Back when I was pregnant with my daughter, I read Overdressed: The Shockingly High Cost of Cheap Fashion by Elizabeth L. Cline and was shocked by it. I had never really thought about clothing and the damage it does to the earth, and to the people who made it, before. The book was fascinating and needless to say, I haven’t looked at clothing the same way since. Browsing through NetGalley made me aware of the existence of Worn Out: How Our Clothes Cover Up Fashion’s Sins by Alyssa Hardy (New Press, 2022) and it got me wondering: what’s changed? How has the COVID-19 pandemic affected the world of fashion? Has anything gotten any better? I hit the request button and was delighted to receive my acceptance just hours later. Huge thanks to NetGalley, Alyssa Hardy, and New Press for allowing me to read and review an early copy of Worn Out.
What happens to all our used clothes? We bag them up, drop them at Goodwill or another thrift store or bin, and then…what? Alyssa Hardy begins Worn Out with a bang, describing the secondhand markets in Ghana, where over fifteen million items of clothing, mostly from Europe and North America, end up. Western society is incredibly wasteful, habits that extend to our clothing usage as well, and this has not just ripple effects, but entire tsunami effects, around the world. Homegrown garment industries collapse because our garment industry overwhelms them. Children work these secondhand markets. Women die for low-paying garment factory jobs, as we saw in the Dhaka garment factory collapse in 2013, and for what? So we can buy an item of clothing made with such cheap materials that it falls apart in the wash within a few months. This has to stop, Alyssa Hardy argues, and she backs up her argument with devastating example after devastating example.
Beyond giving the fashion industry, from cotton field to salesroom floor, a hard look, Ms. Hardy turns her criticism on the fashion consumer. We’ve lost the inability to distinguish need from want, she points out, and in shying away or refusing to examine our lives and habits, we’ve created entire identities based on what we purchase, assigning ourselves in-group status based on what we wear. And in doing so, we’ve helped to create abhorrent conditions not only around the world, but in our very own backyards. American sweatshops exist. Women, who make up the majority of garment workers, make $4-6 per hour, working sixty-hour weeks. They’re sexually harassed and raped by the bosses who threaten to fire them if they speak up. Some make as little as $3.75 per day. “The bottom line is that we want too much at a cost that feels low but is expensive in other ways,” writes Ms. Hardy, and she’s correct. This is a mess that we as a society have created.
Worn Out is a reckoning for the fashion industry and the western consumer. From #metoo’s impact on the fashion industry as a whole, wage theft and wretched working conditions in garment factories around the world (such as Nike paying workers 12 cents per shoe, or Shein forcing 75-hour workweeks from their employees and having no emergency exits in their Chinese garment factories), the lack of inclusion in the fashion industry when it comes to plus-size and disabled models and thus lack of appropriate clothing for these groups, the damage done by influencers and what they should *really* be doing, the use of forced Uyghur labor (about one-fifth of all cotton garments around the world contain material from the Uyghur region in China; odds are, something in your closet was made by Uyghur slave labor), the environmental cost of the industry, Alyssa Hardy shines a light on it all. It’s not all hopeless, though; there are steps we can take, she tells us, to force the industry’s hand…but it’s not going to be easy, and it may be more collective effort than we have in us.
An incredible book that will change the way you shop. Read it; live it; tell your friends. Garment workers around the world deserve a better life, and only we as consumers can help make that a reality if we push the fashion industry, hard.
Worn Out is available September 27th, 2022.
Visit Alyssa Hardy’s website here.