May 062013

Close to 550 people died in April to bring us “affordable” fashion. As the death toll from the recent collapse of a Bangladeshi textile factory continues to rise, many people are asking how a building could just collapse on itself with thousands of workers inside, and what role lax building safety regulations played in the tragedy.

But there’s another question to ask — are American consumers and their love for cheap fashion to blame for this loss of lives?

The average American woman buys 68 pieces of clothing and seven pairs of shoes in a year, according to Elizabeth L. Cline, a guest on NPR‘s “Fresh Air” last week. Cline is the author ofOverdressed: The Shockingly High Cost of Cheap Fashion, a recent take on the high cost of cheap fashion.

In no sense can I claim to be a fashionista. My closet has two, maybe three “uniforms” –

• Dozens of tailored “Le Suits” in three different sizes, almost all exactly the same except for a different colored pin stripe,
• Semi-casual—layers of shirt and scarves and anything that can go with your basic Dockers “Metro” pants, and
• Work-at-home clothes—a collection of black T-shirts featuring places I’ve been and literary themes, like today’s Cheshire cat with “I’m mad mad mad” on the back, sweat pants, complimented with a pair of pink and black New Balance shoes.

I also have the requisite funeral dresses and basic black dresses with glittering accompaniments for the occasional gala.

I know from my friends that I’m an anomaly, but I was thunderstruck with the 68 pieces of clothing. Many friends live in small spaces, and even those who live in larger spaces move their clothing spring and fall  to make more room.

Baby Boomer children did not enjoy the large range of clothing available today. This Baby Boomer child had zero regard for the quality of clothing that was present during childhood.

My maternal grandmother often made my mother and me dresses, including the requisite 1960s matching pink flowered sheaths for Mother’s Day 1964. Flip over those basic dresses made without a McCall’s pattern and you found perfectly straight seams as well as hems finished finely as if by a tailor from the New York City Garment District in its heyday.  (Hundreds of clothing factories in the Garment District are gone, work outsourced to a place as my father would say, “cheap and worth it.”)

My grandmother even sewed for my Chatty Kathy doll. Kathy  had a wedding dress that I suspect had much more craftsmanship than my own wedding dress made in the 1980s.

So how did we get to a place where many of us view clothing as so inexpensive as to be virtually disposable?

The answer is a double-edged sword of quality versus cost.  During a Fashion Week interview in 2012, Cline talked about her personal story:

“A few years ago, I was living a paradox familiar to many Americans: eating local and organic food, carrying reusable bags to the grocery store and choosing eco-friendly products wherever I could. This mindfulness was in no way extended to my closet — I owned more than 350 items of clothes, every single bit of it cheap, trendy, poorly made and assembled in low-wage factories in other countries.”

Changing times eliminated the black Singer sewing machine that was standard issue in many homes during my childhood.

As outsourcing to China , other parts of Asia, and island countries grew, American factories closed. In my  hometown, we bought jeans at the Blue Bell factory which made pants for Wrangler. My all-time favorite pair of jeans was a rust-color Capri that I suspect my mother bought off a sale table at the factory outlet store.

Fashion houses realized a new color or a new texture during a new fashion season was low-hanging fruit, as their marketing efforts reached out to traditional female customers and even younger girls. I can’t remember fashion aimed at five-year-olds when I was a kid; the high school had its Junior Miss contest and except for Miss America and Miss Universe, I was blissfully unaware of anything else. We had wholesome Cheryl Tiegs on the cover of Seventeen.

Today people buy Christian Dior baptismal outfits and don’t blink.  On “Fresh Air,” Cline talked about another dichotomy in American culture. We  pay an exorbitant amount for a wedding or prom dress (she stated that the typical prom expenses are $1,100) but we want Gap jeans as cheap as possible.

Is this just another part of a throwaway culture, as ubiquitous as the plastic green stopper in the cardboard Starbucks cup? All this made me look into my own closet, even with my lack of fashion sense. Am I am guilty of buying things for no reason other than a impulsive want?  Do I need it?

The building collapse in Bangladesh is where  I decided things crossed the line for me. I had to ask myself, how many more fires and building collapses do we have to bear in a foreign country for us to realize that we, as American consumers, may be contributing to the deaths of foreigners?

Now, I’m all in favor of profit. And I understand that OSHA doesn’t extend to contractors – or even unregulated subcontractors – two oceans away. Cline explained that most American companies conduct an audit in foreign “sweat shops” (my term, not hers) but that foreign companies are free to hire subcontractors to which those audits may not apply. So for the moment, there is no way to be sure there won’t be yet another tragedy that takes the lives of foreign factory workers who spend their hours in unsafe conditions to make that cheap clothing we want.

What this means for me is that I’m going to take a look in my closet and rethink my buying habits. How about you?

Published May 6, 2013 on “The Broad Side.” Please comment there.

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