Burning Questions: Can I be fashionable without hurting the planet?
Sep 6, 2023
Season 3 | Episode 1

Burning Questions: Can I be fashionable without hurting the planet?

Tips and tricks for smarter clothing consumption.

The clothes we buy have an impact on the environment. From manufacturing, intensive manual labor and even shipping, every part of the supply chain comes at a cost. In this installment of Burning Questions, LAist’s Josie Huang talks with fast-fashion expert Elizabeth Cline about how we can make smarter fashion choices. Check out their conversation below:

Consume Less, Learn More:

Read: “Fashion Creates Culture, and Culture Creates Action” from Vogue

Peruse: The ReMake brand directory

Get up to speed on: The Fabric Act



Josie Huang: Hey everyone, my name is Josie Huang, I’m a reporter in LA for LAist. LA is the American fashion manufacturing hub. In fact, it’s the US headquarters of fast fashion behemoth Shein. And it’s been really eye opening covering Shein’s expansion in the LA market and beyond. That’s why I’m so excited about this installment of burning questions, because we are unpacking everything about fast fashion. 


Music: How We Survive Theme song.


(Title card saying “How We Survive: Burning Questions” appears)

Josie Huang: We’re joined now by fashion industry expert and author, Elizabeth Cline. Elizabeth is also a professor of fashion policy and consumerism and sustainability at Columbia University. Welcome, Elizabeth.


Elizabeth Cline: Thank you so much for having me. I’m really excited to talk about all things fast fashion today.


Josie Huang: So we’re gonna jump right in with the burning question of the day. Can I be fashionable without hurting the planet? By which I mean, can I and others enjoy fashion that is ethical and sustainable, but also affordable? Elizabeth, what say you?


Elizabeth Cline: That is the million dollar question. What I would say is literally everything we do in this world, and everything that we buy, has an impact. So there’s no such thing as impact free fashion. But yes, we absolutely can create a fashion industry that is sustainable, regenerative and just. And I would say it’s not only possible, it’s absolutely critical, because it’s one of the biggest industries in the world, it employs a lot of women, a lot of women of color. And it’s an amazing industry, like, you know, it is so human to want to put on something that makes you feel good. And clothes really, like connect us to each other. So yeah, I think sustainable fashion is not only possible, it’s absolutely critical.


Josie Huang: I know you were one of the first journalists who really started digging into fast fashion and its environmental impact, I think, more than a decade ago, but how did you arrive at that point where you kind of made this your life’s work.


Elizabeth Cline: I was kind of like the poster child of fast fashion consumption in the 2010s. And it just got to a point where I had over 350 items of clothing, which I don’t even know if now that would seem like that much or not. But I just had this epiphany one day where I was just like, what, what am I doing, you know, I try to be a mindful consumer in so many other areas of my life, like, especially at that time in my life with food. But then with clothing, it just was like no reflection, just total mindless consumption. So for me, this journey started on a really personal level. Like I just really wanted to know what my clothing choices were doing to the planet and to people around the world.


Josie Huang: You actually traveled the world and just visited other countries to see the impact right of what this production of fast fashion means. And you did this for Overdressed your book on Overdressed: The Shockingly High Cost of Cheap Fashion. That book was a real critique of like a real call to arms. You uncovered some pretty bleak stuff out there. What were some of the most startling things you learned?


Elizabeth Cline: I’m so fortunate as a journalist to have traveled all over the world to investigate garment, textile supply chains. You know, I’ve been to southern China to Guangzhou to where a lot of the Shein factories are located today. I was in Bangladesh in 2011. So prior to the Rana Plaza collapse, and was able to see sort of the, you know, how, how quickly the industry was expanding there without a lot of protections, social and health and safety protections for workers.


Josie Huang: About 10 years ago now 2013 10 years ago, people were talking about sweatshop abuses, but I think thanks to folks like yourself there, people are also talking about, you know, the carbon emissions created by fast fashion and you know, just like the the waste that, you know, you think about food, creating methane when it’s in the landfill, but you know, clothes do too, which is something I hadn’t really thought about, like, you know, cotton, which you tend to think about is more sustainable, actually, you know, is creating gases while it sits in the landfill, right? If we throw away discard all or, you know, cotton blend clothes.


Elizabeth Cline: Yep. The fashion industry actually has the third largest carbon footprint of any consumer supply chain. So only behind food and construction comes fashion. So it’s responsible for one gigatons of co2 every year. So you’re like, well, what does that mean? That’s more than the carbon emissions of Australia and Mexico combined. And it’s more than a billion transatlantic flights between New York and London. It’s a lot of emissions. And it’s more complex than understanding emissions in agriculture. But I don’t, I mean, not really like it’s coming from using heat, to heat up boilers and textile factories so that we can dye our clothes. You know, like, we enjoy all these fun colors. But you know, you have to really get that water really hot in order to affix color to materials. It also happens in producing chemicals, the chemicals that are used on cotton fields, the chemicals, again, that are used to create textiles. It also happens in shipping, you know, we’re shipping clothes, like all around the world, we’re shipping clothes directly to our door, of course, and then returning them if we don’t like them. So yeah, it all adds up. And I think that you’re right, that fashion, it’s something that we don’t think of is having a high carbon footprint, but it has a dramatically high carbon footprint and part of it is just because it’s such a huge industry. It is massive, it’s massive, and it’s global.


Josie Huang: So this is where I have to ask you about Shein in which you already mentioned because I don’t think you were writing a lot about Shein in your first two books because the rise of Shein, has been like really in the last few years it’s been really amazing to see I actually reported about them because you know, their LA headquarters are here and they’re expanding their US operations from LA. Shein has you know, is now part of that hashtag #sheinhaul where you see people on Tik Tok like just trying on bags and bags worth of their Shein purchases.


MONTAGE: Tik Tok #SheinHaul


Josie Huang: And a lot of people now we’re focusing on the treatment of garment workers and how you know Shein is able to kind of hide behind the fact that they have used, they subcontract out their their garment production. And you know, we’ve gotten they’ve gotten a lot of negative press investigations have found them working the these garment workers in these subcontractors working in these unsafe sweatshop like conditions. That brings me to this episode earlier this summer where Shein invited American influencers to tour one of their facilities in China and these influencers came back and made some really glowing content about how great the working conditions were. And you could see them like, you know, packaging some of the clothing themselves. I liked the experience because it was real. The online backlash was pretty fierce, given you know, Shein’s past track record on labor. So what was your take on this whole episode? You must have been watching this pretty closely.


Elizabeth Cline: Yeah, um, you know, my reaction, I think was twofold. I mean, first of all, I have been taken to a show factory in order to be misled. It is actually very common. It is a common practice in the fashion industry for journalists, and apparently now influencers to be shown. Yeah, what’s called a show factory. So this is some, you know, a factory where every far fire exit is like, perfectly marked. It’s brightly lit, like all the factory workers are happy. A lot of times the workers are even trained to say certain things to you about how great, great the conditions are. That kind of trickery and deception is endemic in the fashion industry. So I maybe had a slightly more sympathetic view where there is like this huge global industry, of putting this fake face on what’s happening in fashion supply chains. I’m amazed that the outrage at Shein is continuing at the level that it is because it really is so important for making a change in the industry. I’m all for people pushing back on the industry and pushing the industry to do better.


Josie Huang: Yeah, you’ve really pushed on the fact that sustainable practices means also sustainable labor practices. Yeah, it’s not just the environment. Which brings me to this question that we got sent in by a young climate activist named Niha Elety and I’d love to see what your take on her question is.


Niha Elety: Hi, Elizabeth. I was wondering how we can shine more light on the human cost when it comes to fashion. So often the focus is on carbon emissions, how to get net zero and how to use more sustainable fabric but even now, there’s still not enough care towards the human cost. How do we drive that?


Elizabeth Cline: It’s such a good question. And so much of my work is dedicated to improving working conditions in garment and textile supply chains. So I really appreciate the question. If I may I just want to stop for a second and talk about what the social impact of fashion is because we have been talking a lot about more about the environmental side and Shein, in some ways, she is not that exceptional. The fashion industry is still an industry with a very high prevalence of human and labor rights violations. So child labor, forced labor, gender based violence attacks on collective bargaining, harassment if people try to change their conditions, so what can young people do to support the social side of fashion? The first is, it really does make a difference to support when you can, companies that are transparent about where and how their clothes are made. So that means at a bare minimum, they’re publishing a full list of all of the factories they’re using and where they’re located. Even better if they’re actually publishing the wages that they’re paying the garment workers. If you don’t know how to find those kinds of companies, I have two resources for you. The first is the Remake Brand Directories so Remake is on Tik Tok we make our world are on Instagram at remake our world. And their brand directory will tell you everything you need to know about the social side of fashion and like which companies are doing better than others. The other piece of advice is to think of yourself as a citizen, and not just a consumer, I really want to encourage young people to support the regulations that are coming out in the United States to make the fashion industry better. The first one is called the Fabric Act, which is currently moving through Congress. And it’s working to protect garment workers all over the United States. Yes, we still make clothing in United States, it’s still a $9 billion industry and workers are being exploited right here in the US. There’s also another bill moving through the New York State Legislature call the Fashion Act. And the third piece of advice is keep doing what you’re doing. Keep being angry, keep being outraged, keep sharing information on social media. I know it’s really frustrating and can feel like nothing is changing. But I assure you that the government is listening to you people in brands are listening to you and activists like myself, we are listening to you like you, you are leading this movement at this point. And I just want to say like, keep going and thank you.


Josie Huang: I appreciate the reminder that you know, there are bad actors in the industry beyond Shein, including right in our own country. But I also wanted to ask you about the companies that are actually changing for the better, you know, going beyond just greenwashing and really changing their marketing and production practices. I’ve seen companies like Everlane and Reformation touting sustainability a lot. Some companies like Eileen Fisher, I believe they have shopped used sections on their website and other companies are, you know, making the effort to sell clothes made out of recycled materials? Are these companies in the minority here on the leading edge? Or are you seeing a real industry shift, that would actually make a difference over time.


Elizabeth Cline: There are really, I think, significant differences between what some of these leading companies are doing when you’re shopping, and you’re looking at that product description. This is one of the easiest ways to tell which companies are are kind of making strides, right? Where it normally just says like, this is made out of polyester. And this is important. It will say this is where this product is made. Here’s its environmental impact. Here’s what we’re doing as a company to improve the social and environmental impact of this product. And you brought up some good examples like Everlane and Reformation do this. But even some bigger companies like H&M also increasingly offer more information about the environmental and social impact of what they’re doing. Now I know that opens a whole can of worms about can a fast fashion company be sustainable? But we’re just talking about how do you tell when a company is just trying versus the companies that aren’t. And the other thing that I am seeing more and more of is innovation around sustainable materials. Like when I started doing this work 10 years ago, like organic cotton was like really the only kind of sustainable material out there. And that is just like that’s changed so dramatically. You can of course, like recycled PT recycled polyester is really popular. Partially because it’s affordable. It’s an affordable kind of more sustainable material. There are all these really cool leather alternatives that are coming out that aren’t just plastic, you know, things that are made out of fruits in our lab grown and things like that. And there’s also been a lot of really important work just to make the traditional materials like cotton and rayon more sustainable, and increasingly, you’ll see that information in the product description as well, when you’re out shopping, which is, I think, really exciting.


Josie Huang: I’m sure you get a lot of questions about what individuals can take, what steps they can take to lessen the impact of fast fashion. And I know we have one person who has a question for you and kind of gets at how there’s, especially maybe amongst Gen Z, which is a big consumer of fast fashion, a lot of members of Gen, Z, Gen Z are also trying to think about ways to be more ethical. And it’s something that weighs heavily on the minds of some folks. So let’s hear from this person. We’d love to hear what you think.


Kai McPhee: What’s up, my name is Kai McPhee, and I am a content creator, stylist and designer, I just turned 21. And I currently live in New York City. And I got into fashion and sustainability when I was in high school, and I want a nicer clothing, but I couldn’t afford it. So I decided to teach myself how to sew. And most of the materials that I sold out were from thrift stores. So my question to you is, how would you encourage the younger generation to be more sustainable when they shop? Thank you.


Josie Huang: Elizabeth, we’ve already talked about some ways, you know, for instance, trying to support conscious brands like through those directories that you mentioned, maybe picking clothes, looking at the tag seeing if it’s made in a sustainable way. But what are other strategies people can take, because I think you go into that in your second book, The Conscious Closet.


Elizabeth Cline: I mean, first of all, we need more young people like that. I mean, that was such an incredible story. And you know, people designing clothing out of older collection. So upcycling is certainly one thing that the fashion industry is doing to be more sustainable. I think I would kind of put for young people, the issue is always, it’s money, right? If you get out of high school, or you’re in high school, and you’re on a budget, you know, you cannot necessarily afford, even if you really love this indie sustainable brand that you’re seeing, you know, in your Instagram algorithm, maybe you can’t afford it. I think there are a lot of things that we can do, just to slow down fast fashion. One of them, which we’ve touched on throughout the talk, and then a lot of young people are already doing is supporting the resale industry. So buying more of your wardrobe secondhand, you know, and you can do that by shopping in a local vintage store. You can do it online through Depop or Poshmark, or whatever your preferred resale app might be. If you do buy fast fashion, you don’t have to treat it as disposable. I think it really does make a difference when people buy things that are cheap. If you still hang on to it for longer and take care of it. Like I still own pieces of H&M clothing that I bought in 2009 before yeah, before, when I was working on Overdressed like it can last if you choose to make it last longer. So some of it is about our mentality.


Josie Huang: I think I’m wearing something like Banana Republic circa 2008. Because if you keep something long enough in your closet, everything becomes new again. I have a friend who calls it clopping you know, which is a portmanteau of closet shopping. So like no one else has. No one else has this shirt because it’s been like, you know, discarded but you know, I felt so validated by your book because I do wash my clothes in the washer. But I line-dry everything. I don’t throw them in the dryer where they can become a little bit more frayed. That’s a little extra step. It’s a little annoying, but I mean, yeah, it can make your Banana Republic lasts for like over a decade.


Elizabeth Cline: Yeah. And not to take the you know, the onus is on the industry to really become more sustainable, like laundry has a really high environmental impact. Like it takes a lot of energy and a lot of water to run our washers and dryers even working to reduce, reduce the impact of your laundry like absolutely makes makes a difference. It all it all adds up.


Josie Huang: One thing you get out as in some of your writing is that people just simply you don’t need to you don’t need to shop as much you don’t need to buy as much right? And I recall some pro tips you have on how people can you know curb the urge to buy, you know, if you purge your closet and are able to just like, you know, have the pieces you actually care about declutter that makes it easier for you to use the items that you have. It sounds like also if you know what is a particular good cut for you that when you’re you know, for your shape that when you’re shopping you can just like you know just eliminate a lot of things that you might have considered things like that, right?


Elizabeth Cline: Where I was when I started this is just buying a lot of trends and it never really feeling like it got me any closer to really loving my clothes or feeling like I knew who I was. The way that I started to shift my own relationship is I did this big like wardrobe inventory and I went through everything, I think I took literally every piece of clothing out of my closet. And for a good portion of it, I just like, you know, looked at it looked at where it was made what it was made out of started to try to figure out like. Okay, what kinds of colors do I actually end up wearing? What kinds of materials do I actually ended up wearing? What am I gravitating towards, and not letting like the fashion industry and trends and now social media, control who you are and how you present yourself to the world. And I do think that that’s a big part of why the sustainable fashion movement has such a big following, because it makes people feel better actually, to think more about your clothes and to be more mindful. Because it can also help you figure out how to how to dress like, figure out what your personal style is, and build a wardrobe that you’re actually really happy with. 


Josie Huang: Yeah, I think I’ve figured out what my personal style is, especially during COVID, which is elastic bands on pants. I don’t know what fits into the purse of a fashion personality type. But it sounds like there is starting to be for some folks a real shift in their relationship with clothes, right? Like I have, since reporting on Shein earlier this year, and this has been reinforced by reading your work. I just, you know, sometimes, you know, get these emails, oh, this is for sale, check out our sale. And I will just look and be like No, take a step back. Are you really going to wear that more than a few times?


Elizabeth Cline: Yeah, of course. I mean, that’s part of the reason why the fashion industry’s psychological impact is so big, because people are buying clothes and wearing it just a handful of times. And every time you make manufacture new clothing, that’s more water, more chemicals, more energy. So when just by wearing clothing longer, you’re actually stretching out the resources that went into it and therefore reducing the impact. So yeah, I mean, there’s no getting around the fact that if we want to make the fashion industry sustainable for people who are over consuming clothes, that is going to have to shift and that’s really kind of the longer term behavioral side of this, that’s really difficult because we’re so conditioned to over consume. But it will I mean, it has to it has to change. And it’s not just Americans like it’s also Europeans, Chinese consumers increasingly, like all across Southeast Asia, like more and more and more people are getting like hooked on this system of fast fashion.


Josie Huang: Do you think that we can put the genie back in the bottle? Because I just think back to my mom’s generation, and how people didn’t have as much clothes, but maybe bought higher quality clothes, took better care of it. I remember my mom used to wear these St. John’s knit suits that she was there. I I know. It’s weird. It’s that she was so fashionable and I’m so basic. But like she used to put them in, you know, her garment bags, she took such good care of it. And, you know, do you see people returning to that? To the days of your where you see clothes as investments, do you think that we can get back to that point?


Elizabeth Cline: I am not going to close off any potential future for the fashion industry. You know, as we’ve been talking about, there’s this whole generation of people who are coming up really frustrated by fast fashion. I think that one of the bigger things that needs to change, like even above our overconsumption is the inequality in the fashion industry, the fact that we have these huge corporations that are not responsible for their supply chain. And I think that if we do the work to fix those issues, the fashion industry will slow down. Because so much of it. The overproduction that’s happening right now is because people are not getting paid enough. You know, like it’s an industry that is profiting off of exploitation.


Josie Huang: So for consumers, listening, yes, you can make individual choices, but but for there to be a systemic change, you’ve got to look at, you know, the big picture here, and the industry itself.


Elizabeth Cline: You have to have all all of the components, individual action, I wouldn’t be in this space if I hadn’t started thinking about sustainable fashion and the impact of fast fashion as a consumer, almost everybody who gets into this topic and is trying to change the fashion industry starts with themselves and just looking at their own closet. And what can I do when I’m out shopping to make a difference? But yes, of course, we have to have collective action. We have to have social movements, pressure movements, policy changes, changes in education. That’s part of why you know, I’m teaching at Columbia now to make sure the next generation has the tools they need. We have to have all these pieces to make change and the good news is that all of the pieces are there now. And when I started, we really didn’t have any of them. So it’s like all the puzzle pieces are there and now we just have to start really locking them together. And we’ll get you know this bigger picture change.


Josie Huang: On that inspiring and optimistic note I want to say thank you, Elizabeth, so much for joining us today on Burning Questions. Elizabeth is an author and Columbia University professor focused on the fashion industry and sustainability is also an activist. I really appreciate our talk today.


Elizabeth Cline: I had such a good time. Thank you for having me.



Amy Scott: Thank you so much for watching How We Survive Burning Questions. And if you liked what you saw, don’t forget to subscribe. If you’re looking for more climate coverage, we have so much more to share on How We Survive podcast. Go check it out.

The team

Amy Scott Host
Caitlin Esch Senior Producer
Hayley Hershman Producer
Grace Rubin Assistant Producer