I grew up in central Illinois with strong German-Lutheran roots. We made jello salads, sat in the same pew every Sunday, and more than anything loved to brag about a good deal. To this day, if I get a good price on something, I will feel compelled to tell you about it the moment you mention the item. Like my shirt? I got it from the clearance rack at Target! This cute bag? $1 at a garage sale! I will beam with pride, and if you are from the Midwest, you will be equal parts jealous and thrilled.
However, lately something has thrown a wrench into my usual good-deal joy. I’ve started to learn about where my clothes come from, who makes them, and the impact they have on the environment.
It all started when I watched The True Cost, an eye-opening documentary (currently available on Netflix) about the human and environmental costs of the garment industry. That opened the floodgates for me. I started researching the industry, which employs 40 million people worldwide. The statistics I found were shocking. Here’s an overview:
The Human Impact
• Most retailers charge about ten times the wholesale price of an item. If Walmart sells you a shirt for $5, they only pay the manufacturer 50¢. That wage gets further divided between factory owners and workers.
• In Bangladesh, the average wage for a garment worker is less than $3 a day.
• Because they cannot make a living wage in the city, many garment workers are forced to leave their children with extended family in the village, seeing them only once or twice a year.
• In the race to make cheaper products, many factories cut or ignore safety measures, resulting in fires and building collapses that claim thousands of lives.
• Efforts to unionize are often met with physical violence. In 2014, a protest by Cambodian workers (who wanted a minimum wage of $160 per month) ended in a government crackdown that killed 4 workers.
• Because their economies depend on producing cheap products, many countries turn a blind eye to child labor, forced labor (human trafficking), and other human rights abuses.
• Industry abuses disproportionally affect women, who make up 80% of the workforce.
The Environmental Impact
• The fashion industry is the #2 most polluting industry in the world, second only to oil.
• Conventional manufacturers create chemical byproducts (like known-carcinogen chromium 6), which pollute local farmland and drinking water.
• Studies conducted in Punjab, India linked the fertilizers and pesticides used in GMO cotton fields to birth defects, mental illness, cancer, and child mortality. Wells in the area tested positive for nitrate toxicity.
• The industry also drains natural resources; it takes 2,700 liters of water just to make one cotton t-shirt.
• With fast-fashion on the rise, textile waste is at an all-time high. In 2014, the EPA recorded that 10.4 million tons of textile waste was landfilled in America. That means that the average American threw away about 80 lbs of clothes that year alone.
• Most textiles are non-biodegradable; they will emit greenhouse gases for 200 years before breaking down.
Of course these issues aren’t limited to the garment industry. As our daily products become cheaper and more processed, their harmful impact on workers and the environment grows.
Now instead of being excited to buy something for a “good price,” I’ve started to wonder why it’s so cheap. As we Midwesterners are fond of saying, nothing in life comes for free, and there’s something just too fishy about a labor-intensive product (which has to be designed, grown, woven, dyed, stitched, transported, and advertised) being so inexpensive.
So I’ve begun to think about “the cost” of my clothes in terms beyond just money. I ask myself, “What cost did the garment worker pay to make this cheap shirt?” and “What did it cost the local environment and those who live in it?” If I can’t justify those costs, I don’t buy the product.
Instead, I look for alternative brands who put people and the planet before profit. Lucky for me, this is a growing sector of the fashion industry, with all different styles and price points. Everlane makes eco-friendly jeans for only $68. Rothys makes high-end-looking shoes out of recycled plastic bottles. ABLE gives women fair-wage, safe work to help them escape generational poverty. And there are countless more innovative brands. You can find my tried-and-true favorites on the Ethical Shopping Guide.
Although I sometimes choose to spend more on ethically-made clothes, there are actually a few ways to spend LESS and still be a conscious consumer. Secondhand shopping is a great way to save clothes from a landfill, while decking yourself out on the cheap. You can also try swapping clothes with a friend or giving worn-out clothes a creative upgrade (see #haulternative for inspiration). Finally, you can simply buy less. Most of us buy more clothes than we need, which encourages us to throw out perfectly good clothes in our search for the latest trend. Instead, try saving up and investing in a really good, classic piece. I guarantee you will wear it more and cherish it longer. Plus, you may actually spend less in the long run.
Even if you don’t make a dramatic wardrobe change, I hope you’ll begin to think twice when you see a price tag that looks too good to be true. Your dollar is your vote for the kind of world you want to live in. I hope you’ll make it count.
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