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Skeleton in the closet: A closer look at the clothing industry

During the month of September, many Christian churches celebrate creation and draw attention to the ways in which our consumption patterns are contributing to environmental degradation. Sarah-Leah Pimentel takes a look at the unsustainable practices in the clothing industry. This piece may serve as a reflection during the Jesuit’s worldwide Season of Creation Prayer vigil, to be held at 8pm (South African time).

I dare you to peek inside your closet. What will you find there? The dress you wore to only one wedding? The three-piece suit you wish you could still fit into? The latest off-the-shoulder tank top? A trusty pair of shoes that have lasted forever and never seem to fall apart? More scarves than you know what to do with? Your favourite jeans?

The reality is that most of us have more items in our closets than we know what to do with. Some we have only worn a few times because they are completely uncomfortable or impractical. Others don’t seem to match anything and eventually become forgotten at the bottom of a drawer. We all have that item that fell apart or magically changed size the first time we put it in the wash.

We probably don’t need two-thirds of what we wear, but we keep buying more clothing and shoes. We have bought into the advertising trap that tells us that if we don’t have the right accessories that are in vogue this summer, we’ll be embarrassingly unfashionable and uncool.

Environmentally unfashionable

My problem is not the clothes or the shoes themselves. It’s the hidden waste, pollution and exploitation that accompanies the clothing industry that has made me change how I buy clothes, shoes and accessories.

These figures from the World Economic Forum may come as a surprise. The clothing industry is the world’s second-largest polluter after the oil industry. It is responsible for 10 percent of all carbon emissions. It is the second-largest consumer of the world’s water supply. But it gets even scarier. The production of one cotton shirt uses up to 700 gallons (~3,182 litres) of water. A pair of jeans uses 2,000 gallons (~9,092 litres). One person could drink nine cups of water per day for 10 years with that. Yet, millions lack access to clean drinking water.

The clothing industry is the world’s second-largest polluter after the oil industry.

While we’re on the topic of water, have you ever thought where the dark blue dye on a pair of jeans goes to? Very often, it’s released into streams and rivers, contaminating clean water that would otherwise sustain human, animal and plant life, not to mention microscopic bacterial and aquatic life.

I don’t know about you, but how comfortable are those jeans you’re wearing right now? Mine are starting to feel more like a lethal weapon than a pair of sexy skinny jeans.

Here’s the problem. Every time we buy into the concept of “cheap fashion,” we are perpetuating an industry that is destroying the planet. Even worse, by continually buying cheaply made fashionable clothes, we are encouraging a cycle of exploitation. The International Labour Organisation (ILO) estimates that 170 million children are employed in the textile industry — picking cotton, working in the mills, labouring in sweatshops.

Large clothing suppliers source their fashion from countries with poor labour legislation and controls. Workers (often children who should be in school) are paid a pittance to ensure that you and I can buy a pair of jeans for R200. The focus is not on quality. It’s on quantity. The more clothes they make, the more they sell. My skinny jeans will fall apart in six months. I’ll throw them away and buy another pair.

Or will I? Will you?

Making different fashion choices

If we are serious about our commitment to the environment and to the poor, who are the most affected by industries such as the clothing industry, then we need to reject what Pope Francis often describes as the “throwaway culture.”

In his 2015 encyclical Laudato’ Si, Pope Francis writes:

“Human beings too are creatures of this world, enjoying a right to life and happiness, and endowed with unique dignity. So we cannot fail to consider the effects on people’s lives of environmental deterioration, current models of development and the throwaway culture (Laudato’ Si, 43).”

Environmentally harmful industries and the exploitation of people thousands of kilometres away continue to operate because we have sanctioned these unjust practices.

But the opposite is also true.

If we become more deliberate and discerning in our clothing choices and try to buy — to the extent possible — clothing and shoes that are sustainably produced, we are saying no to an industry of exploitation. By opting out of the fast fashion cycle, we are saying no to polluted rivers and high carbon emissions. We are saying yes to fair wages for the workers who make our clothes. We are saying yes to quality clothes that won’t shapeshift in the wash and will last beyond this season.

I’m not quite ready to trade in my skinny jeans. But I’ve made a start on my shoes. With R800 I was able to buy a very good-looking pair of locally-produced shoes that have lasted me four years and they’re still going. I wear them every day and they are incredibly comfortable. It is the same amount of money I would have spent buying four pairs of R200 sandals over four years. The advantage is that I’m sending less plastic into a landfill and I’m helping to protect a job here at home.

Maybe it’s time to start working on those jeans…

* The opinions expressed here by Spotlight.Africa contributors and editors are their own and not official statements of the Society of Jesus in South Africa or of the Catholic Church unless explicitly stated.