Our Interview with Elizabeth Cline, Ethical/Sustainable Fashion Author & Journalist
Elizabeth L. Cline is a New York-based author, journalist, and expert on consumer culture, fast fashion, sustainability and labor rights. Cline’s critically acclaimed 2012 expose, Overdressed: The Shockingly High Cost of Cheap Fashion, first revealed the impacts of fast fashion on the environment, economy, and society to an American audience and is a founding book of the global ethical and sustainable fashion movement. Cline’s much-anticipated follow-up book, The Conscious Closet: A Revolutionary Guide to Looking Good While Doing Good, delves into fresh research on fashion’s impacts and illustrates how we can leverage our everyday fashion choices to transform the apparel industry and change the world for the better.
There's a lot of conversation these days about the "Marie Kondo effect", which is controversial in the ethical/sustainable fashion space. How would you compare her approach to that of The Conscious Closet when it comes to treatment of clothing you already own?
The Conscious Closet advocates for, of course, a conscious closet cleanout, a process that is mindful of the environmental and social impact of our clothing waste. I also encourage people to use the cleanout as a chance to examine shopping habits and likes and dislikes. It’s a chance to meditate on your style and your consumption. So, for starters, I don’t think a closet cleanout should be rolled into cleaning out your entire house. Otherwise, you’re not going to make good decisions. It should be its own process that you dedicate time to.
With Marie Kondo, producing garbage is not only permitted but encouraged. The transformation is only in your physical environment, without greater consideration for the world around us. Sure, it could be a way to reset and walk away from consumerism, but is being wasteful really the right first step in that process? I don’t think so. The entire reason the Kondo method took off is because it doesn’t ask anything of people, really. Americans have houses full of crap, and someone gave them permission to throw it all away with reservation. Instead, it’s my belief that if you inform and empower people with information about where they’re unwanted stuff ends up--and that it might end up in a landfill or as a poor person’s problem on the other side of the world--and ask them to find a second home for all of their possessions, that will get them thinking about how they consume. Garbage is political, so I want my readers to take it seriously when they produce it.
You were already an expert on ethical and sustainable fashion prior to writing The Conscious Closet. What was one (or a few) big surprise to you in your research for the book?
There were a lot of surprises for me. Going into The Conscious Closet, I was more of an expert on labor conditions in garment supply chains and how economies of scale and consumerism create disposable clothing cultures. But it wasn’t totally clear to me where the environmental impacts of the clothing industry were happening. So, I learned a lot researching The Sustainable Fashion Handbook, a chapter about the environmental pros and cons of textiles and materials that go into apparel and footwear. What I learned is that each textile, from polyester and rayon to cotton and leather, is its own mammoth and separate industry, each with its own staggering environmental problems. There is no perfectly “green” textile, which is why it's so important to consume clothing with care.
I loved researching the laundry chapter, too. Our laundry habits have moved in the same direction as fast fashion -- we prize convenience and immediacy over what’s best for the environment and our clothes. Americans overwash their clothing, they buy textiles like polyester that can survive constant washing, and they have a very unsustainable definition of cleanliness, which is that it means constant washing in chemicals. Sociologists call this behavior “hypercleaning". Advertisers have convinced us that the mere contact between our clothes and our bodies is unsanitary, which is bizarre considering we live in very sterile environments compared to generations past.
Last but not least, I learned that there is so much we don’t know about the sustainability of fashion. Life cycle analyses are spotty, the data that we all circulate on Instagram about gallons of water per shirt or carbon emissions per dress are very rough industry averages that are misleading at best and flat wrong in many cases. I learned that we are desperate need of better research and reporting on fashion, and I hope that scientists, academics and media take this subject more seriously.
Many women in the Maven Women community are torn around whether to purchase "pre-loved' (i.e., used, vintage) fashion or to support ethical, sustainable brands. What is your own calculus here, and what suggestions do you have for women in making their own decisions here?
I don’t see secondhand and ethical brands as dueling in some sustainable fashion tug-of-war. We need both solutions. I buy a lot of secondhand clothes because I work in the industry, and I’m very good at finding exactly what I want. But I also buy new clothes, too. We have to remember that the point of purchase is just one single moment in our relationship with clothes. To me, it’s the least interesting moment -- buying something. What’s more important, from a sustainability standpoint, is that you buy clothes you love and are going to wear, figure out how to wear them well, reimagine them, repair them, wash them carefully. On the other hand, if you shop a lot and love wearing something new, then it’s pretty important for you to switch some of those purchases to secondhand or peer-to-peer rentals. It doesn’t have to be all of your outfits, but a higher percentage. For me, advocating for secondhand is more about de-stigmatizing buying used. It’s important from the standpoint of encouraging people to adopt more sustainable behavior.
How would you describe your personal aesthetic? What are some ethical, sustainable brands that you love wearing in terms of both their impact and their style?
My style is very influenced by punk rock and the 80s, so I usually say my style is Dynasty meets Debby Harry. I’m usually scouring resale sites for vintage Escada, Givenchy and Christian Dior. Most recently, I bought a pair of jeans from Everlane, but the whole thing felt silly. The saleswoman told me that she works with people whose closets are as full with Everlane as a fast fashion shopper’s is full with Zara. How is that any better? Honestly, I’m not sure how much better it really is. We’d need more research to know for sure. Anyway, there’s so much greenwashing happening in sustainable and ethical fashion that, even as an expert, I feel confused and disheartened a lot of the time.
What drew you to the Chelsey dress? What do you enjoy about this piece?
It’s such a tremendous honor to wear clothes from Maven, which produces in ethical factories and makes solid, versatile clothes for grown-a$*s women. I went with the Chelsey dress because it’s versatile. It really does go from work-appropriate to casual to sexy. I do a lot of public speaking and television appearances, and it’s something I can easily wear in either setting. But it’s also easy to throw it on with a pair of black boots and a leather jacket and wear it out for a date. I also appreciate that it’s a ponte knit, which is one of my favorite fabrics because it keeps it shape and has a density to the weave that’s very flattering. I also love that it has a zip and hook and eye closure. It’s just a great dress. Also, the fact that it’s made in L.A. and it’s simple to find out about the factory, Lefty Production Co., where it’s made is such a selling point for me!
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