(But now we’re eating our own clothes)
Back in 2011, the clever London Daily Mail calculated that women in the UK buy half their body weight in clothes each year. That’s twice as much as those chic French women whose elegance the world envies.
79% of women say they are at their happiest or most confident when wearing something new. A study from the University of Hertfordshire in the UK found that when women are depressed, they don’t even think about wearing 90% of their clothes. They just haul their bodies into their old jeans and plod on through their day. The researchers also found that people’s “mental processes and perceptions can be primed by clothing.” Women given a math test when wearing only a swimsuit perform worse than when fully clothed (although I’m sure their nipples looked great.) Also, wearing a Superman t-shirt made men feel stronger and smarter when taking exams.
150 billion pieces of clothing were purchased worldwide in 2015 — 400% more than just 20 years ago. Use of synthetic fabrics has skyrocketed. Polyester is our favorite. Mostly it is made from petroleum-based thermoplastic polymer pellets — microplastics. Every time we wash a load of synthetic fabrics, millions of these microfibers are sent swilling out to sea. Plankton is easily seduced by all that glittery stuff, and off it does into the hungry maw of the food chain …
… and, hey, here we are: eating our own clothes.
Our insatiable hunger for cheap clothes is costing us the Earth.
Fast fashion has led to unprecedented environmental degradation and human suffering. Even fashion designer and famous daughter Stella McCartney has, in something of an understatement, condemned the clothing industry for being “incredibly wasteful and harmful to the environment.” Livia Firth is more acerbic, referring to the fast fashion industry as “an evil system,” adding, with more than a hint of justifiable anger,
“they addicted us … who needs all these clothes? Who needs all this crap?”
Like shooting stars, but not as beautiful
Cheap, fast fashion clothes are worn fewer than 5 times and kept for only 35 days on average.
We buy so many clothes we just don’t know what to do with them. As The Ellen MacArthur Foundation’s stunning 2017 report states:
“One garbage truck full of textiles is landfilled or burnt every second.”
We throw 85% of our unwanted clothing into the trash. Some of that is incinerated, but most molders underground in landfills for years — hundreds of years in the case of synthetic fabrics. Clothes that have been bleached, dyed, and soaked in chemicals belch methane like cows and ooze toxic chemicals like the mudflats of the San Francisco Bay. Landfills are at saturation point — but we just keep trying to add more.
Sometimes even retailers have too many clothes. In 2018, Burberry burned $40 million worth of excess stock in 2018, while mega-clothing retailer, H&M, incinerated $4.3 billion of inventory because it had gone “mouldy”. Toxins were released into the air, along with even more carbon dioxide than coal and natural gas.
It’s not just the environment that suffers. “The True Cost” movie poignantly describes the arduous labor and painful birth of our clothes.
“My God, we can do better than this” says the narrator
The toxic trail
The impact of clothing production is contributing significantly to the environmental calamity that we have caused.
- Greenhouse gas: The industry contributes more pollution than the emissions of all international flights and maritime shipping combined. Polyester guzzles 70 million barrels of oil every year.
- Invisible plastic microfibers: There are 16 times more microfibers in the oceans than the plastic microbeads from cosmetics — equivalent to more than 50 billion plastic bottles.
- Tree Loss: 70 million trees are cut down every year to produce fabrics such as rayon, viscose, and modal.
- Water: 93 billion cubic meters are stolen from local communities for use in the textile industry every year. Just one shirt and a pair of jeans use 10,000 to 20,000 liters of water. Poisonous waste is discharged into local rivers. At the same time, the sequestration capacity of soils, which are important carbon sinks, is reduced by intensive water use.
- Dyes: Both production workers and you and I absorb some of the corrosive sulfuric acid, formaldehyde (you know, the stuff used by mortuary embalmers), and other toxic chemicals used in the dyeing process. Studies are vague about the ability of these chemicals to cause cancer, but they do not deny the possibility.
As Jo Confino, in the Huffington Post, says:
“There is nothing beautiful in seeing a river polluted by toxic dyes or a garment worker surviving on a pittance while toiling in dangerous sweatshop conditions.”
Which is better for the environment — natural or synthetic fibers?
Like some wretched election results, it’s too close to call.
Cotton and other natural fabrics
- Cotton is a stunningly heavy user of land, pesticides and water. Enough cotton for 60 billion T-shirts is harvested every year.
- “Brown Lung Disease”, the severe respiratory condition resulting from inhaling cotton dust, is prevalent in countries that process cotton, with up to 44% of workers afflicted.
Oh, wait, sorry, the picture of a worker toiling away amidst your cotton and its vicious dust is below. (It was just … that bear, looking so sad …)
- Growing cotton organically still requires large amounts of water.
- We don’t always know whether the factory that produces organic clothing treats its workers fairly or whether the dyes used are polluting local rivers. Can smaller companies that say their clothes are “ethically made” or “eco” afford to travel to places like Peru to check on production and working conditions?
Man-made synthetic fibers
- Fabrics such as polyester, Lycra®, spandex, and acrylic contain microplastics. As I may have mentioned, those end up in the fish we eat.
- Because I know you are interested, I should mention that synthetic fabric melts more easily, and it’s basically non-biodegradable.
You are probably pretty depressed by now, but here’s another very good reason to stop buying fast fashion: Brutal conditions for the people who make our clothes.
“Dark Satanic Mills”
The era of Satan’s grim sweatshops started, arguably, in Leeds, England during the Industrial Revolution. In 1838, there were 106 wool mills in that Yorkshire town alone, employing 10,000 people. In the rush to get new products to market, the workshops were unregulated and conditions often deadly. (Sound familiar?) In 1850, social reformer Charles Kingsley published “Cheap Clothes and Nasty,” in which he compared the workers to slaves. Young children labored away in rooms where the ceiling was too low to stand and long hours and exhaustion were the norm. Kingsley pointed out that:
“If people actually knew … how their clothes are made, they are past contempt”
But that was then …
Modern Slavery and Child Labor
Today, 97% of clothing is manufactured overseas. Fast fashion is very profitable. The top 13 fashion brands are worth $175 billion. Nike is worth $25 billion and H&M $22.6 billion. The cofounder of Zara (valued at $16.7 billion) is the 6th richest person in the world. Something for the world’s youngest billionaire, 21-year-old fashion mogul Kylie Jenner, to aim for next year.
As the wealthy sail, sunbathe and ski, child labor, human trafficking and modern slavery persist in many of the countries that make our clothes.
Nevertheless, fearing the opprobrium of shoppers, back in the 1990s corporations vowed to improve conditions and there were some short-term results. Today, though, workers are still abused. Packed like sardines into suffocatingly hot factories, they work up to 16 hours a day, seven days a week. In 2013, a poorly-maintained building in Bangladesh’s Rana Plaza collapsed and over a thousand workers — mostly women and their small children — were crushed to death, unable to escape through doors that had been locked to prevent theft.
When faced with criticism over the terrible conditions, corporations often deny knowledge of bad practices. Safe from lax supply-chain management, factories outsource to cheaper unregulated subcontractors, including homes where children are used and easily hidden when inspectors arrive. Factories are dotted around the world to avoid audits. Doing this, megasupplier Li & Fung has revenues of $19.2 billion — more than Ralph Lauren, Armani, and Tommy Hilfiger combined.
True, sweatshops provide employment for 300 million people, including children. Is that a good thing? Fiery Nobel Prize winning economist Paul Krugman has pointed out the ugly fact that, for many, sweatshops have provided a better living than, say, sifting through garbage mountains for food. All the same, he concludes that sweatshops are:
“the result of the actions of soulless multinationals and rapacious local entrepreneurs, whose only concern was to take advantage of the profit opportunities offered by cheap labor.”
Take a break! If you are finding this piece just too damn frumpy, you might enjoy Luke Meagher of @HauteLeMode taking the piss out of the fashion industry
Can we get away from sweatshops?
Probably not, and many millions in developing countries will give a sigh of relief at that.
But we can buy less and buy better. It’s cheaper in the long run, and puts pressure on the super-rich multinational corporations that are abusing the environment and their workers.
Here’s a picture of a sad-looking dog wearing a sweatshirt, for no particular reason.
What should I do with my old clothes?
Don’t be a tosser and dump them in the trash. In 2013, keeping discarded clothes out of US landfills was the environmental equivalent of taking 1.2 million cars and their carbon dioxide emissions off the road. (Statisticians and their researchers are amazing!)
- Resell them
- Donate them
- Recycle them
- Rent them
- Host a clothes swap party
Second Hand Rose
Fashion designer Jessi Arrington recently went to speak at a week-long TED conference in Los Angeles and packed nothing but 7 pairs of undies. She bought the rest of her clothes in thrift stores around LA that week. Here she is wearing some of her fabulous finds:
Could we be more mindful about what we are doing? Ray Davies’s “Dedicated follower of fashion” can no longer “flit from shop to shop just like a butterfly,” without the sting of catastrophe tumbling down upon him. We simply have to buy less. In the past, pelts and loincloths didn’t harm the environment and cause human misery (at least as far as I know) but today our brocade boob tubes and camo pussy bow boyfriend shirts are wreaking havoc.
As Kristen Leo, in her very watchable “Fast Fashion in under 5 minutes” video bluntly suggests, if you are a fashion victim and shopping addict, you really ought to: