Earth Month: The price of fashion

Clothing costs include environmental and social aspects

I remember fleece sweaters being the magnet of outdoor enthusiasts. As understanding has broadened our knowledge, that soft, comfortable sweater is now recognized as a repellent on the environmental landscape.

How did it get this way? We now purchase almost 70 items of clothing a year. Okay, perhaps you and I don’t, but on average. And for North America, that number has risen from 30 just 20 years ago.

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Approximately six billion items of clothing are sold each year and, of those, only 25 per cent are destined to be recycled, up-cycled, repurposed or repaired. The rest are incinerated or left in the landfill. Those in the landfill leach chemicals, used in dyes and bleaches, into the soil and water cycle.

Landfills are a methane-producing factory and clothing makes up about five per cent of their items. While organic materials, such as cotton, wool and other natural fibres, are biodegradable and considered kinder on the environment, when crushed within a landfill, anaerobic bacteria are attracted and decompose the garments. A byproduct of this process is methane.

Back to that fleece mentioned before. Microfibres, which are microplastics, fall off the garment during a regular wash cycle. As with other plastics, these microplastics do not disappear. Once in the oceans, they are eaten by bivalves and other sea life such as shrimp. Many people eat shrimp. So, as one article I read recently put it, we are eating our fleece sweaters.

Rana Plaza textile factory in Bangladesh collapsed on April 24, 2013, killing 1,129 workers and injuring more than 2,500. It was a world-awakening moment of exposure to working conditions of hundreds of thousands of people in far-off countries helping to clothe us in the latest fashions.

The garment industry accounts for 80 per cent of Bangladesh’s gross domestic product and the race to the bottom has secured the country in second place for lowest worker compensation. In 2013, the year of the building collapse, workers were earning less than $2 per day for, on average, 14-hour days.

Public awareness is a key factor in change. Look at the carbon footprint for a popular t-shirt. From growing cotton to cultivating it, creating sheets of fabric, dyeing the fabric and adding prints, cutting and sewing it into recognizable apparel and shipping it overseas for a label to be attached before it reaches our neighbourhood clothing store, it is not unusual for at least six countries to be involved.

The quest for the largest margin of profit has traditionally won out over the cost to the environment.

On Earth Day evening, Saturday, April 22, Dwight Hall will be buzzing with the latest in fashionable up-cycling. The third annual eCouture Wearable Art Fashion Show is now thriving.

With a keen awareness on the fashion industry and its environmental and social impact, organizers have drawn their attention to recreating apparel out of unwanted, out-of-fashion scraps of material, to great artistic effect. For anyone who has never attended the fashion show, now is their chance. It will open eyes and inspire people to make changes in wearables while making the very most of what they already have.

We have the ability to vote with every purchase we make and show our ethical decisions with the clothing we wear. Consider buying fewer items, wearing items already in the closet for longer, being bold and starting fashion trends through up-cycling and repurposing.

Janet Southcott is a member of the Earth Month Team and Climate Action Powell River. For more information, go to earthmonthpr.ca.

Copyright © 2017 Powell River Peak

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