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July 19, 2012
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EARTHA STEWARD: Cheaply-made clothes take a toll on the environment

Style or sustainability? Does it need to be either or? Eartha says no. We can have both, and not just for those of us who can hunt down really cool vintage clothes.

There are some interesting new studies out about the environmental effects of our collective fashion senses. One recent book in particular is by Elizabeth Cline, who set out on a three-year journey across clothing shops from New York to China to investigate the garment district. She found some creepy things.

Did you know that the amount of textiles we throw away has more than octupled (not a wrestling move, means times eight) in the past 60 years? Population, on the other hand, has a little more than doubled in that amount of time. The average American now throws away 68 pounds of textiles per year. We are buying and throwing away a lot more clothes per person.

The average American does buy 10 pounds of recycled clothes a year, so that's something to be happy about. It must be more in Mesa County, where thrift-store shopping is a common hobby. But even when clothes are taken to the thrift store, stores can only move an average of 20 percent of what they receive.

But we don't just have more clothes, we have more cheap clothes. Over the past several decades, mid-priced clothes have dwindled from the racks; what we have instead are large volumes of very cheaply made clothes and then another segment of extremely high-priced clothes. What happened to the middle-class clothes? And what happened to the manufacturing jobs that were creating these clothes? Clothing, it seems, has gone the way of food, where the cheapest hamburger bought in bulk is the one making us obese.

As for the environmental impacts of clothes themselves, synthetic fibers are now 63 percent of the global output. Many of these are energy intensive to produce and off-gas volatile organic chemicals. But even cotton can take a large amount of water to create, making it an environmentally impactful product.

It's true that the deeper you look into our national glut for cheap clothes, the worse it looks. The answer is predictable. Tell your sister to think about buying well-made clothing that lasts a long time. Then she can be eco-chic! Support local and independent designers when possible, and people who are using sustainably-made fabrics. We have many local stores that go out of their way to think about where their fabrics come from. Let's support them.

Ask Eartha Steward is written by the staff at the High Country Conservation Center, a nonprofit organization dedicated to waste reduction and resource conservation. Submit questions to Eartha at

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The Post Independent Updated Jul 19, 2012 08:38PM Published Jul 19, 2012 08:38PM Copyright 2012 The Post Independent. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.