The shockingly high cost of cheap fashion


I was finally able to finish reading Overdressed: the shockingly high cost of cheap fashion by Elizabeth L. Cline.

My slow progress partly due to the depressing information and knowing I had in my small way contributed by buying cheap clothes.

We all know about the horrendous conditions in which some workers in some developing countries work, and about the disasters from fires and factory collapses. And reading the details presented in this book is not easy.

Others things that I hadn’t considered or known:

  • Polyester is a form of plastic! All our clothes with this in the fabric may last longer (and plastic may be cheap to produce) but it is still plastic. Luckily I don’t buy much with polyester in it as it irritates my skin and polyester is hot so not suited to the warm weather of Sydney, unless you like to sweat.
  • In clothing with mixed fibres, the fibres cannot be separated so the plastic cannot be recycled.
  • In the US, 20% of donated clothing gets sold in charity shops, the rest goes to the rag trade. Some of this gets compressed into cubes and shipped to African countries. Even there, some of the clothing cannot be used, or isn’t wanted. So the US has shipped its garbage problem off-shore. Buy more than you need or can even wear; feel good donating it; whinge when your cast-offs are not going to a local shivering, homeless poor person; but really let someone else bear the cost of disposing of it.
  • While we may see the Made in China label as an indication of poor quality, the quality of items produced there is variable. In fact, China has the skilled workers and infrastructure (eg constant electricity and roads) that other countries don’t have. So clothes with more detail are made in China. Whereas other countries, such as Bangladesh, Cambodia and Vietnam, make the simpler things such as T-shirts.
  • So does Cline give us any good news?

    Yes! Let me share:

  • Cline wants to restore value, appreciation and craftsmanship to clothing. So…. Buy the best clothing you can afford. Buy fewer items. Buy with greater thought. Buy what suits you, not just to have the latest trend. Care for you clothes. Make good use of them.
  • All this not just to stop the race to the bottom, ie to have an oversupply of cheap crap, but to return value to clothing, to appreciate good design and good manufacture/sewing. So have a story for your clothes beyond, “This only cost me $20.”

  • Cline gives details of manufacturers who are returning to the US and ethical suppliers (and we have similar in Australia). Unfortunately some machinery has been sold or moved to develing countries, eg knitting machines (and I have previously moaned about the loss of quality in this department). But if you patronise these stores and producers, you will encourage their growth.
  • Clothing companies have enjoyed decades of cheap foreign labour and the resulting profits. And the benefits for us? More clothes than we can wear, poor quality, and loss of skill to sew, mend or alter our own clothes. Cline estimates that overseas workers are only earning 1% of the retail cost of clothes. So their wages could increase without an increase in the cost of clothing. Of course, that would mean companies need to take a hit in their profit margin. I think we all agree that this is unlikely to happen. So join Cline in decreasing your patronage of cheap, discount clothing stores by at least 50%. The resulting decrease in sales will send a bigger message than reading blogs or books or sending letters to retailers.
  • 12 thoughts on “The shockingly high cost of cheap fashion

    1. It’s so hard when you become accustomed to the cheap prices, and you reason with yourself that you will wear them to death (and I do!) I do like Review for their better quality clothes here in Australia, but they are pricey. But I think even Country Road outsources now… reading this, I was thankful for a uniform. It lessens the clothes I buy and ‘need’, for sure!

      • Yes, we do become accustomed to cheap prices, Sarah. Being older than you, I remember when clothes were a lot more expensive. As teenagers, we had far fewer items than adolescents do these days. A new pair of jeans was a big thing. And they had to last. Reminding myself of the true cost will definitely stop me thinking positively about the cheap buy.

    2. I have just ordered this book from the library so I can be depressed right along with you. What are friends for, after all?
      I have a friend who shares my ethics, and you concern that I don’t have enough clothes, and she ordered me out of the house to go shopping with her last week, and I bought TWO tops/cardigans from expensive boutiques that I normally never poke my nose into. They were both made in Australia, and I’m very happy, although at least one has PLASTIC in it, will have to remind myself to look for natural fibres next time. Thankyou for the review – I was especially interested in those thoughts about where donated clothes end up – a lot of African countries had thriving clothing trades, in those wonderful vibrant printed fabrics, with lots of local tailors before the advent of secondhand clothing from the west being dumped there. Our waste has so many repercussions…

      • Look forward to a post updating your wardrobe inventory! Hope the book doesn’t depress you. I found comfort in knowing I will change my buying habits. I won’t be part of the system of environmental and human exploitation. And my waste will be minimised.

        Sadly while looking for a pair of pants today, I had to pull everything out of my shelf. Haven’t had to do that for quite awhile. Seeing the pile of clothes, I thought of Cline’s comment, “We own more clothes than we can wear.” Definitely me! Might have to go another year of no clothes buying!

    3. This is why I don’t buy new clothes from anywhere. Couldn’t say what the last new new thing was. I do buy from op-shops or get from the FreeMarkets but I have way too many and am trying to get rid of a few but it is hard because most are still good, I like them…they just do not fit on the shelf anymore and husband thinks I have too much stuff in his shed already. I am always surprised when I go into KMart and see how cheap the clothing there is.


      • Good on you, Barb, for doing your part in giving good clothes a second life. I like all, well most of, my clothes too. But I really think I need less. But I hate to dispose of items when they still have life in them. I don’t think they would be resold if I donated to a charity, so I may look at repurposing some clothes.

    4. Well Lucinda I plead guilty to having been seduced by some fast fashion in the past but have seen the error of my ways and now stick to quality and where possible “Made in Australia”. Thanks for the reinforcement and spreading the word. I liked your comment on 365 Less Things too!

      • Megan, I think many of us have been seduced in the past. No need to feel guilty as you have changed your behaviours. I am happy that the net lets us find like minded people to share our views. Many of my friends can’t understand why I am not buying things.

    5. Yes, Lucinda the net has been a wonderful place for me to find others who share my views on simplifying life and possessions. Fortunately my husband came on board after we had to deal with the lifelong possessions of elderly relatives including his parents and I asked him if he wanted our two children to have the same ordeal after we depart this life. Many of my friends are still on the consumption treadmill and I hesitate to initiate a discussion as I don’t trust myself not to go down the “preach and convert” road. However I may have to follow your good lead: vow to not buy any clothing for a year and then insert where appropriate into a conversation.

      • Oh Megan, we faced a similar thing with a relative’s possessions and clothes recently. Piles and piles of shirts all very similar.

        I too don’t want to sound preachy as I know people switch off. But I do tell friends and acquaintances why I am not shopping. Most common reactions are “why?” and “how boring”. But it isn’t boring. My reasons and understanding have changed throughout the year but I am definitely not bored.

    6. I read and reviewed this book, too. What an eye-opener! After reading it I inventoried my own clothes and was discouraged by how many items I had with Lycra/Spandex in them (i.e., plastic). Like you, i was glad I read the book because it left me better informed to improve my habits!

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