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  • Jenny Hill

Clothes-minded: What Is the True Cost?


Do you find yourself spending both more money and less money on clothing today? It seems like some basics, like jeans, cost more. But some other things, like certain types of coats, and t-shirts cost the same as they did 20 years ago, or in some cases, even less.


Here are some numbers, courtesy of Treehugger.com, to illustrate what I mean:

The percentage of household income spent on clothes is actually less than it was in the 1960s. I think it’s important to note that the percentage of clothing made in the U.S. is also vastly lower. Does it take less labor now or less resources to make clothes? Possibly there are technological advances that brought reductions in those areas, but mostly–sadly–it is a result of consumers not paying the true cost of the clothing they consume.


Not Paying the True Cost

Most of the expenses of clothing production are now externalized costs. I like the definition of Mary McMahon on the SmartCapitalMind blog: “Externalized costs are negative impacts associated with economic transactions which concern people outside of those transactions, meaning that neither the buyer nor the seller bears the brunt of the costs.”


In this case,examples of externalized costs are pollution from clothing manufacturing (which may lead to things like climate change or health problems for those living or working in polluted areas), and unhealthy working conditions or unfair wage scales. Because almost all clothing sold in the United States is now produced overseas, we U.S. consumers do not directly witness the pollution or working conditions.


Adding to this problem is the phenomenon of Fast Fashion or clothes that are purposely made to have a short shelf life (think low quality and sold cheaply) so consumers will cycle through them and buy more. “Cycle through them” is a euphemism for throwing them away–but more on that later. Americans now buy a piece of clothing every five days, on average. This figure comes from a 2021 article from The Atlantic magazine, which calls out brands like H&M, Zara, and Boohoo.


Should We Be Blue About Blue Jeans?

So maybe you don’t follow trendy, fast, fashion, or any fashion at all. Personally, I am a fan of vintage sweaters and jeans. But I wear a cotton t-shirt under most sweaters and finding one made in the USA is a challenge. And speaking of blue jeans, did you know some 5 to 6 billion pairs of jeans are manufactured every year? And the estimated amount of water required to produce a single pair of jeans is 1,800 gallons?


Which brings us to the question: what happens when you are done with clothes? The same Atlantic article quoted above pointed out that the volume of clothes Americans throw away has doubled over the past 20 years. It seemed like the big metal donation kiosks where you could drop clothes and shoes for recycling that dotted the parking lots of many area grocery stores disappeared during the pandemic and have not returned.


If you are a thrift shopper, you may have noticed signs posted in thrift stores who are no longer taking donations or consignments. We need the imagination and creativity of the people currently manufacturing more and more and encouraging us to buy more and more redirected to figure out how we can reduce and reuse the clothes that are already out here.


In the meantime, there are perennial go-tos like thrift shopping and rummage sales. There are even some new twists: If your local thrift store does not have a good selection or if you don’t like the in-store experience, the online shopping experience for used clothing may feel a lot more convenient. This blog covered buying used items online last year.


Another new option are local Buy Nothing groups–where people sign up via Facebook in their local area and can post and view items for give away. Clothing manufacturing requires precious natural resources including water, energy and land. It also generates pollution. In 2017, the EPA estimated that diverting all of the textiles that are currently being thrown away would reduce greenhouse gas emissions significantly. In fact, it would have the same effect as taking 7.3 million cars off the road. (That’s a LOT!) This angle was explored more fully in this blog post from 2017 on sustainable shopping for clothes had some more suggestions.


Share Ideas About Clothes

Maybe you have your own hacks for saving money on clothes or re-purposing them. If so, we’d love to hear from you! One option is to join Change Exchange, a discussion group whose purpose is to examine complex topics about sustainable living by reading, watching, or listening to content and then coming together for a lively discussion.

Register at happydancingturtle.org/classes to access the materials for December’s topic on fashion consumption. Participants have the option of taking in a little or a lot of this background information or may just come willing to exchange ideas on the problems and solutions.


The group will meet Tuesday, December 13, from 6:30 to 7:30 p.m. You may join either in-person or via Zoom (link provided with registration). For in-person in the Northern Lakes (Pine River) location, the meeting place is Old Main on the Happy Dancing Turtle campus, 2331 Dancing Wind Rd SW, Pine River. For those in the Driftless location, the in-person meeting place is Bluff Country Co-op, 121 W. 2nd St, Winona.


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