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In conversation with journalist + fashion activist Elizabeth Cline

Elizabeth L Cline
From the #PayUp Campaign to questioning the value of “brand transparency” Elizabeth Cline is on the frontlines of the fight for a fairer fashion industry.

(*& now as the Director of Advocacy and Policy at Remake.)

2015 was the year I personally became aware of the damages of the fashion industry. It was the year that I saw The True Cost and that I devoured Over-dressed: the Shockingly High Cost of Cheap Fashion, by Elizabeth L Cline. They broadened my lens and permanently shifted my relationship with fashion and even the direction of my life. That was five years ago and in some ways it seems like a lifetime ago. Whereas at that time “sustainable fashion” was something that seemed relegated to hippie chicks, now it has become such a part of the larger conversation that it risks losing all significance as brands with long histories of questionable behavior are appropriating the term and creating “conscious” or “sustainable” collections that are anything but.

Fortunately, there are writers and journalists out there who continuously question what is going on in the fashion industry and refuse to be settled by nicely worded PR statements. Elizabeth Cline is one of them –and in my opinion one of the best. She recently sat down with me for a very extensive Zoom conversation about where the fashion industry is and where it needs to be –among other things. Bucking the sound bites only trend we’re publishing it en toto. Do yourself a favor and don’t do a TL:DR.

Elizabeth– I’m excited to talk to you today about everything that’s going on in sustainable fashion.

Katya/NKM – You’re one of the super experts IMHO. Let’s talk about the #PayUp movement briefly. How did that start and how did you get involved?
In the middle of March (2020) when consumers in NY and the US started going into lockdown, brands and retailers made the unilateral decision to cancel orders in their factories. And being a journalist in this space, I saw this as headlines. Brands are cancelling orders but what would that mean?

I was supposed to go to Bangladesh in April on other related stories, but I was on lock-down, so I started looking into the cancellations. And what it meant was that they were not paying for work already done. It was immediately clear that this would become a huge financial disaster and humanitarian crises for the whole industry.

I put together a WhatsApp group of labor organizers, journalists, people that were working on labor rights in Bangladesh and we started talking about possible interventions. And to Remake’s credit and Ayesha Barenblatt’s credit, Remake was very quick to start using #PayUp in order to get the message out that brands needed to pay their workers.

An estimated 40 billion dollars of orders were cancelled initially. That’s enough to pay the wages of all of Bangladesh’s 4.1 million garment workers, for the next eight years!

A coalition kept growing, working tirelessly behind the scenes and around the world to get the companies to pay this money back. And we also knew early on that if the companies didn’t pay the money back that factories, many factories would not be able to pay the wages to workers which in essence would’ve  been a modern slavery system where people would have been laid off without getting paid for what they had already done.

The #PayUp Campaign on Social Media

 Do you feel like it was the pressure from social media that got them to actually pay. Was there a turning point?
For sure. #PayUp was used after Rana Plaza, and it’s been used on and off in the ethical fashion space for years, but once the hashtag was established and the campaign was established the goal was really simple.

It was to go after every company that owed money who had cancelled orders and demand that:

  1. They pay in full
  2. On time
  3. No discounts for brands
  4. No changes to contract terms,
  5. You must pay

And it’s been extraordinarily successful, it is –and these are not my words– but it is the most successful labor rights movement, or campaign in the history of the apparel industry in terms of its financial impact on workers. It’s estimated that we got $22 billion back of the original $40 billion that was cancelled and we know for a fact that the companies would not have paid any of this. Their plan was to totally use the factories as a way to shore up their own financial losses. That was the plan.

That’s so outrageous.
They were just going to steal from the factories, and assumed they wouldn’t get caught because no one pays attention to garment workers, nobody cares and everybody is just used to this. Their mindset was “Consumers are going to feel sorry for us because our stores are closed.” I also think that the companies potentially thought that it was justifiable “Oh our stores are closed so we can’t sell this product” But the product has already been manufactured and if you don’t pay, they are going to go out of business and people are going to lose their jobs and not get paid. That is slavery.

It’s funny because I’ve been working on the campaign for 4 months now but once I start talking about it the outrage is so fresh because it’s so unconscionable. It wasn’t one brand, almost every major brand did this, and it wasn’t just in Bangladesh it was everywhere. All apparel countries have been devastated by cancelled orders.

That’s so reflective to me of the income disparity issue that’s gotten more of a spotlight because of the pandemic.
Yes, one of the most powerful things, I think, about the Pay-Up Campaign is that it’s helped citizens and consumers who were thousands of miles away from what’s going on in Bangladesh to finally see how the apparel industry operates in a way that wasn’t really visible.

 Details between brands and suppliers, contract terms, those details were very difficult to come by prior to pay-up and then when the cancellations started, factories started slipping journalists and labor rights activists emails from brands, so we have all of this detailed information on how the industry really operates that we can use to make changes moving forward.

And to your point, about inequality and safety nets, one of the reasons why we went so hard after these brands is they’re operating in places where workers don’t have a safety net, there isn’t unemployment insurance, there aren’t bail out packages for factories, so if you don’t pay them, these people will literally be on the streets and not be able to eat. That is what’s at stake. It’s not like someone just lost their job and now they can go on unemployment insurance and look for another job. That’s not an option.

 It’s crazy. I think Gap was fairly recent, right?  That Gap agreed to pay?

When I saw that and then I saw them announce “Oh we’re doing something with Kanye” (Oh, and blowing off Telfar at the same time -but another story) I wondered, was fear of “bad press” when they were about to announce the Kanye collab the impetus? Whatever works but…
Yes brands are very worried about “reputational risk” – that’s what they call it in corporate lingo, they don’t want to look bad, they need consumers to have a good perception of them, even in the best of times, but I think its extra important coming out of the pandemic. They know that the future of their business depends on looking good to consumers.

Everlane is just one company whose claims of transparency is questionable.

So speaking of that, let’s talk about how you’ve recently said “transparency is not a road to reform for fashion, it’s a way for brands to self-report on their good behavior.” Can you just talk to me about what’s going on there and your thoughts on that and how those of us interested in conscious fashion might be unwittingly supporting not-so-great brands?
The demand for transparency goes back at least 20 years ago when the apparel industry first outsourced to other countries. Even in the 1990s we asked brands to publish the list of suppliers. And I think Nike and Levi’s were some of the first companies to do that. But it didn’t change anything. It didn’t change anything.

Asking for a list of suppliers is the least these companies should be doing. Transparency is the absolute lowest bar. That is not all we should be asking for so I think one thing that has been clear from this crisis, is that we have to ask for more; voluntary commitments, letting the brands set the agenda for sustainability is never ever going to get us anywhere.

 Can you believe that 7 years after Rana Plaza another disaster happens and workers have no safety net? They are still the ones whose lives get completely crushed when something goes wrong. Everyone in our space –we do this because we care– has to stop often and analyze our tactics and ask if what we’re doing is working and who are we serving through our actions?

I feel like the narrative was to work hand and hand with brands and that only by working with brands are we going to create this industry that we all want to see. But I no longer think that’s true. I mean, what do you think?

I think you’re right. I think the social consciousness movement that’s been happening that came out of George Floyd…where there used to be an assumption by large parts of our society that the police served the communities interests and were overall trustworthy…that has been shattered. You take this to fashion and there is perhaps more awareness that these companies that make these pretty things for us are not serving our best interests either. And by “our” I mean humanity at large. When you realize that, you realize the whole fashion system, or industry, can’t continue business as usual and call itself ethical or sustainable.
I completely agree about hierarchies being challenged because of Black Lives Matter and questioning the wisdom of the people in charge.

The way that the defund the police conversation has reframed policing and community safety can be used as a huge inspiration for ethical fashion because it’s like we kind of have come from this place of thinking: the brands know, they’re the experts in what is sustainable and ethical. But no, it should be the citizens and the workers who get to make those decisions. We get to make those decisions.

This isn’t to say that corporations are evil but they have a very specific function.

And this is what I think we have really forgotten in our culture. They legally have a responsibility to their shareholders to provide a service, sell a product and produce profit. They do not exist to be ethical and sustainable. It’s not even part of the way that they function. If you want companies to behave sustainably, I guess you can go after them on social media constantly or we can start having conversations about real legal and binding agreements within the fashion industry or policy reforms.

I really feel like, and I don’t know if this is possible, if it would happen, so much comes back to: if things were being made in the community where things are bought and sold, there would naturally be more responsibility. Because if it’s you or your neighbors working at the factory, the constituents of the mayor or whatever, it would be better…
I think that’s actually a really important topic. A lot of people debate maybe local production is the solution, or domestic production and I feel like in general the pandemic has called into question globalization and global supply chains in general. I have strong opinions about that.

One, I would love to have more production in the US.

On the other hand, I am trying to focus on radically reforming the reality of the industry, which is an industry that is dependent on global supply chains and without some major policy shift, it will continue to the case.

Because the reality is you already have companies that are placing new orders in Bangladesh. Their plan is not to move much production home; they’re going to keep outsourcing because that’s the business model. So how do we make the industry that exists fundamentally more responsible and accountable than it currently is?

And when we talk local it’s important to realize we have garment workers in Los Angeles dying of coronavirus. The domestic textile industry in the US was founded on slavery… I really think that this idea that local is inherently ethical is just not true.

 And also, I really don’t think we can give up on making global supply chains ethical. The challenge is how do you regulate business across borders? It’s something that we didn’t do after NAFTA. It’s something that we didn’t do after the quotas expired, after the multi-fiber agreement expired in 2005, we just assumed businesses would regulate themselves but that’s not something that’s unfixable.

 How should we fix it? …not like you have to have the answer!
One idea is to create legal liabilities for human rights violations in a company’s supply chain. Germany is talking about that right now. In the US we have the California Transparency in Supply Chains Act.
All that requires is for companies to say “we have done something to make sure there is not modern slavery in our supply chain”, but there’s nothing at stake!  They can’t be fined or sued or anything like that so it’s meaningless.

We need a law that says that you’re legally responsible for what happens in your supply chain, any human rights violation that happens in your supply chain. In a way, what’s happening in California right now with the bill SB1399, the Garment Worker Protection Act, is going to do that for domestic production. Because that law says that if a factory is found not paying its workers a minimum wage, the brands are also essentially responsible for wage theft. It’s closing that space where brands say these aren’t my workers and saying no, you actually are legally and financially responsible for these employees. That’s one way. I can keep going but that’s one of the easiest things that can change and that should change now –when we have a different president…
(Editors Note: Since publication the Garment Workers Protect Act passed! You can read more about that here.)

Please, please, there’s so much corruption there…
What do you think about the
Fashion Pact?
The one about climate change. I did a couple of stories after that came out. Here’s the problem with the fashion pact. This goes back to everything we’re talking about with fashion supply chains. The carbon impact of the fashion industry, almost all of it happens in factories and brands don’t own their factories; they don’t take responsibility for anything that happens in their factories so what is the plan to reduce carbon in manufacturing?

I think that it’s a well-intentioned goal but there’s no mechanism that exists to actually achieve it. The other thing I learned when I started talking to Mostafiz Uddin, a denim manufacturer in Bangladesh, is brands currently aren’t paying for the sustainability initiatives that they’re imposing. So they say you have to be green but they don’t financially contribute to make it happen.

It’s all so unconscionable. It’s crazy. So what’s the story you were working on in Bangladesh before Covid started?
The story is most of these factory owners in Bangladesh were trying to launch this initiative to rebrand Bangladesh as an ethical and sustainable manufacturing hub.

Mostafiz Uddin with some of his garment workers

The country can’t shake its association with terrible everything. Despite the fact that prior to coronavirus, a lot of things had gotten better –  they had the world’s largest number of LEED-certified factories, many of Uddin’s factory’s employees are trans women, disabled workers, they had every sustainable certificate ever.

 So the plan for 2020 was to start to change the conversation about Bangladesh. And I was interested in questioning how is it, after all these years, after all these investments these factory owners have done to making these factories green, how is it that the price paid to Bangladeshi suppliers has gone down since Rana Plaza? Brands are paying less today for clothes that they order in Bangladesh than they ordered in 2013.

 And beyond that, going back to why there is such a huge disconnect between our ethical and sustainable fashion movement in the West and the real life conditions of garment workers in Bangladesh. Yes, they work in safer working conditions, but in terms of what they’re getting paid, there’s been no impact. So that was the story I was chasing in Bangladesh and then the pandemic told that story anyway.

A text book “Wicked Problem”. What’s your background? Were you more journalism or did you get into that from fashion?
I have a degree in political philosophy and the way I started, my first job out of college was in journalism. I decided not to pursue a career in political philosophy but I got into covering the apparel industry because when I was in college I was part of an anti-sweatshop campaign. We worked to get our university to sign binding labor rights agreements with the factories that manufactured our university apparel. That was the first labor rights campaign I was ever part of. I think the fact that it was successful and had real world impacts for workers, it’s one of the things that kept me coming back to this issue over and over again. But I got into writing about this through the lens of labor rights and not sustainability.

 How did you widen the lens on sustainability?
You know, when I wrote Overdressed I was talking about economics and culture which led to environmental impact in producer countries – how was air quality being impacted in China? Or the water quality in Bangladesh?

I feel like there’s something about sustainable fashion over the last five years that feels really different than how I came into this space –understanding the connection to environmental justice. It’s like the concept of sustainability has become really abstracted and we’re never talking about whose environment is at stake. Again, with the fashion industry, the impact is often in the supply chain and on communities of color yet you never hear from farmers or factory owners or workers or the government of Bangladesh about how they feel about sustainable fashion. It’s always talked about in this very abstracted way that I don’t feel comfortable with any longer and perhaps never felt comfortable with it.

Elizabeth strides through NYC like the badass in vintage that she is.

Yes, in some places online it feels like sustainable fashion is has become “self-care”; it’s “Goopified”, as it were: “Oh I care about myself so I buy organic sheets…” and it becomes a “me thing” instead of a “we thing”, the larger picture. Not everywhere. I think with the Black Lives Matter movement, a new focus on environmental justice and places like Slow Factory have broadened the picture for some people to see the larger issues and how colonization has played into it as well.
Yes, I think the self-care piece of it is… you’re right, maybe we don’t need to spend that much time critiquing what we were doing before the pandemic. A lot of us were doing a lot of things we might consider bullshit in hindsight, but that is one of the problems with Instagram. It’s all about personal branding and about your lifestyle which is basically about consumer products.

Prior to the pandemic, that platform wasn’t really being used to make wider systemic change. It was about demonstrating how the products you buy represent some set of values, which you put it really well, it was always about “me” instead of “we” but I think the pandemic changed all of that.
It’s been so liberating to not have to post a picture of myself in clothes –to actually be posting about petitions people can sign, brands people can tag, causes people can know about, organizations you can give money to – that all feels so much more impactful then “I’m wearing secondhand hand and you can, too!” (laughs)

 Although I did ask for personal style pix from you because it’s fun!
Yes, the reason that I wrote the Conscious Closet is like I’ve done probably a thousand public talks since Overdressed came out and everybody asks how I shop. Ethical consumption is the way that people often get into causes and it can be a gateway to bigger change.

Yes, it is a gateway and it is that thing, once you are aware… I do that with myself with plastic all the time. I’m utterly obsessed with not just plastic but synthetic, I work with a group in Connecticut, and it’s similar to Fibershed. They want to get a wool scour –a machine you need to clean wool before it can be made into yarn. There’s only one in the country right now and this would be a real opportunity to revive the northeast as a wool textile hub. It’s a big project and from doing this I’ve been learning all the amazing aspects of natural fibers. Like wool is compostable, anti-microbial, performance wear… so many good things and then on the flip side I read even wearing synthetics you can be breathing in the plastic fiber. And I’m not going to say on No Kill to everyone, “Don’t wear polyester”! I mean I still have synthetics but all of a sudden the importance of natural fibers to our planet is so present. I mean micro plastics are being found in carrots and apples! Sorry, I know it’s slightly off topic…
No I’ve been writing a lot about cotton farming so it’s something that’s on my mind, too and I think that farmers understand ecosystems. They are stewards of the land; I like supporting fibers that support farmers, not a fossil fuel refinery.

Right right.
I think the world is a better place when we have a lot of farmers who are well paid because farmers take care of shit.

Yeah, and the local sheep farmers, they’re mostly breeding for meat and they get almost nothing for their wool so if they could also make money from their wool that would be a game changer.

 So “sustainable fashion”, “conscious fashion” –is it just semantics or do you feel like labels matter?
We should probably abandon using the phrase sustainable fashion because it doesn’t explicitly include human beings. We have to stop separating the human and the environmental. They have to be brought together, maybe we can say its…I think I feel more strongly about saying ethical or conscious fashion for that reason. What about you? What do you think?

I think sustainability as a term in fashion has run its course. I think it comes back again to that “me” or “we”. It’s very much in that whole “me thing” –I have my natural beauty product for me I have my natural blanket for me
It’s about consumption.

Exactly! It’s about consumption vs. community. Can’t we frame it: is this just for my consumption or is this good for the whole community of the planet? I don’t think you could get everybody to think about it but there may be a way just talking about, that’s the way I see.

A slight non-sequitur but aligned is when I was doing my recent wool research I found out that flame retardant material was developed by the tobacco industry. They were told that they needed to make cigarettes that were less dangerous – that people were accidentally starting house fires from cigarettes, right? So instead of fixing their product they decided to look at how they could make things in our homes less flammable.
So voila: chemically treated materials! Might cause cancer but won’t cause fires – Yay!!! Sorry it makes me crazy!
The flame retardant issue is really important. And my chapter that I wrote on chemicals in The Conscious Closet I realized it was just the tip of the iceberg in understanding all of the chemicals that are used in fashion. It is so poorly understood and the industry interests behind it are terrifying. The petrochemical industry in the US is one of the most powerful, the lengths that they go to keep people from understanding what their products do it really scary, also, the way the EPA has become an industry mouthpiece over time is really worrisome to me. Our environmental regulations around chemicals are so far behind Europe. We use all sorts of things that are considered dangerous around the world.
When I was writing The Conscious Closet I tried to consistently put myself in the shoes of someone who didn’t know any of this. I think clothes might be bad for the environment but…

Was there anything that surprised you, writing The Conscious Closet? -Which by the way is packed with so much great information.
Well what we just talked about, the chemicals for sure.
I also was really interested in the way that laundry practices differ around the world and how in the US our ideas of cleanliness are shaped by industry.

Coming out of World War 2, appliance makers were one of the most powerful industry groups in the US. By convincing us that we had to wash our clothes every day and use these really harsh chemicals in order to be clean, that was how we were establishing our middle class values. As a result, we over wash clothes and our laundry habits have the biggest environmental impact because we’re so conditioned to think that washing clothes is the most hygienic, most appropriate thing to do. If you try to talk to people about alternatives they get so uncomfortable so quickly. They immediately picture themselves in clothes that haven’t been washed in months and smelling. It was really fascinating to research: like the idea of cleanliness being cultural was really interesting to me.

That is really interesting. The Protestant founding of this country, cleanliness, godliness…  Are there any brands that you think are doing a relatively good job at being responsible?
I’m a huge fan of all of our indie makers like Akilah Stewart’s upcycled bag line, FATRA, or Mary Alice Duff’s size inclusive, made-in-Philly line, Alice Alexander, who are pretty much either just making their own stuff or producing it with a very small team of people.

Also, check out what Custom Collaborative is doing in NYC because it’s a worker cooperative and training program for immigrant and low income women, so it’s work force development but it’s also about training a new generation of fashion designers and professionals that are outside of the privileged background we’re used to seeing and hearing from in fashion. In general, I look forward to talking more about makers, suppliers and producers and less about big brands in general. It’s kind of how I feel right now. We hear a lot from brands and about them and I would like to hear more from farmers and factory owners and garment workers about the future of the industry.

Akilah Stewart’s upcycled bag line, FATRA
Alice Alexander
  • Editor’s Note: We’re pleased to announce that since the publication of this interview Elizabeth has become the Director of Advocacy and Policy at Remake. A role where she can continue to advocate for worker’s rights and work towards a more equitable fashion system

Follow Elizabeth here.

-Katya Moorman

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