Overdressed: The Shockingly High Cost of Cheap Fashion, part 2

I finished reading Elizabeth Cline’s Overdressed. Besides the issues of pricing goods and the use of cheap labor that I talked about in this post, there’s a good discussion of the environmental impact of all these garments.

Americans through away 12.7 Million tons of textiles per year. Wait, read that again. Twelve point seven million tons. That’s 68 pounds per PERSON each year. Of that, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimates that only 1.6M could even be recycled or reused. This is because many of the blended fabrics being used to make clothing are not recyclable because we simply don’t have the technology to separate the fibers back to their original state. So the poly-viscose blend must stay blended, and likewise for the wool-nylon-acetate blend, and so on. Also, many of the fabrics are so thin and cheaply made that they don’t wear well, so re-using them by “refashioning” or “upcycling” the items into different garments isn’t possible because there aren’t enough good pieces to work with. (p.122, 125)

We often think that by taking our unwanted garments to Goodwill or the thrift shop that we are saving them from the landfill and can head to the nearest H&M or Forever 21, Old Navy, WalMart, Target, etc. to fill our closets with the latest trends guilt-free. However, tons (literally!) of these garments languish in the resale shops for a month and then are moved out of the store, sold to salvage brokers who sort them again, determining which will head to the landfills and which will be compacted into huge cubes and shipped off to other countries, often in Africa, where the garments are sold for a few dollars. As this secondary market becomes inundated with cheap clothing from around the world, where will these cast-offs be sent? The Salvation Army on Quincy Street in New York, which serves as a distribution center for 8 Salvation Army locations in Brooklyn and Queens bundles 18 TONS of unsold clothing into 36 bales for the salvage brokers every THREE days. (p. 126)

In addition to the environmental impact at a garment’s end of life cycle, there are pollution and other concerns during production. Front Royal, Virginia, in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains, was home to Avtex Fibers, a factory that at one point was the world’s largest rayon producer. Avtex Fibers manufactured rayon, polyester and polypropylene fibers for almost half a century, beginning in 1940. The EPA put the plant on their Superfund program’s National Priorities List in 1986, and Avtex continued to operate until 1989 when they declared bankruptcy. For the Avtex site alone,

The total cost of Superfund cleanup, demolition and restoration, including FMC’s contribution, is projected to be $150 million.

source: EPA Superfund website

And it’s not only the synthetics and blends that cause environmental damage. Twenty-two billion pounds of weed killer is used in cotton crops annually just in the United States. (Overdressed, p. 125) Many fibers are also bleached, dyed, given special coatings and so on, each with its own run off. While the United States has implemented stricter regulations and also developed technological methods to reduce the environmental impact of creating these items, textile production has largely moved overseas to countries with fewer regulations for both environmental concerns and employee work conditions.

Some US companies do monitor overseas factories with audits and/or prescreening. However, factory managers often know when audits will occur. According to Overdressed, as many as 75% of WalMart audits are announced in advance. (p.148) Other companies, such as Nike, make unannounced visits.

However, there are still instances where the US companies simply do not know where their garments are being produced. This seems absurd – how can they not know where their products are made? Factories that pass the companies’ evaluations will sometimes subcontract work to other factories without the knowledge of the company. These subcontractors often don’t follow the same environmental or labor standards.

People used to look for quality clothing that would last. Garments were mended as needed to make them last longer. Today’s fast fashions come with lesser quality fabrics and speedy sewing designed to get the clothing to market quickly. If the seam pops or the hem comes unstitched in the second wearing, the garment is likely to be discarded without thought – after all, it was cheap, who cares?

Those who can sew likely know the true value of quality clothing. If you sew for yourself, you can create pieces that fit your unique body. You aren’t stuck with the boxy trends pushed by retailers one week and body hugging slinky tops the next. Check out Elizabeth Cline’s book, Overdressed: The Shockingly High Cost of Cheap Fashion, and you’ll find yourself even more inspired to get sewing.

Happy Sewing,

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