The Shockingly High Cost of Cheap Fashion

By Elizabeth L. Cline

Portfolio. 256 pp. $25.95

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Reviewed by Katie Haegele

A few years ago, Elizabeth L. Cline had an epiphany after a shopping trip to Kmart.

So excited to see that the canvas shoes she wanted had been marked down to $7, she decided to buy all those left in her size. Lugging seven pairs of identical shoes home on the subway, it struck her that something about the way she bought clothing had gotten kind of screwy.

A young, professional woman who lives in New York City, Cline may seem more likely than the average American to buy a lot of stylish clothes. But in this kind of overconsumption she is totally average. As Cline reveals in her startling report on the way we shop now, Americans buy 64 pieces of new clothing a year, or more than one a week. Thanks to "fast fashion" retailers such as Target, H&M, Old Navy, Zara, and Forever 21, which sell clothing at unprecedented high volumes and low prices, people are able to buy new clothes almost without thinking about it. It's fun, the thrill of getting something trendy for next to no money - but the results have been disastrous for the environment, for the people who aren't being paid a living wage to make the clothes, for the domestic job market, and even for our middle class.

In order to better understand her own bad habits, Cline set out to learn what has happened to the U.S. garment industry over the last 100 years - and especially the last 20. In 1990, almost 50 percent of the clothing we wore was still made here; today, a shocking 2 percent of clothing worn by Americans is made in the United States. Once larger companies began shipping their factory jobs overseas, no other clothing manufacturer using domestic labor could compete.

Cline is equally stunned to discover that clothes were much more expensive 100 years ago, when an American household spent 15 percent of its income on clothing. Now we can buy a new outfit for the price of a takeout lunch, in part because H&M and other huge companies are able to order clothing in such massive quantities. The waste created by this level of production, even at the consumer level, is staggering; secondhand stores can no longer keep up with the clothing we discard. Cline visited one Salvation Army store in Brooklyn that processes five tons of used clothes a day.

Of course, for fast fashion to work, the quality of the materials used and the complexity of construction must decrease. This sounds like a no-brainer, and indeed anyone who has been buying clothing for more than 30 years likely remembers more generous cuts, heavier fabrics, and such details as invisible seams.

It doesn't take long for Cline, who graduated from high school in the '90s, to realize how shoddy her fast-fashion "finds" really were. To be sure, more than 40 percent of the clothing now produced worldwide is made of plastic, in the form of polyester. Cline experienced the environmental impact of this production firsthand when she visited China's Guangdong Province, where polyester plants and electronics factories are clustered. Her throat ached, her eyes burned, and she had a sinus infection that lingered for months after she got home.

Thinking that high-end designer clothing could offer a solution to the fast-fashion problem, Cline went shopping at New York City's Bergdorf Goodman with a "wardrobe consultant" and was dismayed to learn that, while some of the high-priced clothing there is indeed special - hand-stitched, replete with fine details - plenty of it isn't. The customers, many of whom no longer know how to evaluate the quality of the clothing they buy, are interested only in the names.

Cline writes that anyone picking up a book on the evils of fast fashion is likely to expect a book about sweatshops, and, indeed, she does visit some overseas sewing factories to report on conditions and wages. Though the situation has largely improved since sweatshop protests made the news 15 years ago, some of the changes - like the empty room set up for child care that Cline sees on a tour of a socially compliant factory in Bangladesh - are surely in name only. Since it's entirely legal for companies in the United States to pay workers abroad no more than their country's minimum wage (which in the developing world is almost never a living wage), it's up to consumers to demand better. This comes across as surprisingly heartening, especially when Cline describes the decent, comfortable lives enjoyed by the employees at Alta Gracia, a T-shirt factory in the Dominican Republic owned and operated by American company Knights Apparel, which has allowed workers to unionize.

After reading Cline's book - or even this review - it's possible that the cheetah-print cardigan you got for five bucks won't look quite so cute anymore. But actually, the backbone of Cline's book is a hardy optimism. She learns about the "slow fashion" movement and meets designers who use recycled and sustainable materials and order clothing in small quantities. She even learns to sew, and as she alters clothing she hasn't been able to wear, we feel her delight at wresting back some control over her life and her wardrobe.

Far from suggesting that we make all our own clothes like our pioneer forebears, Cline simply reports on the state of things and asks us to think before we buy.

Katie Haegele is the author of "White Elephants: On Yard Sales, Relationships, & Finding Out What Was Missing," from Microcosm Publishing.