Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Where do your clothes come from? {Cheap Fashion: Part 1}

I've never been one of those girls who loves shopping for clothes.

First of all, as someone who has always struggled with insecurities and feeling overweight, shopping for clothes was usually a pretty depressing experience. Nothing fit the way I wanted it to or the way that I thought it should. A little later into my teenage years, I started realizing that most of the clothes I kept seeing were not modest enough for my preferences and on top of that, I just didn't like most of them. I know what I like to wear and usually those things don't overlap with whatever is trendy at the time.

Within the past two years or so, I became vaguely aware of the poor conditions of the factories where most of our clothing is produced, and I started feeling uncomfortable with the idea of buying new clothes. I made a lot of my own clothes and kept wearing what I already had, and for me personally it was pretty easy to not buy many new clothes (given my dislike of the whole process anyway!). In 2013 and 2014, I bought three Doctor Who t-shirts from Threadless (the shirts are made in Nicaragua and printed in Chicago), two pairs of jeans from Old Navy (made in China), and a winter coat (made in Vietnam).

I just finished reading a book that I've been wanting to read for a long time. It's Elizabeth L. Cline's Overdressed: The Shockingly High Cost of Cheap Fashion. It solidified my opinion on what I already felt about cheap, fast fashion but opened my eyes in so many other ways. Everyone needs to read this book. I highly recommend it. I know that nonfiction isn't everyone's thing, but it's very readable. (A lot of the information in the rest of this post is gathered from this book...I don't take any credit for researching it.)

Our world is so messed up. I know that there are more obvious and important ways that our society is messed up. But cheap fashion is an issue that touches the lives of nearly everyone in the world, those of us who buy it and those who are making it (and those in poor countries who are inheriting the bales of old thrift-store donations that we don't need anymore), and for us Americans it's edged into our lives without us even noticing.

According to Overdressed, American families are currently spending less of their annual income on clothing each year than ever before, but they are buying more clothes. That's the allure of cheap fashion: if we only spend a few dollars on a t-shirt, who cares how long it lasts? We can always buy more. Clothes have become disposable. They used to be valuable...you invested in high quality garments, took care of them, and then mended when necessary.

After World War I, a mid-priced dress would have cost just under $200 in today's dollars. Now most of us don't want to spend more than $25 on an item of clothing. When Americans started buying high quantities of cheap clothing, companies started turning to overseas factories. Those factories can churn out huge amounts of clothing for a fraction of what it would cost to make them in America. The main reason? Cheap labor. The average wage of a sewing machine operator in the US is about $1,660 a month. In China, the minimum wage in some provinces is $147 a month and in Bangladesh it's $43 a month. People are working long hours in factories (unsafe ones in some instances), with little to no time off, and they're not even making enough money to live on.

The worst part is that it's our fault. We can't complain about the shoddy quality of our cheap store-bought clothes. (You get what you pay for, though according to Overdressed, most high-end and designer clothing isn't any better...you're paying for the brand name, not the quality.) We can't complain about the demise of the American textile and garment industry and how so many jobs have been moved overseas. We chose this! We chose cheap, fast fashion and this is what happened.

Please know that I'm not being judgmental, you guys. I'm not pointing fingers or trying to shame anyone for where they shop. This is part of our culture and it's hard to change! It's ingrained in most of us to look for cheap prices, because we feel like that's how we get the most for our money. Up until a couple of years ago, I bought clothes at Target and Old Navy. I haven't bought any shoes in years (because I tend to wear them until they fall apart), but most of my shoes came from Payless or Ross and I don't think I've ever paid more than $35 for a pair. Usually it was more like $15 to $20. I've been browsing for US-made shoes, and wow...talk about sticker shock! It's so hard to change my way of thinking, to stop believing that cheaper is better.

I don't pretend have the answers to this, but I do have some thoughts on the changes that I'm personally going to try to make. This post is already long enough, so I'll be writing another post with those ideas and how I think the cheap fashion mindset ties into handmade.

I realize this whole post is probably depressing, but I just want people to start thinking about where their clothes came from and how they were made.

What do you think about it? Where are your clothes made? Out of my clothes in my closet that were purchased rather than made by me, none of them are made in America.


  1. Thought provoking post. I often look at tags on new clothing to see where they have come from. If they're from China or some such place I have to wonder if imprisoned Christians made them. Read a few Christian Chinese biographies and you'll realize that possibility is great.

    The few clothes that I purchase I buy second hand. It's cheep, doesn't directly support any factories (overseas or in the U.S.), and I can often find good quality. Most of my garments however are given to me...can't beat that! :)

    1. That's possible, I'm sure! Buying secondhand is definitely better than buying new. I've never had much luck with our local thrift stores, though...maybe I just don't have the patience to sort through everything! I could spend forever in the book section of Goodwill, but the clothing section- nope. :)

  2. I usually buy from goodwill. It's fun and cheap. One time I read a really good response to that book that talked about how it was China's fault and other countries fault on how they treat their employees. If Americans didn't buy any of their clothes those people would be fired and probably have no way to provide for there families. I mean people work there because there is nothing else. Of course if they could get a better job they would. And we should blame the companies and the government for how they are treating people. Me buying a shirt from forever 21 I feel is the least of their worries. I mean at least I am supporting those poor workers in some way. Kinda changed how I thought of it. :) loved this post. I love clothes and I know I own too much but since I shop at Goodwill mostly I feel so much better. Also did you ever think about yarn? Most yarn is made in sweatshops in China as well. Most knitpicks yarn comes from there.

    1. Thrift stores are great because at least the clothes are getting more use instead of being thrown away! You're right, it should be the responsibility of the countries and the factories to take care of their employees. But I feel like if the companies in the US that are ordering all of these clothes would put the pressure on the factory owners to make improvements, then they would give in and do it. I don't think the factories would shut down and the employees would lose their jobs because it's such a huge industry there...I feel like the factory owners would rather make the effort to improve things rather than get shut down entirely.

      At the same time, though, up until the 90s, only a tiny portion of American clothes were made in foreign countries. The people in those countries made a living before they started making clothes for us, so there have to be other industries and jobs that they could turn back to.

      Yes, the whole yarn thing is actually what got me thinking about this topic! :) I'm going to write more about that in the second part of this post, but basically from now on I'm going to try and focus on buying US wool (more local than that, like Virginia and North Carolina wool, would be even better!). Preferably US wool that's been minimally processed, since a lot of mills use harsh chemicals to clean raw fleece. The laws about these things are so weird. In one of the Woolful podcasts, someone mentioned that in Australia, yarn can be labeled as "Australian wool" even if it has spent most of its life being cleaned, processed, and spun in China (where the laws on chemical usage and such are even more lax than in other places).

      Thanks for your comment! :)

  3. This is something I think about a lot, even though I've never read Cheap Fashion. One recommendation I seem to hear a lot is to make more of your clothes, but I've always wondered if the conditions in cloth-making factories are any better than those in the clothing factories. Did the book address that at all? Any thoughts?

    1. The book didn't really address textile factories (except in hindsight- she wrote about the demise of American ones). There was a chapter about how making your own clothes (or hiring someone to make them or buying from independent companies) is the better option. But I agree...sometimes I think buying fabric and supplies made in other countries probably isn't a good idea, either!

      This is something I struggle with. In my experience, it's easier to find fabric made in America (where factories theoretically have better working conditions) than clothes, but it's still not easy. And even if you're buying cotton fabric made in the US, there's the whole thing with the tons of pesticides they use in the process of growing cotton. But if you look for organic cotton, most of it's made in other countries like India (supposedly in good factories though...apparently India is the leading country in organic cotton?).

      I don't know...it's like a vicious cycle. I guess we just have to decide how far to take it and make the best decisions with the options we have!

  4. I agree with you about the made in America clothing and shoes. It is almost impossible to find anything affordable. It applies to linens as well. I was buying Ralph Lauren sheets because they were Made In America (MIA). Now they are imported. Mary Jane Farms, who is uber natural and promotes growing your own food, etc. has sheets made in China. What a disappointment that was. Even Levi's are imported. For years I have bought the label Jones of New York. Their sizing is so true that I could just buy my size and I knew it would fit... no trying on at the store. Now the clothing is so cheaply made (but not priced that way) that one washing and they stretch side-ways. A top that I bought to cover my waistline now comes up to the belt. It is so frustrating. Sorry, I did not mean to get on my soapbox but I totally get what you are saying.

    1. Yes, if you find things made in America (which is difficult enough in itself), they're so much more expensive. When I look at US-made shoes, I rarely find a pair for less than $100-$150, and usually they're more than that. It seems impossible to find quality, US-made items that are affordable.


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