Every once and a while a book comes along that changes my outlook on life.
Elizabeth Cline’s Overdressed is one of those books.
In her book, Cline looks at the impact that cheap and trendy retailers, like H&M, Forever 21, etc., have on our world. It turns out that the $10 dress or shirt you wore a few times before tossing in the trash or in the Goodwill bag actually comes at a very steep price. Most of us are familiar with sweatshops, but few have any idea about the negative environmental impact that the clothing industry has.
(I wouldn’t go into much detail here, but suffice to say it isn’t good. In fact, clothing production is one of the chief contributors to pollution.)
It’s also amazing how many people would never think of buying bottled water in plastic bottles, yet have wardrobes full of clothing that contain synthetic fibers like polyester, “fleece,” etc., that are made out of plastic, which in turn is made out of oil—and oil of course is a non-renewable resource.
Few of us can say we are immune to cheap fashion.
Cline freely admits to her own love affair with cheap clothing. She shares that at one point she owned 354 items of clothing of which nearly all were from discount stores. And she is certainly not alone there. I know because I have been in that boat for most of my adult life.
From the ages 22 to 24, I was a penniless graduate student living in London, one of the most fashionable cities in the world. There seemed to be an H&M and Zara on every corner, and they were a Godsent to a girl like me. Unlike most discount clothing stores, their wares were stylish, and did not look cheap. My measly paycheck from working part-time at the organic food store in Camden Town could go a long way at those respective shops. I am ashamed to admit it, but I probably spent more time on the weekends looking for bargains on Oxford Street than I ever did at any of the museums that were only a stone’s throw away
However, there was a downside to this. In the 11 years since I lived in London none of the clothing I got from the discount shops has survived. It wasn’t that I was hard on my clothing. It’s just that after about a year of regular wash and wear they were done for. In contrast, many of the pieces I got from the charity shops, including cashmere and wool sweaters from the 1960s are still in great condition.
The old adage “you get what you pay for” really seems to apply here. Sometimes, it really does make sense to pay extra for something that will last longer. In the end, the item may actually end up costing less if you calculate the use you get out of it. It’s a concept that I can mentally grasp, but still have a hard time putting into practice.
However, this year for the first time since I was a teenager, I made a New Year’s resolution.
I vowed not to buy any new clothing unless it was ethically made, quality clothing. Keeping my resolution has been surprisingly easy. Even before reading Overdressed I purchased a lot of my clothing second-hand via eBay and at local thrift shops.
Among the many things I learned is that it is actually more environmentally friendly to buy second-hand no matter where an item is originally made—it has far less of a carbon footprint than a brand new item. This has been essential to helping me keep my resolution because as a yoga instructor, I have found that many of the ethnically produced active wear lines are too expensive for my budget or simply do not perform as well as lines manufactured in less-than-ideal working situations.
Another thing helping me keep my resolution is that I am not the sort of girl who replaces her wardrobe every few season or buys the latest, hottest item. I tend to buy things I really love and wear them until they fall apart. The new items I have purchased have overwhelmingly fallen into that last category. I am taking extra-special care of them as far as washing and storage go because I expect and want them to last for years.
I’ve also found that even though I may be spending a bit more for some things, I am making fewer purchases and actually have more money—which is always a nice thing.
So, as I write this, three months into 2013, I am more determined than when I started. Perhaps if others do this or decide to limit their purchase of cheap fashion, we can start a movement much like the “slow food” movement. If anything, maybe we’ll at least think twice before purchasing that latest, “must-have” item that we probably don’t need in the first place.
Kimberly Lo is a yoga instructor based in Charlottesville, VA. When not she is not on the mat, she can be found at her other job which is teaching children how to do needlework. In her spare time she enjoys photography.
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Ed: Brianna Bemel