Monday, January 28, 2013

Overdressed: The Shockingly High Cost of Cheap Fashion by Elizabeth L. Cline

In this revealing and thoughtful look at clothing and consumerism, author Elizabeth Cline sets out to reform how we look at fashion and how we shop for clothing. After purchasing SEVEN pairs of flats from KMart in 2009, Cline decided to take a hard look at why she, like so many other Americans (and Canadians), buys so many clothes. After gathering every single piece of clothing she owned and sorting through it all, she discovered that she had 354 pieces of clothing, excluding undergarments and socks. She owned more clothing than anything else AND she had no idea where the clothes were made or what brands they were. Cline found herself buying clothing simply because it was cheap and trendy. How had it come to this?

The United States makes only 2 percent of the clothing sold in the country; China makes 41 percent of clothing sold in the US. The trillion dollar fashion industry is now divided into two camps; high end expensive clothing and cheap, poorly made clothing. The latter is sold by stores such as H&M, Forever 21, WalMart and Target.

Chapter 1, "I Have Enough Clothing To Open A Store" explores the transition in fashion retail from the production of quality garments that are expensive to mass production of cheap, poor quality clothing.

It seems that GAP has done to the garment industry what McDonalds did to fast food production. GAP changed the way people shopped for clothing. Originally a Levi's shop in the 1960's, GAP changed how it operated and brought in designers to create its own cheap clothing line. This has been stunningly profitable for the company and is the industry standard now for how clothing is made, marketed and sold. Clothing discounters like H&M, Zara, and Forever 21 all produce poor quality clothing that sells cheap.

Cline gives a fascinating historical account of fashion in America - which of course also is mirrored in Canada. Clothing was initially made in the home until approximately 1900 when factory-made clothing became available. It was very expensive however, so people continued to make their own where possible. It wasn't until after World War II when incomes began to increase, that Americans began to follow fashion and purchase their clothing rather than make it. Clothing was produced by independent businesses that sold their clothing through the department stores.

In the 1970's malls opened in suburban areas and began offering cheaper clothing in competition with the big department stores. By the 1980's department stores continued to markdown prices, training the consumer to buy only when there were sales. The intense competition drove department stores to consolidate and others to close. Today, the retail landscape consists of clothing discounters such as H&M, Forever 21, Target (soon to open in Canada) and Walmart.

Chapter 2 How America Lost It's Shirts outlines the fate of the garment industry in America.

Chapter 3 High and Low Fashion Make Friends discusses the generally poor quality of  most mass produced clothing today. This is due in part, Cline says, to the ignorance on the part of the consumer about fabrics and the loss of seamstress skills. It is also due to manufacturers attempting to cut costs and raise profits. Making clothing is labour intensive since this product cannot be made by machine but requires specialized labour. The desire of manufacturers to cut costs and the consumer to only buy "on sale" has resulted in poorly crafted clothing that is made out of cheap fabrics. In contrast high end fashion has gotten more expensive as shoppers try to prove status through their purchases of expensive clothing. Cline explores some of the history of fabrics and how changes in income and society have led to the situation we have today of cheap, poor quality clothing.

Chapter 4 Fast Fashion focuses on a special retail method which places new merchandise out every few days or weeks, rather than by the season. Selling by this method drastically increases profits and creates a shopper who consumes continuously. Fast fashion stores like H&M, Forever 21, and Zara, "earn their profits...by taking a small sliver of profit on a large amount of goods."
Fashion is not only sold fast, it changes quickly too. This is in part due to the effect of the digital age, where information on styles is shared quickly and where no one style predominates now. Fast fashion and low price tells the consumer that clothes are a disposable commodity, one they can throw away after only a few wears.

Chapter 5 The Afterlife of Cheap Clothes is an exploration into the textile recycling industry. Most people donate their clothing once they no longer want it and assume that someone will use it. But less than 20 percent of donated clothing actually gets sold by charities. Most of it goes to textile recyclers, and much of it is sold overseas in countries in sub-Saharan Africa. However, people in these countries are also looking for stylish pieces of clothing and most of what is sent over from America is rejected.

Chapter 6 Sewing Is a God Job, a Great Job enlightens consumers on the job of sewing, which is a highly skilled job. Although some factories have raised the wages of workers who make clothes for the most part, these people are not paid a "living wage". Cline encourages the consumer to use their purchase power to help change conditions in factories in the developing world. She also suggests that the major clothing companies "could afford to raise wages significantly, without passing the cost on to consumers."

In Chapter 7 China and the End of Cheap Fashion, Cline considers the future of cheap, fast fashion. The quality of clothing made in China has been declining steadily. Although garments are made in countries such a Cambodia, Vietnam, Turkey, and the Philippines, China is the leader in clothing quality, having both the skilled workers and the technology. An interesting feature of this chapter is Cline's trip to China's factories as a the "owner" of an imaginary company. The author's experiences  of China's massive garment factories are eye-opening. Cities in China do not have two or three factories, but thousands. There are several factors which suggest that the era of fast fashion may be coming to a close, one of which is that China is running out of cheap labour in part due to its one child policy and subsequent dearth of younger workers. Those currently toiling in its massive factories are intent upon moving to better paying jobs. As these workers become consumers, the world is faced with the prospect of 1.3 billion people consuming at Western levels. This is likely not sustainable.

Chapter 8 Make, Alter, and Mend extols the virtues of sewing one's own clothing. Cline learned to sew basic items and makes some very good points about why this is a skill people should develop, while also recognizing that for some modern life means it might not be possible.  The art of sewing clothes has definitely not been passed onto the recent generations. This skills gap has resulted in several generations of young women who do not know how to repair their clothing nor how to create their own clothes. Sewing one's own clothing means having pieces that are unique. She also highlights the benefits of shopping vintage and attending clothing swaps.

Chapter 9 The Future of Fashion is somewhat anti-climatic and essentially recaps some of the more important points in the book. Cline encourages consumers to think wisely about their purchases, where they shop and to look at the quality of the clothing being sold in stores. She also wants shoppers to consider making their own clothes and to consider using seamstresses and tailors to repair or remake clothing.

Skirt made by blog author
The main thrust of Cline's Overdressed is to help consumers realize that clothing, now made fast and cheaply, has become a disposable commodity. We have gone from well- made pieces which displayed exquisite craftsmanship and lasted a lifetime, to cheap, fast fashion which encourages the consumer to buy and buy, wasting vast amounts of the world's resources. This over-consumption will ultimately place severe stress on some of our valuable commodities. We have only begun to feel this stress as the rest of the world catches up to the consumption levels of developed countries. Because clothing is made by human beings we should have some connection to the clothing we wear, and we should like what we wear. Cline asks us to consider our relationship with the clothes we wear, and to rethink our shopping habits. We can change the way clothes are made today and we can have an effect on the quality of clothing by choosing our purchases carefully. Although Cline presents statistics and describes situations chronicling the experience of the American textile industry, the same can be said for Canada.

For example, in 2008 (the latest figure on Industry Canada's website, Canada imported $4 BILLION of clothing made in China.The small city I work in had its origins in the textile industry with the founding of several mills that produced clothing and fabrics. Those mills have long since closed, and several of the buildings that once housed fabric shops are now condos. For those who love to sew, it is becoming increasingly difficult to find a fabric store. Walmart stopped selling fabric about four years ago. We need to revitalize the art of making our own clothing.

For anyone interested in fashion, Overdressed is an eye-opening must read!

Book Details:
Overdressed by Elizabeth Cline
Toronto: Penguin Group 2012
243 pp.

Canadian retailers that sell made in Canada clothing include:

Le Chateau (up to 40% of their clothing is made in Quebec.)
Danier Leather
Stanfields
Roots (check the label as only some are made in Canada)

2 comments:

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