Local News

June 5, 2013

Undressing the fashion industry

Cline examines how the demand for inexpensive, trendy clothing can lead to devastating results

Varnell native Elizabeth Cline is a self-described former “cheap fashion addict.”

Not unlike many American fashionistas, her closets were stuffed with dozens — OK, hundreds — of items of clothing, most of them cheaply made, trendy and ready to be thrown out or shoved to the back of the closet after just a season or two.

The cycle of “disposable clothing” and Americans’ appetite for cheap fashion comes at a high cost, though, according to Cline’s recently released book “Overdressed, The Shockingly High Cost of Cheap Fashion.”

In its pages, Cline writes about how consumers’ unquenchable thirst for frequently having something new at a low price has contributed to the mass exodus of manufacturing jobs from the United States, poor working conditions for garment factory workers in many countries and lower quality goods for consumers.

Cline, whom close friends and relatives know as Lorri, is advocating a shift toward the “slow fashion” movement and garments produced stateside. Now a journalist living in New York, Cline has been interviewed recently by The New York Times, MSNBC, NBC’s Brian Williams and other national news outlets about her book and her research.

Until the last couple of years, Cline said she regularly shopped at stores like Old Navy, Target and TJ Maxx, clothing retailers with a reputation for producing fun, trendy clothing at an affordable price. One day, she discovered she owned more than 350 items of clothing.

“I was just really curious about how retailers are able to sell clothes for so cheaply and how low price changes the way we consume,” she said. “Americans are buying more clothes than ever before.”

So Cline pitched her idea to publishers and got Penguin to sign on. She spent about two years conducting research and writing the book. Through her research, she said, she learned there are all kinds of consequences to the cheap fashion industry. There are environmental costs, human rights concerns and cultural consequences.

Inside the country, she visited Los Angeles and Greenville, S.C., to see textile mills. She traveled to the Dominican Republic, Bangladesh and China. She learned about American towns that used to revolve around manufacturing and saw steep job losses once clothing makers decided to ship their operations overseas.

Among the “more surprising” lessons Cline said she learned was that U.S. manufacturers had outsourced almost every bit of the garment and textile industry. In 1990, about half of Americans’ clothing was made in the U.S. Now, just 2 to 3 percent is made domestically as manufacturers sought cheaper labor, she said.

“Part of low price is associated with job loss in the U.S. and with exporting jobs to low-cost countries,” she said.

Those exports can lead to conditions that sometimes produce bad consequences, Cline said. Take, for example, the building collapse at a garment factory in Bangladesh that killed more than 1,100 workers. Cline said it’s often easier to oversee working conditions and correct dangerous practices at home than it is to get involved in what happens overseas.

Cline’s grandmother, Routh Cline, said her granddaughter grew up in Varnell and attended Westwood School in the late 1980s when she was young before moving away to Cairo, Ga. Routh Cline said Elizabeth Cline enjoys fashion, but her love of clothes wasn’t the main reason she wrote the book.

“She’s really socially conscious,” Routh Cline said.

Cline’s work has been featured in several prominent publications including New York Magazine, Popular Science and The Nation.

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