The cheap clothing industry has exploded, but so has the waste problem. If quality clothes last longer and waste less, our clothes should be more expensive.
Yesterday’s post covered why clothes should be more expensive when it comes to the environmental and social costs of producing them. However, the impact doesn’t end once we’re done with them. What happens when we’re done with our clothes, and how can we make the cycle better – for us, and for the world?
Once we’re done with our clothes, often before they’re even worn out (since they’re so cheap it doesn’t matter), what can we do with them? The virtuous choice seems to be donation, because we love to help “the less fortunate,” especially when doing so also relieves us of a liability. Unfortunately, our cast-offs often become someone else’s burden, too. Buying more means throwing more away, and American resale shops and charities are overflowing with more than they could ever resell or give away. Most of the time, our used clothing is shipped overseas where it’s sold even more cheaply, possibly destroying the livelihoods of the people who used to make that country’s clothes. That which can’t be worn again may be recycled into industrial rags, rewoven into blankets, or deconstructed to make housing insulation. And if it’s not donated, there’s a good chance that it’ll be carted to a landfill.
So what can we do, especially if we can’t simply shop our way to sustainability?
The best answer, like for so many problems, is to go local. We all know about “food miles,” the distance the ingredients in our meals travels from farm to plate, but in a globalized economy, this is true of almost everything, including our clothing. Instead of buying a Bangladeshi sweatshop T-shirt (which we then put on a slow boat to China as a “donation” months later), try sourcing clothing as locally as possible. Paying American wages, for example, is a good reason why our clothes should be more expensive. If it becomes possible, we should one day consider regional differences to be a virtue. Do you live in a cotton-growing region, or an area where cold winters require wool? If there’s enough demand, perhaps entrepreneurs will satisfy our desire for regional fibers as they have for varietal chocolates and coffee.
Regional disposal options are also a possibility, especially if we, as consumers, are willing to pay a premium for locally sourced products. One person’s discards should be, after all, the next person’s resources. The following video tells the story of how our throwaways flow through the hands of (mostly) Indian women to become useful blankets. Why aren’t we doing this here, in our communities for our communities? We used to. A letter to the editor in an early 2012 issue of Spin-Off (a magazine for handspinners) waxed nostalgic about one reader’s hometown in 1940s Canada. In the springtime, her community would collect folks’ worn-out woolens and send them to a Canadian mill to be reprocessed into blankets that would arrive in time for winter. Of course, this was before cheap globalized labor, and before both community and household recycling became unfashionable. If price is a factor, well, that’s why our clothes should be more expensive.
Unravel, created by Aeon Video.
Another stab at a solution is the possibility of leasing clothes. For example, Mud Jeans is offering a kind of clothing rental service. For a monthly fee, customers can wear a pair of Mud Jeans. When the jeans are old and busted, they can be sent back to the company for recycling.
The other best option is the truly conservative one: buy better, buy less, as Vivienne Westwood suggests. Of course, this also works for many household items as well. Buying higher quality and eco friendly items can have a huge impact in the long run. This may seem elitist, because it’s very hard for those who make low wages to afford better clothing. There is no easy, quick fix to systemic problems, and the same system that makes cheap, disposable clothing also creates a cheap, disposable labor force. Those who find their budgets more suited to the used clothing market depend on those stores filling up with sturdy, quality clothing, in the same way that Dumpster-diving Freegans depend upon a robust industrial economy existing to fill those Dumpsters with unspoiled food. Perhaps creating a circular economy where even the poorest of us are paid sufficiently to live up to Adam Smith’s rules of decency is the very best reason why our clothes should be more expensive.