Author and journalist, Elizabeth Cline always wanted to start a revolution. Her new book, The Conscious Closet: The Revolutionary Guide to Looking Good While Doing Good is refreshing and inspiring, offering solutions on how to cultivate a sustainable wardrobe that is sparing of guilt-inducing facts (i.e. as much as 8 percent of carbon emissions are caused by fashion) and abundant with advice, tips, tricks, and helpful facts that you, yes you, can implement today. This book will influence the way you shop, style, budget, and care for your clothing. If our interview with Cline is any indication, it will also make you happier.
I grew up in rural south Georgia in a town called Cairo, which has a population of about 10,000 people. It was a close-knit community where everybody knew everybody else. Everybody in the county went to the same high school and I really enjoyed where I grew up. It still informs everything that I am and what I do.
I don't remember being a kid that said, "I'm going to be." I know I went through a phase where I said I was going to be a vet like every kid does. But I was always, starting in middle school, very socially conscious. It was always like I was headed towards being an activist and I was going to have to figure out how to turn that into some sort of profession. By the time I got into high school, I was already into political counterculture. I was thinking, "I want to start a revolution."
Art as activism
I got involved in politics through music. I was part of a very politicized punk and hardcore music culture. This was the 1990s, and people were meeting each other at shows, but also communicating through zines and book distros at shows. The punk and hardcore scene was really into prison justice, anti-racist action, animal rights. Then people started talking about globalization—because this was right when NAFTA was unfolding—it was like the world was changing. I think that is one of the craziest things about being on the cusp of Gen X and being a millennial. It's like we lived through this transformation of our economy. We went from a domestic manufacturing economy to a globalized information economy, and we lived through that.
The anti-globalization movement of the late 1990s and early 2000s was the biggest protest movement of that time. It was driven by the left. It's only been in the last few years that we've let the right-wing take over this idea that globalization creates winners and losers. Now all these years later, everything that movement said was going to come true, came true.
Becoming a Writer
I started doing journalism right out of college. I interned at my hometown newspaper, and that job was great. I could do whatever I wanted. I started covering local migrant workers, because south Georgia has a lot of Hispanic laborers in the informal sector. Then when I moved to New York, a year later, this would have been in 2002, I got my first internship in New York at The Nation, a politically left news organization, and that was the beginning of me realizing that I was going to do social change through journalism.
In college, I was an anti-sweatshop activist and part of this very organized campus group that was fighting for garment worker rights and maquiladoras in Mexico and trying to get our campus to use sweatshop-free labor for our university apparel. I already knew what was happening to garment workers in this new globalized apparel industry. But I got very far away from the issue. I was in New York, I was working, climbing the ladder at New York Magazine and was doing other things. While all of that was happening, the fast fashion thing started percolating. All of the fast fashion brands started to pop up in the city. Then I started to buy a lot of fast fashion, which I describe in Overdressed. I became a little bit of a fast fashion addict. I thought that was curious. How could someone who knows so much about the global economy still be lured in by cheap trendy stuff?
I think it was the disconnect, you know? It's very easy to buy things without thinking about where they come from or how they're made or what impact they're having on the world. Because often those impacts are happening somewhere else. I feel like our reality is about disconnecting us from thinking about that. I wasn't totally sure. I was like, "You know what, maybe all these factories are really great now." I wasn't really hearing people talk about garment workers anymore.
A New Relationship to Clothing: “The Conscious Closet”
I know when I was growing up I appreciated clothing because they were expensive and they were hard to find. It was really hard to find cool clothes. If you found something interesting to wear, it was something you held onto and were proud of. I have a really strong memory of every single thing I owned and wore in high school. Because there weren't a lot of pieces, I wore them a lot, and they become kind of your uniform.
But the way that I feel about clothes now, is definitely an evolution that I experienced since I wrote Overdressed. It was about discovering a culture that is anti fast fashion. Fast fashion is about consumption, mindless consumption of new trends, it's all about consumerism and competitive consumption.
Whereas to me, my daily relationship with clothing has nothing to do with shopping. It's about cultivating a look with the clothing I already have. It's about caring for the clothes that I already have. It's about dressing based on how I feel. Even the conversations that I have about clothes are totally different. It's not like, "Where did you get that?" It's more about the story behind what we're wearing—perhaps a non-commercial way of relating to clothes.
My Personal Style
Instead of going into your closet every morning and expecting to be hit by a bolt of inspiration, I find it's really useful to once a season, just go through your closet and create a bunch of outfits that can work for that season. Either organize them in an app like Cladwell, take a picture of them, or just write it down. That way if you're getting dressed for work or an event or whatever, you already have that piece of the puzzle figured out.
My style is kind of “Dynasty” meets Debbie Harry. It's very 80s. I love structure. I love tailoring. I like opulent and powerful looking clothes. I also really love clothing from that era, from the 80s and the early 90s. Partly because, and I could just be explaining my style to myself, but that was the last era that fashion was not completely controlled by conglomerates and these huge chains. It was more independent. I really think the clothes were more interesting because of it— they were more carefully made. They were crazier. Clothes made today, by comparison, are boring.
I do think that the logic of mass-market production changes the way clothing looks. Clothing has just become simpler over time. More casual overtime. It's less compelling. If you think about, we could wear whatever we want right now. We live in this culture where you can literally wear whatever you want. But if you walk down the street, most of the time, people are wearing jeans and a tee-shirt.
We're in this space right now where capitalism I feel like has just made everything so boring. It's very good at generating profit and stuff, but it's not very good at cultivating joy, beauty, friendship, love, fun. There's got to be some balance. It's like you're taking all of these enormously creative beautiful people and channeling their talent into this one specific thing, which is generating profit for luxury conglomerates. Not even for themselves necessarily. That bums me out.
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Let’s talk about individual action versus collective action. Are these really two opposing ways to create social change? Even as a life-long activist, I don’t think so. Changing culture starts with changing our ideas, sharing information, shifting our everyday lived experiences, our behaviors, and expectations about life. It starts with changing individuals. To fix fashion, we need collective action, government change, industry change, systemic change. But to get there, we have to help people change the way they think and show them new ways of life that are more sustainable, humane, beautiful and enjoyable. #consciousliving #theconsciousclosetbook #consciouscloset #sustainableootd #sustainablestyle #ethicalliving #ethicalootd #ethicalclothing #consciousliving #fashionactivism
How Clothing Brings me Joy
Knowing how to put my clothes back together brings me a lot of joy. In order to be able to repair, you have to understand clothes. You have to understand what they're made out of and how they're put together. Human beings have this deep desire to understand their surroundings, and to understand the objects in their lives. When you repair something, you're doing something that's deeply human because you're practicing self-sufficiency, but you're also practicing knowledge. When you shop, it's just passive, someone else made this thing and I'm going to put it on my body. Repair is a very active, engaged process.
The second thing that brings me joy: I love my wardrobe, and I put a lot of time into choosing pieces for it. I view it more like a permanent collection that I'm constantly adding to. I guess I approach it more like an art collection. I know what kind of pieces I'm looking for. For example, I own a lot of 90s Escada. I will go to great lengths to acquire these pieces because I love it so much.
I taught myself how to mend while I was working at wearable collections. I started a resale business and I noticed that most of the clothing that people get rid of because it's "damaged" has really small defects. Like a split seam, or maybe a thin spot in the fabric or a loose button or something like that. Because these were items that people threw away, the stakes were really low. I was like, I'm just going to try this. But if you can thread a needle, there's a lot you can figure out just by giving it a go. From there, I just started asking around and being like, "Who knows how to darn? Who knows how to patch? Will you show me?" Then you realize that there's this secret parallel universe of people who know this stuff and they are really excited to show you how to do it.
The Importance of a Budget
I went into fashion finances in The Conscious Closet because I think the conversation is much bigger than, "Is this piece expensive or is it cheap?" Which is usually where the conversation stops. I want people to really think deeply about how they spend their money on clothes over time, and also how they value clothes.
We know that Americans spend the least percentage of their income on clothing of any developed nation. It is a purchase that we consider nonessential. I think that if you really value clothing and you want to own nice clothing, you have to prioritize it financially. That doesn't mean spending a lot of money, but it does mean you have to be strategic. Which is why in the book, I talk about setting a budget. Really getting smart about finding good clothes affordably.
For me, a lot of it has to do with having a strategy about resale. The existence of the resale market has changed that completely. It used to be if you bought something expensive and you didn't like it, you were stuck with it. Now, if you invest well, you can sell that piece and make your money back. I think that it's important for people to not throw their money away on clothes, whether they're cheap or expensive. I'm mad when I think back on my 20s of how much money I wasted on fast fashion. I don't have any of those pieces anymore. I didn't want to keep them. I wasn't spending a lot of money per se, but it was all money down the drain. Whereas I could've been taking a portion of my money every season and trying to find something that I would wear for multiple seasons instead of just viewing it as a throwaway purchase.
Where I Shop
I'm really into the resale market. When I travel, I always go to the consignment shops locally. I think you can find the best pieces when you're traveling. I shop on eBay. I shop on Poshmark, Thredup, and RealReal. If I'm buying a basic, that's usually when I'll buy something from an ethical or sustainable brand. I have jeans by Reformation, Mud Jeans, and Nudie Jeans. One of my first sustainable fashion pieces was by Amour Vert. I have some pieces by Everlane. I have a Stella McCartney dress. I like Mara Hoffman and PACT organic.
My Conscious Closet
I realized the emotional reward of caring about clothes and being intentional about clothes. I don't do this because it's sustainable, I do it because it feels good and it adds value to my life. Clothes are fascinating. The history of clothing is fascinating. The culture in clothing is fascinating. It's a universe unto itself to explore. I think I'm just still in this transition in my life of discovering clothes and discovering how I feel about clothes.
Being mindful about clothing and caring about clothing is not only better for the planet, I think that it can change your life for the better. It's not only sustainable, I think it's life-sustaining to care about clothing.
Words: Laura Jones
Photography: Laura Jones