3:51pm

Thu May 2, 2013
Author Interviews

Ethical Fashion: Is The Tragedy In Bangladesh A Final Straw?

Originally published on Thu May 2, 2013 4:05 pm

A garment factory that manufactures products for international clothing companies collapsed outside of Dhaka, Bangladesh, last month, killing more than 400 workers and injuring scores of others. It came on the heels of a fire at another factory in November 2012; that incident killed 112 workers.

Factories like these in Bangladesh pump out what author Elizabeth Cline calls "fast fashion," or clothes made on the cheap by big chains such as H&M, Zara, Esprit, Lee, Wrangler, Nike, J.C. Penney and Wal-Mart.

For the consumer, it's not always easy to connect the conditions of these factories to the labels on one's clothes. Cline, however, thinks that with this tragedy we may have reached a crossroads in the conversation about fashion and how we can more responsibly consume it.

"I'm 100 percent convinced this is the turning point," she tells Fresh Air's Terry Gross. "There's just something about the number of the pictures. I feel like it's too bad of a tragedy for the brands to bounce back this time."

Cline, the author of Overdressed: The Shockingly High Cost of Cheap Fashion, traveled to China and Bangladesh while researching her book and reported on garment factories in both countries. The book explains how the globalization of the garment industry made it possible for us to buy cheap fashion but often with a hidden price tag for human rights and the environment. The competitive edge for Bangladesh, she says, is simply the low cost of its labor.

"There is no other reason why a company would be doing business there," she says. "These deaths are happening because they are trying to step into the shoes of China. The cost of labor, the costs are going up in China and fashion companies are trying to maintain their margins and trying to maintain their cheap prices, so they want Bangladesh to do what China was doing. But Bangladesh can't do that."

It's a numbers game, says Cline. Bangladesh has around 4,000 garment factories compared to China's 40,000. The average wage for a garment worker in China is close to $200; the average for a worker in Bangladesh is $37.

She says the problem has grown dramatically in the wake of global trade agreements, starting with NAFTA in 1994. Going back to the 1950s and '60s, nearly 100 percent of clothing in the U.S. was produced domestically. As recently as 1990, that statistic was 50 percent. It is now 2 percent.

Cline does, however, see parallels between the fashion industry and the food industry and these make her hopeful for the future.

"We're having conversations about clothing that people were having about food 15 years ago," she says, adding that given the enormous growth of the locavore movement in that period, that's good news.


Interview Highlights

On changing trends

"The definition of fashion and the definition of what is a trend has changed so much in the last decade. In the last two decades, you know, we would have entire silhouettes kind of sticking around for decades at a time and now we're seeing things like red will be in style one season or fringe or leather or floral patterns, and it's this constant, ceaseless rotation through looks and styles and I think that some consumers find that fun and others — like me — got to a point where I found it, quite frankly, exhausting. It felt arbitrary, like the rules of the game were constantly changing."

On the leading companies in fashionable inexpensive clothing

"I would say Zara and H&M. Zara, which is a Spanish fast-fashion company, I think their profits increased by 22 percent last year and they're on schedule to open over 400 stores in 2013. H&M is certainly a very profitable company with thousands of locations around the world, and they're the ones that are really the true masters of hooking consumers on this 24/7 cycle of buying clothes and buying new trends and coming back to the store to see what's new. I think that they're really the ones that really changed our relationship to clothes and made us think of it as a sort of single-serving disposable item."

On the kinds of clothes made in Bangladesh

"Bangladesh's edge has always been in sort of basic clothing because they don't have a lot of the more advanced machinery that a country like China does. They don't have huge rooms of embroidery machines, which is something I saw in China. So [with] Bangladesh, you'll see, like, basic polo shirts, T-shirts, cargo pants, cheap basic stuff coming out of that country."

On advice to someone who wants to shop ethically on a budget

"If people can't afford better, shop where you're going to shop. Sometimes it's about how you shop and not where you shop. So if you buy something cheap that doesn't mean that you have to have a disposable attitude to it ... or a disposable relationship to it. You know, I've kept some of my garments that I had from when I first started writing the book. I wore an H&M dress that I've had for eight years to a wedding this past summer and it's not the greatest quality but I still like it, and I'm going to keep it in my closet and keep it going for as long as I can."

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. You may not feel especially connected to the garment factory collapse in Bangladesh that killed more than 400 workers last month, but check your drawers and closets. If you have T-shirts or sweatshirts, chances are some of them were made in Bangladesh, where labor is really cheap.

Big chains like H&M, Zara, Lee, Esprit, Wrangler, Nike, Wal-Mart and J.C. Penney have all done business there. Last month, Disney decided they're going to end their operations in Bangladesh. A few days ago, several other large retailers, including Gap and Wal-Mart, participated in a meeting to try to negotiate a plan to ensure safety standards in garment factories there.

My guest, Elizabeth Cline, reported on garment factories in Bangladesh and China in her book "Overdressed." The book explains how the globalization of the garment industry made it possible for us to buy cheap fashion but often with a hidden price tag for human rights and the environment. Cline's book starts in her closet, where she examines the cheap tops, dresses and shoes that she initially felt so lucky to buy.

Elizabeth Cline, welcome to FRESH AIR. People are starting to use the expression "the fast fashion industry," which you use as well. How do the problems of fast fashion resemble the problems of fast food?

ELIZABETH CLINE: Well, that's a really great starting point for this conversation. I think that we're having conversations about clothing that we were having about food 15 years ago, where people are looking around and seeing that corporate culture has sort of taken over and reduced the quality and price of food, and the same thing has happened with clothing.

And there are all these hidden tolls associated with fast fashion, just as there were and are with fast food. They're economic, they're environmental, and they're cultural. All those things are very tied together, and they've very linked between food and clothing.

GROSS: So reading your book, I realize it is not just my imagination that clothes are cheaper than ever, like really cheap. And talk a little bit about that in terms of the closet you used to have, like how much you'd buy because the clothes were so cheap.

CLINE: I started writing "Overdressed" because I realized that I was this sort of quintessential American consumer and that by shopping cheap and shopping on impulse and picking something up after work, or you know, on the weekend, had become kind of a typical American pastime. And I got to a point where I owned over 350 items of clothing.

And the average American is actually buying 68 garments and seven pairs of shoes per year. Our consumption has actually doubled since 1991. And I think that my closet resembles a lot of other people's. It was quite literally overflowing with clothes. I had clothes in storage under my bed. I had clothes in my basement. I had them, I don't know, practically coming out of my ears. They were all over the place.

And I think it was interesting, my relationship to clothing had changed as well, where I wasn't really getting a lot of use out of what I owned and just buying things on impulse and then putting it in the back of my closet and never seeing it again.

GROSS: Well, I think a lot of people have the attitude - I've certainly done this - oh, it's so cheap. Like even if I only wear it once, you know, it's like $10. It's so cheap. But then you often end up, like, never wearing it because you get it home and you realize it's hideous. You don't have the time to return it, and it was only $10, so you figure OK, I'll take the loss.

You know, and - I mean you write about that. I know you've experienced that. So let me ask you this: What enables the clothes to be so cheap? I guess part of that is outsourcing to other countries.

CLINE: This is really a new phenomenon if you think about it. I would say 10 to 15 years in terms of these really, really low prices and our truly disposable relationship to clothes. I date that back to coming out of the 1990s. And part of it is because we outsourced to other countries, but part of it is also because there are garment industries, huge garment industries, around the world now.

China has something like 40,000 garment factories, 15 million people working in that industry, and they're just producing huge volumes of clothes. So that's part of the reason why we feel like we're sort of swimming in clothing now and there's just all of these options, and retailers know that they can't make a profit by putting a high markup on clothes anymore. They have to sell them based on volume, just like how Wal-Mart operates.

So what can they do to get us to buy tons and tons of clothes? Well, they sell them for as cheaply as they can, and they do that by lowering the quality and finding the cheapest labor they can to make it.

GROSS: And by figuring out ways to get us to buy more as well. Like for example, you talk about how there used to be in stores that there was like a fall/winter line and a spring/summer line. And so like, you know, twice a year there would be big changes in what you saw in the stores. And now in a lot of stores it's always changing. There's always new things, and there's always new colors, and that's to get us to keep shopping?

CLINE: Yeah, well, I mean, I think part of it is because of the Internet. Trends are disseminated much quicker now. And also trends can be communicated to a factory instantaneously via email, Skype, Internet, and made and shipped much more quickly. But you're right, I mean the definition of fashion and the definition of what is a trend has changed so much in the last decade, last two decades.

We would have entire silhouettes kind of sticking around for decades at a time, and now we're seeing things like red will be in style one season, or fringe or leather or, you know, floral patterns, and it's just this constant, ceaseless rotation through looks and styles. And I think that some consumers find that fun, and others, like me, got to a point where I found it, quite frankly, exhausting, and it felt arbitrary, like the rules of the game were constantly changing.

GROSS: Which companies are the leading companies in really inexpensive clothing, but, you know, fashionable inexpensive clothing?

CLINE: I would say Zara and H&M. Zara, which is a Spanish fast fashion company, I think that their - their profits increased by 22 percent last year, and they're on schedule to open over 400 stores in 2013. H&M is certainly a very profitable company with thousands of locations around the world. And they're the ones that are really the true masters of hooking consumers on this 24/7 cycle of buying clothes and buying new trends and coming back to the store to see what's new.

And I think that they're the ones that really changed our relationship to clothes and made us think of it as a sort of single-serving disposable item.

GROSS: And where do you see companies like Gap, which also owns Old Navy and Banana Republic, as well as The Gap, where do they fit in?

CLINE: Gap is so interesting. I wrote a lot about it in "Overdressed" because in the 1990s, of course, it was, I mean it was the biggest brand. Everyone wanted to own Gap clothing. And part of the reason why that company was so successful is because they were very early to outsource a lot of their production.

So they made a lot of money by saving on labor costs when other fashion companies were still producing in the United States. But then what happened is other, you know, these new fast fashion companies like H&M or Zara came along, and they were like, well, we can make a more fashionable product and sell it for less than Gap can. And they started to sort of outmaneuver Gap.

And Gap's been having to play catch-up over the last couple of years. That's why they're kind of trying to do more fashionable, quicker turn-around product. They're trying to turn into a fast fashion company as well. And Target and Wal-Mart, those are the discounters. Of course Target is much more fashionable than Wal-Mart, although Wal-Mart, really, it does try.

All mass-market retailers now, they've been influenced by fast fashion, and they do try to run on a fast fashion model in the sense that you can go in there one week and then go back, you know, a week or two weeks later, and there's going to be new inventory on the floor. And that's the legacy of fast fashion.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Elizabeth Cline. She's the author of the book "Overdressed: The Shockingly High Cost of Cheap Fashion." So a lot of the really big discount companies, they outsource. What parts of the garment manufacturing process are outsourced, all of it, part of it?

CLINE: So the design and marketing would - you know, that stuff still happens in the United States, but in terms of textile manufacturing, so actually making the fabric, that would happen overseas. A lot of that is in China and Brazil. And then the actual assembling of the clothing, so the sewing machine operators are in other countries.

And China really sprung up in the last, I'd say seven, eight years in terms of being completely dominant in the field, and of course Bangladesh came up right after that and has been taking some business away from China.

GROSS: And Bangladesh is where that horrible factory collapse - it was a building collapse that actually had four or five factories within it, and you know, a lot of people killed. How did Bangladesh become a center for the garment industry?

CLINE: Well, so backing up a little bit, I went undercover there in 2011 to Dhaka, to Bangladesh, and I went there straight from China because that's where the business was moving. And I really wanted to see what Bangladesh's competitive edge was. And China's factories are very modern, they're very tech-savvy. You know, the design rooms would have Apple computers in them, and the - you know, the factory girls would Skype with me about my orders. Because I was undercover as a garment buyer. They thought I was doing business there.

And then I go to Bangladesh, and you know, we're talking about, in the capital the power goes out six times a day, at least when I was there. There are huge infrastructure problems. It's a very, very poor developing country. So what I saw quite, you know, very quickly, was that the competitive advantage in Bangladesh is the low cost of labor.

There is no other reason why a company would be doing business there. And Bangladesh is - these deaths are happening because they're trying to step into the shoes of China. The cost of labor, the costs are going up in China, and fashion companies are trying to maintain their margins and trying to maintain these cheap prices, so they want Bangladesh to do what China was doing, but Bangladesh can't do that.

I mean just in terms of numbers, Bangladesh has 4,000 factories, something like that, in the country. Compare that to China's 40,000. You know, how is Bangladesh going to keep up with this pressure? They're clearly not. They're buckling under it. I mean it's really devastating, and it's really scary.

GROSS: So the - you went to Dhaka. The factory collapse in Bangladesh, was that in Dhaka?

CLINE: Yeah, it's in a suburb of Dhaka called Savar.

GROSS: And in your book, which was written a while ago, you report in that book that there were structurally unsound buildings in the garment industry in Bangladesh. And I feel like, was that a prognostication? Did you expect something like this to happen, that a major factory building would just collapse?

CLINE: Yeah, I hate to say it, but I mean the signs were definitely there. I think that a lot, you know, a lot of the labor leaders in Bangladesh at the time knew that the ingredients were there for this type of disaster. There were already fires happening on a pretty regular basis. There were protests happening all the time because the garment workers wanted - they wanted a living wage. They wanted, if I remember correctly, they were asking for a $20 increase.

And the government gave them a little bit of a boost, but it's, you know, it's at what it's at today, which is, I think it's 37 or 38 dollars a month. And on that note, the industry just seems to be like completely unregulated and haphazard. I would take meetings with middlemen where they would say, you know, if you don't want to put in an order at our factory, we could just sell you runoff from an H&M order that they didn't pick up, and you could sell it on the black market.

And I would say, you know, I'm not really interested in that, (Laughing) but thanks.

GROSS: Really, they just offered you - how does that work?

CLINE: I'm not exactly sure how it works, but a lot of times, you know, brands won't pick up their orders for whatever reason, maybe there was something, there was a quality issue, or the style changed, so the brand no longer wants the orders. I mean, the brands don't own these factories. They don't really have any responsibility to them.

So who knows? Who knows why that order got left over, but it was, and they tried to sell it to me, and I declined. (Laughing)

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: So if you're just joining us, my guest is Elizabeth Cline. She's the author of the new book "Overdressed: The Shockingly High Cost of Cheap Fashion." Elizabeth, let's take a short break here and then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. If you're just joining us, my guest is Elizabeth Cline. We're talking about her book "Overdressed: The Shockingly High Cost of Cheap Fashion." And it's basically a history of how clothing got to be as cheap as it is now and what the hidden cost of that cheap clothing is, including really low wages and very bad working conditions in many developing countries where our clothing has been outsourced.

What are some of the companies that outsource to Bangladesh?

CLINE: A lot of them are using Bangladesh now. I know H&M is a - puts a lot of orders in there, Gap, Wal-Mart, Sears, J.C. Penney, Disney. Those are probably the big ones. Bangladesh's edge has always been in sort of basic clothing because their industry - like they don't have a lot of the more advanced machinery that a country like China does. Like they don't have like, you know, huge rooms of embroidery machines, for example, which is something that I saw in China.

So Bangladesh, you know, you'll see like basic polo shirts, T-shirts, cargo pants, you know, like really cheap, basic stuff coming out of that country.

GROSS: So you know, we've been talking about how Bangladesh has become a center for clothing production, particularly for T-shirts and sweatshirts, simple, easy-to-produce garments. China had been such a center for all kinds of clothing. Did some of the production move from China to Bangladesh because China was getting...

CLINE: Too expensive.

GROSS: Too expensive, yeah, uh-huh. Is that what happened?

CLINE: Yeah, I mean it's insane to say, but that is - that's the view in the fashion industry, because the cost of labor, the cost of everything is going up in China. And I think average wages in southwestern China, which is where I traveled and where a lot of these factories are, I think they're around $200 a month now. Compare that to $38 a month in Bangladesh.

So yeah, it's - the reason why these companies are moving out of China and moving into places like Bangladesh is to chase cheap labor. That's what they've been doing for the last, you know, 20 years, is just going around the world and finding cheaper and cheaper places to produce, and the cycle continues.

GROSS: So the factory collapse in Bangladesh in April was because the building was structurally unsound.

CLINE: Right.

GROSS: And it's not the only factory there that's been found to be structurally unsound. This has been a front-page story, at least in the New York Times, and I'm wondering if you think that the recent Bangladesh factory collapse is going to have an effect on outsourcing and on demanding more ethical conditions.

CLINE: Yeah, absolutely. I am 100 percent convinced that this is the turning point, because if you go back to last summer when the - you know, it came out that the Chinese were making our Olympic uniforms, and there was all this public outrage, and then it sort of built to the factory fire in Bangladesh in November at the - I believe it's pronounced Tazreen factory, and 112 people died, and there was a lot of public outcry about that.

And then this, I mean there's just something about the number, the pictures. I feel like it's, it's too bad of a tragedy for the brands to bounce back this time. And also the conversation was already - had already been started around, certainly around the United States about the need and want and desire for ethical fashion.

And what's interesting is I've seen a lot of media coverage this week that's linking our addiction to cheap fashion to what happened in Bangladesh. It's like consumers and the media are making that connection, whereas I don't think they were a year ago. And brands can really sense that.

They know that they're about to lose customers over this if they don't figure out a way to offer consumers an ethically produced product.

GROSS: So we've been talking about how clothing is kept cheap by outsourcing to countries with cheap labor and not very good working conditions. There's also environmental issues that are being created by the garment industry as it exists in some developing countries, and I want you to describe some of the things you saw environmentally in China and in Bangladesh.

CLINE: Sure. I would say that I had the most sort of first-person experience with environmental problems associated with the fashion industry in China, just because, as most listeners already know, the pollution in China is very, very bad, and the textile industry is actually a major contributor to air and water pollution in China.

I think that, you know, Greenpeace has been working on this detoxification campaign for the fashion industry because currently in places like China you've got a lot of dyes and chemicals from textile production just going straight into the waterways. There's - just anecdotally, people say in the fashion industry that, you know, the rivers run red or blue or green or whatever in China based on whatever color is in style.

GROSS: Is that literally true, or is that just like a little metaphor, or did you see streams or rivers that were actually colored by dyes?

CLINE: I saw - I certainly saw drainage ditches in China and in Bangladesh colored by dyes, and I think that it's true in some parts of China. I didn't see actual rivers running red, but they're - I mean Greenpeace has documented this exhaustively, that it does happen.

Yeah, there just - there aren't a lot of environmental regulations on the textile industry in China, and that's where a lot of our clothing is being produced right now. But then there's also - you know, there's just - I think for me I just was always really shocked at the scale of the fashion industry, just how much clothing is being produced now.

So a lot of it is just, you know, pressure on water supply, for example. I think there's something like two trillion gallons of water used every year by the fashion industry, and that's not even, like, taking into account the pollution. So it's a big water - user of water and a big user of energy in general.

And I would say in Bangladesh I was not as in touch with pollution except for - I can say that when I - I do remember when I was riding out, I went to this textile-producing city northeast of Dhaka, and there were certainly, there were like factories dotting the road where the, you know, the drainage pipes from the factories would just go, you know, straight into the, whatever, lagoon or ditch was by the side of the road.

GROSS: Elizabeth Cline will be back in the second half of the show. She's the author of "Overdressed: The Shockingly High Cost of Cheap Fashion." I'm Terry Gross and this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with Elizabeth Cline, author of the book "Overdressed: The Shockingly High Cost of Cheap Fashion." It's about how the globalization of the garment industry has made it possible to buy fashion that's cheap, but there are hidden costs: human rights violations and tragic deaths in garment factories in developing countries, and environmental damage. Cline reported on garment factories in China and Bangladesh, where many brands outsource production because of cheap factory labor. Last month, a garment factory in Bangladesh collapsed, killing more than 400 workers.

Do the American companies that outsource to factories in China and Bangladesh and other countries have any responsibility for what happens in those overseas factories?

CLINE: Legally, they don't own the factories. So they actually don't technically have to take responsibility for what happens in them. And that's why they developed this auditing system, where, you know, they have somebody go in a couple of times a year and make sure that fire standards are being met, wages and overtime, all that is in place. They want to do just enough to make the consumer feel OK, but they don't want to take any real responsibility, because that would cost them money, is the impression that I got.

GROSS: And, in fact, in 2009, a federal judge ruled in a Wal-Mart suit that Wal-Mart was not legally responsible for bad conditions in factories that make Wal-Mart products, because the workers are not Wal-Mart employees. You know, I've read that sometimes the American base company doesn't even know where some of their work is being produced because the factory that they contract to might subcontract to somebody else?

CLINE: Yeah. I think that that happens all the time. You know, when I was in Bangladesh pretending to be a garment buyer, a lot of the middlemen in the garment industry that I met with would say, you know, well, this factory is booked up, but, you know, we can subcontract to this one or that one. Like, don't worry, we have this huge portfolio of factories, and we could just sort of put your order anywhere. And it was very easy for me to imagine how, if I was doing business there and I put in my order at one factory, if I just said I need this delivered at a certain amount of time, what would stop that factory if they needed to get something done and under cost from just subcontracting to other factory nearby? Nothing would stop them, because there's no one from the brand on the ground making sure that's not happening.

GROSS: Shoppers who want to shop ethically can look at a store's social accountability rating. There's one rating given by Social Accountability International and one from the Fair Labor Association. Both of those were recently criticized by an AFL-CIO study called Responsibility Outsourced, and that study called the certification process for garment plans a facade, and said that the certifications kept wages low and working conditions poor, while providing public relations cover for the producers. How much have you investigated these accountability ratings?

CLINE: You can look at H&M's, their audits. I think they have them available online, if not, they're on the Fair Labor Association's website. And what's interesting is it's public knowledge, you can look through it and it'll be, like, this factory got a, you know, a C-rating or something, and they failed - or failed their audits for this reason and this reason and this reason, but we're going to implement these changes over the next couple of months.

It's actually on public record what some of the problems are in these factories, but, I mean, the public doesn't usually look into it. But that said, I mean, I don't think as, you know, as the collapse in Bangladesh has shown, I don't think that these brands are doing enough. They're not taking enough accountability for the working conditions and for the factories. I don't think that the system that we have in place is working, and they're going to have to - they're going to have to think of something else. You know, and that's why I wrote about Alta Gracia in the book, because that's an example of a brand that actually owns their factory. They take full responsibility for what happens there. And I don't see why some of these bigger brands can't do something like that.

GROSS: So how much of our clothing in the United States is actually manufactured in the United States?

CLINE: Two percent.

GROSS: That's so little. Compare that to what it used to be, I mean...

CLINE: I would say going back to the 1950s and 60s, would have been 100 percent, and in 1990, it was about 50 percent. So there's been a total sea change in that respect over the last couple decades, and that has everything to do with trade liberalization and globalization, starting with NAFTA. There were all these - there used to be all these quotas governing how much clothing we could export from other countries, and those expired in 2005. And if you think about how much the fashion industry has changed since 2005, a lot of it is related to quotas. I feel like fashion has just sped up. We're seeing more and more companies operating on the fast fashion model, and it has to do with the fact that there are no rules anymore about how much we can bring in from other places, so we're just being inundated with cheap fashion being produced all over the world now.

GROSS: So there used to be quotas about how much the United States - American companies could import from other countries, and there's no quotas anymore?

CLINE: Correct. Yeah. There used to be a cap, so you could only import a certain number from China, a certain number from Bangladesh, and that those policies were in place to protect the United States textile and garment trades, and they expired in 2005. And we've seen an incredible loss of jobs and factories in a very short amount of time.

I mean, hundreds of factories have disappeared in New York City just over the last, I'd say, like, five years alone. It's really tragic, because we're losing a lot of skilled workers in the garment trades in New York, for example. You know, people have been doing this for decades who can finish a hem a certain way or hand sew something that - and this knowledge isn't really being passed down. And, you know, there are a lot of designers who are trying to produce in the United States and they're struggling because it's getting really difficult to find people who know what they're doing. It's getting difficult to find factory resources, and where - so all these people who want to produce domestically now are trying to reverse decades of erosions of skills and resources, and they're having a really hard time doing it.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Elizabeth Cline. Her book is called "Overdressed: The Shockingly High Cost of Cheap Fashion." Elizabeth, let's take a short break here, and then we'll talk some more.

This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. My guest is Elizabeth Cline. She's the author of the book "Overdressed: The Shockingly High Cost of Cheap Fashion." And it's a history of how clothing got to be so cheap. And the answer to that question, in part, is because a lot of the manufacturing is being outsourced to countries where wages are very low and working conditions not good.

At the Oscars this year, Helen Hunt wore a dress from H&M Ethical Design. First of all, what is that, and what was your reaction to her wearing it?

CLINE: So, H&M has a Conscious Collection, which is made out of organic, cotton and recycled polyester and other eco-friendly materials. So, essentially, Helen Hunt was wearing an eco-friendly gown, which I think is fantastic. And I'm going to applaud these big brands when they make moves and they do the right thing. I think that it's important for us to support them when they do the right thing.

And I think what's going to be interesting to see in light of what's happening in Bangladesh is if they can come up with an innovative solution where consumers can have, you know, walk into the store and buy a product that we know made safely and fairly in terms of working conditions, as well, and what that might look like. It's like we can walk into a grocery store right now and buy something that says it's free range. Well, can I walk into an H&M and there's a label that says this was fair trade or a living wage, I would absolutely love to see that from a company like H&M.

GROSS: You write in your book - and this was a very interesting chapter - about how cheap, but fashionable clothing is affecting thrift stores and, you know, secondhand stores and places like Goodwill and Salvation Army. Let's start with how it's affecting the inventory of those places.

(LAUGHTER)

CLINE: Yeah, that was one of my favorite chapters to research, because it was just so counterintuitive. I went behind the scenes at a Salvation Army and just really looked at what really happens after you donate clothes. And it's just so interesting, because when you donate clothes, I feel like the psychology is that you feel like you're kind of balancing out all the clothes that you buy. But the reality is that we're just - I mean, we are donating an ungodly amount of clothes. So what happens is they can't sell most of the clothes that are donated because they just get too much.

So what they do is they, you know, give the clothes maybe, like, a week - no, I think it's three weeks to a month - to sell in the thrift store. And so then they pull it off the floor, and then they bundle it up. And then from there, they'll sell it either to Africa as used clothes or, you know, if it's really low quality stuff, they'll sell it to the wiping rag industry, and then some of it gets recycled into, like, car insulation.

GROSS: You describe it not only getting shipped overseas, but kind of bundled into cubes, into bales.

CLINE: Yeah.

GROSS: And the bales are sent overseas. And then what?

CLINE: Then they're resold in used clothing stalls and markets around Africa. So people might be able to pay, you know, $2 for a pair of Dockers pants in some used clothing stall, you know, somewhere in Africa. So people are still paying for the clothes. It's not like they're given out for charitable purposes. But, yeah, they're just sold for very cheap overseas.

GROSS: What's interesting to think about is, you know, how our clothing is outsourced, how it's actually manufactured in China and in developing countries like Bangladesh, and then it's brought here. We buy them. We don't necessarily wear them. We send them to charity, and then some of those clothes are bundled up and sent back to developing countries.

CLINE: Yeah. You really hit the nail on the head. That's why that whole system just kind of - I don't know. It left me with a strange feeling, because we are exploiting the developing world to produce these cheap clothes, and then we, you know, we have such a strange relationship to clothing, anyway. I think we don't really think a lot about what we're doing. We buy these things, wear them a couple of times, then we get to conveniently use Africa as our dumping ground for cheap, trendy stuff that we don't want to wear anymore. It's a strange cycle.

GROSS: So now that you've written your book about the high cost of cheap fashion, how has your shopping changed?

CLINE: I mean, it's truly, truly night and day. I remember when I finished the book, wondering - or even when I was writing the book, I was wondering if I was just going to keep shopping at H&M and I was going to have to go in there with like, you know, sunglasses on and, like, a trench coat, incognito-style.

But I really found that through the process of writing the book, I just wasn't interested in shopping that way anymore. I sort of compare it to, I think, like, what a lot of people have gone through with their evolution with food. Like we've developed such an amazing food culture in the United States, and people are really interested in locavore food and organic food. And I was really looking for a true alternative and for really changing my relationship with to clothes. And that's - it's an ongoing process, but it's an exciting one.

I would say that I probably own a third of the clothing that I used to. And I still wear a lot of the stuff that I used to have. I think that that was one of the biggest changes for me, is being satisfied with what I already own and taking care of what I already own. And when I do buy new - which is a lot less often than I used to - I really think about it, and I stop and ask myself: Do I really need this? Am I really going to wear it beyond this season? And I would say maybe a third of my clothes are from thrift stores or vintage stores. You know, another third is probably things that I already own. And then I save up and I try to support brands, ethical designers and brands, and there are more options in that field than ever.

I'm looking at what I have on right now. Like, I have on a pair of domestically made J Brand denim jeans and a silk shirt that I actually got from my grandmother, and I think that that's kind of representative of how I dress now.

GROSS: I just want to acknowledge that there's a difference between the kind of shopping that you're talking about, where you're buying a lot of cheap things because, oh, it'll be fun to wear it once, and it costs so little I can give it away after that, and the kind of shopping where it's like the only clothing that you can afford is the clothing that's very low-priced. And when you're in that position, if ethical shopping means spending more money, it's just not going to be very helpful.

CLINE: Right. and, you know, I get asked that a lot. A lot of people say, well, I don't know if I can afford ethical fashion. And I think that that's why the book focuses on the economic issues associated with cheap fashion. All these things are tied together. The way that we shop has everything to do with the economy.

And I think that, you know, when we don't support domestically made clothes, that, you know, translates into a loss of jobs here. All these things are very tied together. But, you know, and that's also why I say if people can't afford better, shop where you're going to shop.

Sometimes it's about how you shop and not where you shop. So if you buy something cheap, that doesn't mean you have to have a disposable attitude about it or a disposable relationship to it. You know, I've kept some of my garments that I had from when I started writing the book. I wore an H&M dress that I've had for eight years to a wedding this past summer. And it's not the greatest quality, but, you know, I still like it, and I'm going to keep it. I'm going to keep it in my closet and try and keep it going for as long as I can.

So I understand that a lot of people are in a pinch, and sometimes it's about people's attitudes and getting away from that disposable attitude towards clothing, and not so much about so much about where you're shopping or if has that, you know, eco cred associated with it.

GROSS: You know what article of clothing has gone in the absolute opposite direction in the kind of cheap fashion that you're talking about? The wedding dress.

CLINE: Yeah, that's a really great point. That is such a good point, but it's like, you know, you're talking about how people can't afford better when it comes to clothes. And I always think about the way that Americans spend money, because I just saw that people spend $1,100 on average on their proms now. And...

GROSS: Really?

CLINE: Yeah. And I don't know what the average is for weddings, but thousands and thousands and thousands of dollars for the dress. So I think there's also a psychological shift with clothes. We don't see it as an item that we should - I'm talking about just everyday wear. We don't see clothes as something that we want to put money into.

I think we see it as a discretionary purchase. I'm thinking particularly about - my sister and I are always comparing notes on what we spend on clothes, and she lives in rural Alabama and she works at a pawn shop. I hope she's OK with me telling this story. So she doesn't make a lot of money, but she will spend - her car payments are $400, and she will not spend more than $20 or $30 on an item of clothing.

So, you know, if you look back in time, Americans used to spend - you know, a hundred years ago we spent 17 percent, close to 20 percent of our income on clothes. And now it's down to 3 percent. So I think that people just don't value clothes as much as they used to, and they don't see them as investment pieces. They don't want to own the best thing they can for their money anymore.

So it's all - the amount of money that we spend on clothes is tied to all of these really interesting cultural shifts.

GROSS: But you grew up in an environment where you're not used to clothes being that way. You're not used to, like, the fine craftsmanship.

(LAUGHTER)

CLINE: Right. And I think that's...

GROSS: The beautiful lining in the jacket.

(LAUGHTER)

CLINE: I know. And I learned to appreciate that through writing the book. And that was such an unexpected outcome of writing "Overdressed." I'm such a geek for clothes now. Like when I go shopping, the first thing I do is I turn the, you know, I turn the item of clothing inside out and I look at the seams and I look at the fabric. And, you know, I make sure it has a good hand-feel.

And I absolutely can notice good construction on an item of clothing. And I know the average American maybe doesn't care or doesn't look for that, but I also think the tide is turning in that respect, as well. There are people who are more interested in craftsmanship and good construction in clothing. And I think there are more, you know, there are more home-sewers, like that's becoming - that's coming back, as well.

It's kind of enjoying a resurgence. And the reason why it fell out of favor is because people stopped sewing and, you know, my mom didn't teach me how to sew. I think I had one semester of home ec in, like, seventh grade, where I had to make maybe a pillow case or something. But, you know, I didn't learn how to sew. And I think within a generation or two, our appreciation for craftsmanship and a well-made item of clothing was lost.

But that said, I think that people are interested in it once again, and that there is a certain segment of the population who are seeking that out once again, myself included.

GROSS: Well, I want to thank you so much for talking with us.

CLINE: Thank you so much for having me on. It's been an honor.

GROSS: Elizabeth Cline is the author of "Overdressed: The Shockingly High Cost of Cheap Fashion." You can read an excerpt of the book on our website freshair.npr.org, where you'll also find a link to her new article "The Case for Ethical Fashion," published in The Nation. Coming up, John Powers reviews a restored version of a groundbreaking 1967 documentary by Shirley Clarke. This is FRESH AIR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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