Friday, July 06, 2012

Consumerism and Clothing

I read something a while ago, and I forget where, that was discussing "reduce, reuse, recycle", and how it relates to all kinds of everyday things.  Yes, I recycle my plastic and glass and metal and paper and cardboard and whatever else I can.  Like a good citizen of the world I haul it all to the recycling center every 3 or 4 weeks.  I turn off the water as I'm brushing my teeth.  I try to take shorter showers and I use CFL bulbs in my light fixtures, even though they drive me nuts with the low lighting as they warm up.

When I'm shopping I try to select products with minimal packaging.  (And yes, Trader Joe's is cheap, but try to find something other than whole fruit that isn't packaged in plastic there.  The same goes for Publix.)  Because yes, I can recycle my measly 15 plastic containers, but the real waste comes with production.  If I were really into it I could be researching which companies use the least resources in packaging and transporting their items to retail.  But let's face it: I don't have the desire to do so.

What stuck with me was the "reuse" category of the equation.  Particularly when it comes to clothing.  I almost never buy clothing full price. Since I learned how to evaluate construction and materials in school I know when I'm getting a good deal.  (The last couple of times I've shopped at one particular plus size retailer buttons feel off of garments as I tried them on in the fitting room.  I haven't been back.)  But now I'm thinking perhaps I should just go straight to the "thrifted" category.  Saving money would be a nice by-product of this, but more importantly there is perfectly good clothing sitting in thrift/consignment/Goodwill stores that is in excellent condition.

Nothing beats a well organized Goodwill store!
The production of clothing is hard on the environment- there is water consumption, chemicals that are released into the air and water, transportation of goods to warehouses.  You can go back further and address the issues of producing both natural and synthetic fibers.  It takes a lot of effort to change fiber from it's natural state into something useful.

Meanwhile, the demands on the clothing industry keep getting greater.  Ever notice how stores like Old Navy and Forever 21 seem to have new items every time you go in them?  They are constantly refreshing their selections to get people to spend more money.  The problem is, these are cheap clothes being produced at a staggering volume.  What happens to these clothes?

You buy them and wear them 5 times, and then they break down.  Of course this depends on the quality of the garment, but seams start to give out, fabric pills, decorations come off, and you are left with a sad rag.  You could donate it (but why bother?), or throw it away, or use it as a dust rag until it gets too worn even for that.

Clothing producers typically test  item of clothing you buy at the mall up to 10 washes.  JUST TEN.  If the garment fails after being washed 10 times it's not a big deal because they don't want it to last longer than that.  Otherwise how would they sell you more clothes?

It is starting to make sense to me to either buy clothing I know is high quality, or buy clothing at the thrift store or some other re-used channel (consignment, e-bay, etc).   If it is substandard well at least it's gotten a few more wears (and didn't cost you more than $2 or $3) before it hits dust duty.  If it is better quality and has held up enough for person #1 to wear and then get to the secondary store floor, then it is probably a bargain.  I have thrifted jackets that have been in my closet for 10 years.  Its not like I wear them constantly, but they have definitely proven themselves in the cost-per-wear department.

In case you're wondering, cost per wear is the true cost of a garment.  If you buy a pair of $35 shoes at Target and wear them 15 times before the vinyl gets too scuffed up to go out in public again, you've spent $3.00 per wear on those shoes.  But if you buy a pair of $200 Cole Haan heels and wear them 200 times before they give out (and even then they probably just need to be resoled if you've taken good care of them), you've spent $1 per wear on those heels.  This is something I have to remind myself of all the time.  The t-shirt I bought at Forever 21 for $17 was worn twice, and then shrank up in the washer by 5" was $8.50 per wear.  But the $25 Lands' End tank top I've worn and washed countless times is down to pennies per wear.  Quality usually requires a greater initial investment, but it is going to be cheaper in the long run because it lasts longer.
Cole Haan Air Carma Beauties
Target Rose Accent Stiletto

I feel like I am always learning this lesson.  It can be applied to most things that get heavy regular use- cars, furniture, carpet, kitchen appliances, and food.  Choose high quality and it will last longer and serve you better, even if you buy it used.  Choose low quality and it will (probably- not always) fail you quickly.  The little cheap things add up faster and waste more of your money than the expensive major ones.

So start with good solid basics.  Pants of substantial fabric that are well made.  Shirts that fit well and don't have any raw fabric edges inside.  Shoes that are leather and won't show wear in two weeks.  This kind of shopping takes experience but it will save you a ton of money in the long run.  It will also help save valuable resources.  It's the next step in recycling.

PS Shortly after I wrote this, I found this article about what happens to donated clothing.  It is fascinating.

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