Are We OverDressed? The Shockingly High Cost of Cheap Fashion

by May 29, 2014
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Shopping, clothes, fashion. These are all words that are music to some ears and nails on a chalk board to others. Some people relish the idea of sifting through racks of clothing to find the perfect steal. Others do not. Yet somehow, even those of us who don’t find any sort of enjoyment in shopping for clothes still manage to find a pile made up of cheap, worn-out clothes with holes or pit stains. I’m looking at you, jeans-with-holes-in-the-crotch.

One thing we don’t always think about, myself included, is where our clothes come from, who made them, and where our clothes are going once we’ve tossed them aside. Who are people who cut the excess thread from our jeans? Do they make enough money to feed themselves and their families? Where are some my old clothes today? Are they sitting in a landfill? Has some artsy soul repurposed them into something fashionable and unique?

Just likes food, beauty products and other things we buy, clothing habits need to be examined. OverDressed: The Shockingly High Cost of Cheap Fashion by Elizabeth L. Cline does just that. She has researched what cheap fashion from places like Target and H&M is doing to our economy and planet.

One thing I didn’t know, or at least didn’t think about too often, was the fact that cheap fashion has destroyed U.S. jobs.

“The garment industry was New York City’s largest employer as early as 1900,” says Elizabeth, on page thirty-eight. “The Garment Center was once a way for immigrants and those without college degrees to work their way up. The industry had a place for many more blue-collar and middle-class positions, including brokers, wholesalers, salesmen, printmakers, pattern makers, cutters, and of course a veritable army of sewing-machine operators. The few hundred remaining union garment workers in New York today still eke out a decent living, making between $30,000 and $100,000 a year plus benefits, depending on their skill peel and experience.”

While it’s wonderful that union garment workers are still able to make a decent living, the number I noted was not their salaries, but the number of workers there are. A few hundred. Meanwhile, those jobs are being shipped overseas, mostly to Asia. The reason? Labor there is cheaper. The work involved to make clothes hasn’t necessarily declined all that much.
“Clothing, even when produced in a factory, is really a handmade good broken down into assembly-line steps,” says Elizabeth on page 42. “The sewing machine is more a tool than a machine, as it really just facilitates and speeds up manual work,”

According to the book, which cites government statistics, the average seeing machine operator in the United States is bring home about $1,660 per month. This doesn’t make them rich by any means, but in the Dominican Republic minimum wage is about $150 a month and in China’s coastal provinces it’s about $147. And in Bangladesh? $47 a month. It’s pretty easy to see why labor is so cheap abroad and why making clothes here in the U.S. is so ‘expensive.’

Though this is just one point the book makes (and I think it’s a poignant one), I could go on citing facts and stats.

At the end of the book, Elizabeth talks about the future of fashion. Though the prospect of buying expensive, high quality pieces may be daunting, she does offer a piece of advice on page 218: “If you currently shop cheap, you can shift your spending without paying more than you’re used to paying overall by shopping less and with more intention. I don’t spend more per year than I used to, and yet I own much nicer stuff that looks better on me.” She points out that by buying higher quality items, you’ll get a better fit along with a more classic-style and quality material that doesn’t have to be replaced often.

I encourage you to pick up a copy of OverDressed and give it a read yourself. Also, if you’re into thrifting or at least want to repurpose some fabric, check out Flurt’s article 12 Tips to Make Your Thrift Store Trip Better.

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