Clothing – is a Zero Waste outlook possible?

A recent article on Grist brought up the issue of how to look at clothing as a product. See it here.

Anything written for women on Grist seems to assume that their audience is an educated air-head. But some statistics are interesting.

  • our fiber consumption has leapt from 10 million tons to 82 million tons [annually] in the last 60 years. It’s far outpacing population growth.
  • the waste that’s created. We throw away 68 pounds of textiles per person per year.
  • We’re using thrift stores and charity shops as dumps for an incredible volume of clothes that we don’t wear anymore.
  • The average charity shop is able to sell a mere 20 percent of what comes in.

Note the third point about using thrift shops (recyclers) as surrogate dumps, a constant claim on this website.

What these statistics say is that there is a problem which is ruining the planet by causing the creation of enormous quantities of fiber, all causing immense waste in their production, which are used to produce products that are used for just a short time, then discarded.

As usual, the writers make the mistake of ascribing the locus of waste to the dump, or to the act of discard, and they miss the far greater waste inherent in producing goods that are not needed. But this is the great error of the entire public, not just Grist’s air-head audience.

So what is the professed answer to this problem that the writer urges? Very simple. Stop buying cheap clothes and start paying a lot more money for clothing. The article is sprinkled with clues like this that the writer(s) have ample paychecks to rely on and are not relying on welfare or Social Security.

She gets on the right track by pushing repairability through the use of seamstresses and tailors for adjusting clothing. More expensive clothing would favor this. But we need to do more than hope, we need to figure out why seamstresses, who used to be common, are now more rare than a siamese twin Barby doll.

Note that there is not even a necessary connection between price and quality. A hope of such a connection maybe, but no suggestion of any way to insure such a connection. I don’t get the impression that quality is really that important to the writer. What is important is to spend more money so that buyers will be able to afford less clothing, thus reducing the glut.

The reader here has been reading about Zero Waste principles and knows how to approach a new problem of the inefficient use of resources. We ask ourselves how the entire system can be redesigned, in the most basic way.

One suggestion that applies not only to an improved design for production and use of clothing but also applies right now, in this conventional situation, is a way to enhance reusability. As suggested elsewhere for books, every piece of manufactured clothing could have an rfid chip sewn into it which in a detailed way describes the clothing. This is already being done for lots of clothes but the thinking has only to do with theft and tracking, not with reuse potential.  Then a thrift shop could wave a wand over their inventory and know exactly what they had. They would know how many dresses, tops, jackets, pants or shirts they had in what color, what weave, what fiber and what size. Any customer could look up their desired clothing on the store’s computer or on their smartphone or even on the web while at home. This would reduce the non-productive shuffling through confusing racks that is now the norm in thrift shops.

Look up the discussion under Fashion and you will learn that there is a Zero Waste movement to improve the cutting and weaving of cloth to reduce scrap generation.

One basic principle of  Zero Waste is the use of standardized fastenings. Clothing is as dependent on fastenings as any product. Most of it is called stitching. Are there possible variations in stitching that could affect reusability? Standard stitching creates two intersecting loops of the thread that place the intersection in the middle of the cloth. This is a very strong design. Would it be possible to change the design so that the loop is left on one surface of the cloth without losing strength? It might take a different kind of thread for the tie loop. Could this make it much easier to pull out a tie thread and split a sewn seam to make repair easier. Just a thought. How about those rivets on Levi jeans and other clothing. Could they be converted to locking, twist on, thin fasteners to allow the temporary dismantling of fabric parts for repair or replacement. Stitching is not easily removable or easily replaceable. As always, my goal is to bring up possibilities, not push a final solution. Could strong velcro replace stitching thus allowing a worn or torn piece to be easily replaced? How about glues that can be softened when needed?

It seems clear that a major component of a new Zero Waste design for clothing is not going to be a product design but a social function design. The way that clothes are regarded has to change. Is this an idiotic position?

I have a guess to offer. When synthetic dyes, starting with coal tar reds and purples and blues,  were developed in the nineteenth century, the whole feeling about clothing began to change. Suddenly ordinary people could afford colorful body decoration. Instead of finding royal reds and purples by crushing millions of insects or marine organisms, all clothing and beads and pictures could cheaply be colored. Could the fashion industry be far behind?

What I want to say here is that people are capable of being far more practical about clothing than they are today. If clothing production was reduced in quantity by about 80% and increased in quality by 100%, it would not support as many workers but the workers it did support could be better paid. Probably hardly anyone would even notice a loss of choices.

At any rate, it seems that the key to improving the status of clothing has nothing to do with poor people just resolving to devote more of their small incomes to clothing, but lies with a planned and inescapable change in the way clothing is viewed by users.

(did someone just hear the earth applauding?)

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