Do you ever have trouble closing your dresser drawers because of too many clothes? Perhaps the excess serves to remind you to sort through your clothes and bag some of them for Goodwill or Salvation Army.
Filmmaker Andrew Morgan says Americans consume and discard significantly more clothing items than two decades ago. Who knew? His new documentary on the clothing industry, The True Cost, explains yet another aspect of American overconsumption and its negative consequences realized in places of production like China, Bangladesh, and India. Prices for many clothing items have been trending down for the last two decades in great part because of China’s entry into apparel production. According to an article in the New York Times, US clothing and apparel expenditure in 1987 accounted for 5.4 percent of all personal consumption spending. By 2009, that figure was down to 3.1 percent. Even so, we (and others in different parts of the world) have purchased more clothes, because the prices are so cheap!!
This is a good thing, right? Global economic competition means people in the developed world get more choices of garments and shoes at better prices and people in the underdeveloped world are able to work. This is the process that raises people out of poverty. Yes – it’s been going on for close to 300 years . . .
But it has to be done in the right way. Although laborers had been abused long before the advent of the industrial era, labor abuse achieved systemic perfection during the era. Conditions in sweatshops have been exposed by countless writers from Upton Sinclair (The Jungle, 1906) to Naomi Klein (No Logo, 1999). The unseemly similarities between the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in Manhattan killing 146 mostly immigrant garment workers and the 2013 Rana Plaza collapse in Dhaka, Bangladesh killing 1,129 garment workers and injuring over 2,500 are simultaneously tragic and shameful. We may have eliminated the drastic labor abuses in the American garment industry (and today only 3% of the clothes Americans purchase are manufactured in US factories, compared to 95% in 1960), but when we purchase and wear garments produced in questionable conditions overseas, we are complicit. Fierce global competition does lead to lower prices, but it also helps create abysmal working conditions for laborers.
Monsanto – the company that would slap a patent on Mother Nature if it could – sells its genetically modified (to guard against pests) and expensive cotton seeds to farmers in India. Most likely, you have some garments made from Indian cotton in your dresser drawers; India is the second largest producer and exporter of cotton in the world. Indian farmers currently (and historically) suffer from high rates of suicide. Monsanto (of course) denies that the high price of its seeds (manufactured in part with Indian companies) and associated farmer debt are linked to the recent rash of suicides. To be fair to Monsanto, there are other contributing factors to the suicides, such as alcoholism and personal domestic problems.
The Monsanto publicity department works hard on promoting an image of hard-driving multinational company stretching the bounds of science for the benefit of all humankind. But remember, Monsanto is the company that not only spies on, bullies, and sues its own customers, but it also owns the patent rights to “terminator gene” technology – the capability to make seeds sterile (and consequently force farmers to buy new seed every single planting season). They vow, however, not to use the technology . . . Right. Sounds kinda like Iran saying it won’t enrich uranium to weapons level grade. Which of the two do I trust less: Monsanto or Iran?
I have digressed – but it was purposeful digression. Remember the clothes we dropped off at Goodwill? Only ten percent of those items will end up on hangers inside the store for resale. The rest of it gets split into three areas: recycled rags and insulation, Sub-Saharan African resale markets, and landfills. The garment industry is the second most polluting in the world (behind the energy industry with its coal, oil, and gas), and globalization has made it possible to produce clothing at such low prices that many now consider clothing to be a disposable item – giving rise to the term fast fashion, akin to the term fast food.
Theologian Paul Tillich, decades ago, accurately described the modern age we live in:
Man is supposed to be the master of the world and of himself. But actually he has become a part of the reality that he has created, an object among objects, a thing among things, a cog within a universal machine in which he must adapt himself to in order not to be smashed by it. (From Theology of Culture, Oxford University Press, 1959, 7-8.)
Fast fashion looks to be as unhealthy as fast food. Slow down, search for quality, make it last, reuse or remake it when possible, recycle, and – oh yeah – buy fewer items.
This blog and website are representative of the views expressed in my book Just a Little Bit More: The Culture of Excess and the Fate of the Common Good. JaLBM is available on Amazon as a paperback and an ebook. It’s also available on Nook and iBooks/iTunes, and at the website of Blue Ocotillo Publishing.
For book clubs, community of faith study groups, and individuals, the Summary Version and Study Guide of JaLBM is now available at the Blue Ocotillo website and on Amazon. It’s a “Reader’s Digest” version (only fifty-two pages) of the full-length original with discussion questions at the end of each chapter.