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Jul 20, 2012

Have you read "Overdressed: The Shockingly High Cost of Cheap Fashion"?

Readers, who was it who said, if something can't go on forever, it won't?

One more question: What happens to a society whose entire economy is based on the consumption of finite resources?  Answer: Nothing good.

Now the book.  I thoroughly enjoyed Overdressed: The Shockingly High Cost of Cheap Fashion, which clearly outlines how clothing production (and consumption) has changed over the last twenty years or so with the rise of "fast fashion."  You may already be familiar with Overdressed, as it has been discussed at length on the Pattern Review boards (with author Elizabeth L. Cline participating) and on many sewing blogs (Check out Trena's insightful take here.)

The clever title says it all: we (mainly, though not exclusively, Americans) are encouraged by marketers to purchase a tremendous amount of cheaply-made clothes -- the fashion equivalent of fast food -- which we neither need nor care much about.  Our closets are bursting with crap, we're destroying the planet in the process, exploiting overseas workers (unions are outlawed in China) while abandoning our own working class, and frantically trying to keep up with a fashion system designed to keep us buying more and more.  Have I missed anything?

Cline travels the world, from the Dominican Republic to Bangladesh, from China to New York's own Garment Center, to illustrate the global scale on which "fast fashion" operates.  CAUTION: You may never feel the same way about shopping in Forever 21, H&M, Walmart, or any of the other purveyors of cheap clothing. And if you think you can always give your unloved cast-offs to the poor, think again: a very small percentage of your Salvation Army or Goodwill donations will ever be worn again.

My quibbles with the book (can we really blame fast fashion for Alexander McQueen's suicide?) are few and its virtues many.  One of the most exciting is that Cline discovers the joy of sewing, and while she's not making her entire wardrobe by the end of the book, she's moving in that direction (slowly).   Cline knows she's not going to save the world by hemming her own skirts or tailoring her second-hand tank tops, but at least she won't be part of the problem.

We live in a throwaway society.  We've all heard the term planned obsolescence.  Nearly all the tools we use in everyday life: our appliances, our computers, and certainly anything fashion-related -- are designed not to last.  When is the last time you had a radio repaired, or a blender, or anything other than a car?  Not only is it hard to find anyone to do it but also the cost is often prohibitive.

You can make the same arguments Overdressed does about clothing, about consumer electronics (who's still watching TV on their circa-1965 Zenith color console?) or furniture (Ikea anyone?) or home construction (postwar suburbia!).  Planned obsolescence is very, very profitable to those at the top of the economic ladder (also known as the investor class or, lately, the 1%).  As for the rest of us, well, it depends on who you are and where you live.  If you're an ILGWU member, it sucks.  If you own a lot of Apple stock, not so bad.

Not that long ago, clothing was something meant to be worn until it wore out and it didn't wear out easily.  Clothing was expensive and, relative to today, well-constructed (as well as more complex).  For reasons clearly outlined in Overdressed -- and they are economic, political, cultural, demographic, technological -- this has changed.  Clothing has become another disposable item, made to be used briefly and thrown away. 

Vintage Lilli Ann fashions from California Couture

Despite Cline's efforts to provide evidence of some potentially positive developments in domestic manufacturing, the scale of these developments is miniscule -- a cute boutique or clothing line that upcycles old clothes, an upscale brand that sources locally -- and the market for such items in a down economy (and getting downer), arguably shrinking.

My hunch is that most of you avoid fast fashion.  Those of you who sometimes indulge likely do so for the same reasons I do: it feels good, it's easy, and, like the occasional fast food indulgence, it's a way we participate in the culture.  And, you know, sometimes we just don't want to care about the big-picture stuff: there, I said it.

We can certainly avoid stores whose manufacturing or marketing methods offend us.  We can buy less, slow down, and consume more consciously.  But I think these choices have their biggest impact on the way we feel about ourselves (more virtuous, less guilty, smarter) than on the planet itself.  The population of China alone is more than 1.3 billion and growing.  And, according to Cline, they want their fast fashion too and who are we to deny it to them when we've already had ours?

Clothing consumption is just one medium-sized part of a big picture of how, in just the last century or so, human beings have squandered the planet's precious resources and destroyed delicate ecosystems  (next up, species extinction).  If it feels good to avoid cheaply made clothing, by all means do so.  If you enjoy sewing your own clothes, as I do, then thread that Singer and stitch away.

Oh, and about that first question: fast fashion won't last because we're running out of cheap energy.  As that problem grows, snagging another cute pair of $15 jeans will be the least of our problems.

Of course, I'd love to hear what you think -- about the book, if you've read it, or about the issue of fast fashion itself.

You can read a short interview with Elizabeth L. Cline on Pattern Review here.

I'm off till the 28th (though I will certainly check in from time to time) so I wish you all a very happy, safe week.

See you soon!


  1. A great post Peter, as usual. I have struggled with this issue for many years. I sometimes indulge in "fast fashion", but try not to. I am quite concerned that the economy is so dependent on people consuming more things they don't need. Sewing solves part of it, but you are still creating more "stuff". I have a problem with those that sew a new dress/outfit weekly or even monthly. It is great for creativity, but it still contributes to more stuff in closets that will probably not get worn much. I love to sew, but I am trying to be sure that the items I make have a use in the longterm.
    Have a great break.

    1. VictoriaR, you've hit the nail on the head regarding sewing. Yes, it's great that we make our own clothes, but how many clothes does one person need? I stopped reading some blogs where the person was making one dress every couple of days. Great for them, but really - so much stuff! I was feeling inadequate on one hand (because it takes me weeks to make a dress) and sarcastic about their use of sergers and shortcuts.

  2. margarette laizureJuly 20, 2012 at 12:40 PM

    I am happy for the Chinese that they are doing so well like America was not so long ago. I am old enough to have had parents admonish me to "finish everything on my plate, some child in China would be happy to have it".

    But while we were prospering, we had a chance to be a good example of big picture thinking and good social and environmental stewards. Since we failed, we agree we have no right to go pointing fingers at the Chinese. That doesn't make me wish they had a more thoughtful, long range view of things. I have always respected the Chinese. Maybe they will all of a sudden wake up and figure that greed will swallow the planet whole. Meanwhile, let's continue making things and believe that homemade is the most chic!

  3. Great post....something I have been on about for the past decade.
    Off to see if I can order that book at the library.

  4. SeamsterEast@aol.comJuly 20, 2012 at 1:23 PM

    Clothing for little kids should be fast fashion, for little kids grow so fast they wear out nothing before they outgrow it.

    Fashion for older folks doesn't change all that much as the decades go by.

    Fashion has a HUGE impact on the age group 9 or 10 to mid 20's, with a lesser impact on mid 20's to mid 30's.

    Children approaching puberty to early/mid teens are trying DESPARATELY to distinguish themselves from their parents as they begin their path to independence. (When I was in high school (early 60's) we wore blue jeans (worker's pants) with white cotton dress shirts specifically to piss off our parents.) Youngin's jump on a "new" fashion enmass to identify themselves as a group.

    Starting mid teens and going on into mid 20's or so, fashion for the individual person becomes one of separation again, this time from colleagues. Two 18 year old girls wouldn't be caught dead wearing the same dress. Same with two 22 yo guys wearing the same striped knit shirt.

    Fashion in this group is far more open. Fashion MUST, however, for these people portray them as interesting, desirable -- and VERY important -- available mates. Clothing here can be more expensive (or practical) because it is worn longer before being religated to the back of the closet (often due to weight changes if nothing else, but certainly because the mating dance has been successful).

    Back in the late 50's -paper- dresses were introduced. Paper is about as cheap and fast fashion one can get, but it didn't catch on because the dresses just didn't look attractive at all. They looked like, well, printed paper.

    Has fast fashion taken off? Sure, because clothing today is cheap, cheap, cheap (when compared to an hour's wages) relative to long ago. And kids ten to twenty-five years old go through a lot of growing and personality development and fashion changes in 15 years.

    1. As a mom of four, I know the last thing a mom needs is the cheap junk of fast fashion for the little ones. Having knees blown out of the jeans a month after school starts isn't helpful. They don't grow that fast.


  5. Inbuilt obsolescence is a biggie. Think of all the really thin, thin clothes that we're expected to layer up, or how it is impossible to buy a white shirt that is opaque enough to hide a decent chest rug or bra. To point at a particular brand, I feel this has happened with Levi jeans. The denim feels much thinner. And I definitely can't make them last a year as my pairs used to do.

    1. I'm in the middle of sewing a white blouse, and have another (in a very different style) on the list, for this exact reason: None of them cover my nakedness.

      I've also become a devotee of old-school Wranglers. They're the antithesis of skinny jeans--high waist, straight legs, worn long--because they're meant for women who actually ride horses. Luckily, I live in Texas so they're just normal pants here, but I don't even look at jeans in non-Western stores any longer. They don't fit and they're all "fashion fabric" denim.

    2. Vayshti, you're so right. This problem even extends to fabric on the bolt - it's hard to get knits here that are solid enough to be worn as a single layer.

      And as a life-long Levi devotee, I completely agree about their quality going way downhill.

    3. I agree with this and the post above too.

    4. I remember reading that Levi's stopped using the heavier denim because it had become less fashionable than the cheap thin denim currently used by most brands. People complained about it and they were losing sales. Poor quality is so common, it's become the "in" thing!

    5. i'm still wearing levis and mine last for a loooong time however, i can remember levis with selvage fabric and the denim used now is lighter. anyway, thanks for this wonderful blog and the great posts. i'm back to sewing after a(n) hiatus and making the clothing that i want to wear rather than that mfgs want me to wear. also, i know mine is made in ventura, california.

  6. I can't wait to read this book!

    Fast fashion has been a growing, depressing trend in the last 5-10 years, and it shows no sign of slowing, unfortunately. It's disheartening to think about how many once-worn garments end up in the landfills or being shipped overseas because shoddy materials and workmanship make them unwearable after 2-3 wearings. Cost per wear is pennies, which is not necessarily a good thing in this case.

    As sewists, at least we have the power to MAKE what we want to wear, and take into account opacity and material thinness when creating new garments.

  7. I completely agree with you, "the fashion equivalent of fast food" pretty much sums it up. That is exactly why I hate clothes shopping. Most of what's available is crap. Thin, cheap, simple, ugly, synthetic, ill-fitting crap. If you want nice clothes that fit and will last you either have to sew them your self or be rich enough to hire a tailor. It's why I learned to sew in the first place. It's also a lot harder to have an individual style if everything you wear comes off an assembly line. Where can I buy a blue silk waistcoat with silver squid and jellyfish embroidered on the collar? Nowhere! So I'm making one myself.

  8. When my mom was a kid, her parents were so poor that they could only afford second-hand clothes, and that was a major source of teen angst shame. So when I was growing up, it was a source of pride to my parents that I never wore second-hand clothes. Ever.

    Sadly, we still considered poor by American standards. That meant that my "nice new clothes" were all K-Mart, and Target if we were feeling fancy. I grew up with an almost paranoid aversion and disdain for brand names and also thrift shops.

    Fast forward to college and I love to sew, but I'm also broke, and fabric is ungodly expensive. But I have a hard time finding cheap clothes to fit me. (Cheap stores don't make clothes for 00 hourglass shapes of average to tall height. Except spandex clothes, I guess.) So I gritted my teeth and got all of my fabric from thrift stores, buying up items with few seams and taking them apart for yardage. Then I started becoming aware of all the waste I was creating with my sewing and decided to keep with secondhand fabric to help mitigate that. Eventually started buying clothes second-hand, too, for the same planet-conscious reason.

    Some thrifted real Doc Martens, Eddie Bauer jackets, Express jeans and cashmere sweaters later... I finally get why people buy expensive clothes. What a difference. The one bad thing is there are a lot of imitations and mislabeled items out there. So if you go that route, you have to be willing to spend some time learning how to tell if something is fake.

    I can tell silk and wool from polyester and polyester blends by touch (very important if you live someplace cold and like to be outside but love being warm), and I've learned the hard way how to kind of "feel" if shoes are high quality or cheap knockoffs. It's fun, though!

    I'm also lucky to have found a few girl friends with a similar body type who wouldn't be caught dead in the same dress (as someone else said) but don't mind having clothes after someone else has worn them. So we just kind of pass our clothes around whenever we want something new. Best of both worlds - get bored, get something new without destroying the planet too much. I think that's a common trend among hipsters.

    Wow, that was long. Summary: Poor kids sometimes grow up thinking fast fashion is a status symbol. The rise of hipster thrift chic might help combat this. Also, buying fabric new is better than fast fashion, because the clothes last longer, but it's still kind of wasteful. Yay secondhand!

  9. Peter,

    Another great post! Enjoy your time off!

    We're in a depression, or "serial recessions", at best. Oddly, many do not want to admit this in the way they dress. "It hasn't hurt me!" is the self-deluding message which is showcased in cheap new clothes and knock-off handbags.

    Meanwhile, fabrics are being milled thinner and flimsier, staunchly following the path of toilet paper (tell me I'm wrong there!). Even at the quilt shops, the fabrics feel less durable, traded down.

    On rare occasions I do go shopping, I find stores are more filled with crap, than content.

    For now, I do without, and head toward "dropping out"; semi-retired from consumerism.

  10. I have a lot of disdain for fast fashion, as I want clothing items to last. When I find a dress or top that makes me look like a knock out I want to to not fall apart after 3 washes on delicate. I love hitting the thrift store and finding american made clothes with the union label on them. I just scored a beautiful white wool blazer from the 70's for a $1. WIN!

  11. I think a lot of issues feed into the strength of the fast fashion trend. I agree with Glynnis that the ability to buy some cheap NEW clothes is a source of status and even pride for some people as a sign they made it. Of course, it is also a source of shame to some, leaving a void that, ironically enough, some try to fill by buying more cheap stuff. It might not be the coolest brand, but variety and staying current means a lot.

    And I think we actually ask our clothes (and more broad styling choices like hair and make up) to do a lot. It isn't just about protection from the elements or that being nude is generally socially unacceptable and even illegal so we must be covered. We intend for our appearance to communicate a lot of stuff about who we are. And when we're young, many of us feel encouraged to try on identities and wear our "neo-tribal" identities so we show we "really belong." For people who believe their identities are in flux, fast fashion is crucial to illustrating their identities and building their sense of belonging.

    But this issue goes beyond being or feeling a part of some kind of group or sub-culture. Its about that narrative of making the self. Lose weight? Get a new wardrobe that shows your authentic self. Got a divorce? Get some new threads to enjoy your freedom. Lisa Simpson goes on vacation and leaves behind her suitcase and nerd self by changing clothes. Dot com millionaires discuss never wearing a buttondown after leaving the stifling confines of corporate culture.

    As long as people want and expect appearance to communicate so much about who they are and what they believe in (and anticipate others to do the same), fast fashion-- at a high and low end-- will only grow more powerful.

  12. I haven't bought a new (as in, unused) piece of clothing in years. My budget is strictly Forever 21, but my tastes are much much more spendy. I hit the middle ground by wearing lots of handmade, vintage, and thrifted higher-end clothing.

    The thing that creeps me out about fast fashion is that it's pretty shitty across the board. Yes, F21 is awful, but so is a lot of the stuff at Nordstrom - with a MUCH higher price tag. Crappy construction is basically the norm now, and it makes the sewist in me cringe when someone refers to their H&M jacket as "well made" since it lasted them a whole year. Nevermind that some of us have clothing that is 70+ years old that is still wearing beautifully (and it's not designer vintage!). THAT is well-made!

    I really am excited to read this book - I'm on a long list of holds at the library right now, though. Soon!

    1. I heartily agree! My Chanel RTW bubble was burst when I walked into my city's boutique and found the classic summer ivory tweed suit on sale (for about $5000 per piece). Imagine my shock and disappointment when I picked it up and discovered no lining and 100% synthetic fibre content. There's a reason the 1% still patronize couture & bespoke - the quality beats even the most expensive RTW!

    2. I'd never seen "real" designer clothes until I travelled to New York last year. I was astonished that the vast majority were 100% synthetic, mostly serged seams, and even the designs and prints weren't anything special.

      Tia Dia, the only way we 99% can have couture is to make it ourselves - lucky some of us have the skills ;-)

    3. I agree-- Many of the "better" brands are only slightly better-made than what you find in Wal-Mart. And I can honestly say, I've sometimes found better quality in discount stores than at boutiques. It's all very unpredictable.

      And I think some of the better luxury brands have seen this, that people are willing to spend for quality; and they are taking advantage by raising their prices even higher.

  13. Excellent post, I almost never buy fast fashion, perhaps the occasional t shirt but I feel I am contributing to some horrible practises when I buy from there, sometimes I remember, sometimes I don't I confess.

    However as someone who has worn vintage clothes for over 25 years I can certainly attest to the quality of clothes made from the particular era I gravitate towards which is late 40s, early 50s. I have dresses, coats and shoes that are over 60 years old that are still going and going well with the occasional bit of maintenance. I doubt you'll find any fast fashion still going in 10 years time never mind 60!

  14. I always think about how long the garment I'm making is going to last me when I see expensive (more hard-wearing) fabric I want to buy: "this is a skirt that I'm *not* going to have to give up in a year! Worth it." I think about this conundrum a lot when I'm looking for vintage fabrics to use, too. I'd love to buy more, but the fabrics used on the outfits that end up in most thrift stores really don't lend themselves to very much. I'd love to see more big-box fabric stores start stocking harder-wearing fabrics, though - pickings are slim in my neck of the woods.

    Great post! Cheers :)

  15. I read several reviews of Ms. Cline's book a couple of days ago, after I stumbled onto lladybird's blog (much beloved!).

    The figure that stood out to me was many people have more garments in their wardrobe than there are days of the year! So I took a look in my own closet and I came in under 200, and nearly half were self-made. But, the thing that sticks out to me is that only one piece, a blazer I bought a couple of months ago at Macy's (because I work there) was bought new.

  16. I've been trying to buy fewer more expensive pieces that I love vs. fast fashion. Last winter that meant buying one new sweater. People tease me about sewing because "you could buy that at Target for $10." I always counter with how poorly made those clothes are with thin fabric, no hemming, etc. I HATE how the shirts are so thin you have to wear two - what a rip off! I hope to sew more of my own clothes in the future. I have found that sewing my own backpacking and outdoorsy stuff actually is cheaper.

  17. VermillionCorsetryCoutureJuly 20, 2012 at 8:17 PM

    The more I make my own clothes the more I appreciate quality fabrics and workmanship. I look inside rtw clothing and am amazed at how shoddily put together it often is. I don't have many clothes compared to my friends, but the ones I do have are well made and 'keepers'.

  18. Good post. Have a great vacation.

  19. Fast fashion like fast food has rwsulted in an under educated mass consumption.
    The methods of production are to produce the highest bulk for the lowest possible production cost, the word fashion is almost irrelevant due to the high growth of this "Fast Fashion" consumer area, the purchasing power of the buyers for the chain stockists can actually dictate fashion, with the RTW designers knowing that a vastly cheaper repro knock off copy can be in a (Super) store near you with in days of a collection being shown.
    These days you can pick up a bit of channel along with a six pack and some doritos, and as noted often the "Quality" is indistinguishable as they are both cheaply produced ( possibly in the same over seas factory) the trade in Fakes has shown the ingenuity of the factories to the point of it being relevant to say What is "designer wear" these days, certainly very little that could be thought of as Iconic is emerging, its all a copy of a copy of a copy, only in pink nylon instead of satin or silk ( both fabrics notoriously difficult to translate in to mass production methods.
    Plus our fast fashion has to be easy care, who of us has the time to starch a shirt regularly, but then who of us ever did, and yet, they did!
    The local dress maker used to keep the bread on the table by doing "Alterations" but that has now all but gone, and when did anyone last see a garment in a shop and think "Well maybe i could let the seams out a little" there are no more seams that can be let out, so instead we buy diet drinks, and pay money to join clubs that tell us to eat less, then buy a gym membership and oh yes buy the "Right" Gym clothes.
    Fast fashion its the quick way to give up control of more than just your wardrobe.

  20. Excellent post...enjoy your break...we will miss you.

  21. I experienced this first hand as an seamstress in a very popular, low-end bridal store. Not only are the wedding dresses badly constructed, they were always made from polyester or other man-made fabrics people always confused with the real thing. Customers were always complaining about the high-cost of these dresses, but we were the lowest-price bridal store on the market. The job consisted trying to explain to disgruntled customers that the price of the alterations were fair. A lot of them believed the alterations were "sent-out"? Out where? Back to China? In fact it was 5-6 women trying to make a living sewing alterations for this bridal store, which sacrifices quality for revenue. I don't blame them, they're in the fast-food clothing market, but bridal style. The company was constantly trying to take more alterations than there were workers to sew them all for more revenue, thus we worked in a factory mode, working fast and often stressed out because there were more work than we could handle for the day.

    I knew many women who worked in the garment district in the 50s, 60s, and 70s. They were able to make a living off of their talents, they had a union, got benefits and paid vacations. They liked their work and doing *quality* work. They were seen as valuable members of the company. Then, outsourcing happened, and they all eventually lost their jobs. I knew I couldn't make my living working there or anywhere else until people's perspective on cheap clothing changed.

    Have a great break!

  22. This post sent me over the edge. My brain is on fire. I can't think straight. HELP! I wish everyone in America and the world would read it. But I fear most of them would not get it, or horrors, would claim the world would fall apart without this type of consumerism (which might be true). My blood boils, by blood pressure rises and I can't see straight when it comes to our mass consumerism and the havoc it is creating on the world. I am a part of it. It is hard not to be. I try really, really hard not to be. 90% of my clothes are either hand me downs or self made. 98% of my house is either an antique or old. I just do not buy stuff and neither does my husband.

    I went to a fabric store last year and the owner told me that quilting fabric today is created to last about 7 years. 7 YEARS!!!!!!!! Why would anyone put all that effort into making a quilt to last 7 years? I have my great-grandmothers quilt which is over 100 years old and still hanging in there!

    My friends know I sew and will sometimes say I should start a business. Ha. What a joke. Could you imagine charging someone to make something? Time. $20 per hr x 40 hrs. Material etc....(good quality) $50... Your dress will be $850. WHAT!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  23. Excellent, Excellent post!! I agree, I have been making all my clothes for quite a few years because I hate the @#$% that I can find to buy. I make about 3 outfits a year, either summer or winter and they are very similar. I am old enough not to care about current fashion. Unfortunately, we need people to take up the craft of weaving so we will have decent fabric again in this country.

  24. This topic has been on my mind lately, as I've recently had to do some fast-fashion shopping for an event that was scheduled on short notice. I didn't have time to make anything, or to save up for a good quality outfit. So off to the mall (and strip shopping centers) I went.

    I confess, I was grateful to be able to find presentable clothes for cheap. But I know that nothing I bought will last more than a few wearings, and that's frustrating to know.

    I live in town full of cute little charity thrift shops. A new one just opened up, and interestingly, they do not accept clothing donations.

  25. The book sounds like a good read! I don't shop in the cheap fast fashion world, as these closes tend not to fit my figure very well. I'm in the camp with buying more pricey items that are classics and will be worn many times.

    My biggest pet peeve is the fact that it starts with our children. I make children's clothing and sell it on Etsy, and while I'm sure a lot of young parents can't really afford too many of the things I make, I don't think I have them outrageously priced. I use only natural fibers, and my pieces are intended to be heirloom quality, yet I can just imagine that most people would say," I don't want to spend that, because they are just going to out grow it." Sad, because you can hand the pieces down, and they will out last anything that is sold at Target, etc. The only children's line in this country, as far as mass produced, that I think is pretty good is Gap kids, even though most of it is produced in China. I have many of their pieces, and I have kept them, but for the most part, American children's clothing is horrific! Too bright and garish. I love the esthetic of French and Italian children's clothing. More muted colors, and classic designs that will never go out of style, and can be handed down to their siblings. Also the clothes are sweet, and not little copies of adult clothing. While living in France, I loved watching how smartly dressed the little kids were, and the high quality of the clothing. Don't even get me started on the shoes!!!

    I may never sell very many of my things, but the few pieces that I have, I feel good knowing that someone cared enough to buy something with quality!!!

  26. Great post! I would add that our society is so accustomed to the availability of fast fashion and the disposableness of it that the young are appalled at the idea of a garment lasting for years. My niece had two boys 14 months apart and told me that "hand-me-downs are not fair." She bought all new for the second child. Sigh...

  27. It's a great book my take-away is that sewers are not immune from responsibility either and we shouldn't feel too virtuous because so many of us accumulate a fabric stash that reaches SABLE proportions (Stash Accumulation Beyond Life Expectancy). After reading about the environmental impact of textile production I think my new motto will be that old Yankee advice of "Use it up, wear it out, make it do - or do without"

  28. I just finished this book and couldn't put it down. Engrossing and slightly horrifying, is probably how I'd put it. While I've been aware for many years of a lot of the waste and dodgy practices of clothing manufacturers, reading this just made me sick all over again.

    And then I realized that no matter how much I love to thrift and sew (which I do a lot--especially thrifting; I do that at least once a week!) and try my best to keep my fashion choices as minimum impact as possible, I can't entirely do that. I like how you equated it to fast food. I rarely eat it (and my "fast food" is usually a Five Guys burger, which I think is on a slightly better level than McD's! ;) lol.). But sometimes I do enjoy it. I don't shop a lot at major retailers; very occasionally I'll buy something at *coughcough* Forever21 (usually costume jewelry) or H&M. But I find now more often than not, I'm just too put off by the construction "quality" to bother.

    After I read this book, I went on a hunt to find some made in the USA shoe retailers, thinking that I'd much prefer to buy fewer shoes that are made domestically than lots of cheaply made ones from sketchy factories overseas. Alas, all I could really find was one company that made clogs. Cute, but not entirely my style. The few other companies that are still made here (and which I would love to support to help the economy at home), are orthopedic looking or just plain ugly.

    I find this too with "ethically made" clothing and accessory lines. What they produce is not always in line with current trends or even "classic" (non hippie) styles. While I think a handful of us who do not have gobs of cash to spend on clothing would be happy to save and buy better made products that are better for the environment and the local economy, it's just not possible any more. As much as we try to avoid it, Target and the mall still are the go-to place for basics (even if you sew--how many people sew their own undies or fashion their own shoes? I just don't have the skills or time...).

    Still, I think this book made me rethink some of my sewing and thrifting habits. As a few commenters brought up: both can still promote the "more! more! more!" mindset you find in fast fashion. As someone who is guilty of *ahem* being a packrat, it's made me realize more fully that I do need to be aware of my sewing and thrifting choices--even though it's less impactful on the larger scale.

  29. I will avoid most of the issues here, because I have not read the book, I feel they are discussed a lot by other people and I have nothing to add.

    The only thing I want to react to: Do you know any details about the claim that most donated clothing will not be worn? What happens to the clothing? Is it just an American thing, or is it some sort of worldwide study, or whatever is it?

    1. Read this article from Slate -- "The Afterlife of Cheap Clothes."

  30. "And, you know, sometimes we just don't want to care about the big-picture stuff: there, I said it."

    "The population of China alone is more than 1.3 billion and growing. And, according to Cline, they want their fast fashion too and who are we to deny it to them when we've already had ours?"

    Two very excellent points. It's hard to be virtuous all the time, and it's unfair for us to expect virtue from those who haven't yet had what we have. It makes for difficult and intractable questions!

  31. Great post, Peter! I have not read the book but I've been thinking about the problem of the growing fast fashion (and the consumerism) for a while. People like us can make a difference but on a global scale we are just a drop of water in the ocean of the vulgarity and the mass consumption. I would like to believe in the better outcome, but unfortunately, I'm being pretty pessimistic, unless something major happens on a larger scale.

  32. I have two library systems to choose from and the city system didn't even have this book. I am #40-something on the wait list for a copy through the county system.

    I checked out amazon to read reviews and get an answer to my main question (what happens to donated clothes). List price is $25 (and change) and it is on sale for $15 (and change). The reviews answered my question.

    While reading reviews, I received three emails telling me how I can get xyz for "cheap" or "half price". Hmmm......

    I see a trend here.....

  33. Oh boy, is cheap clothing on my mind...

    * Just got back from a trip to Wyoming. Once again, seeing the average American on the move is a shock: So much shoddy, poorly made, poorly fitting clothing!

    * My Chinese-born hairdresser, whom I saw today, has cousins visiting from China. Their big thrill: Visiting the outlet mall in Woodburn (south of Portland), where they can buy made-in-China clothing FOR A FRACTION OF THE PRICE that it would cost in China. Is that crazy or what?

    * I too am tired of the "dress a day" approach to sewing and have stopped reading some blogs as a result. Really, you need all that? What about learning some couture techniques and producing beautiful garments that will last?

    * On the positive side, the no-waste method of pattern designing has emerged. Let's hope it picks up steam.....

  34. black t-shirts from Old navy. Yup, I have a slight addiction. I do tend to alter or embellish them. Agree with what everyone said about denim. Carharts is another good work wear brand if you are not a Wranglers girl. I am years from being able to make a pair of jeans. I'm still at the stage of sewing where only about half of what I make isn't crap, but i look forward to my 9glacially changing) skills improving.

  35. I've been chastized for keeping clothes too long. Maybe because a XL doesn't work on an 2XL body?

    I had a hunch that something like this is happening. Womens clothes are particularly flimsy, and I'm unhappy about that. See through shirts that are to be thrown away in a few weeks.

    If you look at the hand stitched clothing in the era before sewing machines, they were made to LAST. Sturdy stitching, places were patched and re-patched... etc.

    If you consider socks today, if they get holes in them, you throw them away. People of the past used to darn their socks, for centuries. How many modern people know how to do that? There are hundreds of year old socks that are still in decent condition, and have been darned.

    I (and others) looked at one of my teachers with scorn. He had a sweater he loved and it had patches in it. We asked him why he didn't just throw it out.

    I dunno. There are ways to recycle fabric. I love the recycled cotton yarn. <3 Its just that.. recycling isn't fashionable. My aunt approaches me with scorn: "Why you tearing that up????" even if the item is old and worn.

  36. Then again, the problem with desiring to purchase ethically made clothes or decent, sturdy clothes, is that they're expensive in the short term. For example, jeans that are $50 but will last you 10 years, versus ones wear the seams and crotch wear out in 1.5 years.
    Its like buying relatively unhealthy foods at some fast food joint or cost cutter grocery versus buying food at the farmer's market or a co op that's not so local. You have to eat now and have enough money to feed several people.
    It is: you have to buy clothes now and clothe several children.

    Its a tough personal choice for some people.
    I wanna read this book though... now that you bring this up.

  37. Interesting post and comments. We are looking at the maw of greed, folks--we who love clothes and fabrics love lots of them, and we are paying a health price for food greed, and an environmental price for speed and mobility greed. What if we resisted the calls to this monster and tried restraint as a goal instead? It calls for a kind of spiritual discipline that is very challenging, especially when the loud marketplace has so many messages in our faces that drive us in the opposite direction. It is not easy but it is worthwhile to pioneer this path.

  38. This book sounds great and I will definitely check it out. I just need to put my two cents in as someone who works in the garment industry and as an advocate of home sewing. This issue of cheap fast fashion is a double edged sword regarding job creation and cost. Consumers are not prepared to pay for quality because the prices would be much more than the average person is prepared to spend, and with unemployment being what it is who can justify the purchase of a $200 blouse when their friends have the latest and greatest fashion trend each day courtesy of fast fashion and are stuck wearing that blouse every other day. Consumers do not realize how pinched manufacturers are to sell at price points dicated by retailers. No one wants to pay for anything. I have to look at a basic blouse and figure out how to make it a dollar cheaper. It's like squeezing water from stone. Actually it's depressing. I read customer reviews of the products I make and I see comments like "well, for $39.99 I was expecting more quality". Ok, you have a 39.99 garment, 50% of that goes to the store Maybe 20% goes to the manufacturer, 15% goes to fabric, 10% goes to shipping and importing and the rest goes to the sewing. This is just an approximation, but that 39.99 doesn't go very far in the production scheme not to mention that the dollar is incrediby weak against the Yuan, and cotton prices are sky high. Oh and for those who hate synthetic products it is an extra duty fee to import natural fibers. It's apocalyptic to me and I sometimes feel that the pressures on the garment industry will cause it to implode. If you work in the industry you just have to be very thankful to even have a job because small manufacturers are closing shop at a very rapid pace.
    That said if you want quality and sustainability- make it youself.

  39. The book and Peter's article is right on the money, much has changed in past 20 years, heck even less than that. Like many high tech industries, clothing is getting replaced with cheap crap made in vast quantities and making it such that no way someone here in USA (and other countries) can compete with industries in China. Ellyanna (out of Singapore) used to have a particular bouffant ballgown with shoulders (rare as most are strapless) but that was discontinued. There are several websites with such dresses and some even show the exact same Ellyanna gown (they simply lifted the image and put on their own website). You can the gown order online, provide all the measurements (it is cut to fit) and wait about a month later and it will be delivered direct from China. But here is the kicker, it is not the Ellyanna gown but a copycat as if someone looked at the image and made patterns. Material is ok, fit is ok, though a lot of shortcuts the final product not so great. Duplicating garments like DVDs? It's been done before but that's another story.

    Besides women's clothing I see the same in men's clothing. That expensive suit from Nordstroms is not same quality like it used to be in 1990's.

    Go way back to 1950's where many different styles from most beautiful dresses to -ugh- the sack dress can be bought off the shelf. And this stuff made by ILGWU was virtually indestructible. Really, get a vintage gown from ebay and you will be amazed by the sewing and construction particularly how it has held together for more than 50 years. Drawback is material probably lost some of its pizzass as the threads molecular structure tends to break down over time.

    So what is the most cost effective way of good clothes? Expensive and well made (if you can find it) which last a long time. Or cheap stuff that wears out quickly so you have to go back again and again (which travel and time costs add up) that has environmental impacts, etc.

    Thanks to Peter for the provoking article and the book by Elizabeth Cline.

  40. Forgive me if this comment has already been made, but something that's always been left out of the fast-fashion debates I've read is that some of us can't afford anything else. My clothing budget is miniscule (Gap's clearance rack is a little spendy for me). For those of us on the bottom end of the economic ladder, fast-fashion isn't a cheap thrill, it's a way to get the basics covered without spending days hunting the racks at GoodWill. I prefer good quality clothing when I can get it, and I'm willing to spend time on it (I do tailor my own clothing), but it's so nice be to able to walk into a store and know that I can buy what's there. Most other retailers are an exercise in frustration ... the clothes are beautiful and I know they'd last much longer, but when a tee-shirt costs more than my entire monthly clothing budget, the hope of getting something good quality becomes a pipe dream.

  41. Lauren R of AdelaideAugust 4, 2012 at 7:36 PM

    I have just finished reading the book and it has really opened up my eyes. Although the book focuses on the USA, it is just as appropriate for any western nation, including me in my home town of Adelaide, South Australia. I'm 23 and my generation has grown up with fast-fashion and have never considered the consequences. Since reading the book I am changing my habits as I know that my love of clothing and fashion comes with a price and what I'm doing isn't sustainable.

    I am a huge fan of vintage clothing and have decided to start wearing my vintage clothes more often and avoid or limit 'new' purchases as much as I can. I am also learning to sew and have already altered several items that I already had in my closet. I've got a long way to go but it's a start.

    The truth is that I technically own enough clothes to last me a life time, except that they are mass-produced and would be lucky to last a few years before falling apart. How ironic.

    I now understand the importance of buying quality (and no, this doesn't necessarily mean a designer brand), and the importance of buying clothing made in one's home country. if you live in Aus/NZ you would no doubt me familiar with Cue and their sister brand Veronika Maine. These garments are made using fabric imported from Europe and are almost entirely made in Australia! Good quality fabric, fashion-forward designs and Australian made. Also they are still owned and run by he same family that started the company in the 60's! It is important to know where your garments came from and where they are constructed.

    I am so grateful for this book as it has really forced me to analyse my consumption and spending habits. If you haven't read it, please do. You will never look at another fast-fashion cheap chain store the same way ever again!

  42. As I read this post, I am wearing a cotton knit tank top that I made about five years ago. It still fits, the colors are bright, it goes with most of my casual pants and skirts, and it still brings compliments. I am not a "cheap clothes" consumer because I hate wasting my money. I would rather buy good shoes.

  43. Agree.

    When I buy clothes, it's generally t-shirts on sale because, well, I hate sewing knits. And I like "trendy", snarky t-shirts. ;-)

    School uniforms are an EXCELLENT example of this trend.

    When you buy uniforms through "those" companies that charge an arm and a leg and a couple of internal organs for a plaid skirt & a cardigan, you can expect them to last a Very Long Time.

    Not so if you buy from JC Penney or the Evil Empire (WalMart). I buy our childrens' school uniforms from either Target or The Children's Place because those suckers LAST. I've had uniforms that were just as good as the first day that had been outgrown that I donated to the school uniform closet. The skirts I bought from JCP for last year? Didn't even last the year AND were more expensive than Target. BOOOOOOOOOOO I hate polyester. It stains, it picks and runs and it's itchy.

    For myself, I only buy new clothes on sale. Generally from Target or Old Navy. And my jeans? NOT $15 except on Black Friday. Try $30+ to get the correct length/fit.

    If it's something I want to last a long time? I make it myself.

    Why waste money on cheap clothes when I can spend it on cute shoes?


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