Elizabeth L. Cline, Brooklyn-based journalist, public speaker, and fashion industry watchdog

photo credit: Keri Wiginton

I became aware of Elizabeth a few months ago when I received an invitation to hear her speak in my former home town of San Luis Obispo, California. I was intrigued by her topic of fashion sustainability because it had been on my radar for several years. Elizabeth Cline has been a fashion industry watchdog for several years and has written two books on the topic. Her first book, Overdressed, pointed out the high price the world is paying for cheap fashion. Let’s face it, we all love a bargain! But, Elizabeth helps us understand how this trend is affecting the planet and the people who consume “fast fashion.” Her latest book, The Conscious Closet, is the perfect follow-on because it contains solutions to this problem — things you and I can do to be part of the solution, not the problem (all without sacrificing our love of fashion!).

I was unable to attend Elizabeth’s talk, so I reached out to her and asked if she would be willing to give me an interview, and SHE SAID YES! I love her energy, commitment, down-to-earth attitude toward fashion. She’s young, passionate and a very good writer. Here is Elizabeth’s story…

Please tell us a little about yourself, how old you are (if you wish to share), where you grew up and currently live, and a little about your family and life.

I grew up in Cairo, Georgia, a small town in rural South Georgia. I moved away from home to go to college and eventually to move to New York City, where I have been for the last 18 years. My family are all based in Georgia, with the exception of my sister, Ginger, who lives in Alabama. My mom is semi-retired as an accountant and IT professional. She loves traveling and takes me on cruises with her, from time to time.

Elizabeth at home in Brooklyn, New York

Sounds like you have a deep love of fashion (like all of us in this group!) Did you always have a love of fashion growing up?

No, my love of style came later in life! I was into punk music as a teenager, so I mostly shopped at thrift stores, wore black and safety pins and that sort of thing. I did express myself through clothing, but I wouldn’t consider myself interested in fashion.

In my twenties, I was addicted to shopping in fast fashion chains, but it still wasn’t out of a love of fashion. I was just obsessed with landing a bargain. It’s only through conscious fashion and understanding the impacts of the clothing industry on the planet and human beings that I started to love and appreciate clothing. I think any time you understand something, your appreciation of it grows.

So, for me, I am passionate about good quality, tailoring, and ostentatious design from the 1980s. I still wouldn’t call myself a fashionista. I’m more interested in cultivating style and looking well-appointed and put together. I feel best when I’m in the perfect outfit for me, not necessarily what’s on trend.

How did you transform from what you refer to as “a life as an impulse shopper and fast-fashion addict” to that of a more conscious consumer of clothing?

Through the process of writing my first book, Overdressed, I had the chance to travel to factory cities in Southern China and Bangladesh. Seeing the severe pollution and poverty first hand and realizing that the way we consume in America has these horrible impacts on other places stopped me cold in my tracks. The air pollution in China was so bad that I was sick for weeks after I got home.

I wasn’t able to go back to the way I consumed before. What’s more, I discovered this whole world of clothing that exists beyond trends and brand names. To me, the most interesting aspects of fashion happen in the supply chain. I like learning how textiles are made and manufactured. I think once you see how clothes are made–or make them yourself–it forever alters your relationship to what you wear. It’s impossible to just consume it mindlessly.

What is an issue you may have faced at one point in your life that affected your confidence, and how did you overcome it?

My confidence is shaken all the time. By nature of what I do, I’m constantly putting myself out there in a public way, going on the radio, doing interviews, introducing this topic of ethical and sustainable fashion to new audiences. It doesn’t always go as planned. And people don’t always care.

For me, I’ve been working on being humble and trying to eliminate ego in what I do. When your confidence is shaken, it’s usually because you’re thinking too much about yourself, how others perceive you and how what you’re doing is going to impact your own trajectory. But if you think about the deeper reason you’re doing something (for me, it’s educating others and making the world a more fair and just place) and let that guide you, then there’s no reason to be insecure.

What is your “happy place?” What advice would you give women who are still searching for their joy?

I’m definitely not the kind of person who buys into the idea of seeking constant joy or happiness. It’s basically the modern version of crash dieting because it seems to go against human nature, which is that we have lots of different emotions and they’re not all good ones. In my line of work, as a writer, it’s important for me to be analytic and critical and to think deeply about problems. I think the most important thing beyond happiness is to find satisfaction in life, and that requires learning what makes you tick, what truly motivates you. And to do whatever you can to live in the present

A lot of women get a “fix” from shopping (it’s one of my favorite activities), and it may be difficult to break the habit. What advice would you give to women who want to quit buying “fast fashion” but don’t know how?

There are so many ways an avid shopper can be more sustainable. As a rule of thumb, limit clothing purchases to one or two items per trip and don’t buy anything again until you’ve worn the last item you purchased multiple times. Second, go on a fashion fast with some pals, where you don’t buy any new clothes for a month, a season or a year. It’s a good way to analyze your shopping habits and what motivates them.

Like anything in life, breaking a habit sometimes means going cold turkey. From there, get savvier about shopping. if you’re the kind of person who buys three cardigans in three different colors and one wears one color, stop doing that. Find places where you’re overconsuming and buying more of what you already have and cut back! Second, explore the world of consignment stores and resale websites, like thredUP and The Real Real. Secondhand shopping is on the whole far more sustainable than buying new, and in well-curated shops you can find on-trend and designer items for a bargain.

This is how I built most of my wardrobe. Third, find or start local clothing swaps and trade clothing with stylish friends or neighbors on a regular basis. Swaps are really fun, and a great way to pick up new-to-you items without harming the Earth. [Note from Linda: We host a Clothing Swap Facebook Group inside the Style Club For Women, where members swap and sell their items to each other. Details to join the Style Club For Women Over 50]

How would you describe your personal style? How has your personal style changed over time?

My person style still has flavors of rock ‘n roll mixed with structured or bold pieces from the 1980s. I guess I would say it’s Debby Harry meets Dynasty or maybe even Designing Women.

What is your favorite style trick or tip you’d like to share?

If you want to look polished all the time, wear structural clothing that’s tailored, rather than stretchy clothes that drape or hang off your body. It’s more challenging to find or have made perfectly-fitted clothing, but they look so much better that it’s worth it.

photo credit: Keri Wiginton

Briefly, what would you like women to understand about the Fast Fashion industry and the importance of Sustainable Fashion?

Everyone wears clothes, so it’s important for all of us to educate ourselves about the impacts of the apparel industry and how we can make a difference. The clothing industry is one of the world’s largest polluters of water. Clothing is made using toxic chemicals, gobs of water, tons of energy–all to be turned into clothing that is barely worn and then tossed out. There is a garbage truck’s worth of clothing landfilled every two minutes in the United States. Being a sustainable fashion consumer is quite simple: It means deciding to be mindful of clothing’s impacts and doing your part to reduce those impacts. Being a sustainable fashionista can include shopping your closet, shopping secondhand, taking great care of your clothes, donating clothes in tip-top condition so they have a second life, or trying to support brands that are making an effort to go green.

You have a lot of interviews in your recent book, “The Conscious Closet, “ and I’m wondering how your background in journalism guided you through your research and interviews?

Traditionally how-to books are based on commonsense advice that isn’t always supported by science or research. But they have a lot of tricks to them that I wanted to borrow. For example, people love a transformation, so I thought it was important to take people from cleaning out their closets all the way to rebuilding their wardrobes. Secondly, people like to hear from experts, so I wanted to pull in outside voices other than my own, especially on areas like toxic chemicals and quality product design. But it was an interesting challenge for me to write a how-to book that was ultimately informed by research. To give you an example, based on my research, the most sustainable garment is not an organic dress or a recycled polyester shoe, it’s the garment already in your closet. And turning down the heat on your washing machine and switching to line drying or air drying your clothes can have a bigger impact on the environment than switching to more sustainable brands.

How can the women in this Style Your Way To Success Over Fifty Group become more educated and get involved in what you call “The Fashion Revolution?”

For starters, read THE CONSCIOUS CLOSET or listen to it on audiobook. Or simply Google more information about sustainable and ethical fashion. There’s a lot to learn, and plenty of other books, blog posts, and guides, so just deciding to get curious and set aside a little time to dig deeper is a great place to start. Secondly, make the movement your own. Fashion is personal, so figure out the strategies that work for you, your friends and your age group. For example, when I talk to college students, they often get really excited about thrifting, whereas other women get excited about busting out the sewing machine or writing a stern letter to their favorite clothing brands asking them to use safer chemicals in their clothes.

Please share an inspirational quote or inspirational story to leave us with. What gives you hope when you perhaps are feeling overwhelmed?

“Naked people have little or no influence over society.”

– Mark Twain

Learning about any social problem is overwhelming, and then you learn how to move past it and take action. Clothing is a great issue to care about because it connects all of us. We all wear clothes. And something like a half a billion people work in the clothing industry in some capacity around the world. So, if you’re looking for a cause, or you’re looking to change the world, there’s no better place to start than the clothes on your back and the shoes on your feet.

If you’re interested in reading Elizabeth’s book or hearing her speak, check out her website.