussed in detailed, Cline’s book isn’t an expose on the sweatshops that blanket Asia, but is in fact a book about the garment industry and fashion as a whole. There is discussion of the environmental impact of textile production, especially that of synthetic fibers, legal issues regarding fast-fashion companies ripping off designs and the history of the garment industry in America. Cline interviewed countless people for the book and their insight helps bring Cline’s statistics to life as it showcases the impact fast-fashion has all over the world. But it is not just those who are active in the fashion industry whose quotes are scattered throughout Overdressed. Cline also interviews shoppers, especially those of fast-fashion. I was disgusted when a shopper expressed that an H&M blazer was “good quality” and later admitted “I like really trendy stuff that’s in this spring, and next spring will probably be out…That’s why I won’t invest a lot of money in one thing.” A friend of this shopper confirmed the same mentality, “I don’t want to pay so much to buy one shirt because the style is going to change.” Fashion changes so rapidly that shoppers no longer view fashion and clothing as an investment, something they will wear for years, but rather as a brief encounter for a few months.
An interesting topic Cline discusses is one that never really crossed my mind much, and that is what happens to our donated clothing once it’s been dropped off on the doorsteps of thrift stores. I had always assumed it went out on the floor, unless it was too damaged it went into the trash. But there is in fact a huge industry around these cast-offs. Garments that are not good enough to be put out on the floor go to textile recycling centers, such as Trans-Americas Trading Co., who then “grade” the clothing and sort them into items that can still be used as clothing, or so terrible that it is then sold off to fiber buyers who break down the clothing so it can be used in various products, including carpet padding and insulation, while another portion goes to the rag industry. One life of used clothing that I did not know about was the market in sub-Saharan Africa, in which bales of clothing are taken there and resold.
One of the running themes in Overdressed is that of quality. As quality continues to decrease, as does the average person’s knowledge of what to do with damaged clothing. And that is one of the brutal environmental issues. People now treat clothing as disposable, mainly because the quality of the clothing in most stores today is so poor and the trends so fast that repairing something seems so silly. Why learn how to sew so you can fix something, which will take time and effort, when you can go to the store and buy another and maybe find something else as well? The lack of sewing in general is another topic Cline talks about a great deal, and shares her first sewing experiences and how happy owning her own sewing machine has made her, and that she is now able to make her off-the-rack clothes fit better and make her own things from scratch.
Much comparison is made between the current views toward the food industry (shopping locally, trade-free, organically, etc.) and the fashion industry. Many people care about where their food came from, and check food labels, but don’t give a second glance to their clothing labels, and Cline offers glimmers of hope that a fashion revolution is on the horizon. She also offers advice on how to move away from fast fashion, and it’s simple, it’s something many of us (and with this I mean us vintage girls!) are already doing – develop your own style. Work on what looks good on you, what you really like, and buy well made pieces and care for your garments well.
I can’t recommend Overdressed enough! If you wear clothes you need to read it! You can buy Overdressed, including Kindle editions, on Amazon. To learn more about Elizabeth Cline and view a shopping guide of places she recommends visit her website.