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Is that $10 blouse really such a bargain?

Exposing the unattractive side of the rag trade

Created date

July 24th, 2012

Unlike just about everything else in this economy, the cost of clothing has never been lower. Stroll through any mall in America and you ll see signs advertising fashion t-shirts for $5 or blouses for $10. These aren t sale prices, mind you; that s the regular price for garments sold at stores like H&M, Zara, and Forever 21. While the upfront investment of $5 to $10 is a no-brainer, the toll such goods take on virtually every aspect of society is extensive. In the same way that Eric Schlosser s book Fast Food Nation looked at the impact of dollar burgers and fries, Elizabeth Cline exposes the impact of throw-away, cheap fashions in her fascinating and highly readable new book Overdressed: The High Cost of Cheap Fashion. From overworked and underpaid workers in third-world countries, to environmentally toxic by-products of the manufacturing process, to the overwhelming volume of discarded garments, the cost of cheap fashion is higher than most consumers realize.

People are wearing rags

The old adage you get what you pay for has never rung truer than in today s fashion marketplace. Experienced shoppers know that dirt-cheap garments won t last through more than a few launderings, but instead of investing in quality, many consumers, especially young consumers, are happy to toss their barely worn but falling apart fashions into the rag pile, then head back to the store for something new and just as cheap. While many readers of theTribuneare old enough to remember what good tailoring and fine workmanship looked like, many of today s younger generation have never seen a well-made garment. Cline profiles designer Eliza Starbuck, whose Bright Young Things line was picked up by another cheap fashion purveyor, Urban Outfitters, a favorite among college-aged consumers. Starbuck s experience in getting her designs from the drawing pad to the store at a competitive price illustrates just how difficult it is to make anything but junk. There are very few high-quality garments being produced at all, says Starbuck. A very, very, very, small amount. So small, that most people never even see it in their lifetime. People are wearing rags, basically.

Cheap labor

Today s cheap fashions are made with the thinnest thread and the flimsiest fabric by the poorest workforce from China, Bangladesh, and other third-world nations. Not long ago, most of the clothes Americans wore were made in the U.S. The same held true for the majority of the fabric used to make our clothes. The U.S. now makes 3% of the clothing its consumers purchase, down from about 50% in 1990, says Cline. In 1996, the American textile industry employed 624,000 workers. Today, that number has fallen to 120,000. Cline tours garment factories around the world where many of the fast fashions are made. The wages foreign garment workers make are so ridiculously low that Cline contends that doubling or even tripling workers salaries would barely impact the retail price. Currently, labor amounts to only about 1% of the retail price we pay for a garment. Given the high profit margins, successful ber-brands like Nike or Ralph Lauren could well afford to pay factory workers a living wage without impacting the retail price at all.

The discards

A century ago, most of the clothes Americans wore were handmade. Folks had their Sunday best outfit and their everyday work clothes. Closets weren t walk-in and dresser drawers weren t jammed full of options. If a seam ripped, you mended it. If styles changed, you tailored what you had, raising or lowering hemlines or shortening sleeves. Today, few of us know how to sew, and paying an expert to do alterations would probably cost more than an entirely new garment, which is why charities like the Salvation Army and Goodwill now receive far more clothing than they could possibly sell or distribute. Cline visited a Salvation Army distribution center in New York, which receives five tons of clothing donations a day. Workers pick through that to find 11,200 items of sellable clothing for their thrift stores. The rest is bundled into piles and shipped overseas mostly to sub-saharan Africa. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, Americans throw away 12.7 million tons or 68 pounds of textiles per person a year. Overdressedleaves the reader with valid and troubling questions about the sustainability of cheap fashion. As third-world workers become more Westernized, the notion that they too will develop a voracious fashion appetite and be able to afford their own closets full of cheap clothes becomes possible, even probable. If so, consumers won t need to read about the ill effects of cheap fashion in a book; they ll experience it firsthand. michele.harris@erickson.com

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