My 2021 New Year’s Resolution is to Save My Wallet, Sanity, and the Earth by Doing a Clothes Shopping Ban
The clothing industry is responsible for rampant materialism, slavery, and ecological disaster. I refuse to support it.
Clothes shopping is a normal part of being a person, especially in 21st century America. Women plan girls' night out with a stop to the mall, and parents plan shopping days with their children. A shopping spree is considered one of the most fun things a person can do.
That we feel this way, though, is fucked up.
The clothing industry is one of the biggest polluters on the planet. The clothing supply chain supports slave labor and dangerous working conditions. Clothing manufacturers use psychological tricks to make us think we need ten or twenty times as much clothing as we do and then offers us ways to eradicate our savings and go into debt to buy them. At the end of it all, we’re broke, depressed, feel bad about ourselves, and helped make the world worse in the process.
How The Clothing Industry Works
Upon first glance, the clothing industry's goal would appear to be to sell us appealing and functional clothing that both makes us look as good as possible and fulfills all the functions we need it to fulfill in everyday life. But this is a facade. The true goal of clothing companies is to sell us as many clothes as possible, regardless of the cost to our wallets, sanity, the planet, or workers in developing nations.
They do a fabulous job of it, too. In 1930, the average US woman owned 9 outfits, and they were pleased with that amount. In 2015, that number was 30 — one for every day of the month.¹ The average American family spends $1,700 on clothes every year. We spend all this money on clothes and don’t even wear them, either. The average article of clothing is worn anywhere between one and seven times, with plenty of clothes going completely unworn.
And once we wear those clothes between zero and seven times, what do we do? Throw it out. The average American family throws away 65 pounds of clothes per year. Those clothes that do get donated end up in landfills. Only 10% of all donated clothes are sold successfully; the rest end up in a landfill. In total, the world consumes nearly 80 billion pieces of clothing every year, up 400% from two decades ago.
The cost of producing all this unnecessary clothing is steep. The fashion industry has become the world’s second-largest polluter, with the oil industry. While we’re all worried about electric cars and BPA-free plastic, the clothing industry has been destroying the environment under our noses. UNEP reports the clothing industry is responsible for 20% of all global wastewater and 10% of all global carbon emissions, more than all international flights and maritime shipping. The dyes used in clothing is the second-largest polluter of water in the world.
Chemical-laden water kills plants and animals in or near the waterways, destroying ecosystem biodiversity in these areas. The dyeing chemicals also have significant human health impacts and have been linked to forms of cancer, gastrointestinal problems, and skin irritation. The harmful chemicals get into the food system when polluted water is used to irrigate crops and contaminates vegetables and fruit.
— How the Fast Fashion Industry Destroys the Environment, One Green Planet
The very fabrics from which we make our clothes are destroying the ecology of the ocean. 60% of all garments contain polyester, and polyester is responsible for upward of 35% of the ocean's microplastics. These fibers are then ingested by marine life, which introduces harmful bacteria — and then makes it’s way back to the human body via the fishing industry.
And then there are the landfills we fill with our clothes. Clothes in landfills release greenhouse gas emissions as they rot for the 200 years it takes them to decompose — unless they are burned in an incinerator, in which case all those greenhouse gases are released at once.
It’s not just the environment, either. The clothing industry is a global employer. One in six people in the world work in the fashion industry — and the majority of these workers are women earning less than $3 per day.
Currently, the average pay for a factory worker in Bangladesh is USD 0.392 an hour (roughly USD 62.40 a month at 40 hours a week), which is severely below the simple cost of rent and utilities, which according to numbeo.com are around USD 128 and USD 41 a month respectively.
— Minimalism is Not Always an Ethical Choice, Jude Snowden
The environments these underpaid workers work in are dangerously unsafe. In Bangladesh, clothing factories are often in high-heat environments with no air conditioning, often have safety hazards like exposed wires, and are overcrowded to boot.
“People don’t have gloves or sandals, they’re barefoot, they don’t have masks, and they are working with dangerous chemicals or dyes in a congested area. They are like sweat factories,” Ridwanul Haque, chief executive of the Dhaka-based NGO Agroho, told CNN.
— How the Fast Fashion Industry Destroys the Environment, One Green Planet
And those are the workers who aren’t slaves. The cotton industry in Uzbekistan, the second-largest producer of cotton in the world and a supplier to Bangladeshi factories and Chinese, Korean, and Russian factories, is supplied by slavery. In the wake of their separation from the Soviet Union, economic disaster for Uzbekistan led to the practice of requiring a “cotton quota” from women, schoolteachers, children, and other vulnerable members of society. Uzbekistan has since changed the letter of their law, but there is plenty of reason to believe this continues today.
And of course, these vulnerable people are the ones most hurt by the ecological damage from the fashion industry.
A recent article from CNN revealed the impact of water pollution on local residents who live near Bangladesh’s largest garment manufacturing districts. Residents say the waters now have a “pitch black color” and “there are no fish.”
“The kids get sick if they stay here,” one man told CNN, explaining that his two children and grandson are unable to live with him “because of the water.”
— How the Fast Fashion Industry Destroys the Environment, One Green Planet
The clothing industry is responsible for the disappearance of an entire sea. The Aral Sea was full in 1960 with 68,000km² of surface area when surrounding areas began irrigating it to water cotton plants. The sea is now a mere 10% of its former size, a mere 6,800km². This shrinkage decimated the local fishing industry and destroyed the sea's biodiversity and ecology, driving hundreds of species out of the sea forever.
How the Clothing Industry Sells Us So Many Clothes
Obviously, they don’t tell us any of this when they release their “Leap Into Spring 2021” line of pastel-colored dresses and cardigans. What they tell us is that we need these clothes.
The advertisements' design tells us we need these clothes to be sexy, cool, included, find a mate, or do anything we want to do. Instead of promoting features and durability, clothing advertisements feature pictures of people wearing their clothes, demonstrating the quality you want, with the clear intent of making you think their clothes will give you that quality.
It should go without saying that this is tremendously unethical. Anyone with some common sense can tell you that buying stuff can’t make you happy, but clothing manufacturers sell us this lie every day.
They also sell us the lie that we need these clothes to be trendy. According to regular people, there are four seasons, but not for clothing manufacturers. Each “season” brings with it a gamut of around 15 different styles, each to be released successively over the course of the season. This works out to new styles and trends being released once or twice a week. Fashion companies dangle these new clothes in front of us just as often, making us feel frumpy and dated no matter how recently we bought clothes.
Then there are the logos. Logos, which used to be on the tags of clothing and nowhere else, have become a staggeringly powerful status symbol. Research reveals that no matter whether we intend to or not, we tend to be more helpful to strangers wearing brand-name clothes. People wearing luxury clothes are more likely to be considered younger, more ambitious, and sexier. We formed these ridiculous assumptions about brand-name clothes thanks to fashion companies' careful marketing and advertising efforts.
There are also a host of psychological tricks fashion companies use.
- They sell everything in a dozen colors and styles, driving you to find the “perfect” piece.
- They use “loss leaders” to draw you in, pieces which are priced cheaply to draw you in and spend more.
- They inflate and deflate prices according to a schedule, so they can offer you “sales,” which makes you feel like you got “a deal.”
- They email you newsletters about sales when psychologists have found you are most likely to make an impulse purchase.
- They repeatedly send these emails because studies show the more you see something, the more you want to buy something.
- They segment emails and social media ads by the audience, meaning the ads you see are custom-tailored to be the most likely to draw you in.
None of these tactics are news, and every one of these tactics is something any competent marketer or salesman knows — and fashion companies use them all to trick you.
Why The Clothing Industry Works This Way
The overconsumption and destructiveness of the clothing industry can be traced back to the industrial revolution.
I will allow Vicki Robin and Joe Dominguez, authors of Your Money or Your Life, to take it from here.²
Consumerism… is just a twentieth-century invention of our industrial society, created at a time when encouraging people to buy more goods was seen as necessary for continued economic growth.
By the early 1920s, once we were starting to win the Industrial Revolution, a curious wrinkle had emerged. The astounding capacity of machinery to fill human needs had been so successful that economic activity was slowing down. Instinctively knowing they had enough, American workers were asking for a shorter workweek and more leisure to enjoy the fruits of their labors. Two sectors of American society were alarmed at this trend. The moralists, who had internalized the Protestant work ethic, believed that “idle hands do the devil’s work.” Leisure is debasing, they thought, leading at least to sloth, if not to the rest of the seven deadly sins. Industrialists also sounded the alarm. Reduced demand for factory output threatened to halt economic growth. Workers did not seem as instinctively eager to buy new goods and services (like cars, appliances, and entertainment) as they did the old ones (like food, clothing, and shelter).
The alternative to growth, however, was seen not as maturity but as the precursor to the stagnation of civilization and the death of productivity. New markets were needed for the expanding cornucopia of goods that machines could turn out with such speed and precision and for the continued profit of the industrialists. And here’s the stroke of genius: These new markets would consist of the same populace, but the people would be educated to want not only what they needed but also new things that they didn’t need. Enter the concept of “standard of living.” A new art, science, and industry dubbed “marketing” was born to convince Americans that they were working to elevate their standard of living rather than to satisfy basic economic needs. In 1929 Herbert Hoover’s Committee on Recent Economic Changes published a progress report on this new (and very welcome, he believed) strategy:
The survey has proved conclusively what has long been held theoretically to be true, that wants are almost insatiable; that one want satisfied makes way for another. The conclusion is that economically we have a boundless field before us; that there are new wants which will make way endlessly for newer wants, as fast as they are satisfied. . . . Our situation is fortunate, our momentum is remarkable. (Benjamin Kline Hunnicutt, Work Without End: Abandoning Shorter Hours for the Right to Work)
Instead of leisure being simply “relaxed activity,” it was transformed into an opportunity for increased consumption — even consumption of leisure itself (as in travel and vacations). Henry Ford concurred:
Where people work less they buy more . . . business is the exchange of goods. Goods are bought only as they meet needs. Needs are filled only as they are felt. They make themselves felt largely in the leisure hours. (Ibid., 45–46)
The Hoover Commission agreed. Leisure was not, in fact, an excuse to relax. It was a hole to fill up with more wants (which, in turn, required more work to pay for them). Somehow the consumer solution satisfied both the industrial hedonists hell-bent on achieving a material paradise and the puritans who feared that unoccupied leisure would lead to sin. In fact, the new consumerism promoted all the deadly sins (lust, covetousness, gluttony, pride, envy) except perhaps anger and sloth.
Only temporarily subdued by the Depression, consumerism returned with added vigor in the post–World War II era. In 1955 US retailing analyst Victor Lebow observed:
Our enormously productive economy . . . demands that we make consumption our way of life, that we convert the buying and use of goods into rituals, that we seek our spiritual satisfaction, our ego satisfaction, in consumption. . . . We need things consumed, burned up, worn out, replaced, and discarded at an ever-increasing rate. (Victor Lebow in Journal of Retailing)
And thus the rat race was born, leading to our excruciating balancing act between working more to buy luxuries and having enough leisure to enjoy them.
It’s not hard to trace these changes to the modern clothing industry.
What I’m Doing About It
The negative consequences this has on our lives is obvious. Millions of Americans live with closets full of hundreds of articles of clothing and nearly nothing in savings. We simultaneously dress in the latest and greatest clothes the world has to offer, made especially for us at the cost of slavery and economic destruction, and feel a hollow sense of shame and inadequacy that no amount of clothes will ever heal.
I know what this feels like because I lived this reality. In 2015 and 2016, clothes shopping was one of my major hobbies. I spent thousands each year on clothes from malls and department stores. I hoped clothes could transform me from an ugly gender-nonconforming person to an attractive, svelte androgynous beauty at a subconscious level. Every new outfit made me feel better for a little while, but I would always find another vest, another wallet, another pair of shoes that I thought would be the finishing touch.
After a few years of this, I cottoned on to the fact that new clothes were a huge waste of money and an ethical minefield, and I switched to buying pre-owned clothes from thrift and consignment shops. My wallet thanked me, but I was still on the merry-go-round of buying and donating clothes right back where I bought them from. Minimalism didn’t stop me from doing this. It just limited how much I kept on hand at any given time.
In the last few months, what I’ve always known in my head has finally begun to sink into my heart: That clothes are never going to make me okay with myself. There is no perfect jacket that will make other people think it’s okay that I’m androgynous. People are going to think whatever they want, and so will I.
So in 2021, I’m stepping off this merry-go-round. I’m halting the cycle of buying and donating clothes. I’m going to spend 2021 happy with what I have — and be happier with myself in the process.
Benefits of stepping off the clothing merry-go-round include:
- Saving hundreds of dollars per year, money which will be well spent on travel, healthy food, gifts for my loved ones, and prudent savings.
- Saving dozens or hundreds of hours that I would have spent shopping, which I may now spend with friends, exercising, reading, learning Spanish, or wandering excitedly around the library.
- Giving me space to embrace the reality that I look fine just as I am.
- Giving me space to learn how to sew, patch clothes, and otherwise make do with what I have — better for oppressed workers, the environment, and my wallet.
Do I anticipate challenges? Sure. Most people who attempt a clothes shopping ban have hundreds of clothes to tide them over, but I am a minimalist. All my clothes can fit in two trash bags. But some people live out of a backpack’s worth of clothes, and if people can manage with a backpack, I can manage with two trash bags.
There will still be plenty of ways for me to get my grubby little fingers on clothes. I’m a frequent recipient of hand-me-downs from both my brothers. I like to take clothes from my boyfriend that shrunk in the wash and are now too small for him to wear. My best friend also gives me hand-me-downs from time to time, and I swap clothes with another friend of mine who’s the same size.
My favorite thing about doing temporary bans is they really reveal yourself to you. Without being able to lean on clothes shopping instinctively, I’m forced to mindfully attend to my emotional needs and come up with satisfying ways to meet them.
You don’t need to do a 365-day shopping ban to begin to undo the damage of the clothing industry on your life. Even a month-long ban is enough to expose yourself to life without clothes shopping, and I highly encourage you to try it. Just a little bit of learning and healing may save you thousands of dollars and make you a happier person to boot.
Give it a try. Let me know how it goes.
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1: Here in Ohio, where we have hot summers and cold winters, I would guess that figure is much higher. I know many women who have filled up two or more closets with clothes, one for summer and all-season clothes and one for winter clothes.
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