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.
The ‘cheap fashion treadmill’
Fashion cycles are speeding up compared to centuries, or even decades, earlier. Silhouettes, colors and various features used to stay “in style” for several years but are now considered outdated after only a season or two.
“We’re on this cheap fashion treadmill,” Elizabeth Cline said.
Yet many people on tight budgets feel they can’t get off the treadmill. Better-made clothes tend to be more expensive. Cline has some advice for these people, too.
One piece of advice concerns quantity versus quality. Rather than buying 25 poorly constructed but low-cost shirts, for example, consumers are better served spending more money per item on a few things that are well-made and won’t wear out as quickly. Cline also advocates learning to sew — it’s easier than you think — and mending, repairing and refashioning older clothes so they last longer. Buying clothes second-hand and fitting them as necessary is another good option, she said. Many people who do buy cheaper clothing can also simply keep it longer, she said.
“The easiest things people can do is not necessarily treat clothes as a disposable good, getting more use out of what you wear ...” she said. “Every time I’m in Dalton, I always hit the thrift stores because I find really good stuff at like Providence (Ministries) and Goodwill.”
The result of these consumerism changes, she said, will be better economic consequences here and abroad and less negative impact on the environment. To make one T-shirt, for example, takes 700 gallons of water, she said, and Americans consume more than 20 billion garments per year.
So who bears the responsibility for all the consequences cheap fashion has caused?
“It is partially consumer-driven. I think that consumers kind of have been lulled into wanting cheap products and we’re also kind of hooked on instant gratification,” Cline said. “We got away from the value of saving up for the best dress money could buy. We lost the art of delayed gratification and investing in clothing, but at the same time I put a lot of the blame on clothing companies. They advertise heavily to us that cheap clothing. Even our first lady wears Target and H&M. It’s part of our culture now to celebrate getting really cheap things.”
Yet change is possible, she said.
“I think that as consumers we have more power than we realize, and that the way we shop does have consequences on the planet and for the jobs, both here and abroad,” Cline said. “I think there’s also a personal component to it. I don’t think people get a lot of satisfaction or long-term happiness out of just shopping cheap.”
Cline says “being an ethical fashion consumer can be fun.” She’s working on scheduling appearances at colleges around the country where she can share her ideas with students, and she’s also writing a book about domestic manufacturing. For more information, visit Cline’s website, overdressedthebook.com.
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.”
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