Cheap clothes have human, environmental costs

By Karen Lilley,
Commentary

Closet cleaning was a satisfying pandemic project for many. Another project might be to consider where those clothes came from and where they’re going.

Clothing is a $2 trillion global industry

In the U.S., 97 percent of our clothes are produced overseas, mostly in developing countries where some 40 million garment workers—primarily women—earn as little as $2 per day. It is the world’s most labor-intensive industry and the second most polluting (after oil).

Cheap clothes contribute to low wages, unsafe sweatshops, child labor and unhealthy environments. In 2013, more than 1,100 people were killed in the collapse of a garment building in Bangladesh. Overuse of water and dumping of pesticides, fertilizers and toxic dyes used in growing raw materials for cloth and in making clothes are killing land, rivers and people.

Even in America, undocumented garment workers toil in deplorable conditions and fear deportation. For what? At the extreme, “fast fashion” is so cheap it’s disposable. Styles change weekly so shoppers can continuously renew their wardrobes. Some feature their bargains on Instagram and then never wear them.

In the U.S., Americans discard an average of 80 pounds of clothing per person per year. That amounted to 12.8 million tons in 2017, according to the most recent Environmental Protection Agency data. That year, clothing waste was almost double that of 2000 and 10 times that of 1960. Only 13 percent of clothing waste is recycled, although 95 percent could be.

We clearly need to hold the industry responsible for this human and environmental destruction. Patagonia is one brand leading the way with Fair Trade and “wornwear” clothing. But we can all do our parts as individuals, too.

Here are some ways to be a responsible clothing consumer:

Go a year without new clothes. Rethink your closet and get out of the buying habit. Wear the clothes you like best or have just rediscovered. Shopping takes a lot of time as well as money, and both add up.

Repair, recycle or upcycle your wardrobe. If you sew, use that not-shopping-time to refresh and refit what you have. YouTube can demonstrate any technique you need. Or use the money you saved to hire a sewist to remodel or update. Invest in your best pieces to enjoy them longer.

Help create a new standard for clothing—worn, repaired and patched are acceptable. Let your clothes show the wear, like the professor’s elbow patches or frayed cuffs. A little fading or bagging is ok. Comfortable is really OK. Patch a tear with contrasting fabric and boldly stitch with an unexpected color, then repeat the same fabric and thread elsewhere on the garment. Google “visible mending” for ideas.

Use clothing as fabric. I made COVID-19 face masks out of my son’s and husband’s cotton shirts. You can also repurpose adult clothing into kids’ clothes, reusable cloth napkins, or patchwork garments.

Donate clothing you’ll never use so someone else can. Goodwill, for example, could send it to one of their 3,200 thrift stores, by-the-pound outlet stores, bulk auctions or furniture stuffing vendors. They also sell bales of clothing to developing countries, although such imports can both help and hurt economies and cultures.

Buy used clothing, giving you a loophole in your year without new clothes. Save money, extend the life of a new-to-you garment and keep it out of the landfill. Thrift shops have come up in the world lately, with big selections as well as low prices.

Try these pre-worn clothing options. Check online for locations and call to ask about current COVID-19 restrictions. Most sell more than just clothing.

• Goodwill has two retail shops in Roseville and a by-the-pound outlet in Midway, shopgoodwill.com.

• Turn Style, in Roseville and Highland, is a selective upscale consignment shop, turnstyleconsign.com.

• My Thrift Store, at Larpenteur Avenue and Rice Street, also has designer and vintage clothing, mythriftstores.com.

• Arc’s Value Village has several metro-area stores, arcsvaluevillage.org.

• Patagonia is keeping their products out of the landfill. Find seconds, trade-ins, repaired and re-crafted clothing and gear online, patagonia.wornwear.com.

• ThredUp.com claims it’s “the largest online consignment and thrift store.”

If we maximize the life of our clothes, demand quality and pay for it, refuse to overbuy, and pressure the industry to raise standards, we can improve workers’ lives and the environment.


Oct. 13 online discussion

Transition Town program:
The True Cost

Watch first, then discuss this documentary about the clothes we wear, the people who make them, and the impacts of the global fashion industry (2015: https://truecostmovie.com). Stream it on Tubi (free 52-min. version) or Amazon Prime (92 min.).

It’s also available as digital download, DVD, and Blu-ray. Watch the movie on your own, then join a Zoom discussion Oct. 13 at 7 pm. A guest from the University of Minnesota College of Design will participate in the discussion. Contact KLL@umn.edu for session link and other info.


Karen Lilley is still in the no-new-clothes pledge she made a few years ago. At her home in St. Anthony Park, any clothing is fair game for practicing upcycling.

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