A pair of $7 shoes sparked her career exposing the real cost of fast fashion

Elizabeth Cline, a master’s degree student in global studies and international relations, advocates for sustainable fashion. Photo Illustration by Alyssa Stone/Northeastern University

Portrait of Elizabeth Cline. Photos by Keri Wiginton

Journalist Elizabeth Cline, a sustainable fashion expert who’s long warned consumers about the high cost of fast fashion—the production of inexpensive, trendy clothes—enrolled at Northeastern when she decided that raising awareness isn’t enough.

The author, who’s in Northeastern’s global studies and international relations master’s program, has been on the forefront of the eco-conscious clothing movement since 2012 when she released her book “Overdressed: the shockingly high cost of fast fashion.”

The exposé detailed the labor exploitation and environmental waste that goes into inexpensive clothing production. Cline has since become a go-to expert on sustainable fashion, writing articles and making media appearances to tout sustainable materials and fair labor practices while urging consumers to advocate with their wallets. She discusses her decision to return to school as well as the next steps of her advocacy in the lightly edited interview below.

How did you decide to write about the cost of fast fashion?

In the early years of my career I simultaneously became this environmental activist and a fast fashion addict. I just filled my closet up with all these really cheap clothes. It was ironic because I think of myself as a conscious consumer in many other places in my life, but my closet didn’t have the same amount of reflection.

Was there an “aha” moment when you started questioning the cost of fast fashion?

I’ve had a lot of “aha” moments on this journey, but the first one happened one day when I went into a Kmart, and there was a pair of shoes that I liked that were $7. I ended up buying every pair in my size, I think it was seven pairs. On the way home on the subway, I was carrying this heaving bag of shoes and they smelled sort of like toxic chemicals, and I started thinking, “How can a pair of shoes be $7? Who is paying the price for this?”

What drew you to Northeastern?

I covered sustainability and labor in the fashion industry and fashion supply chain for a while, and about three or four years ago, I felt like I needed to shake things up in my career. I wanted to move more into the space of change-making, and felt like I really just needed an even deeper understanding of the field that I work in. Northeastern was recommended to me by a good friend of mine, Kathleen Grevers, who works for another nonprofit that works in a sustainable and ethical fashion space.

Did the pandemic play a role in your decision to return to school?

The behavior of fashion brands towards garment workers during the pandemic really changed my life completely. Virtually every major fashion brand tried to not pay their factories for clothing that workers had already sewn. It was about $40 billion worth of product, and everybody tried to do it. Zara, H&M, Gap, Levi’s, Calvin Klein, Tommy Hillfiger, the North Face, Timberland, Supreme. All of them. And for me, it exposed the limitations of trying to make change through writing. I realized I needed to move more towards action.

Do you still like fashion?

I do love clothing, and I own a lot of clothing. I have a vintage Escada blazer collection. I’m really into 80s and 90s power suits, so I’m loving anything with serious shoulder pads right now.

I think there’s this perception that people who work on labor rights in fashion don’t love fashion, but the ethical and sustainable fashion movement are some of the biggest, fiercest fashion supporters. We get into this partially because we love clothes.

What do you think about the rise of used clothing sales?

The reseller industry is really exciting. There is this huge generational shift in people being interested in sustainability and understanding that their consumption choices are totally tied to the environment. What is so great about secondhand is, It’s affordable and it’s the original version of sustainability because you’re keeping clothing out of the landfill and reusing it.

What’s the next step in your career?

I joined a nonprofit during the pandemic called Remake as the advocacy and policy director and to be honest it’s been making pretty remarkable progress. It started with the PayUp campaign to get brands to pay factory workers for their orders during the pandemic. We got $22 billion secured back to factories, averted an untold number of layoffs and a humanitarian crisis. It was incredible seeing young people on social media, celebrities and people all over the world participating in PayUp.

What I get really upset about is just how much these big corporations have to be pushed to accept a basic level of accountability for their most essential workers. That’s the thing that keeps me up at night. Fashion still has so much systemic, long-term, daily exploitation, and I’m really trying to change that.

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