by Alissa Lively
Recently, I visited the Zara in Georgetown, DC, and I felt like I could’ve bought out the store. Everything was a fun, cheaper version of what was currently selling in my favorite but more expensive stores. I snagged a great dress that ended up not fitting as well as I’d hoped, but I figured I could exchange it for any of the other fabulous pieces that I had found.
However, when I returned ten days later, not one of those fabulous pieces was left in the store. The sales girl informed me that they receive shipments of new styles almost every day.
Rapid turnover for fashion retailers like Zara, H&M, and Forever21 is just one of the issues that Elizabeth Cline discusses in her recent book Overdressed: The Shockingly High Cost of Cheap Fashion. She traces the history of the fashion industry in the United States — from when many women made their own clothes, or invested in quality pieces from department stores, to our current attitude of, “It’s so cheap, I could wear it once and throw it away!”
After several years of thinking about where my food comes from and what effect its production has on the environment, it was pretty humbling to realize that I’m clueless about the origins of my clothes. Not only that, but I’ve bought into the disposability mentality myself. This June, I was looking for summery wedges, which I found at a nearby H&M. When the shoes rang up as $10 instead of $25, did I question the quality of their construction or the overall value? No, I picked up another pair in a jewel green! I can’t remember the last time that jewel green was featured in my wardrobe, but they were so cheap! At that price I could definitely afford to round out my look.
This attitude of “It’s cheap, let’s buy more!” is precisely what is fueling the fast fashion industry. By pumping out millions of new styles at lower prices every week, retailers have consumers hooked and coming back over and over again. But the drive down to the lowest price has had significant consequences: Not only has it almost annihilated the U.S. garment production and textile industry, but it has also weakened the quality of our clothing and increased the amount of waste. (One Salvation Army in Brooklyn amasses eighteen tons of unsellable clothing every three days!)
In addition, the disappearance of the garment industry in the States creates new complications in the countries filling that void. Many of us laughed or sneered at Kathie Lee Gifford when her sweatshop scandal came to light in the mid-90s, but the fact is that many of the factories producing the vast majority of our clothing are operating questionable, if not unsafe, work environments and not providing their employees living wages. Furthermore, over-congestion of garment production factories in these countries is directly affecting the environment at large: In the Guangdong Province in China, the pollution is so thick that visibility is less than a quarter mile, and dye waste pollutes the rivers to the point of coloring them red and blue. And it is not just Asia suffering the effects: Air quality and weather patterns on the West Coast have been altered by pollutants from China too.
While the discoveries that Cline makes seem bleak, the book ultimately has a positive outlook. She believes that the reign of cheap fashion won’t last, because it’s unsustainable for producers and increasingly less attractive for consumers. Instead, she suggests seeking out and supporting designers that use quality fabrics and produce their clothing in small batches from factories based in the United States. By mending ripped tights and patching frayed jacket elbows, we can save our clothes instead of tossing them in the trash. Or take classes and make your clothes from scratch, like Mags! If that sounds like a little too much self-reliance, tailors can provide an almost-forgotten service of mending, altering, or even completely constructing clothing perfectly fit for us. After many years of suffering through long jeans for too-short legs, it sounds like a dream to me…
Since, unfortunately, my H&M wedges wouldn’t stay on my feet and the fake cork veneer on the heels started to peel off almost immediately, I now own two pairs of summery wedges that I can’t even use. Now that $20 is actually looking a little expensive. But with an eye toward the permanence and sustainability of my future wardrobe, I hope that they will be my last casualties of cheap fashion.
Image 1: IMDB, Image 2: Confessions of a Shopaholic