Since the release of her 2013 book Overdressed, journalist Elizabeth L. Cline has been on a mission to get people to do something about the human and environmental costs of cheap fast fashion. "Of the world’s estimated 60-plus million garment and textile workers (the vast majority of whom are young women), only 2% earn a living wage," she wrote in an article for Bustle earlier this year. "What’s more, social and environmental exploitation often go hand in hand in the places where our clothes are made: By 2050, rising sea levels and changing weather patterns will displace as many as 18 million residents in Bangladesh."
The realities of the cheap fashion juggernaut are horrifying — and overwhelming. What can one shopper even do? The answer comes in the form of Cline's new book, The Conscious Closet, a vetted, verified, and fact-checked guide to creating a more ethical, sustainable wardrobe. Collective action, Cline argues, is absolutely necessary to tackle the major problem of fashion today: overconsumption.
"There's nothing that I've seen that makes me believe that fast fashion can ever be sustainable," Cline tells me. "We really do have to be doing more with less."
The author sums up the philosophy of the book in three easy to remember steps: "wear more, share more, and care more" — all of which she explains in the interview below.
Read on for more information from Elizabeth L. Cline on shopping and living more consciously, especially as you consider your fall wardrobe updates:
At the beginning of the book, you encourage people to define their personal style into three types: the minimalist, the traditionalist, and the style seeker. Why do you find that this framework is helpful to people who are just beginning their journey into sustainability?
Elizabeth L. Cline: I wanted to make the book a Choose Your Own Adventure and make it customizable to different personality types. I've found over the years that clothing is really personal, and the way that people approach shopping and building a wardrobe is really, really different. And I think it depends on your age, your income, where you live. I’m a freelance writer, so the way I build my wardrobe is going to be different than someone who is working in an office every day in Manhattan or a stay at home mom. So, I just wanted to make sure that the book met people where they were at. And, I thought it would be helpful to have this sort of framework.
You're either a minimalist, someone who would really benefit from paring down and choosing well upfront; you're a style seeker, someone who really thrives with a lot of novelty and trends and changing the style of their wardrobe; or you're just a traditionalist, which is someone in the middle.
This framework also inspired me to stop looking for trendy pieces and start looking for higher quality items that fit me well and will last longer. I started thinking about clothes in a very different way.
Cline: Yeah, I mean the same thing has happened to me. The book is not just a "how to be sustainable" handbook. I think that's part of it, but it's also an educational tool, and it's about how to dress well with the clothes you've got. It's about how to be a more intentional, savvy shopper. I think is one of the most unexpected benefits of being a more conscious fashion consumer is that it really can help you build a better wardrobe. I think virtually everybody I know comes to this process like, “Oh my God. Now I have clothes in my closet that I actually want to wear for the first time ever.”
That framing is also a lot less scary, right? I think the word sustainability, especially when it comes to fashion, can be really frightening. It almost like sounds like it's going to be too expensive for you.
Cline: Yeah, I mean I don't really understand where the idea that sustainability is expensive comes from because the most sustainable clothing in your closet is clothing that you already own and love and want to keep wearing. I think that we need to bring a little bit more common sense back into the conversation about sustainability and fashion. If I had to boil down the philosophy of the book it’s "wear more, share more, and care more." So that means buying clothes that you're comfortable wearing for more than one night or 10. If that’s not a workable strategy for you, then buying more secondhand or renting. That's where the sharing comes in. Caring for your clothes is really important, because no matter if an item of clothing is in your closet or if you're going to donate or sell it, it has to be in good condition.
All of that is really, really important, and none of it requires buying an organic cotton dress that costs $160.
Do you think that individuals can play an important role in changing the systemic problems of fast fashion?
Cline: I don't see the book as being about individuals. I see it as being about us collectively reducing our consumption of new fashion products and repairing and caring for clothes. I not only think that it's important — I think that it's a huge part of the solution.
We have to get beyond individual actions. It has to be a collective lifestyle shift.
When I was working in the secondhand clothing industry and researching the secondhand clothing industry, I fully realized how much clothing we're over-consuming. The amount of excess consumption that's happening in this country is like really damaging. It's also unnecessary, and no amount of sustainable initiative on the brand level is ever going to fix that. It has to start with public education and citizen-driven lifestyle changes.
I keep hearing people ask, "Do you really think individual actions are enough?" But it just sounds like something that a corporate PR person made up. Also reducing a collective citizens movement to individual actions is really dangerous, I think. We have to get beyond individual actions. It has to be a collective lifestyle shift.
There's nothing that I've seen that makes me believe that fast fashion can ever be sustainable. We really do have to be doing more with less. Anyone that’s not leading with that message probably wants people to be buying more stuff.
Right now feels like the perfect time to be thinking about this book because everyone is in fall fashion mode. What do you recommend every person do before they think about buying new items for their fall wardrobe?
Cline: First, go into your closet and do a big, conscious clean out. Look through and see what you've got that you are excited to keep wearing. Give everything a second or third try.
From there, think ahead to whatever you have going on this fall, and try to be more strategic about it. Try to buy things that fit well into your wardrobe for the season, so you’re not buying excess.
Third, for anything that you know you're only going to wear once or twice, consider buying these pieces secondhand or renting them.
Fourth, when you're shopping, do your homework about the company you're supporting. I think it's really easy now to buy something impulsively and quickly, and often those are the purchases we end up not wearing anyway. But it's important to just slow down and vet the companies that you're supporting. One of the tools that I always use is Good on You, which is a website that ranks brands based on their ethics and sustainability.
"OK how can I support brands that are at least trying and headed in the right direction?”
Everything in your closet doesn't have to be from the most ethical and sustainable brand ever. But it is really important to avoid the brands that are doing nothing on ethics and sustainability and try to support a brand that is moving in the right direction. That can be as simple as saying, "I'm not going to support Forever 21 because they've never done anything for workers’ rights or sustainability, like ever in the history of their existence," and supporting H&M instead, because they actually do have some interesting sustainability initiatives. It's important for people to really start looking into these companies and saying, "OK how can I support brands that are at least trying and headed in the right direction?”
What's your favorite item of clothing that you’ve thrifted in the last few months?
Cline: My partner’s family lives in Texas, so they go to estate sales for me. The thing that I love the most that I got recently is this vintage silk shirt that has cowboys and ropes all over it and huge shoulder pads. I just love it so much. I can either make it look like really ostentatious, or, believe it or not, I can actually make it look quite tasteful. I’m always on the hunt, and everybody in my life likes to keep an eye out for me.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.