The Hidden Cost of Cheap Clothing

As I write this, I am wearing another woman’s pants. I’m wearing a second woman’s shirt. This isn’t some Fergus Brown-style fantasy but an effort to reduce my waste footprint while still trying to look stylish.

Some of you probably find it a bit creepy to consider wearing someone else’s clothes. As my germaphobic workmate once put it: “You can’t trust clothes in a thrift store – someone could have died in them.” My answer to that is: So what?

I have been wearing second-hand clothes for as long as I can remember. As part of a working class family back in Australia, where clothes have always been expensive, my parents would rely on hand-me-downs from family members and friends, or buy from thrift stores and seconds retailers. What began as a fiscal necessity turned into a way of life that is green, cheap and – I gotta say – usually rather well-dressed.

Vintage Threads are Better for the Planet

Think back over the past year and tell me: How many stained t-shirts did you throw out? How many ill-fitting pairs of jeans? Honestly, how many bad-decision shoes? You remember maybe three or four, right – but what about the last time you moved house? The truth is, the average American throws out a whopping 65lb of textiles each year. That’s more than twice the average airline carry-on bag weight limit and almost exactly how many extra pounds the average obese American is carrying.

The Environmental Protection Agency says textiles make up 9 per cent of municipal waste because only 35 per cent of them are recycled (compared with 72 per cent of newspapers). And when they are thrown out, their robustness becomes a liability.

Planet Aid spokeswoman Kelly Jamieson told USA Today that clothes clogged landfills because they don’t decompose.

“We’re very privileged people. We throw away things many other people never would,” Jamieson said.

Say No to the Dress

Even if you’re throwing your unwanted clothes in one of the charity donation bins around town, you’re still not off the hook. In Elizabeth L. Cline’s book Overdressed: The Shockingly High Cost of Cheap Fashion, she goes behind the scenes at the Salvation Army’s thrift store operation and finds that clothes have just one month to sell in stores. After that, they’re compacted into half-tonne blocks and sent to textile recyclers who pull out items worth selling overseas and turn the rest into rags. One Brooklyn Salvation Army factory completes an 18-ton 36-bale wall of unwanted clothing every three days.

The BBC followed six unwanted items in an eye-opening investigation into what happens with our unwanted clothes.

Most Americans are thoroughly convinced there is another person in their direct vicinity who truly needs and wants our unwanted clothes. This couldn’t be further from the truth,” Cline says.

The Atlantic found Americans now buy five times as much clothing as we did in 1980.

Why do we have so many clothes? The answer, ironically, is that we don’t spend enough on them. I can get a T-shirt at the discount store at the end of my street for just $2. It confounds me how a manufacturer could source enough cotton for that price – let alone the cost of weaving, dyeing, cutting, sewing, finishing, packing, shipping and stocking the end product. When the outlay is just $2, it’s tempting just to throw out your soiled or torn shirt and replace it – and that means more waste, more Co2 and more incentive for ultra-cheap clothing companies to maintain their “criminally abusive” sweatshop practices.

The answer might be as simple as the four R’s: Reduce, Reuse, Recycle and Refuse. Spend more money on one item you know you’re going to love and let that midriff sweater get snapped up by someone whose navel never gets cold. If you can barely walk around the store in those heels, chances are you’re not going to wear them out more than once. And fellas, seriously, we know you’re a fan of nerdy things – you don’t need 100 T-shirts sporting obscure Star Trek jokes to convince us.

This motivational poster sums up my argument perfectly. When we throw things away, there is no away.


This post was originally written for the Sciengage environmental science blog, In Season.


2 thoughts on “The Hidden Cost of Cheap Clothing

  1. Iris Murillo says:

    I love this article and it truly resonates with me. Many of my best outfits are second-hand. Who doesn’t like discovering such a great bargain? Thanks for sharing.

    Wishing you and Joe a most wonderful 2016,
    Iris ☺

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