The Miracle of Modern Clothing

I started thinking about the unsustainability of my shopping habits in my mid 20s.  I knew that I shopped too much, leaned too hard on the excitement of new clothes.  It seemed effective, though, and I have always loved clothes, so it was a hard habit to shift.  At the time, I was working to eat healthier, eliminate toxins from my beauty routine and be healthier in most areas of my life, but I was stumped by my closet.  At my grocery store, I could trace the origins of many foods, but what about my clothes?  I worried most about labor: unsafe factories who knew where, and children chained to sewing machines.  I worried also about chemicals in the fabric dyes, and what were all of those new fibers that I had never heard of listed on the tags?

I can't lie, I was a true advocate of the power of retail therapy to recover from frustrations.  Why get a therapist when you can buy some fantastic boots for the same price, and feel great at the same time?  Right?  Of course, the answer is not exactly.  I still believe in the healing power of an occasional splurge, but what I started to notice was the pile of garments in my closet.  Where did they actually come from?  Why were some items deemed worthy of much higher prices than others?  Why did I need them desperately enough to derail my budget, and then feel fine getting rid of them sometimes only a short time later?  Did  name brand actually matter?

Strangely, what has had the most measurable impact on my apparel consumption since then has been the dawning realization that fashion and the global quest for petroleum are completely intertwined.  And while I've learned to make peace with oil paying our household bills, I remain uncomfortable with the veil of cultural silence around the high costs of textile waste and other fast-fashion addictions.  The price of a barrel of oil is not just tied to our gas tank and our 401k; it is linked to the cost of our clothing, and it's time to be held accountable for that.

It was very hard to find answers to these questions; I am still on my quest. In the very short term, the thing to consider is this:  when you buy a twelve dollar tee shirt, how could it possibly be that cheap?  Think of the steps: grow the cotton, clean and sort it, spin it into yarn, knit the yarn on special machines, dye the cloth, design the shirt, cut the pieces from the fabric, sew the shirt, make sure the shirt fits your target market, mass produce the shirt, add tags and packaging, and ship the tee shirt to the country of the store where it will be sold.

It's even more wild to consider the inexpensive polyester garment.  One thing that I've learned about oil over the last few years is that making it come out of the ground requires madness.  Hundreds of thousands of people (and their loved ones) are affected.  The workers drive, fly and boat to rigs.  They work in boiling hot and freezing cold conditions, with all manor of toxic materials and explosives, and the rigs operate twenty-four hours a day.  They work in countries all over the world, regardless of the political situation.  They work like that because we demand petroleum to make our cars run, our clothes fit, and our food taste the way we want, all at a price that we find palatable.  And we demand it with less and less patience.

Another very real problem with cheap apparel is that it falls apart quickly.  It is frequently referred to as disposable fashion.  People wear that shirt or dress a few times, and it begins to pill, unravel, shrink, or discolor, sometimes in just a few wearings.  Workers across the globe just performed a long string of tasks, several of which required endurance of physically demanding and sketchy working conditions, so a woman could wear a dress to the beach a few times and then throw it away.  Oil that required millions of years to form, was extracted and used for a product with a lifespan of weeks.  Disposable fashion is essentially an extreme form of living on a global credit card.

I have always derived great pleasure from beautiful clothes; I doubt that will ever change.  But can't we just have a slightly smaller collection of garments in our closet that we keep at least for a slightly longer time?  Fewer purchases make room for purchases of slightly higher value; we can afford clothes made of materials that don't make us sick, and we can afford to pay workers enough money, if we are willing to buy fewer items at a higher value each.  Can't we afford to ensure that we wear things that don't cause illness and discomfort to others?

I'm hopeful that it's only a matter of time before a public starting to ask questions about the origins of the beef and the farmer who grew the potatoes, will also ask questions about the the farm, the oil rig, and the factory used to produce the clothes on their backs.