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The Most Disappointing Gift

Take a Holiday…From Clothes Shopping

by STAN COX

A deep recession — or worse — is in the holiday forecast, but belt-tightening doesn’t have to ruin the festive mood. Here’s one painless way to cut expenses while giving the planet a much-needed break: Resolve not to buy any new clothes — not even a tight new belt! — for anyone for a whole year, starting now.

Don’t worry about disappointing family or friends. Christmas after Christmas, polls show that clothing, the most popular present among givers, is also ranked as the “most disappointing gift” by those on the receiving end.

We’ve already stockpiled enough clothes to last us for years. The average annual shopping haul swelled from $1,550 per household in 2002 to $1,760 last year. That spending spree was prompted in part by what the Bureau of Labor Statistics says was a 30 percent drop in real apparel prices over the past decade. With cheap imports allowing a dollar to buy more, the physical bulk of garb purchased by the average household has risen 18 percent in just five years.

In America, even in hard times, anyone can be a power shopper. Our national cheap-clothing policy means you can fill your closets to bursting, even if you’re not a major-party nominee on a $150,000 budget.

And with a constant need to free up closet space for new purchases, the average American discards 68 pounds of clothing and other textiles each year, the Environmental Protection Agency says.

Although 10 million tons of unwanted duds per year puts pressure on U.S. landfills, it’s the origin of the clothes that does the greatest harm. Production of synthetic fabric consumes petroleum, blows out greenhouse gases and spews wastewater bearing organic solvents, heavy metals and poisonous dyes and fiber treatments.

Conventional cotton clothing also comes at great cost. Grown on less than 2 percent of U.S. farmland, the cotton crop accounts for one of every four pounds of pesticides sprayed, Agriculture Department figures show. Things are worse in the global south, where cotton accounts for half of pesticide use.

To curb the soil erosion for which cotton land is infamous, no-till methods have been introduced on a large scale. But they require heavier spraying of herbicides.

The United States brings in more clothes than the next highest nine importers combined. And by allowing our spinning, weaving and sewing jobs to go to Asia and Latin America, we’ve exported a big pollution problem as well.

Dye effluents often carry toxic metals, among them copper, cobalt, chromium, nickel, zinc, lead, antimony, silver, cadmium and mercury. Bleaching the cloth for a single shirt generates as much as 15 gallons of chlorine-polluted wastewater.

Chemicals used in the industry, including anti-wrinkle compounds, can be carcinogenic. In 2002, Italian and American researchers found that risks of nasal, bladder and gastrointestinal cancers among spinners, weavers and dyers were elevated 28 to 126 percent.

“Green” apparel makers are riding to the rescue but getting lost in a stampede. According to the nonprofit trade association Organic Exchange, the global market for organic cotton clothes grew by $1.4 billion—700 percent—from 2001 to 2007. But in the same period Americans alone increased spending on conventional clothes by $29 billion. Like it or not, virtuous-clothing companies are adding to the bulk jamming the nation’s collective closet, not replacing it.

Yes, I know. If Americans started buying just enough new clothes to fit our basic needs, we might deliver a coup de grace to the already crippled retail economy (and thrift-store racks would be stripped bare). But wouldn’t it be great to emerge at the other end of the coming hard times with a new, more rational economy, one that isn’t addicted to selling mountains of stuff that people don’t need or even want?

To paraphrase a retail giant’s slogan, we could save money, live better and spend less time on the consumption treadmill simply by not buying so many clothes. That would make for a real holiday bargain.

STAN COX is a senior scientist at The Land Institute in Salina, Kansas and author of Sick Planet: Corporate Food and Medicine (Pluto Press, 2008). He can be reached: t.stan@cox.net

This column was written for the Prairie Writer’s Circle, a project of the Land Institute.