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Living for the Long Haul: Should the clothing we buy be considered as we think about sustainable living?

Clothing buying has an impact on sustainability.

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Many of us have had the experience of walking through a store and having a piece of clothing catch our eye.

It would, we imagine, look really good on us, and it’s on sale for a ridiculously low price. Even though we hadn’t intended to buy any clothing, or even really need it, we buy it.

So what’s wrong with that?

Well, actually nothing, and everything.

As a nation our clothing buying has reached the point of a national obsession in the last 20 years. Americans purchase 20% of the 150 billion garments produced worldwide each year. Given the U.S. population is 3.3 million people, it averages out to about 90 new clothing purchases/person/year. On top of that, we also generate 16 million tons of textile waste each year.

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What makes it possible for us to buy all these clothes? In one word: Price.

The fashion industry churns out cheap, poorly made, disposable clothing that is meant to be worn a few times and then thrown away. But how can they make a shirt that sells for $20 or jeans for that sell for $35?

As many of you are aware, the fashion industry contracts with garment factories, in places like Southeast Asia, to produce their clothing. In order to achieve the lowest bid, factories in these countries commonly expose their workers to long work hours, low pay and even to abuse. Working conditions are frequently unsafe.

Some corporations justify their use of these sweatshops, saying that they are providing jobs that pay more than other common labor jobs in these countries. However, studies, in several countries, have shown that this is not true and that sweatshops are more dangerous to people’s health.

These dangerous working conditions were brought to the attention of the world with the Rana Plaza factory collapse in Bangladesh in 2013, where 1,129 workers were killed and more than 2,500 were injured.

Approximately 8,000 chemicals are used in the manufacture of clothing. Many of these chemicals are unsafe for workers. Some clothing dyes contain heavy metals, including mercury and lead. Azo dyes contain aromatic amines that have been associated with cancer.

The extreme irritant, formaldehyde, is used to make clothing wrinkle free. Leather tanning uses a variety of highly toxic chemicals, some of which contain heavy metals such as mercury and lead. Bromated and chlorinated chemicals, which are used to make clothing flame retardant, and perfluorinated chemicals (PFCs) that are used to make clothing waterproof appear to be highly toxic to humans and animals.

Clothing production is also responsible for a significant portion of the consumption of natural resources and for environmental contamination. Clothing manufacture causes approximately 8% of global carbon dioxide emissions each year and about 20% of the world’s production of waste water (the second biggest polluter of water on the planet).

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The production of one pair of jeans has been estimated to use 1,000 gallons of water. Further, clothing production consumes oil to produce synthetic fabrics like polyester, spandex, acrylic and elastane. The production of polyester and other oil-based fabrics, and even the subsequent washing of these fabrics, results in the release of an estimated ½ million tons of plastic microfibers into the ocean and other waterways.

These long-lived microfibers end up distributed throughout the environment. Initially they enter fish and aquatic animals but ultimately work their way up the food chain to us.

So those cheap clothing items we impulsively buy have significant effects on each of us, on worker health and well-being in many parts of the world, and a negative impact on our environment.

If these things concern you, there are things that can be done beyond just reducing the number of clothes we purchase. We will address these approaches in another article.

(References to all factual information quoted can be provided on request and comments and questions are encouraged to weiss005@umn.edu)

Douglas J. Weiss and Barb Mann own Balsam Moon in Pine River, a spiritual place of peace, sustainability and renewal.

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