Frisky Q&A: Author Elizabeth Cline Talks Rana Plaza, Sustainable Style & Our Addiction To Fast Fashion

In the weeks since the horrific collapse of the Rana Plaza garment factory — and subsequent deaths of more than a thousand factory workers — we’ve been thinking a lot about what it means to be a conscientious consumer. As Americans, we’re privy to more and cheaper goods than ever before — and as globalization spreads and the means of production move further and further away, we’re less and less connected to what we buy.

It’s pretty clear that something’s got to give.

Enter Elizabeth Cline. In her new book, Overdressed (not out until the end of August already out, with the hardcover to be released in August), she delves into the rise of cheap, fast fashion, and — by traveling to China and Bangladesh — documents first-hand how our desire for more and newer clothing is impacting the environment, the culture and workers’ lives.

As style editors and fashion lovers, both Winona and I have grappled with wanting to give you, our readers, affordable, accessible options, while also honoring our desire to support fair worker practices and ethical businesses. In the coming weeks and months, we hope to bring you a lot more coverage on conscious, sustainable fashion, alongside some of our affordable shopping guides. There is no such thing as a “perfect” consumer, but we believe in giving you as much information as possible so you can make the decision that’s right for you.

After the jump, I talk to Elizabeth Cline about how we can be better educated and more conscious clothing consumers.

The Frisky: What made you decide to write this book?

Elizabeth Cline: I wrote the book as a journalist and a consumer. I used to pretty much shop exclusively at Target, Old Navy and H&M and owned probably around 350 items. I wanted to see what was behind the declining price of fashion, because I was treating clothes like they were disposable, and I wanted to find out what the consequences were.

Only around 2 percent of our clothes are made here in the United States, so I went to China first, and then I went to Bangladesh because they were quickly coming up the ranks. The places I went to in China were very modern, and then you go to Bangladesh, and it’s this poor, developing country, and they’re producing these very simple clothes. The fashion industry had created this cheap fashion industry where consumers had been trained to expect low prices. The system is cracking. It’s not sustainable.

What do you think brought us to this point?

It’s happening because of globalization. The price of mass market clothing that was made in the U.S. was pretty consistent. In the ’70s, clothes typically cost — adjusted for inflation — somewhere between $50 to $300, depending what you were buying. It wasn’t until the ’90s when the whole fashion industry started to import from other places that we started to see these really really low prices. After adjustments for inflation, the price of clothing is lower than ever before, and we’re spending less of our income on it. We only spend around 3 percent of our income on clothes where we used to spend around 14 percent in the 1970s. We own more clothing than ever before, and we’re paying the less for it.

Ultimately, who do you think is responsible for the poor treatment of workers, and things like the Rana Plaza disaster?

I put most of the blame on the brands for these tragedies, because they know what’s going on there, whereas the consumer is hidden from it. But it’s also a reflection of consumer attitudes: Everybody knows people who think that cheap prices are fair. They think they deserve cheap products. But people forget: the only way these prices are able to be so low is through cheap labor. This isn’t necessarily something the mainstream consumer had any awareness about, but it happens because we blindly expect corporations to be good corporate citizens.

When it comes to Rana Plaza, I think the government in Bangladesh has a role to play, because those floors will built illegally. But what’s interesting there is that so many people in government are former garment factory owners. The garment industry there is a path toward political power, so all these people are very much in bed together.  That’s why I think a coalition between the brand, labor groups and workers are going to be the most effective way to make change.

So what’s the solution?

There needs to be more transparency in the fashion industry across the board. Super cheap brands aren’t the only ones who’ve utilized cheap labor: J. Crew and Gap has faced the same pressures the rest of the industry has faced, which is to create clothes that cost less and to change their inventory more often.

I think we’re about to see two different evolutions in the way we think about buying clothes. In light of what happened in Bangladesh and what’s been happening here, big fashion brands are going to have to start offering some type of ethically made alternative in their stores. H&M has a conscious collection that’s sustainable as far as materials, but doesn’t extend to workers rights. I think the other thing that’s going to happen is that the ethical fashion movement is going to get bigger in the United States. Maybe the third part of it will be changing our attitudes towards clothes — this is a lesson in reconnecting with clothes. We need to find a Whole Foods of the fashion industry. And that’s hopefully what we’re going to see in the next five or ten years. The fashion industry is about 15 years behind the food industry, and soon I think we’re going to see companies branding themselves around fair trade.

The fashion industry grows every year, and there are plenty of jobs to go around. We definitely need to grow our garment industry in the United States, and it has increased here in the last year or two. It makes shopping ethically a lot easier. That said, I don’t think these major fashion brands are going to be producing back here in the U.S. because it’s not cost effective. And, we need brands to stay in Bangladesh and elevate the conditions there. The fashion industry has gotten away with murder, and they owe it to consumers and the people of Bangladesh to figure out how to operate more ethically.

What do you think about the independent review of factories by third party groups, like Social Accountability International?

I think it was fairly effective in weeding out some abuses in some companies. I think we’ve seen a reduction in child labor and slave labor. But ultimately, factories aren’t taking enough responsibility. The building collapses in Bangladesh — that’s a new issue auditors don’t even know to look for.

What’s something consumers can do right now to make a change?

Do your Internet research and don’t support any brand that has not signed on to the Bangladeshi Fire and Safety Agreement (ahem, like Walmart and many others). Signatories (find some here) are brands that are willing to invest in structural improvement and are willing to come in and invest. Watch these brands like a hawk, support the ones who are making change and punish the ones who aren’t with our pocket books. We are stuck on this cycle of buying a lot of clothing very cheaply — Americans purchase, on average, two garments per month. Slow down and think if its really something you need.

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