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Unscalable Options Have Little Value

[ 65 ] August 22, 2012 |

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.

Comments (65)

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  1. actor212 says:

    It’s interesting that Philpott mentions shopping at thrift stores, but doesn’t talk about donating clothing to them, instead suggesting buying from H&M or some such (LL Bean and Land’s End also accept used clothing back).

  2. Lee says:

    Oh good, I thought I was the only one that despised anarchism whether sincere or fashionable. I’m an old-fashioned state-oriented social democrat.

    One reason why people have more clothing now is that its easier to keep it clean. In the past, cleaning clothing was incredibly laborous and the incentive was to have fewer clothes even if you were rich and could have servants do it. Servants needed time to do other parts of their job and couldn’t devote all time to cleaning clothes. The incentive for fewer pieces of clothing is gone. Plus, its a lot easier for more people to be fashionable and the social costs for being unfashionable are higher. This again creates incentives to buy clothing.

    • RedSquareBear says:

      When I was a kid my cousins (3 and 5 years older, maybe?) would hand down clothes, especially jackets.

      I remember winter coats from the late 70′s and early 80′s, they were like rhino hide. They had huge metal zippers and didn’t rip.

      They were made in North Carolina by a union guy getting a decent wage. That got pushed up the supply chain, a winter coat wasn’t cheap in absolute dollars, but it lasted forever.

      Now, everyone has three winter coats but they’re thin crap. They need yearly replacement (which the clothing/fashion companies are only too happy to oblige).

      And the guy in North Carolina? He’s a Walmart greeter, where he welcomes people to buy the stuff he used to make 30 years ago.

      • RedSquareBear says:

        This is, of course, class- and situation-privileged. Not everyone had hand me downs to benefit from or parents who could get a new coat when the old one was too small and the next larger one was too large.

        But I’d say that the people who didn’t have winter coats back then still don’t have winter coats, it’s just that the winter coats they don’t have are lower price, lower quality, and there are more people who can’t get even the shitty coats.

    • Lasker says:

      I don’t doubt that cleaning clothing was more laborious in the past, but this comment makes no sense. Unless you are buying new clothes rather than cleaning things you already have, there is no relationship between the amount of clothes you have and the amount of cleaning you have to do.

  3. Jason says:

    Yes, yes, yes. A related danger with un-scalable, personal-level activity (having your own urban chicken coop, buying at farmers markets, etc.) is that it can lead one to think that one has thus ‘done one’s part’.

    Not to say there’s anything wrong with buying at a farmer’s market or a thrift store. The problem is if this activity is mistaken for being part of a solution.

    • JRoth says:

      Yes and no. A very bad habit of the left is not understanding that personal engagement is critical to movement-building. There’s a fine line to be sure – someone who thinks they’ve “solved hunger” by donating a can of soup has in fact done very little; but that soup is better than nothing if the alternative is spending $9.90 on outreach to get that same person to write a $10 check that goes to a food bank, especially since that check probably also makes that person feel s/he’s done her part.

      Point being, the key is to get people personally engaged in activities that give them ownership of the movement (and directly help as well), at which point they A. become advocates to neighbors/friends/family, and B. become political advocates. And the political advocacy will – if movement leaders have their shit together – extend beyond the immediate issue (chicken-friendly zoning) to a larger suite of issues on which the people can be activated. “You support backyard bees and chickens, right? Well did you know that Rep. X is opposed to that as well as to Larger Issue Z?”

      Activist groups (and political parties) often try to imitate this kind of involvement with superficial engagement (“Sign a Birthday Card for Barack!”), but however effective that may or may not be, it’s obvious that what they’re aping is precisely what lifestyle-driven engagement richly provides. Sure, some people will raise their own chickens and think they’re saving the world, but most of them will find that to be a step towards broader involvement with the issues.

      I think the key is to distinguish between feel-good involvement that makes little difference but provides positive feedback (e.g., buying “natural” foods at Whole Foods) and actual involvement that makes at least some difference and provides positive feedback and exposes the person to more of the movement (e.g., buying from a farmer’s market that directly helps farmers* and personally connects the consumer with farmers and fellow [potential] advocates).

      * and, as people always seem to miss in the locavore discussion, fights sprawl by keeping farmland prices competitive with developer offers

      • ironic irony says:

        Unfortunately, one must be wary at farmer’s markets as well. My mother likes to purchase produce at one of the local farmer’s markets in her area, and went one day to buy something. When she went to the stall, she couldn’t find what she was looking for, and asked the lady running the stall when they would have more of that item. The lady replied that she didn’t know, and all she knew was that this particular item hadn’t been unloaded off the boat. Mom asked her what she meant by “boat”, and the woman admitted that all the produce “locally grown” was shipped in by boat from somewhere else. My mom was very upset, and let the lady know that she was never purchasing from her again, since Mom thought she was supporting farmers in her community by buying from that stall. She hasn’t been back since.

        So, while buying from a farmer’s market is a great idea, actually getting to know who produces your food, where it comes from, and how it gets grown is really the best way to go, and encompasses not just thought but action that can lead to change.

  4. Njorl says:

    For me, it’s solutions for global warming that don’t scale well into China, India, and what will hopefully be the rest of the developing world some day. There are lots of things we can do in the developed world which will reduce our CO2 output, but they only buy time. Buying time is good, but filling the void of cheap coal with some nearly as cheap solution is essential.

  5. wengler says:

    As an anarchist, I find your association of anarchism to liberal guilt a little amusing.

    There are such things as co-operative factories that actually make stuff, no anger at symbolic politics required.

    • Erik Loomis says:

      I make no such association.

      • wengler says:

        In fairness, you hated it first and strongest after criticizing an article that has nothing to do with anarchism.

        • Erik Loomis says:

          First, I really wasn’t criticizing the article per se.

          Second, I mentioned it in context of the fact that I feel like the last anti-anarchist leftist out there, not in the context of the liberal guilt that is part of the clothing issue. That paragraph was about me being irritated with a whole lot of what passes for the left today.

          • wengler says:

            Fair enough, but be assured that you are certainly not the last anti-anarchist leftist. The thought makes me laugh.

    • DrDick says:

      Anarchism suffers the same defects as the things Erik cites, it simply is not scalable. Once the group size of decision makers gets much above 50, it starts breaking down and becomes ineffective, especially in crises.

      • Lee says:

        To be fair, a lot of anarchists seem to romanticize a world made up of small, self-sufficient communes with some communication between them. The problem is that most humans do not want to live in small, self-sufficient communes and prefer large communities that give some autonomy/privacy.

        • Erik Loomis says:

          And there’s a whole history of this kind of thought in America, going at least back to the Transcendentalist communities, if not the Puritans.

          • Lee says:

            European anarchists seem to have more realistic notions about how humans want to live but no ideas how to implement anarchism on a metropolitan basis. American anarchists seem to assume that everybody really wants to be a hippie without much evidence to support this belief.

            • wengler says:

              American anarchists = hippies?

              This is just weird. Especially for a media that loves portraying all ‘violence’ against property during demonstrations as the work of anarchist ‘terrorists’.

              You keep talking about some sort of communist vision that hasn’t been that popular in anarchist thought since the dawn of the industrial era.

              The anarchists martyred over the Haymarket bombing weren’t fighting to grow pot, they were fighting for the 8 hour workday.

              • Lee says:

                The Haymarket anarchists no longer these days and were more in line with European anarchist thought.

                There is a definite, anti-urban romantic ruralism that has been present in American anarchism since at least the early 19th century. The hippie communes of the 1960s were at the last physical manisfestation of it. The thought still exists and anarchist utopia is still depicted as arcadia for all I can tell. The Occupy movement seem to take a lot more inspiration from the 1960s than Haymarket or old-school social democracy.

                • Erik Loomis says:

                  The Earth Liberation Front wing of anarchism certainly imbibed heavily in this, as does the local food wing of anarchism today.

                • actor212 says:

                  I’m not sure I agree with this. Not that you’re wrong. I think it’s about opportunity.

                  I’m going to cite the Lower East Side of Manhattan, circa 1980. There was a thriving network of anarchists: squatters who lived in abandoned buildings and empty apartments in a neighborhood the city had largely forgotten.

                  Had the gentry not recognized it as a source of cheap accomodations in the mid-1980s (I blame the club scene morphing into places like Peppermint Lounge and The Saint), LOISAIDA could easily have survived into today as an anarchist outpost.

                  Rural utopias are less easily commandeered, is my point.

                • Lee says:

                  Actor212, I’m not denying the existence of urban anarchism. What I’m saying is that American anarchism generally is more rustic in its design. The bad part is that most people don’t like this. The good part is that more though was put into how rural anarchism would work than urban anarchism.

                  IMO, most people, including myself wouldn’t want to live in anarchist society whether rural or urban. The urban anarchism of the Lower East Side involved a, for lack of a better word, scruffy life style than doesn’t really appeal to a lot of people. Rural anarchism is equally scruffy and also features a communal living that people don’t like that much.

                  One problem with anarchism is that they assume that people are more bohemian or hippie than they actually are. Capitalism and socialism recognizes that people aren’t really that into the scruffy life style.

                • Erik Loomis says:

                  Even urban anarchism or urban collectivism can have a sort of anti-urban streak–backyard food production for instance has long been a big thing for urban collectives.

        • wengler says:

          There are in fact many different lines of anarchist thought. Anarcho-communism is far less popular than syndicalism, which isn’t at all the sort of kibbutz lifestyle that you cite.

      • wengler says:

        Most businesses are much smaller than 50, but for larger industrial concerns, I see nothing wrong with a setup like Mondragon.

        • Erik Loomis says:

          Here’s the thing about Mondragon. It’s cool. It’s also the only example anyone ever cites. Because it’s about the only example out there.

          • wengler says:

            It’s the only one that employs so many people.

            Capitalists don’t invest in large industrial co-operatives because they are both unwilling and usually restricted from doing so(unless they just want to give them money). The fact that Mondragon exists is also the outcome of a unique situation of being a wartorn country unable to trade with other countries during World War II.

            But if you look around this country there are tons of examples of co-operatives. Credit unions and farmer co-ops being the most prominent.

            • Erik Loomis says:

              I’ve written about some of those co-ops and they are interesting. If they are scalable, then cool. However, Americans have been basically trying to do this in one form or another for 150 years and have never succeeded in making them mean much at all. We can blame it on capitalism, but if 150 years of trying hasn’t led to a realistic challenge to the system, I think it’s probably time to realize it’s not very workable.

              • wengler says:

                Referencing the automation post a couple days back, the success of scaling these operations may not be a wild dream on the labor side. It’s simply a case of having little to no capital to invest in an operation designed to grow small and steadily without benefit to idle plutocrats.

              • DocAmazing says:

                Credit unions are very scalable.

        • DrDick says:

          I happen to like Mondragon as well, but they are not really anarchist as there are leadership positions and the like. They are far more democratic than most corporations, but the entire group does not have to make every decision jointly.

      • I disagree with Kevin Carson more than I agree with him, but his arguments are worth taking seriously and understanding.

  6. JRoth says:

    Let’s game it out: half of all Americans vow to purchase and own fewer clothes. Step one: clear out the closets. Where do the clothes go? Thrift stores. So we now have more thrifted clothes available* than ever before. For a time, everyone who thrifts does better. What happens 2 years down the road?

    Well, people are buying less than they used to; they’ve gone from 20 new (to them) items a year to 10. They could get 30% of their wardrobes** from thrift stores buying only 3 thrifted items a year. Is that really so unsustainable?

    This reminds me a lot of arguments about grass-fed beef: “there isn’t enough pasture to raise 50 lbs of beef per American per year, so that’s not a scalable solution!” Well obviously not. The point was never to reproduce current meat consumption in environmentally/ethically exemplary ways; it was (and is) to modify consumption and production practices such that most meat that’s eaten can be raised sustainably. Cut meat consumption by half, and now A. people can afford sustainably-raised meat, and B. the planet can sustain that much meat-raising. Or at least get a lot closer.

    Complaining that such solutions would only get us most of the way, or halfway, to long term equilibrium strikes me as classic lefty perfect-vs.-goodism. Making these changes/improvements has direct and (potentially) immediate positive effects, and pushes us in the right direction. It’s possible that there’s some other ultimate solution (there must be a better phrase than that) that is somehow not in that direction, but I’m not sure how you get from Point A to Point C without looking for a viable Point B. And UMC thrifting, or UMC consumption of less, but better, meat, is a viable Point B. Incredibly enough, Meatless Mondays have gained at least some cultural traction – I see it being promoted on thoroughly mainstream websites, despite the ever more crazy culture war militating against it. Carter’s energy-saving initiatives made a huge and substantial change in US energy consumption patterns, but the left didn’t like Carter, and they just kind of forgot about it after awhile, and much of what he did got rolled back, despite its clear success (and improvement in the USian bottom line).

    * and of course we know that many thrift stores don’t even try to sell many of the goods they’re given; they get shredded if really bad, sent overseas if somewhat bad, and donated to shelters in the US if just a little bad

    ** the remainder being more sustainably made new clothes and a few cheap items similar to what makes up 90% of purchases now – so we go from 18 bad new items/person/year to, say, 3 or 4.

    • Erik Loomis says:

      I may not have made my point about thrift stores strongly enough–the issue is only partially that it isn’t scalable. It could be a step. The other side of the issue is that there’s a lot of posing go on by people who suggest thrift stores as an option.

      • JRoth says:

        I don’t know about the posing. All I know is that 99% of my childrens’ non-underwear clothing is thrifted or from eBay (also used, of course). When they outgrow the items, they return to those streams. It seems pretty damned sustainable and scalable to me, but maybe I’m just posing.

        Actually, looking down, I see that everything I’m wearing except for underwear is also thrifted, and I’m a 39-y.o. architect, not some hipster dressing down or whatever.

        Someone, somewhere has to buy new clothes, sure. But the more that those clothes are high quality and long-lasting, the more robust the thrifted stream becomes.

        • JoyfulA says:

          Not just thrift stores but also Freecycle, which seems to be taking the place of hand-me-downs, now that extended families are not as big or nearby. My local Freecycles have daily offers of size 4 girls play clothes, requests for size 6 boys Sunday shoes, and the like. (There is also constant traffic in TVs and microwaves.)

  7. Jameson Quinn says:

    Thrift stores don’t scale? Well, maybe not infinitely, but they sure do to the size of this country (Guatemala). My garbageman is the world’s best mom, my wife dragged me to the Megapaca when she got a white-collar job.

  8. MikeJake says:

    Good news, everyone! You don’t have to eat meat! I’ve got enough gazpacho for everyone.

  9. greylocks says:

    One reason we buy a lot of clothes is because most of the clothes we buy are poorly made and don’t last.

    • Erik Loomis says:

      This is true. The wife bought me a pair of jeans from a major store not so long ago. Christmas I think. By April the button was coming off. I was despairing (it doesn’t take a lot to screw me up for the day). Luckily, the wife then took the jeans to a laundromat and they had to sew a whole new patch of cloth on the inside part of the jeans where the button goes and start from there. It was ridiculous. Hopefully now I next have to think about jeans in 2015.

    • wengler says:

      This is true, and the thing that should make us mad is that the person making that article of clothing was probably making around 25-30 cents an hour, yet the clothing still cost 30-50 dollars at the store.

      If the worker made even just a little more money plus had some rights even as little as going to the bathroom when she or he needs to and not being imprisoned in hot, unsafe factories, those shitty jeans could still cost the same and probably be a lot less shitty. Alas, capitalism doesn’t work this way, and so-called managed capitalism is due to failure and regress.

      • actor212 says:

        Minor correction:

        *Corporate* capitalism doesn’t work that way.

        Captitalism as espoused by Adam Smith would work very differently: he was all about personal responsibility on the part of the entrepreneur for the goods and services he provides. To knock off cheap goods would damage his reputation in the market and close his business quickly due to competition.

        Corporations were anathema. In many ways, Smith was the first Marxist, since he believed the guy who owned the business should also be one of the workers.

  10. Wouldn’t a big rush of people going to thrift stores result in more thrift stores opening?

    • wengler says:

      Only on the high-end vintage clothing. The margins on thrift stores have got to be incredibly small.

      • Cody says:

        Most Thrift stores (Goodwill) get their clothing for free. I’ve never seen anyone sell their clothes to thrift stores.

        My Aunt used to run one, and got tons of brand new clothes for free constantly. Almost pure profit except for operating cost. Of course, you still need capital to get a facility.

        • actor212 says:

          True, but if you get a shirt for free that you can only sell for a quarter, that’s not much margin on a per unti basis once you factor in rent and utilities, nevermind if you actually advertise or have to hire staff.

      • Jon H says:

        High-end clothing goes to consignment stores, not thrift stores.

  11. Jon H says:

    Buying long-lasting clothing isn’t much of a win when you keep getting too fat to wear them and have to buy a bigger size.

  12. catclub says:

    I was expecting a post on Black-Scholes and mark to market.

  13. shah8 says:

    Hmmm, be cool if people extended that into power considerations.

    There are advantages to nukes, for example. Nukes simply aren’t, however, cheap or anything you can play around with, such as being careless about spreading bezzle in construction bids.

    Solar and wind do, in fact, have scale issues. They aren’t insurmountable or anything, but they will require a great deal of “government” simply to cope with power demands and reliability. More than people apparently really take into consideration.

    The biggest part was always going to be about reducing wasted power, and otherwise conserve power.

    • Erik Loomis says:

      “Solar and wind do, in fact, have scale issues. They aren’t insurmountable or anything, but they will require a great deal of “government” simply to cope with power demands and reliability. More than people apparently really take into consideration.”

      This kind of thing is of course what government is for and what anarchists don’t do a good job of understanding. How do resources get distributed in an anarchist society? How do the lights get turned on for 300 million Americans?

  14. mch says:

    Surprised to see local food production and distribution treated as dismissively as they are here. Sure, as a solution to all the world’s ills, they’d be silly, but few people seriously working to promote these things claim to be solving all the world’s ills, even all of its food ills. And as an important contribution to a healthier and happier world, the “local” “movement” is vital — a “movement” in which government has a crucial role, as it does in our own fair commonwealth of Massachusetts, which protects agricultural lands from other kinds of development in imaginative ways, provides resources for CSA’s and farmers’ markets, all kinds of things. I am in sympathy with the gist of this post but find some of its jabs jarring because unnecessary and, worse, counter-productive.

    My few years in Minnesota many years back gave me both a college education and an education in the wisdom of what that that old acronym really stands for: DFL.

    • LeeEsq says:

      The local food movement is frustrating for a variety of reasons. They seem to never get down to defining local in precise geographic terms. Their understanding of what people ate in all countries before the late 19th century is pretty ahistorical. The rural and urban poor did not eat a bounty of seasonal vegetables, fruits, grains, and meat. They mainly ate a grain or tuber of some kind supplemented with salt meat, dairy, and some vegetables. It was a boring and monotonous diet, They also haven’t figured out that a lot of people in our diverse society are going to get rather angry if they can no longer get the ingredients for their cuisine.

      • actor212 says:

        The irony is, in many cases their parents would easily recognize true local foods as the stuff mom made when they were kids: stews, soups, the occasional ham.

  15. mch says:

    LeeEsq, the local food movement you describe is not the one I know. Sure, some folks think in the naive terms you describe (and it’s easy to caricature them and dismiss them), but at least here in western MA, local foods (and there is a consensus about what terms like “local” and “native” mean, one girded institutionally by distribution systems and government-sponsored websites and other services) is part of a larger, serious discussion and process of creating valuable projects. For instance, people in our food co-op take seriously questions about the energy costs of delivering agricultural materials (from tractors to seeds) to multiple, remote locations. People also recognize the need for diversity of food sources and the value of trade. People are also returning to preserving more foods. I also know people involved in local food projects in NYC who are working (among other projects) to get good, fresh, and reasonably priced produce to inner city neighborhoods.

    As it happens, I still use one great-grandmother’s recipe for “meat stew” (northern) and another’s for pole beans with ham (southern). Both great-grandmother’s were big on corn bread, though their recipes differ. Lots of other recipes and ways of cooking from my family’s past, as well as from people like Italian neighbors I grew up with in NJ. I really don’t think I’m unusual in maintaining a food connection to the past. Problem is, too many people who comment at sites like this on topics like this don’t seem to cook very much or know much about eating well, much less maintain vegetable gardens or contribute their labor to CSA’s and similar local farming initiatives.

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