Friday, June 20, 2014

Book Review: Overdressed: the Shockingly High Cost of Cheap Fashion

I very rarely buy kindle books because I hate the idea of spending $10 for a file (not that the author's words aren't worth it, but I get nothing tangible out of the deal and, therefore, it seems not worth the expense).  I digress.  I wanted to read Overdressed for over a year and I finally decided to pony up the $9.99 for it over on Amazon. (and now it's cheaper.  annoying)

The underlying theme of the book is fast-fashion is bad and the fashion industry, deservedly, has a bad reputation.  The fashion industry operates with little concern for the environment and basic human rights.  The author tries to get us to reconnect with our stuff clothes by changing the way we think about our fashion choices.

Intro -- Seven Pairs of $7 Shoes: 
The author opens by talking about her great score of cheap (Tom's-like) canvas shoes that "looked like a cross-section of the earth's crust within a few weeks" (pg 1) and were out of style before she could wear all 7 pairs out.  With the average price of clothing decreasing relative to inflation every year, "budget fashion is seen as chic, practical, and democratic."  Friends rave about their latest bargin finds to each other.  Blogs and Vlogs are dedicated to showcasing cheap hauls and how to score the same deals yourself.  The apparel industry changed as a result of fast, budget fashion and "profoundly changed the way we think about clothing." (pg 2)  "We tell ourselves we can't afford higher prices.  We're in a recession.  Have you seen gas prices?. . .As any economist will tell you, cheaper prices stimulate consumption, and the current low rate of fashion has spurred a shopping free-for-all, where we are buying and hoarding roughly 20 billion garments per year as a nation." (pg 3)  "We were once stewards of the clothes we owned," says Cline, and with that, she embarked on a journey to discover how fast fashion took over and how to curb the trends.

1--I have Enough Clothing to Open a Store: 
In this chapter, Cline meets up with a 20-something on a shopping trip.  The young shopper has a simple shopping ethos, '"If it's under $20, honestly I don't mind spending it."'  I'm sure we all have a similar belief.  It could be $10 or $50 or even vary depending on what sort of item we are buying ($5/yard fabric, I'm looking at you!), but it all comes back to this basic concept:  The retailer with the lowest price is the one who has America's loyalty.  Wal-Mart?  Forever 21?  Target?  H&M?  Gap?  Who has your loyalty.

The next big point I took from this chapter is how fast fashion has changed how we measure quality.  It isn't based on the stitch-work (blind hems, tailors tacks, etc) or the thread count of the fabric.  Instead, we measure quality based on the number of washes one can get from a certain garment.  How long will this last before the fabric pills?  Or the buttons fall off?  Or the hem falls out?  "In the age of cheap fashion, you just need it to last until the next trend comes along." (pg 11)  Contrast this point with a study from the US Dept of Labor that found the average American family in 1901 had an annual income of $750 and spent $108 of that on clothing.  That's PER YEAR.  A little over 14% of household income to clothe a family.  That clothing had to last.  A quick inflation calculation tells me that $108 in 1901 would buy us about $2600 today.  A little more math and some data from the Bureau of Economic Analysis says Americans today spend 35% less per year on clothes than the average family in 1901.  There's a lot more great information in this chapter about spending habits and prices over the decades.  I'm going to quit while I'm ahead because I'm feeling like everything I learned in economics was a lie.  I mean, how can a 1/2 gallon of milk cost 14¢ in 1901 and $1.99 today?  That doesn't even cover inflation.  Sure buying power is a thing, but??  Onward and back to fast fasion.

5--The Afterlife of Cheap Clothes:
This chapter really struck me.  Cline goes to a Salvation Army sorting center in New York and meets with one of the supervisors.  She describes the room as a threadbare Santa's workshop.  Dozens of women are pulling clothes out of gigantic bins and separating them into general categories like kids, househould, pants, etc.  They only keep the best.  This particular sorting center processes five tons of clothing every single day and even more during the holiday sesason when taxpayers try to get those last-minute donations in.  Of everything that is sorted, exactly 11,200 garments are kept per day--those are further divided among 8 stores the distribution center serves.  "Most Americans are thoroughly convinced there is another person in their direct vicinity who truly needs and wants all of our unwanted clothes.  This couldn't be further from the truth." (pg 127)  I think this chapter was the most eye-opening for me.  This was probably worth the price of admission. 

I'm not going to go chapter-by-chapter (though I definitely could, believe me).  Trust that this book is full of great content in spite of being poorly copy-edited.  Here are a few other quotes I highlighted while reading:

"I asked Lily about her country's air pollution, but she didn't understand the word 'pollution'.  I gestured toward the gray sky and coughed violently.  Lily lit up and said 'Ah, there are so many factories here,  The air is not so fresh.  It is our dream that one day China will have fresh air.  Maybe in one hundred years.'" (pg 124)

"In the 1960s, animal psychologist Glen Jensen discovered that when given the choice between an unlimited food supply and playing a game to earn their food, most animals chose to earn it.  Jensen's discovery seemed to indicate that effort is hardwired, and it revealed a strange truth that trying feels better than just taking what's right under our noses."  (pg 232)

"I'm the lost generation, one of the first not only to lack sewing skills, but mending and altering skills as well."  (pg 193)---I grew up with a mom who sewed and a grandmother who sewed.  Sewing was always a part of my life.  I had no idea sewing was lost.  I knew people didn't choose to sew, and many still don't and won't even if they read Overdressed, but the statement was profound for me.

"If you make your own clothes, there is nobody else, no one, wearing what you're wearing.  Think about that!  It's incredible."  (pg 198)

"Slow fashion is about thinking and doing for yourself, and it's amazing to see those who feel inspired by it make it their own." (pg 220)

"Should consumers be willing to pay more fur such a[n ethically produced and eco-friendly] product?  Yes, but major clothing brands can dramatically improve workplace conditions and raise wages for factory workers in countries like Bangladesh--where the current hourly wage is 21 cents--without passing those costs on to consumers.  In fact, the Worker Rights Consortium has found that it would take as little as ten cents per garment to make necessary improvements to Bangladesh's 4,500 factories."  (pg 226)

Download a copy and check the book out! (And/or also read this article, which makes a great companion.)

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