‘Disposable Clothing’: The Hidden Costs

November 26, 2011
By Ilana Solomons SILVER, Weston, Massachusetts
Ilana Solomons SILVER, Weston, Massachusetts
5 articles 0 photos 0 comments

You see that shirt lying in the trash bag on the floor of your room? You told yourself it was OK to only wear it once because it was so cheap. But what did that shirt really cost? Today clothing is sold at such an inexpensive and seemingly affordable cost that we forget there’s no such thing as a free lunch. Someone must be paying for the price of that shirt. But who or what? It all starts with that super cute shirt you saw at the mall and just had to have. You bought it thinking that the shirt fit the category of ‘disposable clothing’ which therefore justified the purchase of the other shirt that you bought the very next week to replace it.
Disposable clothing, for those of you who are not familiar with the term, is clothing that is so inexpensive that consumers feel they can buy, discard and buy again, always keeping up with the latest fashion trends. I like to think of disposable clothing as ‘fast-fashion’, similar to ‘fast food.’ The clothes live a short lifetime in your closet as you crave the new and still affordable trends very quickly. Similarly, ‘fast food’ has a short existence in your stomach; because it lacks essential nutrients you therefore need to eat again very soon. Both ‘fast-fashion’ and ‘fast food’ leave consumers with a false sense of the cost of their products. What many people don’t consider when purchasing their $10 shirt at Forever 21 or $4 meal at McDonalds, are the adverse effects of the their purchase on the environment and laborers which greatly increase the real cost of the product.

Polyester is a widely used clothing fiber. It is water resistant and therefore great for outdoors gear such as parkas and sleeping bags. It is also stain-resistant and wrinkle-resistant which makes it a popular fiber in everyday clothing such as shirts and pants. Whether the polyester is used by itself to make your parka or combined with other fabrics to make your blouse, producing this fabric requires the use of many limited resources. Polyester is made from petroleum gas and requires an extensive amount of crude oil in order to be produced. In addition, the production of polyester produces hazardous wastewaters, which can contaminate natural ecosystems. The environmental tax of the production of polyester includes both the depletion of limited resources, harmful gas emissions from burning fossil fuels, damage to natural ecosystems, which can lead to a disruption in the food chain, limiting biodiversity which is essential for succession.
If you look in your closet I would be willing to bet that at least half of the articles of clothing contain cotton. Cotton is the most widely used fabric in the world. However, while cotton contributes to the softness of your favorite pajamas and is used to make that t-shirt you once loved, it also has extreme adverse affects on the environment and those involved in the making of the apparel. The growth of cotton requires an extensive amount of pesticides. In fact, cotton accounts for ¼ of all pesticide usage in the United States. “In total, $2 billion worth of chemicals are sprayed on global cotton crops each year, almost half of which are classified as hazardous by the World Health Organization.”(1) Pesticides are harmful to ecosystem systems as they tamper with the food chain and natural selection. In addition, pesticides can have detrimental health consequences to those working in the cotton fields and drinking nearby water. “The various chemicals used to treat conventional cotton can harm beneficial insects and soil micro-organisms, pollute ground and surface water, and adversely affect the health of humans and wildlife—including fish, birds, and livestock—alike.”(2) In addition, the production and processing of cotton into textile products uses a tremendous amount of water. “The production of jeans is also water intensive. It requires an estimated 1,800 gallons of water to grow enough cotton to create a single pair of jeans.”(3) Although water is naturally replenished to a certain extent, practices like these indicate that our utilization of this precious resource exceeds the rate at which it naturally renews itself.
Once the crop has been picked, the raw materials are then transported thousands of miles to the factories where they will be made into clothes. Most likely this destination will be China. It is a glaring statistic that 98% of all clothes bought in the Unites States were made overseas. This means that the majority of our clothing was shipped thousands of miles, burning huge quantities of fossil fuels to reach their retail destination. Fossil fuel emissions are a growing problem around the world as the increased amount of C02 in the atmosphere has contributed to ‘climate change.’ When thinking of ways to reduce fossil fuel usage we commonly think of cars, buses, trains, and planes, not our clothes. However, next time you are buying new clothes check the label to see where the apparel was made and consider how many miles it traveled before it ended up in your closet.
Growth and transportation of raw materials are not the only issues. ‘Disposable clothes’ are generally poorly made in factories by underpaid, overworked workers and sometimes even children. In some factories, wages can drop as low as 12-18 cents per hour to keep up the increased demand for inexpensive 'disposable clothing'. In addition, the purchase of ‘disposable clothing’ often supports the institution of child labor which is immoral and detrimental to the physical and psychological health of children. Regardless of who is making these products, another issue is found in the products themselves, which are generally so poorly made that they are meant to last only short time, requiring the consumer to buy new clothes once again.
Perhaps the most environmentally damaging part of the lifespan of ‘disposable clothing’ happens after you have disposed of your unwanted clothes. “Americans throw away more than 68 pounds of clothing and textiles per person per year.”(4) Moreover, 85% of all clothing thrown away will end up in a landfill where the dyes used to color the clothing, and synthetic fabrics themselves, will never break down, and will pollute our earth.
So who is benefiting here? Not the environment and not the laborers, but the large business owners who are getting away with the unsustainable growth of the crop, the poor production of the clothes, and the unjust labor conditions all in the name of profit. So who can change this? You, the consumer can! Next time you’re at the mall, spend a little extra on those clothes made of better quality which will last you longer and look for clothes that were made domestically. Alternatively, you can look for products made by companies like Patagonia, New Balance, and Raven Jeans who are committed to making sustainable and socially responsible products. In addition, you will not need to run back to the mall a few weeks later to replace that seemingly inexpensive t-shirt. If we all took the initiative to stop the use of ‘disposable clothing’ we could transform the clothing industry and drastically improve the state of our environment.
1 http://www.greenyour.com/body/clothing/jeans/tips/repair-your-jeans
2 http://www.greenyour.com/body/clothing/jeans/tips/repair-your-jeans
3 http://www.greenyour.com/body/clothing/jeans/tips/repair-your-jeans
4 http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1964887/

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This article has 7 comments.

on Dec. 5 2011 at 8:46 pm
This article is great. Very insightful, interesting and well written. I anxiously await the next. 

bookworm316 said...
on Dec. 2 2011 at 2:36 pm
This is a great article - it is evident that the author invested a lot of time and care with the research and writing.  Can't wait for her next entry!!

on Nov. 30 2011 at 9:19 pm
I have read a lot in my day and this by far is the most well written and informational article EVER! keep writting girl

nomchuck52 said...
on Nov. 30 2011 at 1:57 pm
WOW! this girl knows how to write!!!!

on Nov. 29 2011 at 11:13 pm
Insightful article, accesible for all ages, and beautifully crafted.

Cmt1 said...
on Nov. 29 2011 at 11:00 pm
What an interesting and relevant topic! Keep up the good work- I can't wait to read the next article.

Green Day said...
on Nov. 29 2011 at 10:51 pm


Well written and thought-provoking...you have drawn attention to an important issue for our time.  Thanks for an excellent article!

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