She describes herself as “the average American consumer” who realised there was something deeply wrong with her shopping habits and set out to find an alternative to her over-consumption of clothes and the industry which produces them.
At first, I wasn’t sure about reading this book. I didn’t want to end up, for the duration of my read, as one of those smug people who tick off their list all the green crimes they don’t commit as they go through the book (“oh, of course, I never shop like that!”) or descend into hypocrisy. Who hasn’t been chastised by a green friend or colleague for using a plastic bag when they go on long-haul flights every year? I just wanted to see if there were other people out there who felt the same way as I did about their wardrobe and try to understand the reason why I feel so disillusioned with all the clothes I buy and the fashion industry, in general. It proved to be an eye-opening book. The author blended just the right mix of investigative journalism with personal journey. I learnt much about the fashion industry and it really did provide a new perspective on my current wardrobe.
Here are some quotes from Ms Cline’s book that I thought were useful explanations for my wardrobe disappointments:
“The production of man-made fibres has almost doubled over the past fifteen years with polyester production taking the lion’s share of the growth. Polyester now accounts for 40 percent of all fibre produced in the world.”
I much prefer natural fibres. They have a fantastic feel and there is nothing worse on a hot day than feeling clammy in man-made fibres.
When I go shopping I tend to look at the labels and note whether what I’m buying is man-made and tend to reject clothing that is made of fibres such as polyester and nylon. This may account for many disappointing trips to the shops. Trying to find clothes that aren’t made of man-made fibres is a seriously difficult quest and reduces your wardrobe to jeans and t-shirts.
“Quality has been whittled away little by little, to the point where the average store-bought style is an extraordinarily thin and simple, albeit bedazzled and brightly coloured, facsimiles of garments.”
I was just looking at the collection of blouses hanging up in the wardrobe yesterday. The blouses had been bought between, if my memory serves me right, the late 1990s and last year. The three oldest ones have a thickness and durability that is nowhere near the newer ones. In fact I would say that my wardrobe includes a large number of old clothes (over 10 years old) that just won’t wear out and very new items. Clothes bought more recently (in the last 2 to 3 years) seem to get to the rag point quicker. Mr Steely has heard me go on at length about the corduroy trousers, but they are a good example to show what I mean. I have a pair of pale green cords bought nearly 9 years ago. Although they are showing some signs of wear now, I have worn them on a regular basis for all those 9 years. Compare this, with a pair of maroon cords I bought from the same retailer two years ago (I was expecting comparable quality). They basically disintegrated after 3 washes.
I don’t think I shop particularly differently than I did 10 years ago, but clearly I am somehow buying clothes that are significantly worse quality.
“In 2009 American consumers dedicated less than 3 percent of their annual household budget to apparel. The average American family in 1900 had an income of $750 and spent over 15 percent of their earnings or $108 a year on clothing.”
So, if I’m not shopping differently, in fact, I sometimes do frequent the same shops I did ten years ago, clearly something has changed. Thinking back to when I was a teenager, and remembering the price of clothing, I do believe that despite UK inflation rates (as measured by CPI) of between 0.5% and 5.2% since 2000, that I’m paying the same for my clothes. How come?
I just calculated that we spend about 1.5 percent of our income on clothing a year as a family of three, me, Mr Steely and Master Steely (aged 8). Clearly, clothing is, as a percentage of income, the cheapest it has ever been.
Essentially though, even with today’s technology, clothing is still a hand-made item – there are still garment workers sitting at sewing machines making clothes today. I imagine that even with economies of scale that a large proportion of the cost of an item of clothing would be as wages. Perhaps this is where the savings have been made, by paying poverty wages to workers in developing economies, whereas 100 years ago, families would have paid workers in their own country and it was a more valued trade.
“Textiles have an unflattering environmental footprint. The natural resources that go into fibre production every year now demand approximately 145 million tons of coal and somewhere between 1.5 trillion and 2 trillion gallons of water.”
These figures are so large they are incomprehensible. I’m hoping that by concentrating on making my own clothes, I’ll actually create items that I’ll use more, and keep longer. Who doesn’t find a home-baked cake more satisfying than a shop-bought one? Perhaps the same applies to clothing?