Why Your New Clothes Are Ruining the Planet

Photo by Matt Roth


New York?based author Elizabeth Cline’s new book, Overdressed: The Shockingly High Cost of Fast Fashion ($25.95, Penguin) hit shelves last week — and I read the whole thing in a matter of hours. Cline begins by taking inventory of what’s in her closet: 354 pieces of clothing. From there, she digs into the global impact that our relatively common hunger for new, cheap clothing from fast fashion retailers like H&M, Zara, and Target. And what she finds is less than heartwarming: by visiting factories both in the U.S. and abroad, Cline uncovers some harsh truths behind those Forever 21 bargains. So what’s the solution? Several, but Cline suggests embracing a slow fashion movement whereby we by buy fewer pieces from more socially and environmentally aware retailers and designers (oh, and if we could put a stop to those horrendous haul videos, that would be great, too). Cline took a few minutes to answer some questions about shopping responsibly, thrifting tips, and what her closet looks like nowadays.

Why did you write this book?
I noticed these radical changes in my shopping habits over the last 10 years, and I realized it wasn’t just me. Americans are buying more than one garment per week on average now. I wanted to dig into what’s happened in the fashion industry that’s caused these massive changes and find the real consequences of such low prices.

In fashion there’s an association between cost and quality. What about high-end retailers like Neiman’s or Sak’s — is the quality better?
Not always. That’s why I hope people can start to re-educate themselves about fabric and sewing. You do have to pay more to get a quality garment, but there isn’t always a direct connection between price and what you’re getting. The whole fashion industry has really confused people by putting these insane prices on things that aren’t worth the money. Now that there’s been two or three decades of discounts and deal hunting, you have very few genuinely middle market brands that are producing something at an affordable price — not cheap, but affordable — and that’s the space that we need to cultivate and bring back.

How can we get back into the mindset of spending more money on quality clothing?
Once people see or own well-made clothes that are well-made, they crave them. The problem is convincing them to make the first step. As a consumer, it’s scary to go from paying $20 to $100 or $200 dollars for something. That’s why I focus so much on quality in the book, because the human rights and environmental consequences of the fashion industry are well known, but they haven’t been enough to change people’s behavior.

How does someone shop responsibly and on a budget?
Thankfully there isn’t just one answer. When I have the money, I try to support local and emerging indie designers. They usually have more interesting designs, and their materials are better. I would also suggest using tailors and seamstresses so you can refashion things that you already own. Shop in second-hand stores — if you know how to sew, you can alter your own clothes. I know a lot of people have gotten into clothing swaps and rentals from websites like Renttherunway.com, which is a great solution if you don’t have a big budget but want to wear something nice.

Any tips for shopping second hand?
The reality is that you have to be prepared to put a lot of time into it. I think the hunt is a big part of the fun. There’s a lot of low quality stuff in second hand stores today, but check labels for the fiber content and trust your hand. Things like polyester and acrylic don’t feel good because they’re made out of plastic. I’m a fan of rayon — it’s a halfway point between natural and synthetic. It’s made from natural materials but it’s processed with chemicals. Modal and Tencel are two more eco-friendly versions of rayon, and they feel fantastic.

How do you see the slow fashion movement changing in the future?
My hope is that people will take the ideas I introduce and create a slow fashion movement that I couldn’t have even imagined. I don’t have all of the solutions, and I think it will be exciting to see what kind of creative alternatives people come up with. I think it will start in design schools. We’ll see [more] retailers taking their clothes back and recycling them for us. I think there are going to be more municipal textile and clothing programs and there will be a greater awareness of the life cycle of clothing.

What does your closet look like now compared to before you wrote the book?
I can actually open it without stuff falling out on my head! I do have a couple of higher end, tailored pieces like blazers and slacks that I spent a lot of money on. I’ve got this really cool pair of boots made out of biodegradable synthetics and Melissa flats made from recycled polyester. It’s an interesting blend of sustainable design, things I’ve refashioned, and designer pieces that are well-made. I own a lot less — I had about 350 pieces of clothing. Now it’s more like 100 and I actually want to wear them.

How does someone go about finding shops with locally or responsibly made clothing?
There’s a website called Fashioningchange.com. It asks you what brands you currently shop for, then gives you the sustainable equivalent. I’m also starting a list of alternative brands on my blog at Thegoodcloset.tumblr.com. If you’re walking into any locally-owned boutique that sells emerging designers you’re already headed in the right direction.