When I said I was writing a piece on fashion, my sisters laughed and my girlfriend rolled her eyes. No one takes fashion advice from me. I’m no authority on fashion but I do know about plastic waste, and the two are tightly woven together. Our insatiable consumption of fashion is responsible for mountains of non-biodegradable garbage, tiny plastic fibers in our oceans and cruel work conditions. My advice? If you’re concerned about plastic waste and human rights, take a careful look at your clothes.
Most things we buy rise in price over time but not clothes. Twenty dollars buys more clothes today than it did in 2000. We buy twice as many clothes now as we did thirty years ago, but wear them only half as long. We wear clothing on average only seven times before it’s thrown away or relegated to a dark corner of our bulging closet for long-term storage.
There are two reasons why clothes are cheap: cheap labor and cheap materials. Labor prices plunged once trade barriers eased and clothing manufacturers moved factories to developing countries. In 1965, 95% of clothes sold in America were made in America. Today only 2% of our clothes are made here. Chances are your clothes were made in Vietnam, Bangladesh, China or some other low-wage, skimpily-regulated country. Because our clothes are manufactured far from home, consumers are often unaware of the conditions they are made under.
Garment workers toil long hours in unsafe conditions for poverty wages. Some workers are children. Stories of sweatshop conditions and human rights violations are rife. Here are two of many incidents. In 2013 Rana Plaza, a poorly constructed building housing clothing factories in Bangladesh, collapsed. Managers knew the building was unstable after cracks developed, yet garment workers were ordered to remain at their sewing machines. One thousand one hundred thirty-four people perished when the building fell in on them, and another 2500 were injured. Today in the Xinjiang Region of China, Muslim minority Uighurs are sent to internment camps and “re-educated” to cleanse them of their religion, culture and non-Chinese thoughts. Some are then forced into factory jobs that produce goods for Gap, Adidas and other western brands. Low wages result in low prices for clothing, but the human cost for garment workers is dear.
The materials our clothes are made of has shifted from natural fibers like cotton, linen and wool, to less expensive petroleum-based materials like polyester, nylon and acrylic. Synthetic fabrics, like other plastics, do not biodegrade. Like other plastics, synthetic clothing persists in landfills and the environment once they’re thrown away, and we are throwing away more clothing than ever before. In 2000, Americans generated 9480 thousand tons of textile garbage. By 2015, America threw away16,030 thousand tons of textile garbage, enough to account for 6.1% of landfilled waste.
Sending textile waste to landfills is better than having it end up in the ocean. However, scientists realized recently that microfibers from clothing make their way to the ocean from our washing machines. All clothing, both natural and synthetic, shed tiny fibers, especially when washed. Natural fibers biodegrade, but like the clothing it comes from, the synthetic fibers persist. We haven’t figured out how to stop these fibers from flowing into the ocean yet.
Well that probably took some fun out of shopping for clothes. Look for BlueTube’s next post on fashion. It highlights companies and trends that keep the fun in fashion while making it more sustainable too.
Finally, while there’s no way to get microfibers out of the ocean, it’s easy to get larger chunks of plastic out of the ocean when they have washed ashore. Grab a clean, used plastic bag from the BlueTube on your shore, pick up plastic debris then throw it away. Reuse your plastic bags by adding them to a BlueTube so others can keep beaches clean and keep plastic out of the ocean too. Buy a BlueTube for your beach and keep it free of plastic waste.