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Now that the gift giving season has moved into the recent history bin, it seemed like a relevant time to review the carnage of this torrent of buying stuff for friends, family, and, ourselves, particularly clothing.

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Holiday Hangover: The True Cost of Buying a New Shirt—Brian Biery

So I started looking at all of the tags on the shirts, pants, socks I had received just to find out where they were made. Not so surprisingly I found that Vietnam, Bangladesh, India, China, and El Salvador were the most common producers.

In the 1960’s the U.S. made 95% of the clothing sold here; today that stat hovers around 3%. Why the dramatic shift? Profit.

In the 1960’s the U.S. made 95% of the clothing sold here; today that stat hovers around 3%. Why the dramatic shift? Profit. As with so many other industries, the lure of cheap labor and lax regulations made off-shoring production extremely attractive. And it has worked. The total value of the global textile and garment industry (i.e. clothing, footwear, luxury fashion and textiles) is nearly $2 trillion!

Of course it is pretty amazing to be able to go to Ross or Marshalls or Burlington Coat Factory and buy a new pair of “designer” pants and a shirt for about $15-20 each, especially when your wage is only $15 per hour. Or to shop at Payless or Discount Shoe Stores and buy new footwear for $30. But what is the real cost of those necessary, but sometimes overused, items?

How much would you be willing to pay for new clothes, if you knew that by paying more it would benefit people throughout the distribution chain? Currently, workers earn poverty wages, even when compared to the relatively low cost of living in the countries where clothes are manufactured. For example, in Bangladesh the minimum wage is set at about $68 per month. Other countries fair a bit better but still only earn between $5 and $8 per day. Barely enough to survive on, particularly if you have children.

Other issues, as highlighted by the tragic factory collapse of Rana Plaza in 2013 point to unsafe and cramped working conditions, which are common across the industry in order to save money. It also uncovered long working hours of employees with many working 10 or more hours per day, generally without extra pay. The main reason for asking workers to stay late is the high demand for cheap clothes. Otherwise, manufacturers are hard pressed to keep up with their orders.

Poor labor conditions, long hours and low wages affect women even more than men. Between 75% and 80% of workers in the garment food chain are women. In addition to these issues, women face sexual discrimination and harassment, limited maternity leave, and inadequate nursing and child care facilities. To add to this litany of injustices, women are generally paid less than men for the same work.

If these stories are not enough to make you think twice about where and how you shop for clothes, consider the environmental consequences. By some estimates, the garment and textile industry is the second largest polluting industry in the world, behind only oil exploration and production. How can that be?

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There are a litany of violations of environmental regulations, particularly in countries that have lax standards and poor enforcement for the mild laws they do have. Since China is the largest producer of clothing globally let’s look at that footprint for a second. Chinese textile mills produce nearly 3 billion tons of soot—carbon—every year. In addition, for most mills approximately 200 tons of water are needed to dye just one ton of fabric. And in the past few years there have been over 6,000 environmental regulation violations by textile factories, including: discharging wastewater from hidden pipes; discharging untreated pollutants; exceeding total pollutant discharge allowed; and using production facilities that were previously shut down by the authorities for various reasons.

What about cotton? Cotton is used as the material to make nearly half of all clothes and textiles made globally each year. Before around 1940 most cotton was grown organically, but after WWII chemicals were introduced to save on labor costs and improve production. These chemicals come in the form of pesticides, fertilizers, bleaches, dyes and other additives. And they are extremely toxic. Farm workers report high rates of nerve damage, headaches, convulsions and account for 99% of human pesticide deaths. Chemical cotton farming also contaminates ground water, reduces soil fertility, and can cause pest resistance.

Shopping has become a favored way of spending time in the U.S. Also, known as retail therapy stores are organized to provide the shopper with a vast selection of products and comfortable environs in order to keep them there as long as possible. Some studies have estimated that women in the U.S. spend almost 8 years of their lives undertaking some form of shopping.

So with the assumed therapeutic benefits, cheap prices and striving for the right image all in play, how do we change our consumption habits? Are we doomed to economic and environmental degradation and disaster just because we need another pair of skinny jeans?

Not necessarily. First of all, know what you are buying and where it came from. Think about the people all along the production chain who contributed to the creation of that new shirt. And be willing to pay the real cost of what it took to make it.

There are more and more companies that are promoting environmentally friendly products and fair trade policies. Dutch aWEARness, for example, creates clothes from 100% recyclable polyester. People Tree uses an analytical filter for its garment development process that asks the following questions: who will make the product and in what conditions? How much will they be paid? And what about the environment? 10,000 Villages has a similar product analysis that ensures that workers are paid fairly and that the environment is protected. And Patagonia has long featured a 1% for the Planet program that dedicates significant dollars to environmental protection each year and encourages other companies to do the same.

Remember that the customer is in charge. Years ago you never saw a salad bar at a fast food restaurant or a hybrid vehicle on the road. Shoppers told manufacturers what they wanted through their buying habits so companies have adapted to the desires of the market.

And be an activist. Join a local living wage campaign or projects like the Clean Clothes Campaign or the Better Cotton Initiative. These efforts create legislation that forces garment and textile industry giants to improve working conditions, pay better wages, clean up their environmental disasters, and allow workers to organize.

The best step you can take, however, is to shop less. We probably don’t need more stuff, especially after the gift-giving season. People in the U.S. create 82 pounds of textile waste each year. And with an average of 20 items in our closets that we never wear, maybe it is time to do a bit of clothes shedding. When you think of the real cost of buying another skirt, using what you have doesn’t look so bad.

Getting Money Out of Politics

Brian Biery

Brian Biery