Clothes to Me

Once Valledupar's main economic produce; Cotton

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I watched a show yesterday called Eco-Trip: The Real Cost of Living.  In this episode, they  followed the life of a cotton t-shirt. Apparently, cotton crops are some of the most heavily sprayed in the US agricultural industry. Cotton crops also consume a vast amount of water, over 2,700 litres (700 gallons) per pound of cotton. The heavily sprayed seeds and other plant parts are also fed to cows, which we then eat. According to this show, we are actually consuming more cotton through eating beef than through purchasing clothes. Hmmm.

After it is picked, the cotton is cleaned and shipped overseas, mostly to China, where it is woven into cloth, using more water and dyes and chemicals. In many cases the cloth is shipped again to another country where the garment is put together, and then shipped again back to North America, where it is put into stores for us to buy.

Our clothes really have an amazing journey, even before we walk around in them for the first time! Just as importantly, our clothes consume a lot of water, even before we have washed them for the first time. Finally, our clothes have been responsible for a whole lot of pesticide use, almost 1/3 of a pound per t-shirt. If you think about it, the pesticides used to produce a regular cotton t-shirt, can weigh more than the t-shirt itself. Ewww.

Before turning all green last November, I had never once thought about the impact that my clothes had on the environment. I had never considered my clothing footprint.

We have an insatiable appetite for new clothes in North America. The fashion industry feeds this frenzy, by making us feel decidedly un-cool if we don’t buy new clothes each season. Many people have racks and racks of clothes, some of which they have only worn once or twice, some still with the price tags.

If we all knew the environmental cost of making our clothes – would we still buy so many?

As part of my Nothing New challenge, I have not purchased any new clothes for myself, husband or kids since January 1st. It honestly has been very easy. We have so many clothes to begin with there is no reason to buy more. However with kids it can get a little tricky. Take my son for example – he is five years old and plays rough and tumble on the floor. The knees of his pants can take quite the beating. Since our challenge began, he has blown out the knees of 3 pairs of jeans. I still let him wear them, just not to school.

My next problem is socks – my socks. It seems like I am getting holes in all my socks all at once. The other day I had to try on 3 pairs of socks before finding one without new holes.

My community held an “I’ve Outgrown It” sale last weekend. It is an annual event where they stuff a school full of used kids clothing and toys. It is like a giant garage sale! There are great deals to be had. I purchased 4 pairs of pants, 2 pairs of shorts and 5 shirts for my son, and 2 pairs of pants, 3 pairs of shorts and 5 shirts for my daughter. I got all this for $100. Several items had never been worn and still had the tags on them. Others were high-end, brand name items that had seen very little wear. So I am now set up quite nicely for spring and summer.

I am closing in on my 3 month challenge of nothing new, with only about 2 weeks left. It has me thinking about what I will do once the challenge is over. Will I rush out and buy a bunch of new stuff? Will I continue to not buy any new stuff at all? Or will I take a hybrid approach and purchase new only when absolutely necessary?

I have not quite decided. I do know that I am very aware of the huge footprint my clothing has, and will opt to wear what I have instead of purchasing new.  If I have to purchase, I will try to purchase used whenever possible. If I have to purchase new, I will buy from stores that offer high quality fabrics that don’t wear out as fast – it may cost more but it will last longer, and someone else is more likely get some use out of it when I am done. I am also going to be on the look out for organic cotton fabrics in my area. I would like to save some pesticide poundage! I will also get out my mending skills and see what I can do about those nasty holes in my socks and my son’s jeans.

Umm… wait a minute. I think I just committed to darning my socks. Seriously?

I guess so! 🙂

Wal-Mart Worries

A typical Wal-Mart discount department store i...

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Shortly after I had my green epiphany in November, I found myself wandering around in Wal-Mart. I looked around me and saw aisles and aisles of boxed items, plastic items, clothes, shoes, and toys for young and old. Each shelf was packed with stuff and the aisles went on and on and on. The store was huge. How much stuff was actually in here anyway? Who is going to buy it all? Where did it all come from?

Standing there in Wal-Mart, where I had been at least a hundred times before, it hit me. How are we ever going to change as much as we need to, when this Wal-Mart represents our consumption culture? I looked at all the people around me, pushing carts full of stuff. Consumption is all around us, it is what we do. How can we stop? It is just not sustainable to consume as much as we do. The resources are going to run out. We are pumping too much carbon into the sky to produce all this stuff, to ship it. At the end of the day, most of this stuff just ends up in the garbage anyway, as we reach for a newer, shinier option. We like to buy things. It makes us feel happy. It makes us feel like we deserve it, that we have worked hard for our money and that this is our reward. Sometimes it makes us feel like we measure up to other people, or worse, that we are better than other people.

The sad thing is that we buy all this stuff without appreciating what part of the Earth it came from, how far it came, and the people who were involved along the way.  Where did the tree grow that was cut down to produce the cardboard box?  Was the place they mined the metals a safe place to work? Did the workers who made the plastic have proper protection from the chemicals? Were the people in China who put the item together paid a fair wage, enough to feed their family? Do they even get to see their family or are they migrant workers from rural areas? Often Chinese migrant workers will leave their children behind to work in the city, only seeing them once or twice a year. I can’t even imagine having to do that. 

This all happens so I can have a new toaster, or a nicer coffee maker. I want some new dishes – I want to switch out the ones I have, I am sick of them. I want to buy a few new lipsticks, even though I have a dozen or so at home, I just want some different colours. I should also get a new stapler, since mine only staples 15 sheets at a time and I would prefer if it stapled 20. Hmmm… How about a new clock, this one looks more modern than the one I have. What else can I get while I am here?

So standing there that day in Wal-Mart, I began to feel panicky, anxious. What was going to happen to our world, how would we ever change? 

In that moment I resolved that I would not purchase things recklessly. I would make do with what I had. If I needed something, I would try first to find it used. I decided then and there to put myself on a shopping ban in 2011 to see how it felt.

Now it is February, and it feels good. I have not purchased any toys for my kids, no clothes for anyone. I have not purchased any cleaners or shampoo or hair gel or moisturizer. I am making do with what I have, and in some cases, making homemade stuff to compensate. It is challenging, yes, but also fulfilling. I feel like I am pushing myself to change, in hopes that others will change too. I want to tread lightly. I don’t want to hurt our world more than I have to. To quote Colin Beavan from his excellent book, No Impact Man:

If I treated the resources that pass through my hands as if they were precious, might I also begin to feel like this very life – the one right under my feet right now and right this very moment – might be precious too? And excuse me for generalizing – I don’t mean to preach – what if instead of just me, it were we? By this I mean if we, as a culture, treated resources as precious, might we not begin to act and feel as though this life we lead together – the one we live when we look in each other’s eyes – might be precious, too? And might this planet be precious, too? (page 46)

Precious indeed.

No Napkin, thanks

I am continuing to think about the things I consume and the garbage I make. I have never spent this amount of time thinking about garbage.

I found this really interesting movie, not yet widely released, although coming out on DVD soon. It is called the Clean Bin Project. A young couple from Vancouver decide to challenge each other to see who can produce the least amount of garbage over the course of a year. They come up with the idea while cycling down the pacific coast of the United States, where they lived for months with only what they could carry on their bicycles. When they got home they were confronted with all their “stuff” and asked themselves why they needed it all, if it just is going to end up in a landfill. So they decided to stop buying stuff for a year, and eliminated their garbage to practically nothing along the way.

My garbage is far from nothing. Sure we recycle, but check out this pile of recycling bags:

Okay this is about 3 week’s worth, and we had a 5 year-old birthday party thrown in there, with all the toy packaging that entails.

But really, even if we recycle, is this amount of waste going out of our house in 3 weeks even remotely acceptable?

Well I took one more small step to reduce it today – paper napkins. No longer will I buy these. They are made of trees aren’t they? How many trees are cut down to produce North American paper napkins for one year? I have no idea but I bet it is high. Have you ever gone to a fast food restaurant and ended up with like 15 napkins on your tray? Why do we need all these? I don’t want them on my tray and I don’t want them in my house.

So I went from this:

To this:

Do you like my P-E-A-C-E Christmas decoration in the background? I know, I thought it was a nice touch. At dinner time our whole family discusses this peace decoration, and we each have opinion whether we have peace in our house. Peace and quiet? Not so much. Peace in our hearts? I would say so…

Anyway, the point is that real cloth napkins are much more refined. Paper? No dear, we use cloth.

Actually I purchased these 8 napkins for $6 at a second hand store, Value Village. I am seeing how many things I can also avoid buying new. So far, Value Village has filled my pretty napkin needs quite nicely.

We will see how they work out, and whether the extra laundering is that annoying. I am optimistic. How much extra work among 12 loads of laundry, can 8 little napkins be?