We don’t often write plain old book reviews here on the library blog, but I am writing about this one because it covers an issue that affects everyone, and it explains how anyone can make changes in their own lives that will make a difference. What’s the issue? The title gave it away: clothing.
Overdressed: The Shockingly High Cost of Cheap Fashion by Elizabeth Cline (2012) examines the state of “fast fashion” today, traces its evolution, and explores its impact on the garment industry, the planet, and our closets.
It surprised my friends and family when I started talking about this book, because I am not really interested in clothes – I’m certainly not “fashionable” – so why would I read a book about fashion? The truth is that I heard about this book a few times from different sources, and when I picked it up, I realized that Cline had several convincing points to make about the current state of cheap fashion.
In short, she argues that it’s really not a good thing that we can buy a shirt for $4: consumers, garment workers, and the environment would all be better off if we made and bought less clothing, but made it well and took care of it. Though this used to be the case, it isn’t anymore. As Cline writes in her introduction, “We’ve gone from making good use of the clothes we own to buying things we’ll never or barely wear. We are caught in a cycle of consumption and waste that is unsettling at best and unsatisfying at its core.”
It takes a toll on the environment to make textiles in the first place, and they quickly end up in a landfill. In between, underpaid workers in foreign countries make the garments, because “the demand for cheaper and cheaper garments has all but wiped out the American garment industry,” and consumers’ closets are full of things they don’t wear. (Clothes become easy prey for those who are “KonMari-ing” their homes, and get tossed out or donated to Salvation Army or Goodwill – usually just a detour before their ultimate destination.)
Cline cites some pretty stark numbers. For example, “Every year, Americans throw away 12.7 million tons, or 68 pounds of textiles per person, according to the Environmental Protection Agency, which also estimates that 1.6 million tons of this waste could be recycled or reused.” Clothing is cheaper than it used to be, so consumers can buy more of it, but, accordingly, it is lower-quality and doesn’t last as long.
If all this bothers you, what can you do about it? Cline presents a few ideas:
- Educate yourself about textile quality and garment construction so you can identify good quality when you see it, instead of just trusting brand names.
- Buy the best quality you can for your money.
- Buy secondhand clothing at thrift or vintage stores, or participate in clothing swaps.
- Make, alter, and mend your own clothing.*
- Recognize that “good clothing is not cheap.”
*Cline notes, “As people moved away from making their own clothes, general public knowledge of garment construction faded.” It will take some work to regain that knowledge, but it may well be worth it.
Incidentally, the library has plenty of books on sewing, and the children’s department will even lend you a sewing machine!
What do you think of “fast fashion”? Would you consider making some of your own clothes, or trying out a clothing ban for a period of time?