One of my many interests and aspirations is to lower my impact on earth. I feel a little guilty that I’m just getting around to this with my new retired lifestyle, but timing is everything. We’ve cut our waste down by purchasing many of our pantry items at a cute little zero waste store down the street. I know our plant based diet makes fewer demands on the environment while punching up our health. We mostly use public transportation or walk. We prefer trains over planes when we do venture further afield.
To boost my motivation I recently read Tatiana Schlossberg’s new book, Inconspicuous Consumption: the environmental impact you don’t know you have (Grand Central Publishing 2019). It really shook my reality.
Jamie and I have already addressed the low hanging fruit - carrying our own bag to the store, recycling, or Jamie’s favorite, “turn off the lights when you leave the room”. We layer-up in the winter and use fans in the summer. But everyone already knows these techniques for using fewer resources (and reducing your expenses). Tatiana opened my eyes beyond these obvious approaches and made me reckon with my choices. Her book goes into detail about four key sectors:
- technology and the internet,
- fashion, and
I was interested in what she had to say about the food and fashion sectors knowing that I can make decisions at an individual level that reduce my personal impact. And, my decision doesn’t have to be, “Don’t buy anything,” because I know that’s not going to work. I lived through the 1950’s when we had only three pairs of shoes: school, dress, and gym shoes. Our clothing wasn’t much different. If jeans had been a big thing then, we would have had ONE pair. But, I would have had to wait until the 1960’s to get my first pair. Oh, how times have changed.
How Fast Fashion Equals Pollution
We really do have a throw-away society. Clothing ordered on-line and returned is often put in the landfill instead of being examined, re-packaged and reshelved. All because it costs the seller more to reshelve than discard --which shows you how little it costs to make the product in the first place. If we do like the clothing and keep it, our society discards 60 percent of the items bought in the same year they were purchased.
Fast fashion takes a toll on more than landfills. It consumes fossil fuel energy in manufacturing, shipping, and textile production. Fast fashion and water go together like peanut butter and jelly. The more fast fashion the more clean water is consumed and contaminated. It’s a really ugly production to landfill circle.
I know how easy it is to be sucked into fast fashion. Those prices haven’t changed in years. I remember in the 1980’s I used to have a limit of $20.00 for a new sweater or blouse. Forty years later I can buy a new sweater or blouse for the same money. Fast fashion encourages you to buy more and more. People at nearly every income level participate in purchasing crap that is intended for a half-dozen wears.
And, it’s not just the cost of these items. It’s the culture, the group think, the expectations of your friends and colleagues. It’s a pastime to shop, show off your outfit and compare shopping experiences. I purposely tamped down my desires about five years before I retired to reduce, save money, and be more responsible. Fortunately, my retirement lifestyle is not clothing centric. And now that I’m learning even more about the impact on our fragile world, the incentive is even greater to drop out of this circus.
Jeans are “the” thing these days.
Think about how many pairs of jeans you own. I currently own six pairs and my favorite pair just sort of bit the dust. To some people this pair now reflects high fashion with blown out knees. Me, I’d rather get five years of solid wear out of them first. Still I’m not going to give up this pair, especially after reading what Tatiana had to say about jeans.
The production of jeans is such a big industry that over one-third of all cotton produced goes into making them. One kilogram of cotton requires between 1,800 and 7,660 gallons of water depending on where it is grown in the world. After the cotton is grown, as much as 2,900 gallons of water can be used to produce a single pair of pants mostly for the steps of dying and finishing. The majority of the water used to dye or finish denim is not recycled, so it ends up in the environment, where it can pollute drinking water supplies or harm aquatic animals. Additionally, cotton crops use about 16 percent of the world’s annual insecticides, further eroding the water quality when irrigation run-off ends up in streams and lakes.
If you think that recycling your jeans helps you offset the environmental cost of those jeans, think again. Today’s embellishments on jeans make it really difficult to recycle. Rivets and sequins and other such fashion silliness make it difficult to reuse the fabric. Many of today’s jeans also include synthetic fibers like elastane (also known as Spandex or Lycra) which makes them more comfortable but less durable. And, unfortunately, clothing of mixed textiles cannot be recycled into other clothing. They do, however, go into things like insulation, carpet padding, and rags.
Microfibers are where?
About a decade ago, the production of man-made synthetic fabrics started to outpace cotton. Today, fabrics like fleece, acrylic, polyester, nylon, or spandex make up 60 percent of all textiles made. Their common denominator is fossil fuels. They are made from crude oil.
Aside from the energy necessary to produce these fabrics, their pollution factor is similar to throwing a plastic bag in the ocean. When these fabrics are laundered in a domestic washing machine they release tiny fibers into the drain water. The waste-water treatment plant recovers some of the fibers but most sink in the slurry or sludge of waste that is often used as agricultural fertilizer. In this way, the fibers make their way into the soil, the groundwater, and into livestock and wildlife. They also get caught up in field run-off which takes them full circle back into our rivers, streams, lakes.
So, what’s a person to do?
The most important message is to buy fewer clothes. A recent Forbes magazine article said an average Zara shopper visits a store 17 times a year. 17 times! That is just crazy.
So, in addition to buying fewer clothes, consider these ideas:
- Buy quality clothes that will give you many years of wear.
- Know which fashion companies are making sustainability improvements. Here’s a February 2020 Forbes article with 11 conscientious U.S companies.
- You can also download “Good on You” for international ethical brand ratings for Apple or Google devices. While I didn’t recognize many of the companies listed on their app, I was pleased to discover that Reebock and Adidas had a Good rating on shoes. And, of course, Patagonia also has a Good listing. There are brands that receive a Great rating and the app will explain why.
- Some jean manufacturers are trying to reduce their water consumption and pollution. Levi Strauss invented a water-less technique and shared it with others in the industry. In 2017 they were making 50 percent of their products with this technique and plan to reach 80 percent in the water-less technique by 2020. Stay tuned. In the meantime, I was pleased to learn that Wrangler also has gone green right here in Spain in 2019.
- Extend the life of your clothes by not washing after every wear. You’ll keep those microfibers where they belong. And this applies to jeans too. How many of us actually wear our jeans for hard-core digging in the soil or rounding up the cattle anyway?
- Use the Eco Setting on your washing machine. You’ll save energy using a cooler water temperature and save on water too.
- Dry your clothes on a drying rack or a clothesline. It’s ideal to dry whites in the sun but keep your colors in the shade or bring them in as soon as dry. I’ve grown up with dryers and never thought I could live without one but I’ve adapted nicely to living in Spain where dryers are not common. My towels are crunchy but they will last longer.
- Buy second hand. I've found many lovely things this way including a summer dress with original tag that I've worn now for six years.
- Consider these fabric options as an alternative to cotton: flax, monocel, linen, and recycled polyester
Interested in more of my thoughts on inconspicuous consumption? In Hidden Consumption Part II -- Food (coming soon) I summarize my thinking about food waste in our era of industrial agriculture.
Susan Carey retired in 2017 after a long business career most recently in animal welfare leadership. She writes about her experiences as a recent retiree living in Spain. Susan lives in Valencia, Spain with her husband, Jamie, and the senior pets they brought with them from the United States.