The Red Couch: Overdressed Discussion

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To learn more about Overdressed, read the Introductory post. Don’t forget to peruse The Nightstand, which contains resources for those wanting to read more on the topic.

My journey toward ethical fashion started with a practical challenge. I was moving from my cozy college apartment to my even cozier condo with my new husband, and I didn’t have enough closet space to fit the 100+ dresses I had amassed over time, most of which were from fast fashion retailers like H&M and Forever21. As I threw each dress into a “keep,” “donate,” or “sell” pile, I looked at the labels: Made in Bangladesh or China or Cambodia.

While I had never set foot in these distant places, my studies as an international politics major in college provided me with ample information to make educated choices. I knew about the poor labor practices in Bangladesh and civil unrest in Cambodia. I knew about the toxic chemicals poisoning workers at factories in China. I knew all of these things about the apparel industry, but I didn’t—wouldn’t—comprehend them.

Frankly, I loved the thrill of saving 50 percent on a dress, even though deep down I knew that it could be contributing to slavery. That changed when I started working for an anti-trafficking nonprofit that addressed both labor and sexual exploitation. No longer could I feign ignorance of how my personal consumption habits were contributing to an unjust system. I needed to put my money where my mouth is and either buy only certified ethically made garments, or not buy anything at all.

I decided to buy nothing new for two reasons, one practical and one philosophical: to save money and to starve my addiction to fast fashion. In this self-challenge of buying nothing new, I conducted considerable research on the fashion industry and global apparel supply chains. I subscribed to ethical fashion blogs and skimmed through articles on sustainable supply chains and followed the #ethicalfashion hashtag on Twitter and read books on the subject.

One of those books is the subject of discussion today: Overdressed: The Shockingly High Cost of Cheap Fashion by Elizabeth L. Cline.

For many people, Overdressed opened their eyes to the ecological and social injustices in the fashion industry, just as Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma did for the food system. It’s hard to ignore Overdressed‘s compelling stories and data on the fashion industry, such as:

  • Garment workers in the US today make 38+ times more than what garment workers in Bangladesh make
  • Each year, Americans throw away 12.7 million tons (68 pounds) of textiles per person, most of which is sent to landfills
  • Only 20 percent of clothes donated to thrift stores are sold, half of which is turned into fibers or industrial rags and the other half  of which is shipped overseas, mainly to Africa, thereby crippling local textile production
  • It takes over 700 gallons of water to make just one cotton T-shirt

When over 1,100 people are crushed in the Rana Plaza garment factory collapse in Bangladesh, we must come to terms with the unfortunate reality of global fashion consumption: the fast fashion industry of disposable fashion depends on disposable people.

The good news is that it doesn’t have to be this way. The fashion industry is a $1.5 trillion industry that has tremendous potential to improve the lives of millions of workers worldwide, providing a sustainable source of income for skilled artisans and makers. From fair trade to locally made, fashion can be a tool of empowerment rather than exploitation, of thriving rather than barely surviving.

We’re all in this together, one thrifted or locally sourced or artisan-made garment at a time.

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About Danielle:

DanielleDanielle L. Vermeer is a creative strategist and strategic creative committed to backing up stories of social impact with data. She develops corporate social responsibility strategies by day, and is a social innovation storyteller and sustainable fashion entrepreneur by night. She and her husband and dog live in the Chicago area. Connect more at daniellelvermeer.com or @DLVermeer.

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Some Resources

(Read Red Couch reader Annie’s take on Overdressed here. Great suggestions at the end!)

Questions to Consider:

  • What did you know about the fashion industry before reading this book? What were you most surprised to learn?
  • Have you thought about your purchasing habits before? Will you change anything?
  • What is a practical step you can take when it comes to the clothes you own and buy?
  • Do we have a responsibility when it comes to ethical fashion?
  • What else stood out to you from Overdressed?

Reminder:

Our September book is An Altar in the World by Barbara Brown Taylor. Come back Wednesday, October 1 for the introduction to the book. The discussion post will be Wednesday, October 22. For on-going discussion each month, join The Red Couch Facebook group.

Disclosure: Amazon Affiliate links included in this post.  If you click through to Amazon, any purchase you make supports this site.

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Image credit: Bess Georgette

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  • Saskia Wishart

    So glad you are the one writing this post Danielle. You are a person who takes living out ethical fashion and makes it doable for others!

    • Sarah Joslyn

      Yes. What Sas said!!

    • Thanks, Saskia! Let’s catch up soon 🙂

  • Good on you for making the decision to stop ignoring what you knew deep down about cheap fast fashion. That takes a lot of will power.
    I started my eco fabric company https://www.facebook.com/pages/Offset-Warehouse/120101571345842 to provide sewers with access to ethically produced fabrics, so they could make their own clothes, safe in the knowledge that no one was harmed in the making. But not everyone can or has time to sew their own clothes!

    Great article – I look forward to reading what you did next 🙂

    • What a fantastic product you offer, Charlie! Thanks for letting us know.

    • What a great resource, Charlie! I’m so happy to have found you as a resource!

  • I had thought about my fashion choices before reading Overdressed, but more in the “I feel so guilty but am just going to buy this anyway” sense… For whatever reason, this book resonated with me enough to start making (little) lifestyle changes. I’m looking forward to seeing how my new choices play out!

    • So glad the book ended up resonating with you, Annie!

    • I think the book resonated with people because it toed the line of being aspirational and realistic—how to provide people with the resources they need to make better choices without making them feel guilty…which typically doesn’t change behavior, at least not sustainably.

  • A Lee

    Great timing! I recently made the decision to go ethical with my clothes as well :). Am planning on being careful of what I buy in thrift stores too!

    • Glad to hear it!

    • That’s great, A Lee! It’s one step at a time, isn’t it? 🙂

      • A Lee

        Definitely! And I love that we don’t have to be perfect either, because each conscious choice that we make creates a difference! 🙂

        • A Lee

          PS i am planning on checking out all your resources…your 5 step guide page is helpful too!

  • “the fast fashion industry of disposable fashion depends on disposable people.” Deeply convicting.

  • pastordt

    Yowza. I am in trouble. Sigh. Danielle, you have this way of stirring the pot that is gracious and well-informed. Thank you.

    • Danielle is such a great resource, isn’t she?

    • We’re all in this together! 🙂

  • Erin Wilson

    This is such an important issue. I’ve bought mostly used clothes for decades, because of the environmental impact of clothing production. The cost (environmental and human) is just so high, I hope help get as much use out of a garment as possible.

    Sourcing clothes from ethical companies is definitely a western privilege. One of those things I never thought about before…

    • So interesting to think through privilege when it comes to this issue, isn’t it? I think we have to do the best with what we’ve got and according to the information and ability we have. No clear answers, unfortunately.

      • It definitely is a privilege issue, @wilsonian:disqus & @HopefulLeigh:disqus, which is why I try to be cautious in saying that it’s not about buying ONLY ethical (i.e. typically more expensive) clothing. It’s about buying less, buying better, and buying smarter…one step at a time!

  • Sandy Hay

    I come from a generation that didn’t have discretionary to spend on clothes, nor did we have lots of choices. and we certainly didn’t think about the manufacturing end of all this. Today i feel like I still don’t have lots of choices. Clothes seem to be ridiculously over priced or cheap (price and quality). I use to sew most of my clothes although I didn’t learn until I was in college. Who has time now. I’ve been reading labels all month and I don’t think I own a thing made in USA:( If nothing else Over Dressed has launched several great conversation with my 13 year old granddaughter about the fashion industry.

  • I was already a fan of sustainable fashion before I read Overdressed, and I’ve been trying to buy fair trade and sweatshop-free for the last year. However, after reading Overdressed, I feel challenged to revamp what’s already in my closet. I’ve been pining after sweatshop-free jeans, but the more sustainable option for me is to re-dye my current, faded jeans!