Clothing: Investment or Landfill?

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Sustainability is a word we’ve heard a lot of lately, especially as it pertains to manufactured products. But what exactly does it mean and how does it relate to the clothing industry?

In general terms, sustainability is the endurance of systems and processes. These include four interconnected domains: ecology, economics, politics, and culture. That definition explains why so many of the companies that tout sustainability have different goals.

You don’t necessarily have to pay more for their products. Some of the products I looked at were very reasonably priced. Google “sustainable clothing companies” or “fair trade clothing” and you’ll get a whole list of companies that sell everything from clothing to shoes to purses at all price points and in all sizes.

If environmental sustainability is important to you, check a company’s manufacturing processes. Do they use eco-friendly dyes? How much water do they need to produce their fabrics? Do they use cottons and silks grown with pesticides? Are forests used to make the fiber managed responsibly?

Eileen Fisher uses trees from “responsibly managed forests” to make Tencel, a fabric known for its soft hand. That means they come from legal harvests, not ancient or endangered forests. They also use organic cotton from Peru and organic linen from France, and there are detailed descriptions and videos on their website explaining their policies. Eileen Fisher products are more expensive than most clothing we buy but I believe in investing in your wardrobe. I’d rather buy two or three sustainable, classic items to add to my wardrobe every year than buy clothing that is both ill-fitting and cheap and also contributes to water pollution and poverty.

The next time you buy a pair of jeans, think about this: indigo dye is polluting rivers all over the world, from Europe to China and India, where they make cheap jeans for the masses. It’s so bad in China and India that some rivers have turned blue from the dyes.

Levi Strauss has copious amounts of information on its sustainability policies. From eliminating hazardous chemicals to educating and feeding its employees, the website has a well-documented history of the 140+ year-old company. It is also concerned with sustaining the local environments of its factories. Jeans are always a good investment: they last a long time and are very durable. They’re not likely to end up in a landfill.

The news is full of articles about unsafe factories around the world, dangerous chemicals, and poverty-inducing wages so we can have cheap and fashionable garments. Clothing sales have increased 400% over the last decade because of affordability. But at what cost? If workers in other countries live in poverty and are unable to afford the basics in life, what is the true cost of our cheap clothing? We also have increased waste piling up in our landfills. According to the movie The True Cost, a documentary on the fashion industry by Andrew Morgan, every American throws away about 82 pounds of textiles every year. No wonder our landfills and oceans are overrun with trash and microfibers invade our eco-system.

In the US, we have unions that have fought for over a century for clean and safe working environments, livable wages, and benefits. Recently, there have been riots in Bangladesh and Cambodia, where workers protested unsafe factory conditions, low wages, and a lack of benefits. Many times, these workers are met with a violent push back from factory owners and local law enforcement.

Factories around the world are catching on fire and even collapsing because of unsafe working conditions. There are stories of workers locked in rooms with terrible lighting, no air conditioning, and little water. And if the worker stays home because of illness, they do not get paid.

If you are interested in having American-made goods which are not made in prisons…and you have the budget… Brooks Brothers has had actual factories in America since 1818. They tout the finest fabrics from around the world, which are made into basic shirts, blouses, pants, skirts and suits of classic styling.

I mention prison labor because many products “Made in the USA” are made in prisons and depending on how you feel about our for-profit prison system, you may want to do a little research before you buy. Check out Wikipedia for more information on this subject.

One of my favorite shoe companies is Tom’s. For every pair of shoes sold, another pair is given to an impoverished child. The shoes are eco-friendly and vegan, although leather is used in some products. They also research sustainable communities for their factories.

Click on the links I’ve provided or google “unsafe working conditions around the world” if you would like to know more.

And the next time you shop, check the label to see where it was made and ask yourself: is this cheap piece of clothing that will probably end up in a landfill or the ocean in six months really worth the cost?

Barbara Stone
Barbara Stone is the owner of Barbara Stone Designs, a full-service tailoring and dressmaking business at 5200 Churn Creek Road, Suite P, Redding, CA, 96002. She can be reached at (530) 222-1340 or
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28 Responses

  1. Avatar Bruce Vojtecky says:

    Used clothing consignment stores are a good source for clothing. Most don’t take women’s used clothing because the styles change every year. Men’s clothing is in high demand as are children’s clothing. No matter how durable children’s clothing is the child usually out grows the clothing before it is worn out. And new children’s clothing seems to always be high priced.

    • Avatar Barbara Stone says:

      Yes, shopping at consignment shops or thrift stores is another way to help pass on gently used clothing instead of throwing it away, especially kids’ clothing!

  2. Avatar Beverly Stafford says:

    Very interesting, Barbara. Who knew about indigo?

    • Avatar Barbara Stone says:

      When I found out about that, it made me want to throw out all my jeans…but then it would be filling up the landfills so I guess I’ll hold onto them. I keep altering my jeans when I lose weight, too, so I don’t have to buy new ones.

  3. Avatar Randy says:

    Natural materials have always been my first choice and it seems natural materials should be much more cost effective than reconfiguring plastics. Obviously not. Occassionally I collect waste fabrics to use as top layers on worm beds and I strive to use only natural fabric. The worms leave the truth behind in strings and strands of plastic fibers which seem to be in almost all clothing items even those labeled as natural materials. Hats off to you Barbara Stone and I will coming in for a visit.

    • Avatar Barbara Stone says:

      Labeling in clothing is a whole other subject! Kinda like food and cosmetics: Manufacturers don’t have to list EVERYTHING! And I would love to meet you Randy!

    • Avatar Barbara Stone says:

      Randy, I always prefer “natural” fabrics, too but labeling in clothing would be a whole other article. I think it’s kinda like foods and cosmetics; manufacturers don’t have to list ALL the ingredients. And I look forward to meeting you!

  4. Avatar Buffy Tanner says:

    Just saw an ad for Old Navy, advertising pieces of clothing for $2, $4, $6, $8. My immediate thought was “disposable clothing.” My second thought today was, “too few people – especially in our area – can afford to spend more on their clothing, especially if you have a few kids.” If you have the means, use your purchasing dollars at companies that have sustainable practices! And yes, thrift shops are a great way to extend the life of clothing…if that clothing was made well to start, it can have a second, or even third, life!

  5. Adrienne Jacoby Adrienne Jacoby says:

    Barbara . . . . what an interesting and informative article on a subject most of us seldom think about….and we should.
    Thank you . . .

    • Avatar Barbara Stone says:

      I would much rather see families on a budget shop at thrift stores than buy cheap clothing at Walmart, etc. But there are companies who cater to the more budget conscious. You don’t have to spend a fortune on sustainable clothing. And as for the subject of kids’ clothing… we used to wear hand-me-downs…do families still do that?

  6. Avatar Beverly Stafford says:

    J.C. Penney carries a brand with the name USA in it. I figured that meant it was made here. Nope. Made in China on the label.

    • Avatar Barbara Stone says:

      I’ll just say this about labeling: it’s kinda like cars. Parts come from one country, assembly done in others, and labeling done in another to avoid tariffs. In a nutshell.

  7. So interesting, Barbara. I look at my 1938 house with one tiny closet in each of the two bedrooms, shared by two adults and two children, and you can see their capacity for clothing was minimal. Now houses are built with room-sized closets, and what do we do: fill them up.

    • Avatar Barbara Stone says:

      Thrift shops are a good way to go but also, if you have to buy new, many sustainable clothing outlets are not expensive. And I was one of 5 kids growing up; we got hand-me downs…do families still do that?

  8. Avatar Dan Greaney says:

    In clothing as in products all over, the most sustainable item is the one we already have.

    • Avatar Barbara Stone says:

      Agreed, Dan! I’m prone to what I call “cartoon dressing” lately: you know how cartoon characters always wear the same thing? LOL

  9. Terry Turner Terry Turner says:

    Barbara, thank you so much for this helpful and informative article. I didn’t know about some Made in the USA clothes being made in prisons. I especially appreciate the information on companies who are making clothing while protecting our planet. (As the saying goes, There is no Planet B.)

    • Avatar Barbara Stone says:

      Exactly, Terry, and whenever I see those pictures of the plastic island in the Pacific the size of Texas, I know that a lot of the plastic is polyester clothing.

  10. Avatar Annie says:

    Barbara that is an amazing article!!
    We should make more clothing out of recycled clothing! Let’s do it!!

    • Avatar Barbara Stone says:

      That’s what alterations is all about. I have clients who repurpose the items in their closets rather than buy new. those are some of my favorite projects.

  11. Avatar Barbara Stone says:

    LOL…I’m trying to respond to the individual comments but my internet is funky today and it ends up either duplicating or responding to a different commentor. So if my response doesn’t make sense, that iw why!

  12. Joanne Snyder Joanne Snyder says:

    Wonderful article Barbara. You’ve shared so much information about this industry. When over 300 hundred garment workers were killed a few years ago in Pakistan, I was reminded of the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist factory fire in New York that killed so many workers. My grandmother worked in the garment district. A business moves to another country to hire cheap labor, but forgets to take the lessons learned about keeping those workers safe.
    I sew most of my clothes and avoid the synthetic fabrics that sluff micro fibers into the water system each time they’re washed. I was kept busy with my sewing machine at school during breaks helping students repair garments that were falling apart after one wash. Lots to learn in the world.

    I love to shop at second hand stores because what is on the racks is made well enough and with decent enough fabrics to last for a long time. I just paid $3 for a full sized Egyptian cotton sheet at Salvation Army. My next blouse maybe. Anther sheet became five curtains for a job I’m doing. Thanks Barbara for this informative article.

    • Avatar Barbara Stone says:

      I try to avoid synthetic fibers, as well, especially since I found out about microfibers in the ecosystem, but like eliminating plastic from the grocery shopping list, it’s almost impossible to do unless you are someone who can eat the same foods over and over or wear the same clothes all the time (cartoon dressing). Even cottons are usually are mixed with spandex now and, again, microfibers and chemicals used to process the fibers into fabric which are not listed on the label.

  13. Avatar Linda Cooper says:

    Eye opening article for sure, Barbara. And a timely one for me as I am replacing clothing lost in the fire. Additionally, Doni’s comment about closet sizes is spot on. My transition into a 1950’s house with small closet space into the size of the closets in a 2000 burb house has been interesting. Wow. There’s room for a small meditation retreat! Your article is encouraging, and serves as a reminder for me that “less stuff is better stuff!”

    Along those lines, my grandfather always maintained four, wool gaberdine, tailored suits. They lasted for years and years. When they got too worn for work, the suit pants would be retired into pants he would wear for working on his ranch. Even as a kid, I could tell the quality of the fabric. Kind of like viewing the “real” clothing fabrics on British TV, set in the thirties. Ever notice how Miss Marple wears some of her same clothing throughout many episodes?

    I too like to shop second hand stores for the good old days when a t-shirt was not paper thin. And I shop an on-line company (eshakti) where the clouting is mostly cotton, and can be modified to taste. The web site maintains they support fair wages and conditions for the workers, where the clothes are constructed in India. I will now ask them about sustainable issues.

    After reading your article, my thoughts are to acquire organic fabrics, and locate such an individual as you to make four outfits that will be timeless. Thank you!

    • Avatar Barbara Stone says:

      I tell my clients that suits, jeans, and other basic garments are investment clothing. Buy the best quality that your budget can afford, get them tailored to fit you, and keep them for years. And if you use a professional tailor, he/she will know to leave seam allowances to be let out if need be. I have guys who are constantly taking in the waist and letting out the waist in their pants, for instance, as needed.

  14. Avatar John Oertel says:

    Brilliant article. Expertly written and very well edited.

  15. Avatar Virginia Holmes says:

    This is a tough one. As Barbara said: research.
    I work with fabric and am constantly revising my approach. My learning curve has brought me to realize that:
    1. cotton takes a lot of water to produce
    2. bamboo takes less water, but most of the fabric available is bamboo/rayon, which uses chemicals
    3. eco-printing isn’t always that eco-friendly, as it can also use a lot of water and energy. mordants for
    the process must be disposed of, somehow. (second thoughts when the label says: wear mask and
    gloves, use caution.)
    “Cartoon dressing” is liberating. Why the need for daily outfits, anyway?
    More and more, I am turning to thrift shops to scrounge my fabrics for upcycling.
    AND…as Barbara says: “Buy the best quality that your budget can afford, get them tailored to fit you, and keep them for years.”

    • Avatar Barbara Stone says:

      Exactly, Virginia! Fortunately, many companies have sustainability practices listed on their websites. But just because they brag about their environmental policies, it doesn’t mean they treat their workers well or that they won’t move to another country if the workers start demanding living wages. The United Nations website has a lot of information on sustainability goals and who is reporting and who it not!