Trailing throwaway clothes
"Retailers have a big responsibility in making sure their fashion is sustainable in this day as being environmentally conscious is no longer something that belongs to the hippie generation". Amyjudd, NowPublic, February 19th.
Lord Hunt, the Minister for Sustainable Development to the British government is getting his knickers in a twist over the amount of cheap clothing that gets bought each week, worn a few times and then thrown away. He has just announced a Sustainable Clothing Action Plan to do something about it. And the best of luck, Lord Hunt! Ok. I admit it. I'm a bit of a clothes junky myself. Each time, I go to Asia, I buy their cheap shirts. Nothing excessive, mind you. And nothing to the degree that others go to, chasing such throwaways.
Making throwaways: More recently, I've changed my views, as I've followed the trail of throwaways and looked at the costs that I took for granted before. The amount of water it takes to grow cotton is huge. Pakistan, for instance, uses up a third of the water flowing from the River Indus, just so that we can buy the T-shirts it produces. Economists call this 'virtual water', the total water footprint in the making, selling and disposing of these clothes. Suresh Ponnunsami (described in Fred Pearce's When the rivers run dry) lives just south of the Indian textile town of Tirupur, in Tamil Nadu state. He has two and a half acres of farmland, yet he doesn't grow anything. He simply harvests the water from the acquifers below his land, gallons of it each day.
Fred Pearce watched water tankers arrive and thought they were filling Suresh's tank since the area is prone to droughts. Instead, they were taking water out of his wells. They came ten times each day, keeping his pumps busy 24 hours a day. He makes a good living from it, thanks to the Indian government's generous subsidy to farmers for using electricity. It allows him to make a 100 percent profit. What he most likes is that there is no risk of crop failure... until the water runs out. On the other side of Tirupur, 20 textile companies border the banks of the River Noyal. They use the water for their dyeing processes. Once they've finished, they return the water as untreated effluent that is stored in a large reservoir, which has no lining. The toxins from the effluent seeps into the local soil, down into the underground water reserves, and spreads for a mile on either side and six miles downstream. The houses around the reservoir are derelict; the fields barren. Ironically, the salty water in the acquifers will one day reach Suresh's well and will prevent him selling it back to the textile companies. That is not all. Tirupur's hospital treats high rates of skin disease and lung disorders arising from the waste. Local villagers have protested. Politicians come and promise to build treatment plants to filter the 21 million gallons of effluent discharged annually, so that the peroxide, hypochlorite and benzidine no longer pollute the fields. But nothing changes.
But that is only the start of the trail. Some of the issues affecting the retailers of throwaways were aired on NowPublic earlier (see Who are the greedy ones? - Ode to Primark). Lucy Siegle of The Guardian (February 2009) tells us of Shaida Lane, from London She is a prime example of the fast fashion shopper. She invests in her wardrobe every week and tends to throw clothes away after wearing them just five or six times. The 23-year-old personal assistant said: "It's just really important to me to keep as up-to-date as possible with the latest fashion trends. It's to compete with my friends but I need to on a professional basis as well". I'm not blaming her: she just typifies the millions of shoppers who do the same each week.
Lord Hunt's attempts to convince consumers to change their habits by recycling the stuuf or even buying fewer throwaways is hardly likely to work. His strategy is so simplistic: it reminds of Margaret Thatcher's attack on rubbish when she was Prime Minister. That never worked either and got quietly shelved as Lord Hunt's little experiment will be also.
The recession will only increase our hunger for cheap clothes. At least, blaming the retailers takes the burden to do something about it away from us consumers. But why blame us anyway? After all, the customer is always right. What the customer wants, the customer gets. We should probably focus just as much on the shareholders and their greed for profits and yet more profits. They should order the directors to pay for an effluent treatment plant in Tirupur so that at least the toxins no longer damage the health of the villagers. That would be a good, long term start. And it would achieve some lasting benefit.
The next part of the trail is the wasting of these throwaways. Britain disposes of two million tonnes of clothes a year and our consumption is up 34% from 1996 to 2005. This exacerbates the environmental problems; the waste of chemicals, the UK's carbon footprint, and the huge piles of rubbish destined for landfill. According to Lucy Siegle, it means that clothing creates over three million tonnes of CO2, two million tonnes of waste, and 70 million tonnes of waste water a year, with 1.5 million tonnes of unwanted clothing going to landfill.
The Daily Mail says this is the wrong focus anyway: a House of Lords committee reckons that of the 272million tonnes of waste produced in 2007, only nine per cent came from homes. A third came from the demolition and construction industries, another third from mining and quarrying, 13 per cent from industry and 11 per cent was commercial waste, including the stuff from retailers. Lord O'Neill (a committee member) said: 'It is time for the Government to move its priorities from household waste to the greater problem of industrial and commercial waste'.
Maybe recycling is one way to tackle this waste. But it isn't working in Britain. Only a sixth of the UK clothing thrown out ends up being re-used. And most of that goes overseas. Even then, only a tiny amount gets made into new products like mattresses or sold to charity shops.
The BBC's Jack Garland described on February 20th how a "dirty pile of clothes together with hypodermic needles, empty water bottles and mangled cardboard" ended up in one of Uganda's landfill dumps - "an artificial hill built by some of the 1,500 tonnes of rubbish thrown away by the inhabitants of the capital city Kampala every day". In among the rubbish, he found a black blouse from a popular British brand. "To find British High Street brands among all this is not only a sign of the impact of globalisation but also a symptom of the UK's growing addiction to throwaway fashions". BBC reporters have done this before: it's not that hard to find British products on dumps anywheree in the world!
LMB Supplies Ltd (east London) is one of the many companies that buys up to10,000 tonnes of clothes every year. The business used to break down and re-use the rubbish. Now, because so much of it is made of synthetics, most of the garments are shipped mainly to Africa, and can end up in places such as Uwino Market in southern Kampala. "Here, the West's old garments are sold off to clothe East Africa. The people of Kampala go to work in second-hand shirts and suits from Asda, River Island and H&M". But these clothes will probably get worn by several generations of the same family. Joseph, one of the vendors in Uwino Market told Jack Garland that his stall takes second-hand garments shipped from Britain,South Korea, Germany and Canada. "Why do they end up in landfill? I lived in Africa for many years and there's millions of people literally living in rags".
"We like these clothes because they're good quality, they're not duplicated, and they're very popular," Joseph told him. But even in Africa some of these clothes still end up in landfill, where they cause long-lasting problems. Joshua Zake, from Environmental Alert Uganda said: "Non-biodegradable clothes tamper with the soil's productivity - they stop water from entering and the run-off hampers food production.The stagnant water it creates helps the spread of diseases like malaria."
President Barack Obama, in his Inauguration Speech in January, made a simple statement that has stuck in my memory ever since. He said: "We will not apologise for our way of life nor waver in its defense". That is, of course, what all of us in the Global North are doing. Indeed, not only us, but the whole of our capitalist enterprise depends on creating a never ending demand for goods, regardless of the damage this does. Some of those goods we need. Most others, the trivial ones, we could well do without.
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