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Clean Clothes: A Spotlight on the World’s (Second) Dirtiest Industry

by Adrienne Leonard | Posted on August 19 2016

The idea of bringing consumer awareness to the materials we use in the kitchen has spread far and wide, from choosing organic to using less plastic, composting and paying more for fair trade.

We’ve gotten comfortable with the idea of revolutionizing what we put in our bodies, but what we put on our bodies, for the most part, gets far less consideration.

Many of the sustainability issues facing the food industry are also facing fashion, including low wages, unethical conditions, waste, and an environmentally unsustainable business norm. As the second largest pollutant in the world, fashion is impacting the quality of life for millions of people nationally and internationally, both directly and indirectly. We know there’s a better way. 

Clean Clothes: A Spotlight on the World’s (Second) Dirtiest Industry

We’re lucky enough to live in a society where, for many, buying clothes is more of a joy than a need. In fact, a 2014 article published in the The Atlantic stated that Americans now buy five times as many clothes as we did in 1980. But where do these clothes end up after they are done filling our closets?

“According to the United States Environment Protection Agency textiles as a category, have one of the lowest recycling rates of any reusable material. And when recycled, only 10% of those textiles are considered re-usable. That means about 90% are either sent to landfills or flood markets in developing countries. Each year in America alone, 10.5 million tons of clothing are sent to a landfill. That’s 31,250 tons everyday, 218,750 tons each week, and 875,000 tons each month. To clarify that’s a terrifying 62.5 mill. pounds of clothing a day headed to a landfill.” Janet Sung, Darling Magazine

Needless to say, this isn’t what most of us consider recycling. Not only are the textiles we so diligently donating not getting recycled or given to those in need, but many are being shipped internationally and sold, or worse, still ending up in landfills.

Clean Clothes: A Spotlight on the World’s (Second) Dirtiest Industry

But it's not just where our unwanted clothing ends up that's the problem. Fashion is the second dirtiest industry in the world, right behind the oil industry. Dirty as it may be, it doesn’t catch nearly as much heat as fossil fuels. One theory is that because fashion is attractive, pretty, and it draws attention from respectable names in art, music, literature, and film, people are less likely to dig deeper. While it may not entirely boil down to image, we could name more than a few companies spending over a billion on creating their brand image. Images are powerful and difficult to tear down once been widely accepted. This is thanks to something called cognitive dissonancethe idea that our brains don’t like holding two conflicting ideas at the same time. For example, thinking that fashion is glamorous, pretty, and fun, and at the same time, also horrible, and destructive. 

“When we think of pollution, we envision coal power plants, strip-mined mountaintops and raw sewage piped into our waterways. We don’t often think of the shirts on our backs. But the overall impact the apparel industry has on our planet is quite grim.” Glynis Sweeny, EcoWatch

Clean Clothes: A Spotlight on the World’s (Second) Dirtiest Industry

Feeling guilty over past fashion choices and stress over future ones are not long term strategies for sustainable change. What we do consider motivating is education, and the knowledge that things can be different. And it can be easy. One idea for simple change comes from transformational coach, Martha Beck, author of The 4-Day Win. Through the process of earning three degrees at Harvard and Beck’s own personal research she has unveiled that if a person can stick to one tiny, microscopic positive personal change for a few days (4 days, to be exact), it will actually become a habit that is difficult to break. Breaking new habits into manageable sizes is crucial to long-term change.

Create a chain of these tiny wins, and you’ll create a whole new pattern.  So, whatever has been tugging at you, try it for four days, whether it’s purchasing vegan, Made in USA, or buying from companies that donate a portion of proceeds back to support the environment. Take little steps for few days to get your eco feet wet and you’ll realize the cost of ethically made clothing is neither monstrous, nor terrifying. It just requires a little reading, checking labels, or finding retailers that have done the label checking for you. Hint: We do that, and we’re glad to say we’re not the only ones.  

Clean Clothes: A Spotlight on the World’s (Second) Dirtiest Industry

We’d never say to forego your love of fashion. In fact, what we’re saying is: love it more. Take pride in a well-worn t-shirt, spend a little more on a wiser, more responsible fashion choice, repair your favorite shoes, tailor your clothes if the seams have worn out. Create habits of buying, using, and discarding clothing that leaves you and the planet feeling a little cleaner. 




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