I like Tom Philpott’s work at Mother Jones, but this piece connecting Americans’ disposable society and clothing with malnutrition around the world had one point that bothered me. I think in principle the article’s idea is a good one. Our clothing purchases have skyrocketed in the last 50 years, far faster than income growth. We throw away a lot of clothes (well actually I never throw away clothes, much to the chagrin of my wife) and don’t think twice about it. What is the environmental impact? A good question. Cotton grown in India and Africa for American clothing markets has a big impact. Philpott tries to connect that to malnutrition. It’s possible; certainly the world produces enough food to feed all people, especially given the gigantic amount of food that goes to waste. People who idealize globalization have a vision of a smooth running mechanism moving products from place to place so that you don’t have to grow your own food, but that doesn’t really work in the real world. Does growing cotton in Africa directly lead to malnutrition there? I don’t know. It likely plays a role but it’s probably not the whole story. This doesn’t even get into the other environmental negatives of clothing production for the western market such as the desertification of Mongolia to produce cheap cashmere.
Anyway, that’s all fine and good. Philpott goes on to suggest some options:
So what are your options for a guilt-free closet? Vintage and secondhand, of course, are good options, and some major retailers (Patagonia, Eileen Fisher) encourage customers to send back used clothes—then repurpose them or offer them for sale at a steep discount. If thrift stores aren’t your thing, many manufacturers (including H&M) now offer some products made from organic cotton, which requires fewer chemicals and a little less water. But most of it is grown in the same regions as conventional cotton—meaning the farmers still get a raw deal. By far, the most effective strategy is to give up the supermarket sweep approach to clothes shopping and instead buy a few durable pieces. As for me, I’ll be thinking twice next time I’m tempted to grab a cheapo item off the rack at a chain store. Come to think of it, I just might splurge on a spendy wool sweater I’ve been coveting. Considering how long it will last, it might not be so extravagant after all.
Again, the overall point here is good–the real answer is that we should buy less and keep what we have. But I have to say that the thrift store market argument drives me crazy. Not that there’s anything wrong with it in principle. But it’s completely unrealistic and unserious as a real option for most people because there’s just not enough clothes in them to feed the market and because to rush en masse to thrift stores would raise the prices beyond what people who actually rely on these clothes to survive could afford. Yet people who try to reject sweatshops, capitalism, unsustainable practices, and other problems in the modern world run this argument out as an example of how to do things differently time and time again. And it drives me crazy because it is so obviously not scalable.
Now I know that I am not fashionable in my leftism. I despise anarchism. I don’t think corporate campaigns are worth much. I am skeptical of online activism (though the tools obviously have value). I think consensus decision-making is a joke. I think the emphasis on individualism that drives our economic and social lives is great in some ways but also prioritizes individual action within social movements like Occupy over getting things done. I also think these kind of individual decisions to opt out of a system (in this case clothing capitalism) by making some kind of fashion statement (I buy used clothes! Look how fashionable and anti-capitalist I am!) are essentially meaningless. If solutions aren’t available to the masses, probably driven by grassroots campaigns but, importantly, implemented by governments, they probably aren’t really solutions.
To be fair, it’s not like I’m really accusing Philpott of being this way. That sentence of his was just a good launching point.