The Cost of Fast Fashion

Overdress book coverI just finished reading “Overdressed: The Shockingly High Cost of Cheap Fashion” by Elizabeth L. Cline.

I first heard the term “fast fashion” about a year ago. Basically this refers to how quickly trends change and how quickly manufacturers get new clothes to the market. Fast fashion is poorly-made clothing made as cheaply and quickly as possible. The whole point is to make low-priced clothing that consumers buy in mass quantities and they don’t care if it lasts for more than a few months because the trends change. I have definitely bought into fast fashion, shopping at stores like Forever 21, H&M, and The Loft.

I was really interested in the comparison to the quality and quantity of clothes produced 100 years ago. Adjusted for inflation, the average price of an everyday dress in the early 20th century was around $200. I would consider that an expensive dress! Because clothes were much more expensive, people owned fewer clothes. And because people were spending a lot of money, they demanded higher-quality clothing. The fabrics were better, the types of stitches used were better, and the clothes lasted longer.

The author clearly did a lot of research for this book. She visited factories in multiple countries and discussed employee wages, working conditions, factory pollution, and business practices.

She talked a lot about the environmental impact of fast fashion. I didn’t know before reading this book that most synthetic materials are types of plastics. I don’t buy plastic water bottles or use plastic bags, so why would I buy plastic clothes? Also, so many tons of clothes get donated every year that there is too much to resell. Americans are picky about buying secondhand clothes and only a small percentage of what is donated stays in the US. The bulk of donated clothes gets sold overseas in developing countries. But even the developing countries don’t want the cheap clothes from H&M and Old Navy, and a lot of it ends up as trash.

The writing style of the book did bother me quite a bit. The author seemed to go off on about 5 tangents in every chapter, often times repeating what she had already said in earlier parts of the book.

The author did offer a few solutions to fast fashion. First, consumers need to relearn how to check for quality. Read the labels and look at the stitches. And just because something is expensive does not mean that it is good quality. Second, people need to mend their clothes and have them altered, rather than throwing them away and buying new. She also recommended that people learn to make their own clothes, just like our grandmothers used to do. And third, consumers need to understand that quality and skilled labor do cost money.

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8 thoughts on “The Cost of Fast Fashion

  1. I went through the clothing design program here and it’s even worse than you think. For instance there’s a whole branch of the clothing industry dedicated to determining, for example, whether there are fewer repetitive injuries in piece work by having the person reach up for the piece and pull it down, or reach to the side and pull it over. Also, because they do everything they can to squeeze pennies here and there (it all adds up in a big way when there are thousands of each item made), the seams are so small–1/4″ isn’t uncommon–that you barely look at them and they burst. Saving money is also why they’ve gone from 12 stitches an inch to 10, and why they use that horrible fishing line-type thread: no need to match colors then.
    As for the synthetics, acrylic and polyester are derived from petroleum, rayon and acetate from wood (but the chemicals needed to process them from wood to fiber are horrible), and nylon from coal. Compare those to natural fibers made from plants and animals and ask which you’d rather have next to your skin!
    And of course none of this gets into the whole sweatshops/child labor/putrid living and working conditions manufacturers feel they need to feed the insatiable demand. It’s diabolical.
    In addition to the suggestions the author made, I’d suggest seriously scaling back the number of items we’ve been conned into believing we just have to have, then mix and match and use accessories to change up the look. You can get a lot of mileage out of just a few well-made pieces.

    • Hi Jen! Thanks for your thoughtful comment! I agree with your suggestion. The situation with fast fashion would be improved if consumers changed their behavior and bought fewer but more well-made pieces. But it will be a struggle for people (myself included) to go from fast fashion prices to quality prices.

      • It doesn’t have to be expensive to be well-made, especially if one is able to make their own clothes. If not, there’s a whole cottage industry out there ready, willing and able to make a comeback. The latter would cost a little more than homemade but then again we’d all be supporting small businesses, ones that do care if the media report they’re not using fair labor standards for example, and we wouldn’t be contributing to the global mess the industry has created since fast fashion became the norm. Or, if one really wants to make a statement with their clothing, buy vintage! It often can be had for less than something costs to make these days.

        Btw, I couldn’t remember the name of that branch of the clothing industry that deals with up to down or side to side but now it came to me. It’s called “Economy of Movement.”

        And another btw: this phenomenon is by no means specific to the clothing industry. We’re a throw-away society–hard not to be when “planned obsolescence” is the order of the day.

  2. An interesting topic. I would love a higher quality wardrobe, even if I have less pieces. Right now, even the crappy stuff is out of my budget. Besides finding someone locally who makes clothes, are their stores that sell quality clothes?

    • The author did talk about stores that only carry quality clothes, but all of the stores she mentioned were in LA and I don’t remember their names. On the website for the book, there is a Shopping Directory that includes a decent size list of brands: http://www.overdressedthebook.com/where-to-shop/. You could also try buying vintage or consignment. I’ve found some great pieces at consignment stores and paid a quarter of the retail price.

    • Hi Millie! Reading this book has definitely changed the way I approach shopping for clothes. I’m still transitioning completely away from fast fashion, but I’ve made a lot of progress. I find myself putting clothes back on the rack a lot now, and I don’t even go into stores like H&M or Gap any more. I found MiUS’ website a few months ago, but because I’m currently 8 months pregnant, I’m not buying anything for myself right now. But after the baby weight is gone, I can’t wait to buy some things from MiUS Collection!

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