Your Clothes Affect The Planet

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Clothing. One of the basic human necessities, after shelter and food. We need to dress ourselves to protect from the elements and to look suitable for significant events in our short lifetime. We cannot be without clothes.

But an average person of modern times doesn’t know how much clothes is enough for oneself. The capitalism-driven world we live in enables us to buy, wear then discard as many clothes we can afford.

Malls filled to the brim with always new items. Add to the sheer convenience of online shopping with Amazon at the head. And we have the overabundance of textiles that will most likely end up in landfill.

No matter what your style and taste in fashion, remember nature before you buy, use and dispose your items. The way you dress affects the planet. To put things into perspective, here are some thought-provoking facts about the modern man’s clothing consumption:

  • The average Westerner bins 70 to of clothing per year. Only 15% get recycled. The rest go to landfills or incinerators. Worse, it costs cities $45 per ton.

  • On average, we buy three-fifths more clothes yearly but only keep them for half as long as we or our parents did decades ago.  

  • On the flipside, the secondhand clothing industry is booming. Some sell or donate their clothes to shops or charities as they make room for new ones. In particular, more than 70 percent of the world’s population wear secondhand clothing.

  • For recycled textiles, 50 percent of are secondhand shoes and clothing. 20 percent goes to the production process of polishing and cleaning cloths for various industrial purposes. Then near thirty percent create fiber for insulation products, upholstery, fiberboard, and mattresses.  

Before Fast Fashion

Before the 19th century, fashion belonged to nobility. Kings, queens, princesses, princes and the rest of the aristocratic class used it as a way to show off their position and wealth. In fact, the French King Louis XIV imposed a strict fashion code for all his courtiers, designed to keep them in the Palace of Versailles where beauty and elegance reigned supreme.

With attires so elegant and exquisite that cost a years’ worth of labor, it caused dissenting nobles to quit grappling for power. On the other hand, peasants wore roughspun wool and other relatively cheap fabrics to protect their modesty and bodies from the elements.

Toward the late 19th and earliest 20th century, merchants took advantage of the burgeoning middle class to entice them to order clothing to be made in the latest fashions. Then people, who could sew, would adapt these clothing to their own tastes and styles.

The Industrialization led to the rise of the ready-to-wear clothing industry. Men’s clothing was the first to be produced for commercial distribution. And manufacturers modeled women’s wear after the men’s. The standard sizing model we know today (Small, Medium, Large and so on) came in the 1940s.

This was problematic because the measurements were based off just over ten thousand people who were not statistically representative of the population. Given that they were mostly white and do not have the average body builds of their time.

Fast fashion, which began in the 1980s, was largely an innovation of globalization. Globalized markets and labor resources enabled retailers and clothing companies to create clothes and other fabric-based products quickly. They could easily profit from more trend cycles such in the case of a typical H&M store where they deliver new clothes and showcase in stores triweekly.

Even if fast fashion enabled people to enjoy the way they dress, the way this industry works provides grave implications for our environment. The way we interact with fast fashion affects the way we think of nature. 

What’s Wrong with “Fast Fashion”?

Fast fashion, for all the conveniences it provides for the modern age, works under problematic processes from production to disposal of products.

  1. New clothes with low quality – In order to create clothes at a grand scale for retailers worldwide, companies are churning out with cheaper and poorer quality materials. These clothes fall apart with a few uses and become outdated easily with the arrival of new trends almost weekly. This spirals into a cycle of consumption and quick disposal. 

2. Exhaustive and wasteful production using damaging materials – Clothing companies use toxic chemicals in their production. Even usual fabrics like cotton suffer from dangerous pesticide. Many clothes contain cotton, the production of which involves a large volume of pesticides.

The carbon footprint and water footprint of the fast fashion industry is also alarming. For example, it takes about 10,000 litres of water to grow enough cotton for one pair of jeans. Synthetic fibers are made from burning fossil fuels – oils, petroleum and coal. 

3. Social injustices and exploitation – Fast fashion, along with globalization, built itself upon the process of exploiting resources from Third World and developing countries such as Bangladesh, China, Cambodia and India. From production of natural fibers such as cotton, the process is problematic. Farmers are paid barely a pittance of their hard work and exposed to toxic pesticides.

Then the fabrics are sent to factories where often underage and vulnerable women and children work ungodly hours a day in unsafe conditions – only to earn less than twenty bucks a month from retail companies who earn billions from the clothes they sew.

Their workplaces are often unsafe, akin to sweatshops, wherein many have been the graves of poor workers. Case in point: the tragedy of the 2013 collapse of the Rana Plaza factory which killed 1100 people who made Primark items.

waste of clothes
Image by Inhabitat

4. Environmental degradation – The fashion industry is the second most active polluter after the oil industry. Aside from the wasteful production process, disposing clothing is also a nightmare that we might not even have thought of when we browse for new clothes.

Landfills claim 85% of the wearable textiles and 99% of non-wearable ones, such as shoes and towels. Textile waste act like food waste – emitting methane and other chemicals that degrades the soil and the atmosphere. Worse, clothes contain plastics that do not even biodegrade at all.

Do you feel good about recycling and donating old clothes? Think again. Based from the latest study by the Council for Textile Recycling, just 20% of donated clothes are sold on by charity shops such as Goodwill.

The clothing that isn’t bought ends up going to textile recyclers. These recyclers either sell it in bulk as shredded rags for industrial use, or ship it off to developing countries such as Uganda and Kenya.

These countries are also slowly imposing import tariffs and bans on secondhand clothes from overseas because their own textile industry has suffered from the presence of cheap imported clothes. There is never an easy way out for textile waste.

All these controversial aspects of the fast fashion industry, consumers are starting to think of buying clothes in a sustainable manner. They look to retail companies and brands that claim to produce clothes in a green way. However, if you don’t look underneath the underneath, you will fall victim to greenwashing.

Greenwashing – No, thank you!

Going green is a significant growing trend with companies today. They use “green marketing”, the selling of products and/or services based on their environmental benefits. These benefits are mainly based on the products made in sustainable fashion, free from toxic materials, excessive packaging and mostly made with ethical standards. This is mainly part of the brand’s social responsibility program.

Aside from cost-cutting measures, green marketing is often used to entice customers who are willing to pay extra for products and services from companies committed to positive social and environmental impact. Many are already aware of environmental impacts of modern lifestyle. They take active steps by using their wallets to speak for their advocacy. So it’s maddening that companies practice green washing.

Green washing, as a marketing trick, is unfair to consumers. It presents a product or service as green when it’s not. It deceives people who buy with the intention of being sustainable. Most companies who have been caught greenwashing, especially by Canadian watchdog CBC Marketplace, suffered backlash from their customers.

The top culprit of greenwashing in the fast fashion industry is H&M. This company engineered 52 micro-seasons that make you feel completely out of fashion the moment after you wear something. Their latest marketing shtick? Taking back your old textiles and will give you a coupon to buy more clothes. Clever, huh? Not so fast.

After H&M made an ad that shows them making new clothes out of donated ones, investigators and industry experts actually found that they could only recycle 1% of clothing donated. They sell the rest to Africa which damages their local textile industry.

So you can’t trust brands to be as sustainable as you need them to be. Well, do not fret. Do not give up. You still have the power to change the way your fashion sense affects our planet.

How to Change Your Lifestyle to reduce clothing waste

1. Do a spending ban on your clothing budget. Instead of the mall, shop in your closet. Given the large volume of clothes an average person shops every year, it is possible that many of these have not been worn for ages or have simply been forgotten in the corner of your drawers.

Take a look at your closet and find things to wear in different outfits and styles without even thinking about the mall. Use what you have already. Get creative with your clothes and you’ll find that you don’t need to go to the mall right away.

2. Give away clothes. – Giving is more rewarding than receiving. Not only do you declutter your space, you give others the chance to enjoy the things you once loved.

Instead of tossing unwanted clothes to the bin, gift them to someone who you feel can appreciate them best. Donate to charities, shelters, and directly to the homeless. If you are hesitant about approaching strangers, take your once beloved shirts, pants, skirts, jackets, and more to your friends, family, and neighbors. Even in this little way, you will be able to improve their lives.

3. Upcycle your clothing – Search through Pinterest, Instagram or YouTube and you’ll find dozens of designs and guides for DIY projects. There’s always a new way to use your clothes, not just as cleaning rags!

4. Do a clothes swap. – As a money saver, you can raid your friends’ closets and they yours for the exchange of clothes. You might be surprised that they could think of another outfit combination for your clothes. And you’ll also find yourself some treasures in others’ items. This way, you can also have a deeper bond with your friends – understanding how you dress.

You save your wallet from the urge of retail therapy and save Nature from the dangers of textile waste degradation. If you can dare, you can also browse clothes swap or clothing exchange sites to experience swapping with other people.

There are many other ways to care about the issue of textile waste pollution. Ask advice and share this with my friends and people in your community. Browse the web for ideas from news sites to blogs. Get involved in eco-friendly efforts such as auctions for charity and NGOs.

Whatever you do, always remember that you can control your fashion sense. You must be aware of how you use clothing. If necessary, change your lifestyle to be less wasteful. The way you dress affects the planet.

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