Posts Tagged ‘Clothing’

I have just returned from counting my t-shirts.  I knew there were a lot, but the final tally of 37 was a bit shocking.  According to my calculations, if I live to be 100 and continue to acquire and wear out t-shirts at my current rate, my children (the lucky gals) will inherit 30-40.  Even if I never purchase another t-shirt, I will still leave behind a small stash.


It’s a fair guess that most of you have just as many t-shirts lurking in your drawers (go count ‘em – you may be surprised).  On average, every American household purchases 40 new shirts every year (that’s 4.5 billion shirts annually).  The reality is that most of our drawers are stuffed to overflowing and we donate an astounding amount of clothing to make room for the new items that we want.  In fact, Americans donate so much clothing that only 20% can be reused domestically, and only 45% ever gets used as clothing again, anywhere in the world.


The realization that I already have more t-shirts than I can possibly use up in my lifetime, is relatively recent.  The first problem, of long standing, is that too many t-shirts come into the house.  T-shirts are the American gold-standard for celebrating every event, advertising every cause, and fostering group spirit for every group.  They are fun to buy, fun to use, and impossible to avoid.  I’ve acquired t-shirts for all the usual reasons: events I attended, causes I supported, trips I took, my one and only official 5K run, family reunions, and just because I liked them.  I used to periodically donate excess t-shirts, but that’s where my fateful second problem kicked in.


Over the past few years I’ve developed a nagging sense of obligation to my clothing; indeed, I now actually feel I am responsible for wearing out everything I buy – easier said than done in a world that grades you down for worn cuffs and scruffy patches.  We all have some sense of obligation toward the items that we buy–usually directly related to the price.  The more we pay, the more use and pleasure we expect the item to provide.  In other words, we feel obligated to get our money’s worth.


Yet, there is another kind of accountability embedded in all the items we use.  Just as objects have an economic cost, they also have an environmental cost.  Imagine if the price tag on a t-shirt read: $10.99, use of 1 gallon of Middle-East oil, application of 1/3rd pound pesticides, creation of 6 pounds of global warming gasses, pollution of 18 gallons of water in an Iowa brook, a 0.007% increase in the risk of cancer for 2 textile mill workers in China, the death of 1/16th of a fish and half a monarch butterfly.


Although it is very difficult to quantify the exact environmental costs of a single t-shirt, or any other item, it is entirely fair to say that in a world of 6 billion people, the production of virtually anything, from cars to tofu, has significant environmental impacts.  Even a biodegradable, renewable resource such as cotton, is plagued with problems including heavy pesticide use (between 8 and 25% of all pesticides produced are applied to cotton), water pollution, and fish kills.


My point is not that we shouldn’t buy cotton, or that we should feel guilty about everything we buy, but rather, that before we acquire something we should simply stop and remember that everything has an environmental cost, in just the same way that we stop and remember economic costs every time we look at a price tag.  For the most part, environmental costs are not reflected on the price tag, yet they clearly exist.  Likewise, the environmental benefits we get from not purchasing something, equally tricky to quantify, also clearly exist.  


The question I now ask myself when faced, for example, with next year’s wonderful Common Ground Fair t-shirt, is not just “do I like this shirt enough to pay $16.00?” but rather, “do I like this shirt enough to pay $16 and to wear it out?”  For me, this latter question addresses environmental cost as well as economic cost.  If the answer is yes, I have hopefully purchased something that will bring me lots of pleasure – a good purchase that I won’t feel guilty about.  If the answer is no – then I have saved money, saved drawer space, saved trips to Goodwill, and contributed to some wonderful intangible host of benefits to the natural world, like extra butterflies, a clear brook in an Iowa field, and less pressure to drill for oil in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge – things which also bring me great pleasure.


Every once in a while, when my kids, who are perfectly normal and covetous of most things material, decide not to purchase something (usually because they have not saved enough allowance) I will slip in a little comment along the lines of, “hey, did you know you just helped save a harp seal?” and though it surprises me every time, their little faces light up.  The benefits to not purchasing, intangible though they may be, are clear enough to our children.

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