Here are the beginning and end stages of a fast-fashion addict's recovery: When Elizabeth Cline started writing Overdressed: The Shockingly High Cost of Cheap Fashion, her 2012 investigation of the fashion industry, she was wearing a sweatshirt from Forever 21 that cost $12.95, a $28 faux leather jacket from T.J. Maxx, a $16 T-shirt from Urban Outfitters, a $5 miniskirt from H&M, and a $14 pair of tights from American Apparel. Last week, when we talked on the phone in anticipation of her appearance at the Chicago Humanities Festival, she was wearing vintage black-leather shorts, a sweatshirt her boyfriend had found in a thrift shop, and a pair of pointy leather boots she bought in a secondhand market in Nairobi, Kenya, this past January, when she was there filming a documentary based on the book.
"Nairobi has the best secondhand shopping in the world," she says. Most of the goods in the markets come from American donations; charities such as Goodwill and the Salvation Army only manage to resell about 20 percent of the goods they collect and then ship the remainder overseas. The global secondhand market, Cline says, generates about $800 million in revenue every year.
Shoppers in Nairobi are just as obsessed as Americans with fashion and trends, Cline says, especially denim. Sellers scrub and reshape old clothes to make them look new again. But there's also a rich culture there of remaking and repurposing clothes, like taking a pair of size-XXL men's dress pants and turning them into a skirt.
Here in the U.S., disposable clothing is still as much of a problem as it was when Cline published Overdressed four years ago. Fashion was recently named the second-most polluting industry after oil. In Bangladesh, the country that's vying to become the go-to place for production of fast fashion now that Chinese workers have started to demand higher wages, the unregulated leather industry has been dumping toxic chemicals and wastewater into the rivers, where it mingles with the drinking water. Workers are still disgustingly underpaid. The garment industry has seen three of the four most deadly accidents in its history. By 2020, Cline estimates, China and India, with their billion-plus populations, will overtake the United States as the leading consumers of fast fashion. She also surmises that H&M continues to open a store somewhere in the world nearly every day.
But Cline has also noticed some more positive developments in the past three or four years, notably a shift in the conversation around clothing and the emergence of a new "slow fashion" movement whose proponents are demanding more transparency about where their clothes come from. Online companies like Zady, Cuyana, and Everlane make a point of allowing shoppers to read about the farms where their cotton is grown or where the sheep and alpacas (who provide their wool) are raised; through videos, customers can see the people who sew their shirts and dresses. These clothes cost more—a basic T-shirt from Zady costs $36, while a similar one from H&M is $5.99—but that, says Cline, is also part of the point.
"There's this idea that if you sell higher-quality clothes," Cline explains, "people will buy fewer, better things. Online retailers offer luxury-quality products at a more reasonable price, from $40 to $200 or $300."
This is, Cline acknowledges, still beyond the range of many people. But she also notes that before the 1990s and the advent of Old Navy, there was no equivalent to today's $4.99 dress. If you adjust prices for inflation, many Americans were paying the same amount for regular middle-market clothes as people today are paying for the ethically made garments; the only difference is that past wardrobes were considerably smaller. Also, at least until the 70s, most women knew how to sew well enough to alter poorly fitting pieces or transform them into something they liked better, much like the secondhand-clothing dealers in Nairobi.
"The reality of bringing home a piece of clothing you didn't like is a phenomenon of fast fashion," says Cline. "People shop on impulse."
Cline herself used to be among the hordes of shoppers who were easily seduced by $7 pairs of shoes and two-for-one sales. These days, she says, she hunts for new clothes with more intent. "I don't shop in the sense that I walk into a store without an idea of what I'm looking for," she says. "I think about what I need before I look."
She's also become much savvier about buying clothes secondhand. The Internet has transformed that market as well. You no longer need to live near a great vintage store to get great vintage clothes—instead you can just log onto Thredup or Ebay. "Using technology and the sharing economy," says Cline, "you can get exactly what you want."
The slow fashion movement advocates for the repair and restoration of old clothes, either at home or with the assistance of cobblers and tailors. In one chapter of Overdressed, Cline writes about how she bought a sewing machine and took lessons in order to design her own clothes. This experiment was more difficult than she'd anticipated, but it did teach her what good quality looks like. "I don't shop just on style anymore," she says. "It's part of a larger equation."
Still, Cline acknowledges that problems with the fashion industry are too large to be fixed simply by alterations in consumer behavior. "It's a systemic problem," she says. "There needs to be massive policy and legislative change. The political climate in the United States, especially with the primaries, has made people realize what they can expect of government. We've expected corporations to police themselves and be good voluntarily, but there need to be rules. We can't leave [regulating the industry] up to corporations."
The International Labor Rights Forum has organized a Global Day of Action on May 3 at H&M stores worldwide to coincide with the retailer's annual meeting in Solna, Sweden. This is all, Cline hopes, part of a larger fashion revolution that will repair the damage done by 20 years of fast fashion. It's a very simple idea, she says: "Buy better, buy less." v