Overdressed: The Shockingly High Cost of Cheap Fashion—A Guide to Staying Stylish While Keeping the Environment in Mind

March 3, 2013 by  
Filed under Blog, Books, Clothing, Fashion, Front Page, Slideshow

I hadn’t read an entire book since I got the third Harry Potter book in December 1999. Yet, on a recent Saturday afternoon, I was completely absorbed by Overdressed: The Shockingly High Cost of Cheap Fashion by Elizabeth Cline.

The book has an easy-to-read writing style and well-researched chapters. Cline describes her investigation of the impact of “fast fashion” retailers like Forever 21 and H&M—stores that have prices so low that clothing becomes practically disposable—on the environment, the economy, and the typical American consumer’s lifestyle. But it starts out as a personal story beginning when Cline finds herself at Kmart. Standing in front of an expansive rack, she recklessly purchases seven pairs of $7 canvas flip flops that had been marked down from $15 and is inspired to look into today’s fashion consumer lifestyle.

The result? A book covers so many topics that it’s impossible to touch on everything in a review. Cline discusses how clothing has become a trillion-dollar global industry, the plummeting price of apparel, the move to overseas production, the separation between cost and quality, the effect of our increased consumption on the environment, and so much more. After reading this book, I was inspired to reflect upon my own fashion choices. I’ve made some changes as a result.

A New Top or Dinner Out?

“That clothes can be had for such little money is historically unprecedented,” Cline writes.

Until it was pointed out, I didn’t realize how far the price of clothing has plummeted in recent years. In grade school and middle school in the 1990s, I remember going shopping for back-to-school clothes and only buying a few items—some new jeans, long sleeved tops, gym shoes. As a kid, I obviously didn’t pay as close attention to prices. But now, as an adult, I’m used to seeing shirts for $8 and now realize that this wasn’t always the case, and that’s why I just got what I needed for the year. In the 1990s, the corporate takeover of fashion had begun. But now, approximately 20 years later, we are seeing the full effects of the low-price wars.

These retailers make their money through a “high volume, low price formula.” Prices are so low that Cline reports that we only spend three percent of our income on clothing.

Always at the Mall

Because of the irresistible prices, we now shop all the time. We’ve gone from a cycle of seasonal consumption—like my back-to-school shopping—to a cycle of continuous consumption. We are now creating more and more waste.

Americans now buy an average of 64 pieces of clothing per year, as Cline reports. We are at the mall multiple times a month. Stores encourage our level of consumption by changing their stock every few weeks instead of a few times a year. Trends are quickly created, then exhausted.

As a result, we’ve created a world where we are no longer connected to our stuff. Our belongings don’t feel as important; they feel disposable. Cline advocates that, instead, we should build a wardrobe over time and invest in well-made pieces that we love.

Fashion Chain Takeover

Now that we are at the point where we can spend less on a sweater than dinner at a restaurant, we think the lowest price is the fairest price. Many consumers are not considering that an independent retailer may have better service, a smaller inventory, or more responsible business practices than a “fast fashion” chain.

America has lost middle-market and independent retailers to “cookie cutter” stores that show up at every mall in America. We all shop at the same stores, and we all look the same.

Losing American Jobs

Not only has America lost independent retailers, we’ve also our domestic apparel-manufacturing industry.

“The US makes two percent of clothing customers purchase, down from about 50 percent in 1990,” Cline reports. More than 40 percent of our clothing is made in China; apparel manufacturing is one of the fastest dying industries in recent memories in our country. Cline also touches on how trade regulations like NAFTA, the Multi Fibre Arrangement, and the Caribbean Basin Trade Partnership Act and African Growth Opportunity Act affected American-made clothing. American immigrants used to be able to work their way up through garment manufacturing, but that ability has been greatly diminished.

Cline traveled to China, Bangladesh, and the Dominican Republic to give the readers an idea of what garment manufacturing has become. Garments made in China that can be sold for $30 would likely cost three times as much if they were manufactured in America because of a variety of factors like paying workers a fair wage or using higher-quality materials. But, now, garment production is moving from China to even lower-wage countries like Bangladesh. Cline reports that more detailed clothing is produced in China while basics have moved to these lower-wage countries.

A Unique Factory

Notably, Cline visits Alta Gracia in the Dominican Republic, the only unionized factory she visited outside of the US. The factory deals openly with the media and labor rights groups and pays laborers more than three times the country’s minimum wage. It is one of the only factories in a developing country to pay a “livable wage.”

“Everyone has a say in how the things are run, down to deciding what tunes are played over the loudspeaker every day,” Cline says about the factory’s routine.

Alta Gracia manufactures clothes for Knights Apparel, the top producer of college-themed clothing. Knights Apparel, based in South Carolina, oversaw the process of setting up the factory and supports the factory’s labor union. They offer the apparel at a similar price to their competitors and absorb the higher production costs through other lines.

Is the Most Expensive Item the Best Item?

Cline discusses all the issues “fast fashion” is creating on the environment and the apparel industry today; the solution isn’t necessarily to buy expensive designer clothes instead of cheap outfits. She reports that, oftentimes, designer and brand name clothing masquerades as being higher quality.

Often, “fast fashion” brands have lower prices and lower quality. But some premium brands have high prices and diminishing quality. Some luxury garments are worth the cost because of craftsmanship and material, but some designers purposely overcharge because of the brand name. “Good” clothes are now outrageously priced, and consumers don’t have the same middle-level department store options anymore.

Cheap clothes drive the craving for the luxury name, which is why prices can be so sky high. Since consumers are used to the cost of a $10 shirt from H&M, the desire to own something from a coveted designer like Missoni is ravenous. Designers can find consumers willing to pay a premium for their label. They can also find consumers willing to obsess about designer partnerships with lower level stores, such as Target featuring a designer Jason Wu. People love the steal and get to “own their own designer-label outfit.”

Plastics and Waste

Not only have designer clothes increased the longing for designer outfits, they’ve increased the amount of unwanted clothing dropped off at Salvation Army and Goodwill. We think our clothing is being recycled and reused, when really we are creating 36 tons of waste per year.

This is causing the value of used clothing to decrease. There is too much clothing to sell, and charities end up selling extra clothing to textile retailers. Textile retailers resell items to vintage dealers or turn them into rags. Anything left over is shipped overseas.

A large amount of this clothing is made from synthetics like polyester. Polyester, which is a plastic, has exploded because it is easy to care for and allows retailers to hit their desired price point. Now, we’re littering the environment with unwanted clothes made of plastics.

The Future of Fashion

But Cline doesn’t just discuss the problems facing fashion today. She also offers some possible solutions to the problem, like garment repurposing. Though sewing may not necessarily be the answer for everyone, the suggestion sparks ideas for how to reuse our items.

Cline also discusses the “slow fashion concept”—buying well designed, cool pieces that won’t date. She makes the point that we should stop wearing trends and wear what looks best on us—which is a suggestion that most readers can agree with.

My Personal Fashion Story

Even though this book was a personal story for Cline, it turned into a personal story for me as well. I realized a lot about how I’ve been shopping, and how I should be shopping to support my love of fashion while not creating unnecessary waste.

Clothing Connection. When I impulsively purchase a cheap top at Target just because of the price tag, I feel no connection to it, and it eventually winds up in the back of my closet or in the “Donate” pile. I now understand and appreciate why there are certain items I love so much—like the Columbia top from a ski shop in Breckenridge or the wedge sandals from Puerto Vallarta. I already realized this about the items I use to decorate my house. I appreciate the “good luck” glass rooster from my mom and the shamrock wine glasses from my grandma’s house more than the generic trinkets from Gordmans used to fill up the bookshelves. It only makes sense that it would also apply to what’s in my closet.

Spending Wisely.
Earlier this year, I read The Happiness Project: Or, Why I Spent a Year Trying to Sing in the Morning, Clean My Closets, Fight Right, Read Aristotle, and Generally Have More Fun by Gretchen Rubin, which has a chapter devoted to the connection between money and happiness—a topic not usually discussed. The chapter discussed “spending out,” which means investing money on things that are important to you. An example of “spending out” would be purchasing a membership to a gym you’ve always wanted to go to because they have great group classes, lots of equipment, and knowledgeable personal trainers, instead of buying an assortment of fitness magazines and iPhone apps that won’t deliver the same fitness results. This book inspired me to apply the “spend out” philosophy to my clothes. Now, I’d rather invest in one article of clothing that I really love and that is versatile and classic, instead of buying an assortment of clothing from the mall. I’d probably spend the same amount, but the investment piece will match more items in my closet and last longer than the low-quality, trendy pieces I’ll only wear once or twice.

Do What I Can. Instead of overhauling my lifestyle, I can make more realistic, small changes. The book increased my desire to avoid synthetics like polyester. It’s not realistic to avoid the material altogether, but now that I’m conscious of its negative effects on the environment, I can make a point to buy it less frequently. I can try to purchase more American-made clothes, but I also can’t do that exclusively.

Now, I’m mending and repurposing items to the best of my ability instead of tossing items that are torn. I will probably never be proficient at sewing, but I can gain a more basic knowledge of the craft. Instead of pushing some worn out shoes to the back of the closet, I brought five pairs of shoes to The Shoe Doctor in Iowa City for repair. Like Cline, I was impressed by how fabulous they looked.

I’m also perusing my local, independent shops in Iowa City more frequently. I’m a fan of Revival, which offers a mid-priced mix of new and used clothing. I don’t have to chase designers—I can purchase quality items without the unnecessary expense of the fancy label.

A Valuable Purchase

For anyone who is interested in both the environment and fashion, this book is a must read. It doesn’t necessarily offer one definitive solution to stop the cycle of consumption and waste, but it offers some great suggestions, like those I’ve already incorporated into my routine.

Additionally, Cline has a familiar, easy-to-read writing style that allowed me to totally absorb myself in this book and read it in a single afternoon.

I was impressed by the amount of research put into this book, including traveling to factories in China, Bangladesh, the Dominican Republic, and both coasts of the US. The book is thorough and covers nearly every aspect of the “fast fashion,” disposable clothing epidemic. It’s one of those books I’ll continue to think about months after reading the last page.

Brigette Fanning

Contributing Writer

Blue Planet Green Living (Home Page)

Available on Amazon


One Response to “Overdressed: The Shockingly High Cost of Cheap Fashion—A Guide to Staying Stylish While Keeping the Environment in Mind”

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