How often do you buy clothes? How many items of clothing do you own? How much of your wardrobe gets worn? When Elizabeth Cline—a self-professed “typical” American consumer hooked on trendy, discount clothes—set about pondering these questions, the result was her 2012 book “Overdressed: The Shockingly High Cost of Cheap Fashion.” Before the book, she bought about a piece of clothing per week. The average American, she reports, buys 64 items of clothing each year.
Her tome explores the consequences of this “fast fashion,” which is just like fast food: quick, cheap, and, most often, low quality. And the two are similar in another important way—the low number on the price tag, like the amount listed on the dollar menu, masks myriad hidden costs. This point was underscored when a garment factory collapsed in Bangladesh on April 24, killing more than 1,100 people. The country is becoming an ever more popular place for companies like H&M, Zara, Wrangler, and Wal-Mart to do business. (Thankfully the horrid accident has sparked some action, including worker strikes, factory closures, and rethinking on the part of a few American corporations that have clothes made there.)
NPR’s Fresh Air had Cline on last week to discuss conditions in countries America outsources its garment needs to (listen to the interview here). On top of severe human rights and ethical issues brought on by the globalization of fashion, the practices result in hefty environmental costs. Cline described the following example to NPR’s Terry Gross: “Currently in places like China you've got a lot of dyes and chemicals from textile production just going straight into the waterways. Anecdotally, people say in the fashion industry that … the rivers run red or blue or green or whatever in China based on whatever color is in style.”
Having heard Cline weigh in on the subject, “Overdressed” is now at the top of my to-read list. In the meantime, I’m digging the ethical shopping directory on her website, overdressedthebook.com.