Why We Need to Stop Thinking of Our Clothing as Disposable
What do you do with clothes you can't donate? Despite the fact that nearly 100 percent of textiles are recyclable, you probably toss them. Every person in the U.S. generates an average of more than 80 pounds of clothing waste per year, if you can believe it.
Even though global clothing production has doubled since the year 2000, the amount of time we keep those clothes in our closets has been cut in half. Clothing waste has doubled over the past 20 years.
What can we do about these trends?
Molly Hardwick, owner of The Simple Kind clothing, is part of a burgeoning group of makers that believe how the people who make our clothing are treated and the way the industry contributes to climate change matters.
While the consequences of a globalized economy can’t fall on any one person's shoulders, Hardwick says fast fashion is a big part of the problem. Fast fashion is a term used to describe inexpensive, trendy clothing made by big companies like H&M, Zara and Forever 21. They're constantly putting out new stock to keep up with fashion trends.
But Hardwick says high turnover and cheaper prices come at a cost, contributing significantly to climate change as well as compromising the safety and standard of living of workers. In 2013, the world was shocked when a clothing manufacturing complex in Bangladesh collapsed, killing more than 1,000 workers.
Though the largest of its kind, Hardwick says this kind of tragedy is not an isolated event.
Tell me a bit about The Simple Kind and how it got started?
A few years back I made the decision to only buy ethically made, sustainably produced clothing and found that the options were quite limited in terms of style and color. Most of these garments are made to be very versatile, similar to the concept of a capsule wardrobe filled with simple, neutral pieces that can be easily paired in endless combinations.
I, in contrast, have a closet full of colorful, quirky vintage dresses that I wear in the same way and really don’t ever intend to part with. We want to be a platform where folks who love color and texture and quirk can come and feel at home with the sort of artistic expression they feel best represents them as individuals.
How did the passion to start an ethical clothing company come about for you?
I spent a few years after I finished school traveling across Europe and Asia, and seeing the variety of living standards around the world helped me zoom my perspective back far enough to see how our global economic system really does produce winners and losers, or severe economic inequality.
I started with the question, “Why is there more poverty here than where I grew up?” and began to understand that the way we buy and sell, the way that we produce and outsource manufacturing, all have different economic and social implications on various communities. I realized the way that I could practically engage with this was to make human and environmental rights the bottom line for the clothing I made.
We talked about how much trash the garment industry produces, but are there other environmental repercussions to clothing that we don’t as easily see?
There’s a saying in China that you can predict the next “it color” in fashion by looking at the color of the rivers in communities with a high concentration of apparel manufacturing. Western brands outsource their production to countries where environmental regulations aren’t strictly enforced, and one of the most common results of this laxity is that community water sources are polluted with toxic chemicals that manifest in severe health issues in the communities that rely on these sources of water to live.
Most clothing available in the West today has been treated with all sorts of toxic chemicals, from synthetic dyes used to achieve bright colors or formaldehyde used to keep textiles from wrinkling. There’s a growing concern for how these chemicals affect us who wear them on our skin, and to me that begs the question, “What about the people who made them who have to breathe this stuff for days on end?” What about the ecological health of the earth around them?
Synthetic fabrics, such as polyester, acrylic and nylon, are the largest contributors to microplastics in our oceans. Every time we wash them, microplastics fleck off into our waterways and accumulate in large bodies of water. They’re eaten by sea life, which are then often eaten by humans, filling our own stomachs with plastic.
With that in mind, how do you make sure the materials you're using are good for the earth?
Because one of The Simple Kind’s production partners is in Latvia, we’ve decided to use Baltic linen as one of our primary textiles. Linen is made from the flax plant and is one of the most eco-friendly textiles because of how little water and pesticide use is needed to grow flax. Every part of the plant can be used to some end (twine and linseed oil are also made from flax), and un-dyed linen is entirely biodegradable.
We source ours from a flax mill in Lithuania that uses low-impact dyes to achieve their colors and meets the Oeko-Tex 100 standard in textile production, which essentially means the linen they produce is free from the one-hundred most common toxic substances known commonly found in textiles.
It must be hard to compete with the low prices of fast fashion. What are the effects on you as a small business owner?
It is hard to compete with fast fashion prices. They have become so normal in the minds of most shoppers, it’s an entire mentality that has to be deconstructed.
I think the bottom line is catching the reality that we can’t treat clothing as disposable anymore without this violence done to the earth and other people. I think in an ideal world, we would all be paid a living wage and wouldn’t be so intimidated by higher prices on items we want to invest in.
But as income inequality is a reality even in the West, buying clothing for $20 or less somehow makes us feel empowered; it softens the blow of not actually having much excess income. Which is better, spending $80 on high-quality garment that will last you forever, or $20 every week for a month on four items you’re going to give to the thrift store before the end of the year?
Where do you personally like to shop?
I had a moment last month of realizing I don’t shop very often at all anymore. But when I do need to shop, I tend to split my business between vintage boutiques and ethical brands like Everlane. I go to ethical brands for my basics, maybe a pair of jeans or t-shirts, and I find my more unique pieces from vintage sellers. I also wear a lot of things I make at The Simple Kind.
Figuring out how to be an ethical shopper in a world with endless options can be overwhelming. Between food, electronics, clothing, it can feel like a full-time job. Do you have any pointers for where to start if I want to make more sustainable purchases?
In as far as you can, appreciating what you have is a good place to stat. If you have clothes with holes, maybe you can get them fixed. If they are too small or too big maybe get them altered to fit you. Shopping at thrift stores is great. Shopping local is a good next step. Support the people in your community and your local economy. The scope of what’s going on is so big. It’s okay to start small and pick your battles.