So, we’ve survived the hustle and bustle of the holiday season. A new year is beginning, resolutions are being made, changes are happening all around, but here at Imago, we’re still focusing on reducing consumerism. We worked on ways to be better consumerisms during the crazy consumer-centric holiday season, but we also want to work on creating better habits so that we can be more responsible consumers for the rest of time. 

One of the things I have struggled most with in terms of reducing my own consumerism is reducing the amount of clothing I buy. I used to buy a lot of clothing from cheaper, fast fashion retailers, but while I’ve transitioned away from buying from those stores, I still find myself buying stuff from Goodwill or lusting after a piece from one of those expensive, sustainably made brands that have popped up in the past few years. So, I totally understand how difficult it can be to stop buying stuff, especially something we use every day like clothing. Unfortunately, there are a lot of hidden costs in the clothing industry. We’re hoping that this blog will provide some good info to help us all learn more about the real cost of buying clothes and we’ll provide some resources at the end (so if you start feeling overwhelmed, fear not).

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The Cost of Clothing Production 

Some quick facts from the UN

Today, the fashion industry has moved from having two “seasons” a year (spring/summer and winter/fall) to having ~50-100 “microseasons” annually. A report from the UN states: “not only is the average person buying 60 per cent more items of clothing than they did 15 years ago but, according to the McKinsey 2019 State of Fashion report, they are only keeping them as half as long as they used to.”

“Not only is the average person buying 60 per cent more items of clothing than they did 15 years ago but…they are only keeping them as half as long as they used to.”

We are constantly bombarded with ads for the newest styles or Instagram posts of beautiful people wearing a new outfit every day. We are made to think that if we aren’t constantly changing our style, we will look out of place. The environmental consequences of those 50-100 microseasons are huge. The earth shouldn’t be paying so dearly for us to spend $2 on a t-shirt we’ll wear three times before we throw it away. 

The Cost of Excess Clothing Production

The EPA estimates that 12.8 million tons of clothing/footwear were produced in 2017. That’s double the amount of clothing than was produced in 2000 and nearly 100 percent more than was produced in 1960.

Clearly, the fashion industry is producing a lot of clothing each year. The EPA estimates that 12.8 million tons of clothing/footwear were produced in 2017. That’s 6.3 million tons more of clothing than was produced in 2000 and 11.5 million more tons produced in 1960. That’s a lot more tons of clothing necessary than there are people to clothe, so what happens to the excess? You might remember hearing about luxury brand Burberry burning millions of dollars worth of bags, clothing, and perfume in order to prevent the items from being donated or sold cheaply, wanting to keep their brand “exclusive.” Burberry and luxury brands like it are not the only fashion retailers doing this, though. It was revealed that fast-fashion brand H&M destroys unpurchased items in a similar manner, as does Nike, Eddie Bauer, and Victoria’s Secret. Since retailers are under no obligation to disclose information about destroying unsold products, we have no way of knowing how widespread this practice is. Yikes! 

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The Cost of Donating

Only about a third of the tons of clothing donated to thrift stores is actually sold in those thrift stores.

I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but, unfortunately, on average, only about a third of the tons and tons of clothing donated to thrift stores is actually sold at those thrift stores.

What sorting looks like at a Goodwill donation center. (Source: The Huffington Post)

According to the Huffington Post, the Goodwills in New York/New Jersey alone received more than 85.7 million pounds of textile donations in 2018. New York/New Jersey is only one of 164 regional Goodwill organizations throughout the US and Canada and only one of countless other thrift store/donation-centric organizations. Donations come not only from individuals dropping off their unwanted goods, but also from clothing manufacturers and retail stores who have produced too much product. So, saying these donation centers have a lot to process is an understatement. To keep things simple, once things are donated, workers sort through items to make sure they are sellable (i.e. not wet, covered in mold, full of holes, etc.). That which is sellable is sent to a store, that which is not sellable is thrown away. At Goodwill, if an item isn’t sold within 4 weeks, it is pulled from the floor and sent to a Goodwill outlet where clothes are sold (very cheaply) by the pound. Items not sold there, are sorted and baled and sold very cheaply to textile recycling companies or importers overseas, generally to countries with developing economies. 

Hidden Cost: Textile Recycling

“Thirty percent of the materials (donated clothes) are made into wiping clothes…about 20 percent…are converted into fibers that are then made into a variety of other products… nearly half the donated clothes — about 45 percent — are exported.”

So, what do those textile recycling companies do with the clothes? According to an NPR story: Jackie King, the executive director of Secondary Materials and Recycled Textiles (SMART), a trade association for textile recyclers, says: “thirty percent of the materials are made into wiping cloths that are used in commercial and industrial use. About 20 percent of the donated clothes and textiles are converted into fibers that are then made into a variety of other products, including carpet padding, insulation for autos and homes, and pillow stuffing. King says nearly half the donated clothes — about 45 percent — are exported.”

So only half of the clothes that are sent to be recycled are actually recycled. And while it’s good that the recycled clothing is recycled into rags or insulation or what not, “those rags will still find their way to the landfill after a few uses; insulation will be thrown in the dumpster when it’s torn out of a wall or old car. Everything is broken down further and further until it eventually reaches the landfill.” In addition, the clothing made by those fast fashion retailers is mostly made of synthetic polyesters, a non-biodegradable fiber that is lower quality, thus making lower quality rags and insulation that will be thrown away more quickly.

Hidden Cost: Overseas Clothing Markets

“Roughly 700,000 tons of used clothing gets sent to other countries annually.”

According to Green America, “roughly 700,000 tons of used clothing gets sent to other countries annually.” While the used clothing has helped to create clothing markets and led to jobs for some, it has devastated local clothing industries and led to heavy reliance on the West. Many countries in East Africa have proposed banning all imported used clothing so they have the chance to foster their own clothing industries.

So, if you’ve ever donated a shirt to a thrift store, it is highly likely that it ended up abroad. (If you want to learn more about this issue, I suggest checking out Dead White Man’s Clothes. It’s an organization run by two DAAP graduates who have been observing and researching “how the ‘used’ clothing trade functions and to better understand the environmental, social and economic implications of this industry in Ghana.”)

Hidden Cost: Landfills

The EPA estimates that in 2017, the amount of clothing and footwear actually recycled was 1.7 millions tons (a 13.6% recycling rate) while 8.9 million tons of clothing and footwear was thrown in a landfill.

The average American throws away about 81 pounds of clothing every year.

The EPA estimates that in 2017, the amount of clothing and footwear actually recycled was 1.7 millions tons (a 13.6% recycling rate) while 8.9 million tons of clothing and footwear was thrown in a landfill. Rubber, leather, and textiles make up more than 9 percent of municipal solid waste in the U.S. according to EPA estimates. That means the average American throws away about 81 pounds of clothing every year. 

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How to be a more responsible clothing consumer

Obviously, this information can be depressing and overwhelming. However, there are plenty of ways we can continue to buy clothes, but do it in a more conscious, sustainable manner. Keep in mind the phrase: Reduce, repair, reuse, recycle. Recycle is at the end of that list because there are so many other things you can do before you actually have to consider how to recycle an item. That being said, here are some options:

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Reduce (how to be okay with owning less clothes)

Consider a Capsule Wardrobe

The 30 Wears Campaign

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Repair (Something’s got a hole in it? Try to fix it before tossing it!)

Five Basic Hand Stitches You Should Know for Repairing Your Own Clothes

How to Mend Rips in Clothes

How to Repair a Hole in a T-Shirt

30 Sewing Hacks to Save Your Clothes

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Reuse (there are plenty of ways to upcycle clothes into something new)

7 Creative Ways to Upcycle Your Old Clothes

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Recycle (but do it responsibly)

  • If you choose to donate, try to find a person or organization you know will actually use your item.
  • Consider selling your items on apps like Depop or thredUp. These sites are basically online thrift stores, but you’re selling your item directly to a real person who actually wants to use your old clothing rather than to a thrift store that might end up sending it to a landfill or overseas.  
  • Unfortunately, finding a non-shady resource for recycling textiles was pretty difficult. I would suggest continuing to donate to charities like Goodwill or Salvation Army, but make sure your donated goods are clean and sellable. 
  • Terracyle will recycle clothes, but it is pretty pricey.

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Absolutely have to have something new? Here are some options.

Rent it!

  • Rent the Runway is a site where you can rent anything from earrings to t-shirts to ball gowns. Wear it for a week, sen it back and let someone else give it a try.

Host a Clothing Swap! 

Evaluate the Retailers

  • Good on You has a database that rates many popular brands and clothing retailers on their environmental, social, and ethical standards so you can know more about who you’re buying from.

I found this topic to be pretty eye-opening and informative and there was tons of stuff I learned that I couldn’t fit into this post. I’ve added a few other articles about this topic to the “Articles” section of the Curbing Consumerism Hub, be sure to check them out and share the info with others who you think might be interested in going on this curbing consumerism journey with us!