The True Cost of Cheap Clothing

In order to better understand how the clothes we buy impacts our world, I’m going to attempt to walk you through the lifespan of a typical “Fast Fashion” item, like a shirt from a store like H&M, as we try to calculate the true cost of disposable clothing.

THE BURDEN ON FARMERS

The story begins with a poor farmer in the plains of Cambodia who produces the world’s cheapest cotton. Yesterday he was delivered his new cotton seeds, loaned to him by the bank that represents the seed company. The farmer can’t plant just any cotton seeds, since only those genetically modified to produce super-dense crops can provide the yields he needs to reach his quotas. In order to reach these yields, however, it’s going to involve a lot of chemical spraying. Using a backpack-mounted sprayer, the farmer coats each of his fields weekly with a mixture of pesticides and chemical fertilizers, all sold to him by the same company that sold him the seeds. These are the same chemicals that, as proven in court, have caused diseases such as jaundice and cancer to the farmer as well as two of his children. He doesn’t make enough money to afford the growing list of chemicals he needs to kill the resilient pests in his fields, let alone health care for him and his family. Eventually he loses every last dollar buying his children’s medications, which, astonishingly, are sold to him by the same company that sold him both the seeds and the chemicals.

With his debt and the health of his family becoming more and more overwhelming, the farmer begins to understand why 250,000 farmers in Cambodia have reportedly committed suicided – most of which by way of drinking the very chemicals that caused their health problems and debt cycle in the first place. Nevertheless, despite all of the hardships and a never-ending cycle of poverty, the farmer manages to produce his cotton quota. It wasn’t without plenty of literal blood, sweat and tears. It never is. This cheap cotton is eventually purchased at record-low prices by large textile distributors who weave it into cheap fabrics that are then sold in extreme bulk quantities to low-end super-retailers like H&M and Zara.

THE BURDEN ON GARMENT WORKERS

This super cheap cotton is then shipped to Dhaka, Bangladesh where it is received by a factory owner who employs 5,000 sewers, 85% of whom are women. These women make roughly $2 a day, for 12 hours of sewing work. There are growing cracks in the walls and every day the workers fear that the building might come crumbling down, as it did last week in a neighboring town. A thousand garment workers were killed that day, even after voicing concerns about the structural stability of the building. Every day this factory produces 180,000 shirts, and dumps 20 million litters of chemicals into the local water supply, which has been causing record levels of disease and birth defects in the local community.

The factory owner must stay on top of his workers to make sure they are sewing fast enough to meet the deadline. The most recent order is for one million shirts at 20 cents each, but they all need to be delivered by the end of the month otherwise the brand can cancel the contract and not pay the factory anything. His investors won’t let him lose another major contract to a competing factory, but he knows that at these rates he won’t be able to pay his workers their full wage. He’s forced to give his sewers a pay cut. This month the sewers will only make $1.80/day, rather than a full $2 – which is already not enough to feed their kids and buy the medication needed to treat their diseases caused by the pollution. When the female workers attempt to unionize and demand a higher minimum wage, the owner and his male staff lock the women in the factory and beat them with their own rusty sewing equipment, including chairs, rulers, and scissors. At the cost of more blood, sweat and tears, the dirt cheap cotton farmed in Cambodia is made into dirt cheap shirts sewn in Bangladesh that are ready to be shipped and sold in America.

THE BURDEN OF ADVERTISING

The next person in this cycle of garbage and pollution is the one who’s in charge of marketing the shirt to the almighty American consumer. The Cambodian/Bangladeshi cotton shirt arrives on the slowboat from Asia and eventually reaches the office of GQ magazine. There’s a new unpaid intern in the office working on pulling product for a story called “The Best Button-Downs Under $10”. He’s been chit chatting on the phone all morning with his contact-persons at each Fast Fashion brand who is sponsoring the October issue. Out of the three shirts that are going to be recommended in this story, one has to be H&M, another placement is sold to the GAP Brands, and the intern gets the honor and excitement of choosing the 3rd shirt (but it can’t be from any brand who purchased advertising last month and didn’t re-up for the current issue). He takes photos of the sample shirts on his smartphone and texts them to his boss with some anxiously excited emojis. They debate catchy marketing titles such as “Shirts That Cost Less Than Lunch” in order to satisfy their advertisers and shareholders by convincing their readers that buying this cheap cotton shirt is as fundamental and happiness-inducing as eating a proper meal.

The photoshoot for the advertorial story is scheduled for next week, and the expert photoshop re-touchers are already on contract. The H&M shirt will get center position in the story, because they paid the most. As it turns out, the largest expense for a fast fashion brand like H&M is not producing the low-quality garments they sell, but spending on aggressive marketing campaigns to convince consumers that buying more cheap clothing will solve their problems and have them looking like happy European super models.

THE BURDEN ON THE CONSUMER

Kurt is a DJ and part-time promoter at a couple nightclubs in NYC. He makes $300 when he spins, which is a couple nights a week if he’s lucky. He has student loans and credit card debt, he doesn’t have health insurance, and he’s falling behind on the rent for his Chinatown apartment. But, despite his poverty level, he’s got access to a consolation prize that usually cheers him up. When he buys a brand new shirt at an unbeatable price, he feels like he got a great deal and considers himself happier in the short term. Although, the truth is, he doesn’t necessarily love the shirt he just bought and when he looks at his wardrobe he’s not really sure what his “style” is. It kind of changes with every season, which sometimes gives him anxiety and leaves him wondering what to wear or who he is, even though he’s got an expansive collection of trendy clothing. Nevertheless, Kurt buys the Cambodian/Bangladeshi shirt and ends up sweating through it at his next DJ performance. After a wash it’s just not the same shirt – the fit is off and the collar looks all floppy – so Kurt ends up donating the shirt to charity. He feels like he’s doing a good thing; somebody in need will get to enjoy that used, shrunken shirt. Oblivious to the truth about where that shirt originally came from and all the pain and damage that was caused to produce it, Kurt feels good about his recent donation so he decides to forgo lunch and buy himself another new shirt instead. He still can’t make rent or afford health insurance, but this one has color blocking and studs on it, and it was only $8 added to his credit card debt. This one makes him feel like a whole new man, he thinks. And if he doesn’t end up wearing it, well, he can always just donate it to a “good cause”.

THE COST OF RECYCLING

Once Kurt tosses the shirt into the local donation bin, it embarks on another epic journey known as the world’s recycled clothing system. This is another insanely labor intensive and wasteful process that uses more energy than it produces. We touched on the recycled clothing cycle a bit in our Guide to Shopping Vintage, but we will get into greater detail about this globally intertwined marketplace in another article. Long story short, only about 10% of the clothes donated to charity are actually sold to vintage, thrift, or second-hand shops for after market re-sale. Kurt’s shirt, like most, was not picked-up for re-sale by a store owner, which means after yet another entire process of shipping and handling, it gets marked as “donation” and gets dumped somewhere in a country like Haiti. Haiti receives a ridiculous amount of recycled clothing. So much, in fact, that it has virtually destroyed the local garment-making industry that was indigenous to the community. Turns out with so much free clothing being dropped into the country all the time, it’s hard to keep people employed sewing new garments. Chances are, with all the abundance of recycled clothing, not even an impoverished person in Haiti is interested in Kurt’s shirt that was worn once and shipped around the world twice. Eventually the shirt is deemed unwearable and is thrown in the garbage.

THE BURDEN ON THE ENVIRONMENT

It’s important to realize that every step in this process has profound effects on the environment. Farming, manufacturing, transportation, marketing, sales, recycling, waste management – these all require tremendous amounts of energy and release tremendous amounts of harmful bi-products on the environment.

Finally, Kurt’s $9 cotton shirt that was worn one time arrives to it’s final resting place. It sits on one of many, many giant landfills which are consuming our earth, polluting our air and water, and killing our wildlife. It is estimated that 40% of these landfills are made up of old textiles used for clothing. As it turns out, when people can wear something one time then throw it out, they do. Like napkins. At alarming rates. The average American throws away roughly 82 lbs of clothing per year…that’s 11 million tons coming annually from the US alone. And it all just sits there, somewhere, on the land, releasing gasses that ruin our planet.

IS THERE A SOLUTION?

I believe there a solution. In my opinion, it’s three fold:

1) Educate the consumers. As bloggers with the power of the internet and the ears of consumers looking for advice on buying clothing, it’s our duty to teach people about more than putting together a cool outfit. At Articles of Style we want our readers to invest wisely and develop lasting style, all while preserving the environment and understanding who they’re giving their hard-earned dollars to. Large corporations are not going to stop making cheap crap unless we stop wasting our money on it.

2) Produce quality goods. It’s on fashion brands to produce quality goods that last the test of time. Good design is meant to last, not be replaced after one season, or even worse, one wear. Clothing should never be considered disposable. This is a wasteful way of doing business and it harms every person in the cycle, from the farmer to the sewer to the end consumer. There do exist several forward-thinking fashion companies, as highlighted in the documentary, who use sustainable practices to create their garments – from organic farmers who are paid fair wages, to garment workers who are treated with care and respect, to products that are designed to enhance the life of customers rather than add the burden of storing more worthless junk.

3) Provide transparency. In the digital age, there is no excuse for a brand who produces a product to not be upfront about where and how it was made, and the conditions of those who were contracted to make it. This should be a point of pride for the brand, not a dirty secret. As a consumer, it’s our duty to ask questions and not be fooled by price tags that seam unreasonably low. There are people all around the world who are paying a steep cost in order to sell you that shirt for $9.

In conclusion, I believe it is possible for us to slow down the shockingly detrimental effects caused by this new “Fast Fashion” industry, but it’s going to take a lot more education and effort among consumers. To get started, I suggest watching The True Cost. If you’re a fashion enthusiast I have a feeling it will change your life, or at least the way you spend money on clothing.

New ‘Stealth Wear’ clothing collection protects wearers from drone detection

It may look like something out of a cheap science fiction film, but a new line of clothing developed by a New York City-based fashion designer can reportedly protect you from prying electronic eyes.

The inspiration for the “Stealth Wear” collection of hoodies, burqas and hijabs lined with “metalized fibers that reflect heat, thus evading thermal imaging technology used by drones,” came from several sources, says creator Adam Harvey – Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) research, a trip to Afghanistan and, according the Air Force Times, a “particular interest to challenge authoritarian surveillance.”

“It all came together last year after working with similar materials I use for the pieces now and experimenting with a thermal camera I have on hand,” he told AF Times, adding that inspiration coincided during a trip he took last year, in which he spoke with CBS reporter Mandy Clark about his research.

“She said to me, rather matter-of-factly, that averting surveillance like this is something that happens in the battlefield, that people were using space blankets in the desert to deflect detection,” he said.

‘Leader in privacy technology’

Harvey said he worked with designer Johanna Bloomfield on material that is flexible and metalized, in order to create “ready-to-wear counter-surveillance” clothing. He showcased his designs at the Primitive London event in January, AF Times said.

Much of Harvey’s development centers around what he believes is a growing feeling of vulnerability among the American people because of the government’s – as well as local police department’s – reliance on drones for surveillance.

“The U.S. is a leader in technology, but we can also be a leader in privacy technology,” he said.

Harvey said uniform companies that have U.S. military contracts are already expressing an interest in buying some of his clothing line. He now has to work on restructuring the way the garments are manufactured; on average it takes about two weeks to make one piece by hand.

“Out of the three main pieces, the most significant is the burqa,” – a traditional outer garment worn by Islamic women that covers their bodies in public, including an eye veil – he said.

The pieces of clothing will be made in New York City, but the line is not necessarily being catered to Americans. Rather, they will be applicable “anywhere where drones are being used.” For the record, increasingly that will be in the United States.

“Wearable technology” is nothing new to Harvey, 31. He’s responsible for “Camoflash,” which debuted in 2012 as an anti-paparazzi clutch that emits a “counter-flash” of light aimed at photographers’ cameras.

“He followed that up with ‘CV Dazzle,’ a camouflage technique that combines makeup and hairstyling in order to thwart facial recognition software,” AF Times said.

Not politically right or left

At what cost this clothing technology? It isn’t cheap, according to the Daily Beast. The hoodie will cost $487.45; the hijab $561.99; and the burqa an astounding $2,278.35. Perhaps the most affordable wear: anti-drone t-shirts at $45.58 each.

“Artistically I wanted it to be an appealing garment that made sense as something that could be worn,” he told the Beast. “It’s a future-ready type garment, but it does have a practical application today.”

Politically, Harvey says his clothing line should interest people on both sides of the U.S. political spectrum.

“People see it as technology they can use in their own way,” he said. “It interests people on the far right as much as it interests people on the far left. Ultra-conservatives see it as anti-government and ultra-liberals see it as anti-military.”

Either way, the most important thing about Harvey’s clothing line is that it is anti-drone.

“While I implemented this on a fashionable level, I think this is a good way to change people’s sentiments about [drones and surveillance] and why we need to consider it before it becomes a greater problem,” he said.

Beware of hidden toxin sources in new clothes – Always wash them before wearing

mesin-cuciSeveral decades ago, the Dupont logo had the following text attached: “Better living through chemistry.” Since then, many of us have come to realize we are living worse in a toxic environment that includes chemically polluted air, water, food, so called “medicine,” and now even clothing.

Dupont had created Rayon, a synthetic fiber used for much of our clothing. So it made sense to team up with the timber industry to ensure hemp was banned in the late 1930s. Rayon and paper could continue to be made by chemically processing wood from trees without competition.

Clothing clings to skin, our largest organ. Toxic chemicals are used excessively for processing garment fibers and also for manufacturing clothes. Asian and third world countries manufacture most textiles and clothes.

But they supply American and other multinational brand name labels with those clothes to yield high profits based on cheap production in regions without even shoddy regulatory agency protection.

What’s in your new brand name clothing?

After clothes are made, they are often covered with formaldehyde to keep them from wrinkling or becoming mildewed during shipping. Formaldehyde as a preservative also adds to vaccines’ toxicity.

Several severe allergic reactions to formaldehyde have been reported. It’s no wonder. Investigations have discovered up to 500 times the safe level of formaldehyde in clothing shipped to brand name clothiers form factories in China and Southeast Asia.

There’s also the long term, negative, cumulative effect on health that is almost impossible to trace back to any source of clothing chemicals. Formaldehyde and other toxic chemicals are used to create synthetic fibers for towels and bedding. Textile toxins are hard to avoid even when you’re out of your clothes.

Another commonly used clothing chemical is nonylphenol ehtoxylate (NPE). NPE use is restricted in most regions where the big name brand clothes are sold. But there are no restrictions where the clothing factories are located in China and Southeast Asia. 14 big name brands get their clothing from clothing factories using NPE.

Wrinkle free or no-iron should be considered a warning for carcinogenic perfluorinated chemicals (PFCs). Teflon for pans is a PFC. Petrochemical dyes are used for fibers in those Asian textile factories that profusely pollute nearby waterways.

Dr. Richard Dixon of the World Wildlife Federation warns about the ecological impact on wildlife: “Urgent action is needed to replace hazardous chemicals with safer alternatives especially in clothing and other consumer products.” (Emphasis added).

Nonylphenol ethoxylates (NPEs) are commonly used as detergents in textile industries abroad that are contracted by multi-national USA and EU-based clothing companies. NPEs break down to form nonylphenol, a toxin with hormone-disrupting properties similar to BPA.

Black clothing and dyes for leathers often contain p-Phenylenediamine (PPD), which can produce allergic reactions. Flame retardants can appear in bedding and nightwear. Volatile organic compounds (VOCs) and dioxin-producing bleach are used by textile industries. Athletic shoes that contain cloth contain some of these toxins.

How to protect yourself

Read clothing labels and try to avoid synthetic materials such as Rayon, Nylon, Polyester, Acrylic, Acetate or Triacetate as much as possible. Also avoid no-iron, wrinkle free and preshrunk items.

Whenever that’s impossible, wash and dry those clothes three times before wearing. Use only safe, organic detergents from health food stores. Also, avoid those dryer sheets to prevent clinging unless you can find them without toxic chemicals.

Even used clothing purchased from thrift stores such as Goodwill may be sprayed with some skanky chemical before they’re put up for sale. Wash and dry them at least once. Stay away from dry cleaners that use perchloroethylene. There are some that don’t.

The Toxic Chemicals Lurk in Your Clothing

You know that if you eat that sugar-filled cookie, it might spike your insulin, and if you put on cosmetics with chemicals in them, they will probably end up in your blood. But have you ever thought twice about putting on your favorite T-shirt, or snuggling into your cotton sheets?

A growing number of parents are demanding organic cotton clothing and diapers for their babies. Many don’t stop with clothing, but have furnished their homes with organic flooring or carpeting, organic mattresses, organic linens, organic window coverings etc. Are they fanatics or do they have scientific evidence to support their lifestyle changes?

Cotton has long been considered by consumers to be the most natural, healthy fabric and they have made it the most popular clothing material. It has been easy to forget that cotton is a crop and as such, it is subject to the same issues as other crops normally considered as food. The last time you drove by a cotton field, did you consider that many of the foods you eat contain a by-product of this very plant?

The cotton plant is comprised of 40% fiber and 60% seed by weight. Once separated in the gin, the fibers go to textile mills, while the seed and various ginning by-products are used for animal feed and human food. For humans this is in the form of cottonseed oil, a very common ingredient in processed foods. The cotton seeds are also used in grain for cattle, which indirectly does enter the food chain in meat and dairy products.

The concerns regarding health stem from the fact that though cotton uses only 2.4% of the world’s
agricultural acreage, its cultivation involves 25% of the world’s pesticide use, more than any other crop. Most of these are insecticides, but fungicide is another fraction of the total. Also, consider that it takes about one-third of a pound of pesticides and fertilizers to grow enough conventional cotton for just one T-shirt.

In many cases, these poisonous chemicals are applied by spraying from the air, which means they can be
carried and spread by the wind and breathed by people living nearby. It probably is no coincidence that Texans near Lubbock have a high cancer rate, while Lubbock happens to be the world’s largest area of cotton cultivation.

The chemicals used in cotton production don’t end with cultivation. As an aid in harvesting, herbicides are used to defoliate the plants, making picking easier. Producing a textile from the plants involves more chemicals in the process of bleaching, sizing, dying, straightening, shrink reduction, stain and odor resistance, fireproofing, mothproofing, and static- and wrinkle-reduction. Some of these chemicals are applied with heat, thus bonding them to the cotton fibers.

Several washings are done throughout the process, but some of the softeners and detergents leave a residue that will not totally be removed from the final product. Chemicals often used for finishing include formaldehyde, caustic soda, sulfuric acid, bromines, urea resins, sulfonamides, halogens, and bromines. Some imported clothes are now impregnated with long-lasting disinfectants which are very hard to remove, and whose smell gives them away.

These and the other chemical residues affect people with Multiple Chemical Sensitivities. Also, people have developed allergic reactions, such as hives, to formaldehyde through skin contact with solutions on durable-press clothing containing formaldehyde. Allergic Contact Dermatitis develops after repeated allergen exposure to dyes and other chemicals and metals. According to a British allergy website, small amounts of perspiration can separate out allergens through several layers of clothing, and leather shoe dyes can leach through socks.

European researchers found antimony, a fire-retardant chemical used in some crib mattresses, leaches through the mattress; they connected this finding to SIDS deaths. The livers of autopsied infants were also found to contain high amounts of antimony. Europe is moving away from flame retardants and requires them to be proven safe before use. Yet US laws require flame retardants be applied to many kinds of children’s clothing.

One study, which included an 18-month old baby, found high levels of flame retardants in the subjects’ blood. The results were two to three times the levels that are known to cause neurological damage in rats.

Though many people believe that chemicals can leach from clothing into the body through the skin, there is no research to prove this. Sodium Tripolyphosphate, a chemical used in some laundry detergents, is claimed to be easily absorbed through the skin from clothes, but this was never proven.

A chemist will say that it is impossible for chemicals to transfer through the skin from dry clothing.
Chemicals enter the skin through the process of osmosis, which requires a moist medium in order for this to occur. Studies are needed to determine if sweat or urine in wet diapers constitute enough of that medium.

Possibly the mechanism by which the chemicals enter the body is through off-gassing of the chemical which is then breathed in. There have been no real studies proving this either. The baby in the previously-cited study crawled on a carpeted floor. Carpeting usually contains flame retardants.

One thing is clear though: organically produced cotton has few of the issues of conventional cotton. Not only are GMO seeds and chemical pesticides not used, but usually the picking is done by hand. Instead of using chemicals to defoliate for easier harvesting, the organic grower relies mostly on the seasonal freeze to defoliate the plants.

Synthetic fertilizers are not used, in favor of crop rotation, which increases the organic matter in the soil. Weeds are removed and controlled by hand and by hoeing. Pest control is achieved by bringing in natural predators, using beneficial insects and certain trap crops which lure insects away.

The processing of the organic fibers uses different procedures in milling and in the textile
manufacturing. Chemical finishes for shrink resistance, permanent press etc. are not applied or are minimal, and use of natural rather than synthetic dyes are encouraged by co-ops and trade organizations.

Therefore, at this time we cannot say that the non-organic cotton shirts and pajamas you wear and the non-organic sheets you sleep on are toxic. However, we do know that their cultivation is toxic to the field workers. They have a high rate of cancer and death from suicide.

We can state that the by-products of conventional cotton that appear in our food have been subjected to toxins in their production. We can say that their production pollutes rivers and soil and causes other environmental damage.

So you don’t have to throw away all of your conventional cotton clothing just yet, unless it causes an
allergic reaction. However, we all might do well to request that future clothing and linen purchases of cotton be of the organic variety. If the demand increases, more fields will be raised organically, resulting in health benefits for the environment and the workers and residents near the fields, as well as for all of us who consume cottonseed oil in foods.