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The Environment production, lifetime, anddisposal

Production

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Water is a limited resource that we are quickly depleting. All of our clothing takes an astounding amount of water. One t-shirt (how many t-shirts do you have?) consumes about .25 kg of cotton: 1kg cotton takes 20,00 liters of water. 20,000! Just to be clear, 20,000 liters is equivalent to 1000 bathtubs of water! A pair of jeans requires about 1.5 pounds (.66 kg), which means those jeans took 3595 US gallons (13608 liters) of water. That's enough drinking water for the average American to last a year!

Not only are the production of natural fibers like cotton, linen, bamboo, hemp and more—take more water to grow, by they require a staggering amount of insecticides. Cotton accounts for 2.4% of the world's cropland, but it accounts for 25% of the insecticide and pesticide use. The pesticides get released into the environment and kill natural occurring, ecosystem balancing insects and pests.

Not only do natural fibers take a toll on the environment, but human-made fibers also tax the environment. For all the polyester made in 2015 produced 767 billion (767,000,000,000) kilograms of greenhouse gasses, which is the equivalent of  185 coal plants annual emissions. While polyester is the most popular and widely used synthetic textile impacting the environment, it indeed isn't the only: especially when you account for blends.

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Producing textiles not only requires a lot of water and alters the ecosystem with a disproportionate amount of chemicals, but the process of dying textiles changes the environment. The traditional method of dyeing fabrics proves detrimental to local water systems. Due to the inefficiency of the primary dying practice, manufacturers release 10–50% of the dye used into local waterways. This 10–50% results in the local rivers turning into the hot color of the season with 200,000 tons of dye. This is the equivalent weight of 100 blue whales. Because of the antimicrobial qualities as well as other agents resistant to degradation by light, temperature, water, detergents, chemicals, soaps, bleach, and antiperspirants, these dyes can become a permanent fixture of the environment or cause other environmental distress. Some dyes are even endocrine disruptors of local species. Often the water source that the dyes dumped into is also the only (or at least primary) water source for the community.

 

Lifetime

While clothing is in our lives, we must consider how we wear and care for our garments, because its one of the biggest ways clothing effects the environment. Washing a load of laundry takes between 27 gallons for new, higher efficiency models to about 40 gallons for older standard models. Combat your water usage here is to only to wash your clothes as they need washing, not after each wear. Wash your clothes if they smell or if they have visible stains. Wash all undergarments and shirts after each wear, but all pants, skirts, dresses, and suits can go 3–4 wears between washings.

When you're washing your clothes, avoid the dry cleaners. Not only can the harsh chemicals degrade your clothes faster than ordinary home detergent, but the chemicals are often toxic, and work their ways into the water system. Instead, wash your clothes at home on a cold setting. Most clothes not only should be washed cold, but washing with cold water means that there was no energy wasted in heating up the water. Heating water is an energy-intensive activity, so avoid it if possible. Often, clothes tags even recommend or require washing the garment in cold water.

The final process of environmentally impactful care is drying your clothes. When at all possible, hang or lie clothing flat to dry. Drying is an energy-intensive process that, like washing with warm water, should be avoided if possible. How you wash your clothes also changes their longevity. Wash clothing with like objects when possible. Clothing made of super durable material, like jeans, which have a lot of hard zippers, snaps, and other hardware, beat lighter, less durable clothing up in the laundry. So only wash your jeans every 5-7 wears and wash them with your other jeans and items with metal hardwear. Also, when  buy clothing made with material that prevent odor (like silver or wool) so they require less frequent washing. The less you wash your clothes, the more environmentally friendly you are. Stay dirty!

 

Post Consumer

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The average US citizen alone contributes 70 lbs of clothing waste per year.

The story of our clothing doesn’t stop when we stop wearing it. One of the most impactful parts of the clothing lifecycle is when we dispose of it. The average US citizen contributes 70 pounds of clothing waste per year. There are a few ways we get rid of clothing: donation, recycling, and trashing, each of which come with their own considerations regarding the environment. The first is donating clothing, which is one of the most environmentally friendly ways to get rid of clothing other than repurposing it into other household items you would buy. Since the donation of clothing has a more economic impact on other economies than it makes an environmental impact, to learn more about the effects of donating clothing, look it the economic section. As for its environmental considerations, it is a great way to sustainably dispose of clothing.

The next option to consider is recycling. Nearly all of our clothing can is recyclable, which is excellent! However, only about 15% of our clothing ends up in recycling systems, leaving the other 85% to end up in landfills at the end of its lifetime. The problem is that you cannot recycle textiles in curbside recycling because clothing consists of so many different materials, they have to be recycled in another way, although some cities are starting to, as a reaction to the textile waste epidemic. There are many local recycling organizations around the country and internationally, but they vary in what they can take and how to get the clothing to them. For your area, look up clothing recycling to see if there are resources near you.

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85% of our clothing ends up in a landfill at the end of its lifetime, so it is worth understanding how long each game will be around when we’re finished with it. Clothing made of natural fibers like wool, cotton, bamboo, hemp, and jute will decompose in five years. Human-made natural fibers like rayon, and its more environmentally friendly derivative viscose, take even less than natural fibers at about three years. On the upper end, leather takes up to 40 years to decompose, and rubber shoe soles take up to 80. Synthetic textiles range is enormous; taking anywhere from 40 years for Nylon to up to 1000 years for some polyesters. Clothing with screen printing adds another factos, too. Water based screen printing is biodegradable and acceptable for the environment, but the cheaper petroleum based Plastisol paints biodegrade at the same rate as midrange plastics. So while that cotton t-shirt is gone, the words printed on it will live on past the end of our lifetimes. Consider the life of the clothing you own, and how energy intensive it was to get to your door before bring in new clothing into your life.  

Ethics unfare treatment of workers and unsafe practices
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The United Nations describes child labor as “work for which the child is either too young—work is done below the required minimum wage— or work which, because of the detrimental nature or conditions, is unacceptable for children.” Child labor is prevalent in so many of the manufacturing fields. Although the child labor statistic for just the clothing industry is hard to estimate, there are an estimated 170 million children in child labor situations, which accounts for 11% of the children in the world. Because of the vastness of the clothing industry and the benefit of children’s small hands, a substantial proportion of those children are estimated to work in the clothing industry.

We can help reduce the frequency and prevalence of child labor by advocating for livable wages for garment works. Many children in labor situations are working because their parents, for one reason or another, are not able to provide. Often this is because there is only one working adult in a family of multiple children. By raising the wage that that one working parent is receiving, the children don’t have to work and can attend school, or even just be children.

Poor Wages

Many clothing producing countries, like China, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Mexico, Egypt, and Pakistan, have a lower-than-livable minimum wage. These minimum wages get as low as $43 a month in some countries. While payments vary vastly between nations, most of the salaries are still not at a point where the working individual are able to provide for their family. Because of the immigrant and refugee status of many garment works, their wages are occasionally taken, and the workers are not able to report the theft to any authorities for fear of being sent back to whichever situation they ran from in the home country, allowing facilities to pay workers nothing if they are in the country illegally. These lower than livable wages also contribute to the prevalance of child labor. Because the adult in the family is not able to make enough in their line of work (often apparel work as well) the child then has to work to help support the family.

Sexism

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The majority of garment works are women. This gender imbalance is not a huge surprise because of garment making historically considered women’s work. As with other industries, the men in the industry are prefered, despite no reported difference between productivity or work quality. Men are given the less challenging and higher paying jobs because of societal roles, rather than through merit. Sexism in the apparel manufacturing industry isn’t exactly a problem that we can change because sexism is prevalent as a hindrance to women in the majority of the globalized market, so for this will have to follow the glacial pace of gender equality overcoming the globe now, rather than being something we can fix with certifications, legislation and oversight. 

 

Factory Subcontracting

Just because a company says that they check with all their factories, doesn't mean that they necessarily are safe. Larger factories often contract out parts of high volume orders to smaller companies that don’t observe the larger companies standards or certifications or adhere to oversight practices. The larger companies then claim those goods as their own and return the product to the retailer, who turns a blind eye to the subcontracting so they can say their clothing was made in an factory with a certain certifications, when in fact, it was not.  

However, regular unscheduled checks (similar as we will see with worker safety) and supporting companies that are genuinely dedicated worker rights and safety, rather than turning a blind eye or not asking too many questions of their factories so they can say they’ve checked when there is no form of accountability. To prevent subcontracting, advocate for and shop at companies that have transparency in their factories. Search for the places where you shop and see if they list the factories they use, and which certifications they have and the vote with your money which factories you would like to see in business. 

Worker Health & Safety

Bangladeshi people identify the bodies of their relatives died in a fire at a garment factory. 

Bangladeshi people identify the bodies of their relatives died in a fire at a garment factory. 

Garment workers are at risk, and the risk is paritcularly high in factories that are not up to code, which often happens when plants are producing large amounts of clothing for minimal cost. Fire and explosion occur as a result of steam and gas-powered machines that are a part of factory production. Fabrics are a perfect catalyst for fires and explosions. Working in the garment factory exposes workers to risk every day. Both accidents and regular use both case hazardous fires and explosions if there are not proper safety precautions in place, take for example the 2012 Dhaka fire which was caused by faulty circuit on a lower floor, spreading quickly through the building and trapping workers on the floors above. Many factories, including Dhaka, don’t have available fire extinguishers or any other means of tempering fires that would help protect workers in the event of fire.

Equipment that pierces and cuts fabric filled garment factories to take textile to a garment. Unfortunately, anything that manipulates fabric well easily separates flesh. Factory workers are at risk of laceration from equipment if they are working in unsafe work environments and forced to work long hours and are at more risk when they are tied and less attentive. Because of the unfortunate working situations and other countries having very different labor laws, they don’t have workers compensation like in the majority of the developed world. If they are severely injured and unable to work, they lose all of their income, which is a usually a substantial portion of their families income. A breadwinner out of work leaves their families trying to find additional jobs or putting children to work.

building collapse in Bangalore resulting from a apparel manufacturing facility that was not up to code. 

building collapse in Bangalore resulting from a apparel manufacturing facility that was not up to code. 

We will never feel it, but some of the dyes used in clothing are toxic and burn the people who handle them. If workers do not observe safety precautions or don’t have the means to do so, they are at risk of burns so that we get the hottest color this season.

Lastly, although cotton dust might sound harmless, it is far from it. Cotton dust causes respiration problems for the people who work in the factories that spin, weave, and cut fabric. We can protect against this by supporting (shopping at) stores that support third-party factory checks or are certified by a 3rd party organization, like Fair Trade or SA800. 

 

 

Environmental Ethics

For most first world individuals, the idea that protecting the environment just because or because its effect on the inhabitants is an ethical conclusion. However, there are also are a multitude of considerations on the environmental side that are only a problem if you have ethically decided that harming the environment is a problem. 

Economy American, personal, and global
1940's era WWII poster, advocating for repairing with clothes as an effort to save textiles (and all the other resources that go into clothes) for the war. We could all take the advice from this poster now, too!

1940's era WWII poster, advocating for repairing with clothes as an effort to save textiles (and all the other resources that go into clothes) for the war. We could all take the advice from this poster now, too!

American Economy

First, let’s look a the past. In the 1960s, the average American spent about 10% of their income (or $4,000 in today’s dollars) on clothing and bought less than 25 garments per year, and 95% were USA-made garments. Now, the average American citizen spends an average of 2.8% of their annual income on clothing, but,  with the decrease price of clothing, results in an average of about 70 garments per year per person, only 2% of which are USA-made.

This change took place starting in the 1970s, when large textile manufacturing facilities began popping up across China, and textile manufacturing slowly started moving overseas and piece mailing the process of garment creation in different parts of the world. Meaning that raw material from Bangladesh would travel to India, where it would be spun and woven into a textile, then shipped to China to be cut and sewn, and then back to the US to be sold for a lower price than it was for companies to produce apparel in the US. This transportation intensive process is still the (for the most part) what  happens today.

By the 1980s, 70% of the clothing purchased by Americans was made in America. The sharp drop came when chain stores started moving their manufacturing over seas, which happened at about the turn of the century, more specifically between 1996 and 2011. During this period, the US apparel manufacturing industry experience many job losses and we see a dramatic drop in output per hour, dropping below the lowest recorded productivity since the Bureau of Labor Statistics started collecting productivity data for the fashion industry in 1987. The layoffs that occurred between 1996 and 2011 averaged 323 events per year, resulting in the filings of 67,511 individual unemployment insurance benefit claims. These large layoffs happened because, at this point, manufacturing wages in the US were 38 times higher than the average salary of a garment worker in a foreign country. As a result, we have lost a major sector of US jobs. Unlike other industries, jobs haven’t reduced in number due new technologies, but instead have grown in number and increased in required worker skill, which, combined with the low-cost labor pushed most garment manufacturing out of the united states. As of 2015,  the US apparel industry is running at a trade deficit.

US apparel exports only totaled 6 billion dollars, whereas imports totaled about 82 billion dollars; the majority of which came from China (at 36%), and then Vietnam, Bangladesh, Indonesia, and Mexico, each of the following countries averaging 7% of America’s imports. The majority of the positions within the US fashion industry exist in research, development, and testing of new textiles and technologies in the garment industries. Despite rapid turn around time, the transportation costs and times help to negate the high cost of labor, but they don’t neutralize them enough for the US apparel industry to become competitive in the near future.

The Joint Economic Committee from the U.S Congress concludes that because of America’s roll in producing higher value fashion the fashion industry is positive for the American economy. Although the fashion industry being beneficial, it does not mean that we would not stand to benefit from improving the American apparel manufacturing industry. If we reduce the clothing consumption to the point where the consumption would be environmentally sustainable, the fashion industry would also run at a deficit. In short, our consumer-only position in the global fashion market is unsustainable until out exports start becoming closer to equal with our imports; both by reducing consumption and buying more USA made clothing.

 

Personal 

The American economy shifted from being an independent apparel producer to the most significant consumer of fashion while producing almost none of it. Outside of the effect on the US workers, this change has dramatically affected the way individuals spend on clothing.

We know that Americans spend about a quarter of what they used to on clothes, but gets about 1.5 times as many garments, so what do person economics look like? The average American women spent and an average of $2,197 a year and men $1,867. The amount spent per year by individuals had declined by $174 since the 21st century (and even more since the 20th century, see above) when large fashion chains took off. The average wardrobe is worth $5,000—which is the equivalent of 1 grande Starbucks latte every day for 3.77 years.              

The difference between what a closet is worth versus what we spend on average in that wardrobe is the most startling. If the wardrobe is worth $5,000 and a person pays an average of $2,032 (from averaging the amount spent by men and women), that means that we’re replacing about 40% of our wardrobe every year.

It is not economically sustainable to be replacing 40% of something that should not decrease in value over that time. To ensure your clothing maintains its value over time, buy quality clothing initially means you will not have to replace the clothing nearly as frequently because you have decreased the change the garments will stand the test of time physically, as well as not being made unfashionable through trends.

 

Global

The global garment industry is worth 2560 trillion dollars. This vast sector has macro and microeconomic effects for the global societies. For example, the textile and clothing industry is a significant contributor towards individual incomes in the low-income and developing country's exports; making the clothing and textile industry make up to an average of 13% of the country’s GDP and around 50% of exports manufactured textiles and garments.

Because of increased consumption in consumer nations, particularly America (although China is only a bit behind), since the 90s, developing nations whose economies are currently dependent on the apparel and textile manufacturing industries did not exist. This industry creation brought a job increase in these countries and changed local economies. The wage for an apparel factory worker is almost double that of an agricultural worker, but are also half the pay of the average manufacturing job, but the jobs are often the best that they would be receiving if the clothing industry did not exist at all. So, the existence of the sector is positive overall, but there is still a lot of room for improvement.

 

Disposal

If your idea of donating is donating to a friend who will wear the clothing, that is perfect! But please keep reading if you have more than just that definition. Often, we think of our selves as great saviors of the poor people in Africa receiving the clothing that we donate to organizations like the Salvation Army, Goodwill, or other donation-powered agencies. Unfortunately, very little of the garments we give to groups such as these get bought by customers of the stores. More often then not, clothing sits in the shops for a few weeks, then is packaged into bales and auction them to companies like recycling agencies. These companies then break the bales down and sort them into clothing that can sell to organizations that resell the used clothes in impoverished countries or clothes or made into rags.

The bales of clothing sent for resale in other nations arrive and get resold. These bales have a dramatic effect on the local economy because the influx of cheap clothing reduces the need for locally made clothing. The individuals buying the clothing aren’t just looking for clothing, they are specifically looking for the branded and on-trend items (like Nike, Puma, and Adidas), which cannot be created by local hands. The additional risks of being able to dispose of clothing are the idea that the reduction in clothing would justify new purchases. Removing clothing from your wardrobe is not an excuse to buy more clothing, but rather an avenue to dispose of clothing in the most environmentally friendly way possible.

 

 

Additional Resources & Sources

Looking for some more facts, or started to get interested in understanding your clothing and its impact in the world? Below are some resources used in compiling this informational website that have additional information.

Council for Textile Recycling

This resource helps find textile recycling facilities and resources by zip code, as well as providing facts about the textile recycling in the United States.

Recycle Nation

This website has facts on the statistics of recycled clothing as well as how to recycle clothing in some areas.

Environmental Screen Printing

The website of this Denver-based environmentally driven screen printing agency lays down some facts about the environmental impact of certain types of screen printing inks and why they have chosen to use water-based inks.

The Economic Impact of the Fashion Industry

An article from the Joint Economic Committee of Congress, it concludes the fashion industry has had an overall positive impact on the United States economy, despite manufacturing moving out of the country.

The Role of Clothing and Textile in Growth & Development 

 

Immigrants & The LA/United States Apparel Manufacturing

Fashionista explains the vast and beneficial influence of immigrants on the Los Angeles apparel factories; where immigrants make a significant percent of USA-made garments.

Why America Stopped Making Its Own Clothes

This article compiles a lot of information from US bureaus and helps shed light on why and how the change in Americans closets and reduction in involvement in garment production happened. 

Bureau of Labor Statistics: Fashion

The Bureau of Labor Statistics exhibits about 15 chats about how the fashion industry has changed in America, focusing on the change in number and productivity of works as well as statistics about consumer behavior.

USDA: U.S. Textile and Apparel Industries and Rural America

The United States Department of Agricultural takes a look at the effect of the Apparel and textile industry, mainly looking at textiles and garments made of out natural fibers (cotton, hemp, flax, etc.) and the relationship with the global market.

 

Why Clothing Startups Are Returning to American Factories

Fast Company explores why some clothing startups are returning to having their products made in American factories, citing American plants ability to produce high tech fabrics and high consumer value placed in USA-made tags.

 

Empowering Female Workers in the Apparel Industry

A PDF document taking about why the garment industry was (is) considered women work, and how to empower women in the apparel industry to improve their lives.

 

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