It’s a vicious cycle. The loss of good-paying manufacturing jobs has been one of the culprits in the great income stagnation in the United States. In many communities, the few jobs that remained after the exodus of manufacturing were lower paying, causing those same workers to depend on cheaper, foreign-produced items for their wardrobes.
Upending Our Assumptions
In the early decades of the 20th century, clothing purchases consumed nearly 17 percent of the annual U.S. household budget. Over the intervening century, that number plummeted. Today, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, a scant 3.1 percent of our household income is reserved for apparel.
Yet our closets are bursting at the seams as never before. The average American buys more than 60 pieces of clothing a year, a stark contrast to years past, when a larger budget netted fewer clothes. Many of those were custom tailored or union made; while more expensive, they were built to last.
H&M, Zara and their ilk have upended our assumptions. No longer are clothes made with an emphasis on durability; cheaply made, they last only as long as they must before the next trend flashes onto the scene.
Elizabeth Cline, author of the 2012 book, Overdressed: The Shockingly High Price of Cheap Fashion, puts this in perspective:
Fashion today has a here-today-gone-tomorrow mentality, where the latest look, lowest price or the hottest designer are paramount and quantity is valued over quality. For the first time in history, we are consuming clothes as a disposable good, buying a cheap dress for a date night and wearing it but once or twice…
Our consumption of clothing is growing at an alarming rate. Most Americans have closets brimming, if not overflowing with clothes. Few of those purchases are made here — 3% of apparel is produced in the United States, down from about half in 1990. While American factories sit empty, our thirst for cheap imported clothing has kept the cash registers at many stores humming throughout the recession.
But our yen for cheap clothing has come at a steep global cost, much of that on the backs of foreign workers who toil in deplorable conditions, with few labor and environmental protections. Add to that the toll outsourcing has exacted upon the American middle class. The loss of American manufacturing has decimated once vibrant communities; decent paying manufacturing jobs have all but vanished.
Consumption of material goods at our current rate is simply not sustainable over the long haul. There is no way companies producing $10 shoes, $20 dresses and $30 dress shirts can pay their employees a living wage. Such companies cut environmental corners, ignore even minimal worker protections and contribute little-to-nothing to the communities they call home.
So, we propose a series of recommendations to help breathe life into what was once a vibrant sector of the American economy.
(1) Buy quality, not quantity. Instead of purchasing ten cheap shirts, concentrate your clothing budget on two or three that will last beyond a few washings. Think of clothing as a long-term investment. Yes, it means paying more in the short term. Or at least buying fewer clothes.
(2) Learn how to maintain your clothes. Learn to repair a seam, to replace a button, to darn a sock. If you have a personal stake in your clothes, you’re less likely to view fashion as a disposable enterprise.
(3) Embrace style. Eschew fashion. For style endures while fashion disappears. A well made, classic piece should be just as wearable 20 years from now as it is today.
(4) Make each piece of clothing as versatile as possible. When Frannie and I go shopping, we hew to the rule of threes: Each new piece must be able to combine with clothes she already has to make at least three outfits. This helps a smaller wardrobe seem larger than its modest dimensions.
(5) Know the source of your clothing. Reward companies who produce domestically with your patronage.