Changemaker: Elizabeth L. Cline

Image: Paul Terefenko

By Kate | Changemaker
Posted Sep 20, 2016

Elizabeth L. Cline is a New York-based journalist, activist, and author of Overdressed: The Shockingly High Cost of Cheap Fashion, the acclaimed exposé on the environmental and socio-economic impact of the global apparel industry and fast fashion. Released by Penguin Portfolio in 2012 (paperback in 2013), the book has been hailed by Businessweek as “the fashion world’s answer to… The Omnivore’s Dilemma,” featured in The New York Times Sunday Book Review, and called a “sharp wakeup call” by Publishers Weekly, among many other accolades. Cline and her research have been featured on Fresh Air With Terry Gross, NBC Nightly News, BBC The World, WNYC’s The Brian Lehrer Show, NPR’s On Point, and John Oliver’s Last Week Tonight, among many others. 

Overdressed has moved over 35,000 copies to date, been released in six languages and most importantly helped galvanize a global ethical fashion movement. It is on the curriculum at universities and high schools around the U.S. and Canada, including at The Fashion Institute of Technology in New York, where it is taught in five different sections. Cline continues to lecture regularly across North America, having most recently given a sold-out talk at the Chicago Humanities Festival’s inaugural event on style.

If your life had a mission statement – what would it be?

Society can and will change for the better, it just takes time.

If you weren’t a Journalist what would you be?

I’m embarking on making a documentary, so maybe a filmmaker. I also think if I could do school again, I’d get a degree in Economics or International Relations and get more into policy-building and government level work.

What’s one thing people wouldn’t know you about from social [media]?

A lot of people who know me as the author of Overdressed don’t know that I was a guitarist in a metal band signed to Relapse Records and played in that project for eight years. I recently left the band, but heavy music, such as metal and punk, are essential to who I am down to my style and how I think about fashion.

What about your childhood mapped your current life path?

My father is an intellectual and a history major. My mom is also a historic preservationist, so both my parents approach the world from a macro, world-historical level. My dad especially sees patterns in everything. Beyond that, it was my involvement in the punk and hardcore scenes in the ‘90s that turned me on to political and social change. That started when I was 14 and went to my first punk show.

What’s the one thing no one told you about, or you didn’t expect about your path

I think the world I live in now didn’t even exist 15 years ago, so no one could have truly prepared me. Everything about life’s path has been rewritten for my generation, from the way people connect and fall in love via technology to the age we’re “supposed” to have kids to the end of ownership and the idea of living in urban cores instead of suburbs. Even the idea that every generation will be better off than the one before, that’s caved in. Journalism is in a very precarious place as well. My friends and I always discuss the fact that our generation is living life off-script. We have to make it up as we go along, which is exciting and disconcerting.

Being a bit more specific, I think that working alone as a writer being self-employed is really difficult and a skill in and of itself. I wish someone had told me that or that I had a guide in that respect. People imagine you just sitting around in your pajamas and watching TV while you write. But really you’re just constantly battling yourself and your own demons to stay productive.

What’s wrong with the world right now?

I’ll just keep my answer specific to the U.S. I think like a lot of people I’ve been disturbed by this election. I’ve been taken aback by the reaction to Hillary Clinton and what I interpret as a palpable fear and even hatred of a highly competent female leader. I think attitudes toward her are reflective of society’s view of all women and that really scares me.

What’s right with the world?

I am really into the idea of universal basic income which is being debated around the world right now. I don’t think we’ll ever see the shared economic and job growth we saw with the second industrial revolution again but society is wealthier than ever. So why not spread the wealth a bit? For artists and innovators, having income to fall back on would be so transformative and benefit all of us. I think it could create one of the most creative and innovative periods of human history.

Are you optimistic or pessimistic about our future?

Always optimistic. Humans take a long time to figure things out, and when you’re trying to shift huge institutions, it takes even longer. But we are social beings and have a strong instinct to improve in addition to survive, so I think the future looks bright.

One food you could eat everyday?

Toast with peanut butter or a croissant.

Favorite thing to do on a day off or down day?

Cocktail bars or seeing a movie at Nitehawk [Brooklyn].


Want to learn more, listen to our interview of Elizabeth on Magnifeco Radio on iTunes or on the Heritage Radio Network.

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