Meet Elizabeth Cline. Journalist and expert in consumer culture, fast fashion, and sustainability. She’s also the author of two of our most trusted and loved books on ethical fashion, “Overdressed” and “The Conscious Closet.” We had the pleasure of talking with her about how inequality has affected her career, what it means for the fashion industry, and how her she now carries the torch for generations of strong women in her family.
Can you tell us a bit about what you do professionally?
I’m a journalist and author of two books, Overdressed: The Shockingly High Cost of Cheap Fashion and The Conscious Closet: The Revolutionary Guide to Looking Good While Doing Good. I’m an expert in consumer culture, fast fashion, and labor rights in the global apparel industry.
What motivates you to keep going in your life and career?
I see my role as providing research, fact-finding, and truth-telling to highlight how power works in our society, specifically within the global apparel industry. More generally, I'm interested in understanding macroeconomic forces at play in culture and in our economy.
What are ways you’ve experienced inequality in your field?
Journalism is still an industry that favors men and elevates white men to the most important positions. This is of course a huge problem considering that media plays such an outsize role in how people frame their reality nowadays. Especially in journalism, there’s still the cock-sure brilliant male writer archetype that persists. And those guys really do get more assignments. When I was on staff at various magazines, there was an intense gender divide between the important editor roles and less prestigious positions. I hope that’s starting to change, but what I see mostly is women carving their own paths, leaving staff jobs to go freelance, blog, and write books. Now that I freelance, and mostly write for women’s fashion magazines, it’s often a struggle to get the experts I’m interviewing to take me seriously. So many of them assume I don’t know what I’m talking about simply because I work in fashion.
Gender also factors into reporting; I have female friends who’ve been harassed and felt threatened when they go out on assignment. Imagine trying to be a war reporter or trying to report stories internationally; women are faced with a host of threats.
More broadly, I see gender inequality built into the bones of the apparel industry. The people who work throughout the supply chain are mostly women, and we justify their poverty based on both race and gender, and even the women who work in the second hand stalls in Nairobi get paid less than the men. Americans spend only 3.2% of our incomes on clothes. So the American lifestyle is subsidized by global inequality and poverty for women in the supply chain.
What are the ways you choose to fight for inequality?
I believe strongly in living wages and equal pay and economic empowerment as a tool for equality, and I think the way to do that is to fight for fair pay for the most vulnerable workers first, whether those are warehouse workers, Uber drivers, cut and sew operators, or fast food workers. The premise in a democracy is that everyone is equal, but if you look at people’s paychecks, it’s clear that many people don't really believe that.
Why is it important to have more women represented in your field?
I think that journalism should, in general, reflect the population, which means we need far more women, people of color, non-urban people, non-college educated people, poor people, and beyond. While we’re trained to approach our stories without bias and to back up what we say with research and fact checking, the types of stories that get told are inevitably based on the reporter's perspective and background. There are so many stories that aren’t getting told because journalism isn’t representative enough.
That said, women dominate writing about sustainable fashion, and that’s a double-edged sword. As many people have noted recently, the data and science around fashion and the environment is weak and industry funded. Because fashion is considered something of a women’s subject, and less serious, it doesn’t get the same amount of research and serious inquiry as other subjects. This needs to change.
Despite improvements, many women still don’t hold positions of leadership in their respective fields. Why is that, do you think?
Gender inequality in the workplace won’t change until we change our obsessive workaholic culture and regressive childcare policies in the United States. Women are now better-educated than men, but they work for 10 to 15 years and then they get sidelined right at the top of their career because we don’t have parental leave laws or affordable childcare that allows them to be human beings and build families and work at the same time. While women serve as primary caregivers in their 30s, 40s, and 50s, men continue to move up the ladder and settle into the most plume positions. In other countries, women juggle life and parenthood and career much easier than we do, and it’s both because they don’t define themselves by their careers and because their policies are more family-friendly and humane.
What can be done to encourage more female leadership in the workplace?
Equal representation in the workplace is important to giving women and every other minority workplace confidence. If women are only 10% of a workplace, they’re not going to feel like their presence matters. It’s intimidating to speak up when you know your perspective is outnumbered. From there, mentorship and strong pro-women managers also key. When I was starting out in journalism, I had two types of managers, the kind that cultivated my talent and the other that overlooked me because I wasn't as confident as my male peers.
What advice would you give to someone experiencing inequality in their personal life or workplace?
Be strategic. Form a women’s group in your office. Carefully document what’s going on. Be prepared to give examples of what’s happening. First take your complaint and, ideally, some suggestions of what you want fixed to your boss and, if need be, HR. I’ve worked in places where I took the anxiety and stress of gender bias with me home every day; but having a plan of action and some direct requests is a good place to start. Unfortunately, institutions and workplace cultures rarely change overnight. But if you’re organized with other people in your workplace who feel the same way and are experiencing the same power imbalances, change can happen a lot faster.
In the spirit of International Women’s Day, who are women in your life who have shaped who you are today?
I am very fortunate that all of the women in my immediate family lived fully in the world by bucking gender norms, especially for women from small-town Georgia. My grandmother Routh had kids really young, but she put herself through art school in the early 1960s while raising them. She was, if I recall, one of the only women and the only mom in the program, and she came back to her community and helped found an arts guild and built a career as a painter. My mom learned computer programming and IT in the early 80s, when it was unheard of for women to be in that field. And my grandmother Maggie was the perfect housewife, but she also used her power locally to improve the schools and arts programming. I think one of the things that I picked up from them all is confidence. None of the women in my family are shrinking violets.