Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Overdressed: The Shockingly High Cost of Cheap Fashion by Elizabeth Cline

I pretty much stopped buying new clothes since the mid-90s, except when something wears out, can't be repaired, and needs replacement. Even so, I've noticed that prices are lower than they used to be and also that it's very hard to find something of decent quality. A few years ago, I spotted garments trimmed in flimsy fabrics with unfinished edges for sale at H & M and reported back to my work colleagues in outrage, "Those dresses won't even stand up to one washing!" They informed me that those items were meant to be thrown away instead of washed. I was shocked.

In Overdressed, Elizabeth Cline looks at this consumer mindset, amid the current "cookie-cutter fashion landscape that offers many great deals, but not much in the way of actual choice." "Quality has been whittled away to the point where the average store-bought style is an extraordinarily thin and simple, albeit bedazzled and brightly coloured, facsimile of a garment."

Part of the reason for this is the trend toward fast fashion. It's a "radical method of retailing that has broken away from seasonal selling and puts out new inventory constantly throughout the year. Fast-fashion merchandise is typically priced much lower than its competitors." Buying a new top or dress costs less than a fancy coffee... and with as little consideration given to the purchase.

Fast fashion also requires a quick turnover in styles. It's why fashions from the 1990s were already being recycled in 2010. Also, high couture is poached like crazy. "Forever 21 is notorious for ripping off fashion designers. To date, the company has been sued more than fifty times for copyright violations. Yet they have never been found liable for copyright infringement. U.S. copyright law does not protect fashion design, only fabric prints and jewelry." (Cline notes that fashion design is largely covered by copyright rules in Canada, Europe and other parts of the world.)

To make cheap clothes, you need cheap labour. Cline quotes government statistics: the average wage of a sewing machine operator in the U.S.A. is $9 an hour, or $1,660 a month. In the Dominican Republic, minimum wage in the free trade zones amounts to less than $150 a month. "China, where wages have spiked in recent years, still has minimum wages in the coastal provinces of $147 a month. Bangladesh, which raised its minimum wage in 2010, only requires factories to pay their sewing-machine operators $43 a month." Consumers have been aware of sweatshop practices for a long time now.

"To counter the mounting negative press, boycotts and picketers and under the insistence of consumers, activists, and religious groups, it became common policy for large clothing companies to draft what are known as 'codes of conduct.' These are essentially guidelines regarding human rights, health and safety, and wages and overtime that factories must follow in order to do business with beg Western brands." Social responsibility guidelines are largely ignored, however, because of the "pressure to produce goods at an increasingly furious pace."

Today's my last day at Woodcroft
library; tomorrow I start at the
brand new Jasper Place branch.
I'm wearing my newest dress, made
by a tailor in 2002 in Singapore in
a lightweight wool copy of
my favourite linen dress. My shirt
was purchased in the early 90s,
my tights when Eatons went out of
business in 1999. And my beloved
Fluevog boots are secondhand. 
Clothes are made out of textiles, of course, and manufacturing them takes a shocking environmental toll. "Textiles have always had an unflattering environmental footprint, but the more pressing problem is the terrifying scale at which they are now being produced." "China's growing consumer class and incredible industrial output pose enormous sustainability issues for the global economy and the world's resources. If every man, woman, and child in China bought two pair of wool socks, there would be no more wool left in the world." "The country's growing clothing consumption is already putting upward pressure on the price of fibers, particularly cotton, as demand is outstripping supply."

"Fast fashion is gaining hold among Chinese consumers too. If China begins to consume clothing at disposable levels, which fast-fashion companies are angling for, the environmental and social problems of fashion are just going to increase exponentially from here."

If you think there are needy people out there who are eager to wear other people's cast-offs, you are wrong. "Of all the clothing that we dump off on charities' doorsteps, less than 20 percent gets sold through thrift stores." Cline visited a Salvation Army shop in Brooklyn that "processes an average of five tons of outcast clothing every single day of the year and much more during the holiday season when donations spike." Textile recyclers and rag graders help charities process the excess and try to keep as much as possible out of the landfill.

Cline envisions a cultural shift and ends with a plea for more people to value their clothing. "When we can recognize how clothing is put together, what it's made of, and can visualize the long journey it makes to our closets, it becomes harder to view it as worthless or disposable. Instead, we begin to want to own garments that are unique and made with a level of skill and good materials that cheap fashion simply can't provide us."

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