A Feature Review of
Overdressed: The Shockingly High Cost of Cheap Fashion.
Reviewed by Amy Peterson.
I still remember the first time I got to go shopping- alone – after giving birth to my second child. He was seven months old. It had been a while.
I was driving to pick up our free-range Thanksgiving turkey from a family farm in Kokomo, and had some extra time, so I stopped at Old Navy. A skirt, a dress, a cardigan, and two t-shirts later, I left for the farm, crowing over my successes. “An $8 dress that makes me feel like Tami Taylor? How could I not buy it?”
Overdressed: The Shockingly High Cost of Cheap Fashion (Penguin 2012), by Elizabeth Cline, demonstrates why I ought to learn to curb – or at least refine – that bargain-hunting impulse. In much the same way that Michael Pollan investigated how Americans get their food in The Omnivore’s Dilemma (leading me to buy that free-range turkey, incidentally), Cline spent three years investigating the world of fashion and clothing production. What she finds in Overdressed is enough to convince me that there might be as good a reason to pay more for the right kinds of clothes as there is to pay more for the right kinds of food.
Cline details the rise over the last ten years of what she calls “fast fashion”: “a radical method of retailing that has broken away from seasonal selling and puts out new inventory constantly throughout the year.” Fast fashion companies like Zara, Forever 21, H&M, and Charlotte Russe update their stock continually, are cheaper than their competitors, and have almost twice the profit-margin of more traditional clothing retailers. A true industry innovation, fast fashion has been made possible by the technological progress that allows the instant exchange of information across the globe – companies can now go from design to sales rack in just two weeks – but what has made it truly successful is its ability to sell a lot of clothing.
By constantly changing its stock, fast fashion makes consumers feel like we are on a treasure hunt; what is for sale today will be gone next week, and so we must buy now! That sense of urgency combined with super low prices leads consumers to say, as I did with my $8 dress, “How can I not buy it?” And when trends are changing every couple of weeks, at prices this low, consumers keep buying. Stores don’t have to mark up the prices very much; they succeed by taking a small sliver of profit on a large amount of goods. But this evolution in the fashion industry is causing a number of problems.
Globalization has sent American garment production overseas, where minimum wages are lower and safety regulations are easier to fudge. Americans have lost thousands of jobs and increased our fossil fuel consumption by shipping garments around the world on a daily basis, but we are not the only ones hurt by this development.
Cline visited factories in China, Bangladesh, and the Dominican Republic. While safety oversight has improved over the last ten years, she writes about the ways these factories still manage to get around certain safety codes by maintaining “show” factories while outsourcing production to more rural, less regulated factories. New factories going up in developing nations like Bangladesh are slipshod and haphazard, leading to common factory fires.
Whether or not a factory is a safe environment, the fact remains that most factory workers are not paid a living wage. In many countries where our clothes are manufactured, the minimum wage is not even enough to feed a family of four. I remember this clearly from the year I spent living in Cambodia. I met factory workers there who, while thankful for a job, were crushed by debt with no way to escape. Cline profiles the only factory she found that provides a living wage to its workers: Alta Gracia, in the Dominican Republic.
But even if our inexpensive clothes could be made in America by workers paid a living wage in a safe environment, we’d still have a major problem, because the environmental footprint of creating textiles has never been small. Pollution is always a concern, but especially at these terrifying rates of production. In 1950, world fiber use was just over 10 million tons; today, it’s at more than 82 million tons.
We buy more than we need because we can. Americans, Cline finds, buy roughly 64 items of clothing each year. We assuage our consumer consciences by donating our used (and, often, even our un-used, never worn) clothes to Goodwill or Salvation Army. Unfortunately, Cline reports, “charities long ago passed the point of being able to sell all of our wearable used clothes.” No matter how much we give away, this excess leads to waste.
What happens to our donated clothes, then? Perhaps a quarter are resold, and others are recycled into car seat stuffing, industrial wiping rags, and the like. The majority, though, gets shipped to Africa, where supply is about to overtake demand. If we continue buying clothes at this rate, and if China and India join us, as they are poised to, soon we will be dumping our cheap clothes into landfills.
Cline points toward a number of solutions for the fashion industry, profiling “slow fashion” designers, whose work is inherently more eco-friendly because it is produced in smaller batches, and those who attempt to use responsibly paid labor. Echo Park Independent Co-op, Eliza Starbuck, and Kaight earn her highest praise. Ultimately, she calls upon readers to embrace the role of “stewards” of our clothing, recognizing that it’s up to us to make sure our garments’ next stop will not be a landfill.
For Christians especially, pursuing the freedom of simplicity in our closets ought to be a primary concern. As I’ve wrestled with Cline’s findings, I’ve come up with a list of practical suggestions for churches:
–Stop organizing events around shopping. A few months ago I received an invitation to join a MOPS group for a shopping night at Target. What if we instead organized events around creating, repurposing, or sharing? How about a clothing swap where everyone brings what they don’t wear anymore and is free to leave with whatever they could use?
–Connect to people who have skills and equipment to share. Older people and immigrants often have sewing skills we lack, and sewing machines we can borrow. Why not ask them to teach us? Hold a quilting class, or an Intro to Sewing one Saturday morning in the church.
–Learn about fibers, construction, and quality. Some fabrics are more eco-friendly than others. Find out what they are. Learn to recognize well-made clothes, and when you can, be willing to pay more for them. Expect them to last.
–Refashion. Instead of donating torn and stained clothes, try to repurpose them yourself. You can find dozens of free tutorials online for refashioning clothes – for example, turning a men’s dress shirt into a woman’s skirt, a little girl’s dress, or a pair of toddler elastic waist pants.
–Buy slavery-free. Download the app Free2Work and check before you buy.
–Opt out. We can’t always afford nicer clothes, especially when buying for kids who outgrow their clothes every few months, but we can opt out of consumerism through garage sales, hand-me-downs, clothing swaps, and buying secondhand.
Pursuing simplicity in our consumption of clothing isn’t about ignoring fashion or beauty. God is the source of all beauty, and I believe we reflect him when we make beautiful decisions in the way we clothe ourselves. In refusing to indulge in “fast fashion,” we can make choices that protect the beauty of the earth, that care for the dignity of workers across the world, and that allow us to engage in our God-given desire to create.
Last night my 3 year old, Rosie, pulled on her pink and white nightgown, which my grandmother made more than twenty-five years ago for me. I noticed that a button needs to be fixed, so I’m threading my needle now. It’s a small start, but it’s a first step toward raising my children to be mindful about our possessions and clothing. Lord willing, the nightgown and the convictions will last for the next generation.
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C. Christopher Smith is the founding editor of The Englewood Review of Books. He is also author of a number of books, including most recently How the Body of Christ Talks: Recovering the Practice of Conversation in the Church (Brazos Press, 2019). Connect with him online at: C-Christopher-Smith.com