Clothing: Investment or Landfill?

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 bstonedesigns@sbcglobal.net.

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