Ever since the fig leaf was replaced by the loin cloth, humans have been obsessed with clothing and fashion. These are now some of the largest and most complex industries in the world!
Clothing and textile industries have profound effects on people and the environment. Today, “fast fashion” refers to the demand for wearing the latest trendy clothing for ever more occasions promoted by advertising gurus. Between 2000 and the present time, consumers have on average bought 60 percent more garments and textile products, but used or kept them half as long!
No doubt, clothing sales are a large part of world commerce, but there are significant negative effects to consider. Some retailers continue to outsource production to places without fair trade practices for worker safety, child labor laws, living wages or environmental controls. Workers die in factory fires and explosions or are sickened by exposures of all kinds. It is estimated that about 43 million tons of toxic chemicals were used last year to turn raw materials into textiles, and some of these chemicals wound up in water, soil and air. Approximately 20 percent of global water pollution stems from the clothing industry. Further, waste fibers of textiles often go straight into waterways and greatly increase the problem of microparticles in the water column and food chain. Heavy metals from the tanning of leather and uses of inks and dyes have left a toxic legacy here and abroad. We cannot blame those countries and say that they have created this mess; as we are now a retail consumer nation that wants the lowest price for goods that we have largely ceased to make here anymore. This is a dynamic that is self-perpetuating without effective leadership and controls around the world and in corporate boardrooms.
Some major retailers have been taking bold steps to address fair trade and environmental issues; at least by offering choices. By checking labels and “weeding out” misleading claims, you the consumer can make wiser choices. The current top two large scale retailers are Target and VF North Face, according to Green America, a watchdog organization and publication. You can find their scorecard with criteria as well as a labeling guide at greenamerica.org. Search out social justice and toxic textiles.
Many of us donate clothing with the best of intentions. Generally this is a good thing, except that some thrift stores do not have a good connection beyond the simple resale of articles of clothing. That may mean that there is not enough connection to the textile fabric recycling industry, which can repurpose much of the unused material on the textile commodity market. In fact, 60 percent of donations may wind up in the landfill, 18 percent in the incinerator, maybe 14 percent into the recycling chain and the rest gets shipped overseas where it may or may not be used. Sending this material to other countries is often welcome, but also may destabilize their own small retail clothing businesses.
I hope that you will study the clothing issue and factor in the environmental and social equity concerns. As always, the three pillars of sustainability apply: people, planet and prosperity. In this case, also the three Rs apply: reduce (limit purchases that are not fully vetted), reuse (trade off, hand down and donate to well-established and connected thrift stores), and recycle (consider used clothing as a resource for rags, reusable bags and other textile needs, and purchase new clothing items that use some recycled content).