Tennessee River Clean-Up!

Nickajack Lake on the Tennessee River, water in foreground and hills at center. Bridge at left. Cloudless blue sky at top.
Nickajack Lake on the Tennessee River on the day of the clean-up. Photo by Marie Cullis.

Last year, I read the book, From the Bottom Up: One Man’s Crusade to Clean America’s Rivers by Chad Pregracke. It was about Living Lands & Waters, the organization established by the author to clean up trash along rivers. His story was super inspiring, especially because I love to clean up trash (and would even do it for a living if I could make that work). This organization, based out of Illinois along the Mississippi River, performs large-scale river clean-ups. Since 1998, they have worked on 25 rivers in 21 states, and have conducted more than 1,100 community clean-ups.

“[Living Lands & Waters] hosts dozens of community river cleanups each year to help watershed conservation efforts with the assistance of thousands of volunteers of all ages who are willing to roll up their sleeves and get dirty – individuals, schools, community organizations, businesses and more!”1

So when I discovered that I could get involved with local clean-ups along the Tennessee River, I was more than excited! I was too late to sign up last fall, but this month, I signed up when an opportunity came up near my area.

This one was hosted by Keep the Tennessee River Beautiful and AFTCO (American Fishing Tackle Company) in partnership with Living Lands & Waters. Keep the Tennessee River Beautiful is a nonprofit that serves as the first Keep America Beautiful affiliate in the nation to focus solely on a river. Their mission is to educate and inspire people to take care of the Tennessee River and show the impact of trash. Their volunteer cleanups are held along the 652-mile Tennessee River and its tributaries, an area spanning seven states!2 

The Experience

I took my family with me. My son enjoyed riding in the boats and meeting people. He really fed off of the energy of the crew, who took time out to make him feel included. I’m proud that he understood why we were there and that he gets why it’s important at such a young age.

My son talking to a crewmember with a dog on a grassy area.
My son making friends with a crewmember of Living Lands & Waters. She had a dog, and he loves dogs, so it was an easy conversation starter. Photo by Marie Cullis.
My son cleaning up trash along a river bank, holding a yellow bag, boat at right center background, clear blue sky.
He wasn’t afraid to get into the water and clean up trash along the river banks. Photo by Marie Cullis.
My son found a barge line along the shore, tangled in logs. He is trying to pull it out here.
My son found a barge line along the shore, tangled in logs. Photo courtesy of Kathleen Gibi of Keep the Tennessee River Beautiful.

It was a gorgeous day on Nickajack Lake! We picked up so much trash – hundreds of plastic bottles, Styrofoam pieces, tires, broken fishing tackle and line, plastic lighters, plastic bags, food wrappers, glass bottles, and many other pieces of broken plastic items. Even a section of a plastic dock and an entire plastic truck bed liner.

One of the participating kids, Cash Daniels, also known as the Conservation Kid (@theconservationkid), was there with his family. Cash is an avid environmentalist and ocean lover. He has organized many river clean-ups and is also a published author and public speaker. I had read about him before and it was cool to meet him and his family.

The volunteers all worked hard, and the crewmembers were like superheroes!

Their leadership and positivity are what struck me most. Both the executive director of Keep the Tennessee River Beautiful and the crewmembers of Living Lands & Waters were super positive, highly enthusiastic, hard-working, and obviously happy to be doing this!

Flat bottomed boat on the water with one person and heaps of trash.
Dan Breidenstein from Living Lands & Waters with trash loaded onto his boat. Photo by Marie Cullis.
Two women removing a large tire from the water, a shoreline with logs. A dog crosses a log. Two boats in the background with a man loading trash onto one of them.
Kathleen Gibi of Keep the Tennessee River Beautiful with Callie Schaser from Living Lands & Waters, removing a large tire from the water. Photo by Marie Cullis.
People loading trash into a floating boat, background shows lake, land, and bright blue sky.
Loading one of the boats. The black piece in the foreground is the truck bed liner. Photo by Marie Cullis.

By the end of the afternoon, we had loaded two full flat-bottomed boats with trash and debris from just a few shorelines.

Flat bottomed boat on a trailer filled with trash, ties, and other debris.
Full boat of trash. Photo courtesy of Kathleen Gibi of Keep the Tennessee River Beautiful.
Flat bottomed boat on a trailer filled with trash, ties, and other debris. Person with his arm up in the back of the boat.
Second full boat of trash. Photo courtesy of Kathleen Gibi of Keep the Tennessee River Beautiful.

In the end, it was an awesome experience. I recommend that if you’re able and interested, you join a local clean-up in your area. We can all make a difference!

“That’s how the change for our river will happen: through local partners and individuals who are eager about taking ownership to protect and improve their beautiful river community.” -Kathleen Gibi, Executive Director of Keep the Tennessee River Beautiful3

Group of people with a boat load of trash behind them, water in background.
Our group photo! Photo courtesy of Kathleen Gibi of Keep the Tennessee River Beautiful.
Group of people with a boat load of trash behind them, water in background.
Photo of the second group, courtesy of Kathleen Gibi of Keep the Tennessee River Beautiful.

Remember, the most important thing you can do right now is to stop using disposable items. Especially those made from plastic. Even when you think you are properly disposing or recycling something, so much of it inevitably makes its way into our landscapes. We have to turn off the tap when it comes to disposable items.

I hope to meet you on a future clean-up! Thank you for reading, please share and subscribe!

 

Footnotes:

The Real Global Price of What You Wear, Part 2

Last updated on March 27, 2024.

Bales of textile recycling, colorful, Goodwill Outlet warehouse and retail store in St. Paul, MN.
Bales of textile recycling at the Goodwill Outlet warehouse and retail store in St. Paul, MN, April 2019. Photo by MPCA Photos on Flickr, Creative Commons license (CC BY-NC 2.0).

Fast fashion is harming the environment, causing human workers to suffer and work for little pay, and creating a lot of waste. But just how much waste?

When we discard an article of clothing, we can sell it, give it to a friend, throw it in the trash, or donate it to a thrift store or resale shop. Reselling our clothing is ideal, as we can recoup some of the cost, and the clothing gets a second life. Children wear their clothes for a short time before outgrowing them, so often you can sell them online. Consignment stores buy clothes, but usually, only certain brands that often exclude fast fashion.

Most of us donate any clothing we can’t sell to the local Goodwill, another local thrift store, church, or local charity. However, there is so much donated clothing in the world now that we could clothe every human on the planet and still have leftover clothing. And that’s if production of new clothing stopped today!

“Buying so much clothing and treating it as if it is disposable, is putting a huge, added weight on the environment and is simply unsustainable.” -Elizabeth L. Cline, Overdressed: The Shockingly High Cost of Cheap Fashion

Pile of children's clothes and shoes, colorful.
Pile of children’s clothes and shoes. Photo by Abby on Flickr, Creative Commons license (CC BY-NC 2.0).

A garbage truck full of clothes is taken to the landfill every second, where they produce methane as they rot.” -Georgina Stevens, Climate Action: The Future is in Our Hands

Textile and Clothing Waste in Landfills

Worldwide and annually, we throw away 92 million tons of textiles. In the US alone, “an estimated 11.3 million tons of textile waste – equivalent to 85% of all textiles – end up in landfills on a yearly basis. That’s equivalent to approximately 81.5 pounds per person per year and around 2,150 pieces per second countrywide.”1 The amount of clothing we dispose of has increased by 750% since 1960.2 Clothing does not biodegrade in landfills, just as most items will not biodegrade in a landfill. In addition, much of the clothing we produce is made from synthetic fabrics, made from plastic fibers (aka microfibers), which contaminate the water supply, our bodies, and the ocean.

“Textile waste is often overlooked when we think about plastic waste but it’s estimated that U.S. consumers throw away about 81 pounds of clothing every year, including large amounts of synthetic textiles made from plastics.” -Sandra Ann Harris, Say Goodbye to Plastic: A Survival Guide for Plastic-Free Living

Clothing Returns

Retailers are throwing away most of the items consumers return to the store. In the US, 2.6 million tons of returned clothing items ended up in landfills in 2020 alone. It often costs more for the company to put them back on the sales floor than it does to just throw them away. “Reverse logistics company Optoro also estimates that in the same year, 16 million tonnes of CO2 emissions were created by online returns in the US in 2020 – the equivalent to the emissions of 3.5 million cars on the road for a year.”3 Dumpster divers frequently find stacks of clothing in dumpsters behind clothing and department stores and post their finds on social media platforms.

Box with clothing donations, with "DONATE" written in red letters.
Photo by Towfiqu barbhuiya on Pexels.

Donated Clothing

“Our donated clothing goes on a journey of its own.” -Beth Porter, Reduce, Reuse, Reimagine: Sorting Out the Recycling System

Unfortunately, fast fashion has outpaced the demand for second-hand clothing. Thrift stores cannot possibly sell all of the donated clothing, so textile recyclers and rag graders have grown to help charities process the excess and keep textiles out of landfills. About half of the clothing donated at major U.S. thrift stores is shipped internationally for textile recycling.4 But the number can be even higher if items don’t sell. “Up to 80 percent of all clothing donated to charity thrift stores ends up in textile recycling.”5

Huge thrift store full of full clothing racks.
Photo by arbyreed on Flickr, Creative Commons license (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0).

Goodwill, for example, conducts an initial sort at the retail store where items were dropped off or donated. Anything wet or mildewy is separated out because it is not sellable. Some of the best, clean, dry clothing items are put on the sales floor. Many Goodwill stores track how long each piece of clothing has been on the retail floor, and if an item doesn’t sell within four weeks, Goodwill removes it. They send the items on to a Goodwill outlet or a 99-cent Goodwill store. Prices are cheap to encourage purchasing and thus divert things from landfills. Clothing items that aren’t sold through those methods or through auctions go to textile recycling organizations.6

Shredded clothes, various colors, in boxes.
Shredded clothes, photo by Alexander Zvir on pexels.com.

Textile Recycling

“Globally, just 12% of the material used for clothing ends up being recycled. Much of the problem comes down to the materials our clothes are made from and inadequate technologies to recycle them.”7

Used textiles can be turned into rags for industrial use or processed into a soft fiber filling for furniture, home insulation, car soundproofing, etc. Goodwill indicates they “have seen estimates that textile recyclers divert about 2.5 billion pounds of used clothes from landfills.”8 But this is really just downcycling. Textile recycling isn’t working as a global solution because of the massive overabundance.

“Many types of clothing and footwear can be shredded and downcycled – with some shredding companies turning everything from shoes, handbags, baby clothes, and jackets into fibers. To be clear: No matter whether you donate to a charity, collection bin, thrift store, garment collection program, or most anywhere else, your clothes are likely going to end up in the global secondhand clothing trade or will be downcycled rather than recycled in the traditional sense. Less than 1 percent of clothing is recycled in the truest sense of the word, meaning broken down and turned back into new clothes. This desperately needs to change to make fashion more sustainable to solve the clothing waste crisis.” –Elizabeth L. Cline, The Conscious Closet: The Revolutionary Guide to Looking Good While Doing Good

Warehouse with hundreds of tons of clothing in Cambodia. Piles of textiles sorted by color, with people sorting in background.
Warehouse with hundreds of tons of clothing in Cambodia. Photo by Francois Le Nguyen on Unsplash.

The Global Second-Hand Market

There are too many clothes in the world.

There are so many used clothes in the world that even developing countries cannot use them all. Sellers in other countries will by bundles of second-hand clothing, hoping to resell them for a small profit. In Kenya, the word “mitumba,” refers to the bundles of plastic-wrapped packages of used clothing from people in wealthy countries. In Accra, Ghana, they call them “obroni wawu,” meaning ‘dead white man’s clothes.’

This has created massive piles of textiles and clothing across the globe, often in countries without organized waste management. This is devastating to local environments and negatively impacts the health of humans living in those environments. In northern Chile, about 59,000 tons of clothing arrive annually. Clothing merchants purchase some, but at least 39,000 tons end up in rubbish dumps in the desert.9

In 2020, “a mountain of cast-off clothing outside the Ghanaian capital city of Accra generated so much methane that it exploded; months later, it was still smoldering.”10 Market fires have become common in places that have too many goods and too much waste, all cast-offs from the western world. In other countries, the excess textile waste clutters the landscape, clogs up waterways, and pollutes the environment.

“Worldwide, we jettison 2.1 billion tons of fashion. Much of it is shunted to Africa, our rationalization being that the poorest continent needs free clothing.” -Dana Thomas, Fashionopolis11

Worldwide Environmental Impact

There are increasingly fewer places to ship textile recycling and used clothing, as countries are full of them. This is creating a huge environmental problem. Adam Minter, author of Junkyard Planet and Secondhand: Travels in the New Global Garage Sale, wrote in a Bloomberg opinion piece:

“For decades, the donation bin has offered consumers in rich countries a guilt-free way to unload their old clothing. In a virtuous and profitable cycle, a global network of traders would collect these garments, grade them, and transport them around the world to be recycled, worn again, or turned into rags and stuffing. 

“Now that cycle is breaking down. Fashion trends are accelerating, new clothes are becoming as cheap as used ones, and poor countries are turning their backs on the secondhand trade. Without significant changes in the way that clothes are made and marketed, this could add up to an environmental disaster in the making…

“The rise of ‘fast fashion’ is thus creating a bleak scenario: The tide of secondhand clothes keeps growing even as the markets to reuse them are disappearing. From an environmental standpoint, that’s a big problem.”12

Pile of clothing, colorful.
Photo by Bicanski on Pixnio.

How You Can Help

“We cannot export our way out of our fast fashion addiction.” -Film: Textile Mountain – The Hidden Burden of Our Fashion Waste13

First, start thinking ‘slow fashion’ instead of fast fashion. Slow fashion refers to the method of producing clothing that takes into consideration all aspects of the supply chain.

Clothing Purchases

The second thing you can do is stop shopping! Most likely, you have more than enough clothes to wear for a long time.

When you do need something, ask yourself if it really needs to be new, or if you can find it second-hand. If it must be new, save up to buy that one classic, quality piece, instead of 10 cheap pieces that are low quality and super trendy. Be choosy so that there is no need to return the items.

Second-hand clothing is best the way to have a sustainable and affordable wardrobe. You can shop at consignment shops, thrift stores, clothing swaps, yard sales, and other resale shops. The online options are endless. “By making it easier and more accessible to shop used, resale is helping to reduce the water, chemicals, and energy we need to make new clothes…According to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, for every garment worn twice as long, its carbon footprint is reduced by 44 percent! And based on research conducted by thredUP, shopping secondhand extends the average life of a garment by 2.2 years.”14 

Try a capsule wardrobe like Project 333 that inspires dressing better, with less.

“Resale could eventually help reduce the culture of fast fashion and lead people away from disposable clothes.” -Elizabeth L. Cline, The Conscious Closet: The Revolutionary Guide to Looking Good While Doing Good

Hand stitching a hole in a piece of gray and red clothing using orange thread.
Photo by Joseph Sharp on Unsplash.

Wear Clothing Longer

If you can purchase clothing that is more classic and less trendy, and buy higher quality clothing, you’ll be able to wear your clothing for much longer. “We get rid of about 60 percent of the clothing we buy within a year of its being made; we used to keep our clothing twice as long.” Wearing higher quality pieces longer would reduce textile waste greatly.

Try Mending

If you can sew, this is the best way to extend the life of your current wardrobe. Hemming, repairing tears and holes, darning, replacing buttons, and simple embroidery are all basic techniques in mending. You don’t even have to own a sewing machine. You can find inspiration in books and countless online video tutorials. Experiment with different techniques and ideas. Some even dye light clothing if they’ve got something with an ugly stain.

If you don’t know how to sew, there are so many ways you can learn! Find books, a family member, online classes/tutorials, or in-person classes at a local sewing shop.

If you don’t want to sew, find a good tailor that can make repairs and adjustments. Or a friend that sews on the side for extra income, as long as you’ve seen their work first.

Outdoor charity bin with bags of donations surrounding it, looking like trash.
If it looks like trash, it will probably be treated as such. Photo by Anna Gregory on Flickr, Creative Commons license (CC BY 2.0).

Getting Rid of Clothes

“You may think, Well, I donate my clothes, or I heard about a program that takes jeans and makes them into insulation, or What about recycled textiles or all of the clothes we send overseas in form of aid? All of those things happen, but not to the extent that you think, and sometimes with surprisingly negative consequences.” -Tatiana Schlossberg15

Following are the do’s and don’t’s of getting rid of clothing.

Never throw your clothes in the trash (unless it’s just really ripped and stained, or otherwise totally ruined and not able to be reused for rags).

Before dropping clothing off at a thrift store or other charity, try to find a friend or family member who might want those clothes. Or try selling them online or at a local consignment sale or shop.

If you donate, donate better by following these best practices:

While many charities that accept used clothing work with textile recyclers, not all do. Ask your local charities and thrift stores if they recycle or landfill unsellable clothing before donating.

Make sure items are clean and dry. Empty pockets, and remove pet hair and lint. Tie shoes together so they don’t get separated. Mend items before donating so they don’t get landfilled. Donate when the stores are accepting donations so that items don’t get ruined by the weather.16 

Try donating them at strategic times.17 Donate winter items to a homeless shelter or organization at the beginning of winter. Homeless organizations almost always need good shoes. Donate clothing during a post-disaster local drive. For bedding and towels, check with local animal shelters as oftentimes, they can use these items! Take the time to seek out donation drives for specific items. That way, organizations are far more likely to use your donated items instead of throwing them away.

“If a friend has always commented on how much they love your jacket, or your sister has always coveted that vintage bag, now is the time to redistribute them to an eager recipient. It’s entirely your choice whether you want to give pieces away or sell them, but doing so within your community reduces the  fashion miles’ involved in shipping them around the country or across the globe.” -Sophie Benson, Sustainable Wardrobe18

Watch Out for Greenwashing

‘Take-back’ programs or in-store clothing recycling programs are sometimes a form of greenwashing. “These schemes allow customers to drop off unwanted items in ‘bins’ in the brands’ stores. But it’s been highlighted that only 0.1% of all clothing collected by charities and take-back programs is recycled into new textile fibre.”19 There are some brands that actually do good things with collected items, but you have to research to know which ones.

Interior of a Salvation Army thrift store, with lots of clothing racks.
Photo by Dennis Sylvester Hurd on Flickr, Creative Commons license (CC0 1.0).

I hope this article has helped you figure out to buy less clothing, make the clothing you have last longer, and how to donate and discard better. For my next article, we’ll explore different types of fabrics, both natural and synthetic. Thank you for reading, please share and subscribe!

 

Additional Resources:

Website, Project 333

Film, Textile Mountain – The Hidden Burden of Our Fashion Waste.

Article, “Dead white man’s clothes,” by Linton Besser, ABC News Australia, updated

www.weardonaterecycle.org

Website, Fashion Detox Challenge

Article, “How to Buy Clothes That Are Built to Last,” by Kendra Pierre-Louis, New York Times, September 25, 2019

Article, “13 Brands Using Take-Back Schemes to Recycle Waste Responsibly,” by Solene Rauturier, Good On You, January 6, 2022.

Footnotes: 

The Real Global Price of What You Wear, Part 1

Last updated on February 3, 2024.

Interior of clothing store, wooden floor walkway flanked by mannequins, racks, and shelves of clothing.
Image by auntmasako from Pixabay.

The fashion and clothing industries contribute to climate change, environmental pollution, and human exploitation. Across the world, perpetuated by wealth, and rampant consumerism based on false urgency to keep up with ‘trends,’ the massive overproduction of clothing is killing us and our environment.

Companies have men, women, and even children, working in dangerous conditions with low or no labor standards. They are kept impoverished by low wages. Companies use toxic chemicals in clothing production, and those chemicals end up in the final products. The clothing industry uses unfathomable amounts of water in production, in a world where there isn’t enough water for everyone. Later, that water is discharged, often into the environment, polluting water and soil. Mass amounts of energy are used to produce both natural and synthetic fabrics. Transporting clothing from developing countries to the west uses astronomical amounts of fossil fuels. Worse, there is so much clothing in the world now that we can’t find uses for all of it.

All this so that we can buy $5 T-shirts that we don’t need. It’s called fast fashion, and it’s detrimental on many levels.

Interior of an Old Navy, a clothing store.
Image by DigestContent from Pixabay.

Fast Fashion

Fast fashion is a design, manufacturing, and marketing method focused on quickly producing high volumes of trendy but cheaply-made clothing.1 The term was coined by The New York Times in the 1990s “to describe Zara’s mission to take only 15 days for a garment to go from the design stage to being sold in stores.”2 By the 2000s, brands were taking ideas from the top fashion designers and reproducing them cheaply and quickly. Other big names in fast fashion include H&M, UNIQLO, GAP, Primark, and TopShop.

At one time, there were four seasons of clothing. Today, there are 52 “micro-seasons” per year. Fast fashion was artificially created. The demand “was carefully cultivated by fashion brands to change consumer behavior and make people want more and more, and quickly.”3 

But this disregard for quality has led to clothing going to landfills. “Constantly changing trends have encouraged consumers to discard clothing that’s no longer ‘in style’ even if it’s still wearable.”4 This is not sustainable.

“[Fast fashion] plays into the idea that outfit repeating is a fashion faux pas and that if you want to stay relevant, you have to sport the latest looks as they happen. It forms a key part of the toxic system of overproduction and consumption that has made fashion one of the world’s largest polluters.”5

Exterior of the Zara store in Tokyo, taken at night, lit up and brightly colored with a large digital advertising screen at top center.
Photo by Comunicacioninditex on Wikimedia, Creative Commons license (CC BY-SA 4.0).

Ultra-Fast Fashion

There is an even faster fashion now, referred to as ultra-fast fashion. Brands include SHEIN, Missguided, Forever 21, Zaful, Boohoo, and Fashion Nova. It is a recent phenomenon that is as bad as it sounds.6Ultra fast fashion turns fast fashion’s ‘weeks’ into days and ‘dozens of styles’ into hundreds and thousands. The numbers alone sound sinister. Brands like SHEIN and Boohoo are reportedly posting thousands of new styles to their websites on a daily basis. Sometimes, knockoffs of trending celebrity and pop culture styles will appear online in as little as 24 hours.” Social media, influencer culture, and online hauls certainly stoked the fire in the creation of ultra-fast fashion.7

“A generation now views ultra-fast fashion’s historically low price points and disposable culture as the norm, with many young people considering garments worn out after only a few washes. This overproduction and quick disposal has exacerbated fashion’s waste crisis.”8

H&M Store, Times Square in New York City, photo taken at night with store and billboards bright and lit up.
H&M Store, Times Square in New York City. Photo by Will Buckner on Flickr, Creative Commons license (CC BY 2.0).

Wasteful Overproduction

Companies produce more clothing than can be consumed. Some companies trash or burn the excess. “An estimated 2.2 billion pounds of overstock and unsold clothing are landfilled or incinerated around the world every year, according to a 2018 report by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation…Two billion pounds of clothes is the equivalent in weight of 5 billion T-shirts, enough leftover stock to dress the adult population of the planet. In 2018, H&M announced that the brand was stuck with 4.3 billion dollars worth of unsold goods.” It’s not just fast fashion companies, either. The same year, the luxury brand Burberry was caught destroying excess clothing and accessories worth around $24 million.9 

A woman reaching for a handbag. sourrounded by racks of clothing in a clothing or department store. The clothes appear to be organized by color.
Photo by Alexander Kovacs on Unsplash.

Environmental Costs

The world produces around 100 billion articles of clothing annually, and “92 million tonnes end up in landfills.”10 Fast fashion causes extensive damage to the planet, exploits workers, and harms animals.11 The fashion industry produces 10% of all carbon emissions and it is the second-largest consumer of water.12 

Clothing production requires tons of water. For example, it takes 2,000 gallons of water to produce a single pair of jeans. Worse, “the fashion industry is responsible for 20% of all industrial water pollution worldwide.”13 Textile dyeing is the world’s second-largest polluter of water as the wastewater from it is often dumped into bodies of water. “If fashion production maintains its current pace, the demand for water will surpass the world’s supply by 40 percent by 2030.”14

“The way we manufacture new clothes is truly unsustainable, commanding a staggering level of resources, especially water, chemicals, and fossil fuels, that can’t continue. Each year, clothing production requires 24 trillion gallons of water, enough to fill 37 million Olympic-sized pools. And the fashion industry spews more globe-warming carbon dioxide annually than all international flights and maritime shipping combined.” -Elizabeth L. Cline15

Stacks of blue denim jeans on a table in a clothing store.
Image by Linda Lioe from Pixabay.

Poor Labor Standards and Pitiful Wages

“Only 2 percent of the 40 million garment workers around the world earn a living wage – it effectively amounts to modern-day slavery.”16

Across the world, workers experience unsafe working conditions and low wages that are far below the minimum wage. Companies require garment workers to work long hours through forced overtime, often apply impossible quotas to their daily production, and sometimes even inflict abuse. They also expose workers to many chemicals and pollutants, which jeopardize their health. Unionization attempts and campaigns for improvements in safety, conditions, wages, sick pay, and job security are often barred by the threat of job losses and sometimes violence.17

The garment, textile, and footwear workers around the world deserve better. “Fashion is a powerful industry, one that can and should lift people out of poverty rather than trap them in it. It is a multitrillion-dollar business, with plenty of wealth to go around. And yet, according to Oxfam, the top fashion CEOs earn in four days what the average garment worker will make in a lifetime.” Increasing wages would require only a 1 to 4 percent increase in retail prices.18

“The difference in what it would cost for people to not to have to make these kinds of choices between paying rent and putting food on the table is less than a dollar per garment. Why in the world would any company choose every day to prioritize their profits and paying the lowest price possible over ending that kind of human suffering? Especially when it’s not complicated or unaffordable to fix it.” -Sarah Adler-Milstein, co-author of Sewing Hope: How One Factory Challenges the Apparel Industry’s Sweatshops19

Photo of the Eastex Garment Co. Ltd factory in Cambodia, one of garment factories that supplies Swedish company H&M. Shows women sitting at sewing machines in a large factory room with a conveyor belt running through the center.
Photo of the Eastex Garment Co. Ltd factory in Cambodia, one of garment factories that supplies H&M. Photo by U.S. Embassy Phnom Penh on Flickr, Creative Commons license (CC BY-ND 2.0).

World Exports

World map showing clothing exports with monetary amounts.
Map courtesy of HowMuch.net, a financial literacy website.

Each of the following countries exports billions of dollars of garment products annually:

China:

China is the largest clothing manufacturing country in the world, employing over 15 million people, mostly women. Companies in this country pay the highest wages but that still does not equate to a living wage for all.20

List of companies that source their clothing from China.
List of companies that source their clothing from China. Screenshot from the Business & Human Rights Resource Centre.

Bangladesh:

Bangladesh is the second-largest garment manufacturing country, but they are among the lowest-paid in the world. This is where the 2013 Rana Plaza factory collapse happened, which killed 1,134 and injured another 2,500 people. While “the disaster brought international attention to the alarming labor conditions in overseas garment factories,” only some improvements in safety issues came from it.21 H&M and the VF Corporations (Vans, North Face, Timberland, etc.) are two of the many companies sourcing from Bangladesh.22

After Rana Plaza’s collapse, no corporations stepped forward after the tragedy to acknowledge that they were manufacturing there. H&M executives responded with this: “‘None of the textile factories located in the building produced for H&M,’ it stated. ‘It is important to remember that this disaster is an infrastructure problem in Bangladesh and not a problem specific to the textile industry.'” The statement continued that it would contribute to solutions going forward.23 But this problem is specific to the textile industry.

“In 2013, [Americans] spent $340 billion on fashion – more than twice what they forked out for new cars. Much of it was produced in Bangladesh, some of it by Rana Plaza workers in the days leading up to the collpase.” -Dana Thomas, Fashionopolis24

India:

India employs millions of people but often under conditions of forced overtime, less than half of a living wage, and even child labor.25 There have been some improvements but many workers, of which the majority are women, experience physical abuse and sexual harassment. Companies sourcing from India include American Eagle Outfitters, H&M, Levi Strauss & Co., and VF Corporation. 

Vietnam:

Vietnam has a communist government that forbids labor unions, and wages are 60 percent below a living wage. There are around 6,000 textile factories that employ about 3 million people. Nike employs 450,000 people there.26 “Many of us are familiar with the news about Nike sweatshops, but they’re just one of the many fast fashion brands violating human rights for the sake of fashion. The people who make our clothes are underpaid, underfed, and pushed to their limits because there are few other options.”27 Zara and H&M are two of the major brands that source from there.

Cambodia:

There are about 600,000 garment workers in Cambodia. Women experience a great deal of abuse, sexual harassment, and low wages, which are 50 percent below a living wage. Many companies, including H&M, Gap, Nike, and Puma, source from there.28

“Brands are interested in getting clothing as cheaply and quickly as they can. They have consciously chosen to locate production in countries that do not enforce their labor laws. A factory that scrupulously complied with the labor law, respected the right to organize, paid all required wages, didn’t force people to work overtime: That factory will not be able to meet brands’ price demands. You can’t survive as a supplier unless you operate a sweatshop, because the brands are only willing to pay sweatshop prices.” -Scott Nova, Executive Director of the Worker Rights Consortium29

Photo of garment workers sewing on sewing machines in a a large factory room in Bangladesh.
Photo of garment workers sewing on sewing machines in a a large factory room in Bangladesh. Photo by Musamir Azad on Wikimedia, Creative Commons license (CC BY-SA 3.0).

Fashion Production in the U.S.

“In the 1960s, just 5% of all clothing Americans wore was
made overseas. By the 1970s, that figure had reached 25%
and today it’s somewhere around 98%.” -Sophie Benson, Sustainable Wardrobe30

The United States produces little clothing domestically today: Less than 3 percent, which is down from 50% in 1990. “And a Made in USA garment is no longer a guarantee of ethical working conditions.” The largest part of the garment business is in Los Angeles, where there are approximately 45,000 garment workers, many of them undocumented immigrants. “A 2016 US Labor Department investigation of LA’s factories found that 85 percent of inspected factories violated labor laws. Workers are being paid as little as 4 dollars an hour sewing clothes for well-known fashion brands, including Forever 21, Fashion Nova, Ross Dress for Less, and T.J.Maxx.”31 Another investigation found that companies paid sewers as little as $2.77 an hour.32

Even sadder, US garment workers are some of the highest-paid in the world.

“The large, middle-market brands who source from these sweatshops herald that their apparel is ‘Made in the USA,’ as if such a statement automatically confers authenticity and integrity, as well as superior quality, to clothes produced offshore. It’s a corporate marketing tactic to pander to consumers’ patriotism while flagrantly breaking US labor laws.” -Dana Thomas, Fashionopolis33

Department store clothing mannequins showing clothing.
Image by Photo Mix from Pixabay.

The Role of Companies

Companies have the power to make real, humane, sustainable changes. “It’s time for more big brands to step up to the plate,” wrote Elizabeth L. Cline. “Big companies are the ones with the huge economies of scale that could bring down the price of sustainable materials and fund the research and development of eco-friendly innovations, from textile recycling and nontoxic dyes to factories powered by clean energy. They can certainly afford to pay higher wages.”34 But we consumers need to hold these companies accountable.

Fast fashion companies sometimes use greenwashing to make consumers feel better about purchasing their items. Greenwashing refers to when companies deceive consumers by claiming that their products are environmentally friendly or “have a greater positive environmental impact than they really do.”35 “Fast-fashion companies tell their customers that it’s possible to buy their products and still have a clean conscience. H&M has ramped up its use of organic cotton and sustainably sourced materials; Boohoo sells 40 or so items partially made from recycled textiles.” Aja Barber, a fashion-sustainability consultant, called this greenwashing in an interview with The Atlantic: “It’s like, ‘Oh look, these five items that we made are sustainable, but the rest of the 2,000 items on our website are not .'”36

“[A] higher price reflects things like fair wages, ethical sourcing practices and higher costs for less wasteful production runs. Knowing all that, the real question we should ask is: how is fast fashion so cheap?” -Sophie Benson, Sustainable Wardrobe37

Man wearing coat with "Sale" tags all over it, as well as shopping bags. Depicts shopping for clothing at clothing or department stores.
Photo by Sora Shimazaki from Pexels

Our Role

“Fast fashion makes us believe we need to shop more and more to stay on top of trends, creating a constant sense of need and ultimate dissatisfaction.”38

We’ve all supported it at some point, probably mistakenly. We found a great deal on a cute cardigan or funny t-shirt and bought it. Buying new clothes, especially when they’re on sale, brings pleasure to our brains. “This means of instant gratification from the fast fashion complex is a recipe for disaster for our brains, our wallets, supply chains, and the planet.”39 But we have to stop supporting fast fashion now. 

Think about the human factor. Every time we purchase from a company that does not follow ethical labor standards or pays poor wages, we are supporting the mistreatment of our fellow human beings. “We are rarely asked to pay the true cost of fashion. The pollution, carbon emissions, waste, and poverty our clothes create aren’t tallied up and included in the prices we enjoy. It does cost a bit more to do things the right way, to operate safer, well-paying factories and farms and to use longer-lasting, sustainable materials and craft more durable products. Ethical and sustainable clothing doesn’t have to be unaffordable, though,” wrote Elizabeth L. Cline.40

We can do better. Follow my upcoming series to learn more about clothing production and learn what you can do differently. Thank you for reading, please share and subscribe!

Large well lit clothing store with racks of clothing and stacks of shoes.
Photo by Alexander Kovacs on Unsplash.

Additional Resources:

Article, “10 Fast Fashion Brands We Avoid At All Costs,” by Christine Huynh, Good On You, April 30, 2021.

Website, The Magazine of the Sierra Club: Elizabeth L. Cline author page.

Blog, Elizabeth L. Cline Books.

Publication, “A New Textiles Economy: Redesigning fashion’s future,” Ellen MacArthur Foundation, November 28, 2017.

The True Cost cover artFilm, The True Cost (2015)

 

 

 

 

Footnotes:

Hefty EnergyBag Program

Hefty Energy Bag Program Starter Kit with informational card, orange trash bag, and plastic film.
Hefty Energy Bag Program Starter Kit, received October 21, 2022. Photo by me.

In October 2022, I received this Starter Kit in my mailbox (wrapped in plastic film). This program claims to be a solution for recycling all of the non-recyclable plastics that come into our daily lives. Items must be rinsed or cleaned first, of course, and they don’t accept everything. Items they will accept include yogurt containers, Styrofoam or polystyrene take-out containers, plastic packaging, plastic straws, and many others. For a full list please refer to the graphic below. They do not accept items that you can already recycle in your area, such as any plastics #1 and #2. They also do not accept #3 PVC plastics.

Hefty Energy Bag program mailer
Hefty Energy Bag program mailer.

The program admittedly sounded exciting, but over the years of doing this, I’ve learned to be skeptical. With this program, I could now recycle all my non-recyclable plastics with this mostly convenient Hefty EnergyBag Program and honestly, it felt too good to be true. So I started looking into it.  When I first looked up their website, using the QR code from the mailer, they did not include Tennessee – the closest was Atlanta, Georgia.

Screenshot of their locations from Hefty's website
Screenshot of their locations from Hefty’s website, captured on October 23, 2022.

I started by reaching out to them through their Contact Us page and asked why I received the mailer if the program wasn’t available in my area. A week later, they updated their website and responded to me. They said I could take items bagged in the orange bags to our local recycling center in Chattanooga, Tennessee. They sent the mailers out just a couple of weeks too early.

How does the program work?

Let’s break this down so we can understand how it works. I follow the order on the company’s mailer. This information is also available on their website.1

Hefty Energy Bag program mailer
Hefty Energy Bag program mailer.

#1: “Consumers must purchase Hefty EnergyBag product.”

The bags, which you must purchase at your own cost, cost about $10.49 per box of 26. This amounts to under $0.41 per bag. Seems cheap, but when compared to Hefty Strong Tall Kitchen Drawstring Trash Bags in the same size (13 Gallon ), those are about $0.18 per bag. That means these special orange bags are more than double the cost of regular trash bags. So right at the beginning, the company is shifting the cost to the consumers. Hefty makes many plastic products that you’re already paying for, so why aren’t they covering the cost of the bags if they really want to do the right thing?

#2: “Hard-to-recycle plastics get collected in the bag.”

Consumers are once again given the responsibility of not only collecting all the items into the special bags, but also understanding which items are and are not eligible.

#3: “Full tied bags can be dropped off at any of the designated recycling centers in the area.”

It refers to their website for locations. The bags are not collected curbside; they must be dropped off at a designated place. Where I live, I must take the bags to the recycling center. I’m not sure of the reason for this. While some people will participate, many residents won’t recycle anything unless it is picked up curbside. 

#4: “The normal recycling truck collects and delivers the bags to a local Recycling Facility (MRF) as a part of normal service.”

This statement is confusing since it seems like they mean the curbside recycling truck will pick it up as part of the normal service, but it means that the orange bags will be collected at the recycling center on a regular basis and taken to the MRF facility.

Buckhorn Mesa landfill in Arizona, image shows mountain of colorful trash and a bulldozer at top, clear blue sky in background.
Buckhorn Mesa landfill in Arizona, photo by Alan Levine on Flickr, Creative Commons license (CC BY 2.0).

#5: “Bags are sorted at the MRF and sent to a facility for use as valued resources.”

This is where the process gets muddled because our local Materials Recovery Facility (MRF) does not ship or sell plastics #3-#7. They landfill those materials. I’ve also read that most MRFs will not open and sort recyclables that are in plastic bags. Will they make an exception for the Hefty EnergyBag Program orange bags? I was curious to know if our local MRF, which is WestRock, has made a commitment to participate in this specific program, and if not, what will they do with the orange bags? I emailed Hefty (Reynolds Consumer Products is the parent company) with the following questions:

1) Your website indicates that these bags go to our local MRF for sorting. However, if our local MRF currently landfills plastics #3-#7, how do we know these items will get used for another purpose and not be landfilled?

2) Do you know if our local MRF is now participating in this Hefty program? Have they made a specific commitment for the Hefty EnergyBag Program?

3) Is it up to each individual MRF to decide what to do with the orange bags?

4) Have the MRFs preselected end-of-life partners (this term was extracted from your 2020 life cycle assessment)?

I wish I could include their response, but unfortunately, I have now sent this request 3 times and still have not received a reply.

More recently, I sent a list of similar questions to our local MRF, WestRock, but I have not yet received a response.2

#6: “The collected plastics can become an energy resource, feedstock for fuels or new products, or ground into smaller pieces to make new plastic building products and plastic lumber.”

Hefty indicates that these plastics can be reused to create energy, lowering our need for petroleum or new fossil fuels. On their website, under their header “PLASTIC WASTE IS MORE VALUABLE THAN YOU THINK,” they advertise that these plastics can be used for the following purposes:

      • Alternative fuel for manufacturing cement, reducing the need for natural resources like coal
      • Aggregate material for concrete blocks, plastic lumber, and other building products
      • New plastic products such as park benches, and Adirondack chairs
      • Feedstocks that can be refined into high-grade fuels or converted back into plastics

I wish plastic waste were actually valuable, because most of the time, it isn’t. Most plastics go to a landfill.

The above information came from a study that Reynolds Consumer Products commissioned, from the Sustainable Solutions Corporation, a company that helps envision and design sustainable solutions for companies. The “intended use of this study is to determine the environmental benefits of alternative end-of-life options currently utilized in the Hefty® EnergyBag® program compared to a traditional trash bag (Flex Bag) sent to landfill.” One of the main goals is “to create a more sustainable future by diverting this waste [from the landfill] and utilizing the material as a valued resource.”3

Full orange trash bag sitting on a street or sidewalk.
Photo from Rawpixel.com (CC0).

Does this mean the Hefty EnergyBag Program is a ploy?

Maybe. Hefty indicates that “the function of the Hefty® EnergyBag® orange bag is to serve as an alternative household waste bag to collect and divert difficult-to-recycle plastics from landfill.”4 A worthy goal, but I don’t know that it is actually happening. They are shifting the cost and effort to the consumer and the MRF. It also sounds like they are allowing the MRF to decide what to do with these items. However, most MRFs cannot sell “hard to recycle” plastics to manufacturers because there is just so much of it and it’s of little value.

In my area, I believe the Materials Recovery Facility (MRF) landfills the plastics that the Hefty EnergyBag Program collects. Perhaps that will change soon, and if it does, I will update this article! But it is worth asking your local MRF if they are participating in this program. Be direct and let them know you’ll be spending extra money on these bags and that you’d like to know if they are able to sort and sell or ship the materials.

Marketing (or Greenwashing?)

Hefty wants all of this non-recyclable plastic, including the plastics they manufacture, to stop going to landfills. So they paid for a study showing how these plastics could be used. But they themselves have nothing to do with the recycling or end-of-life use of these plastics. So, Hefty looks like they are doing the right thing, while earning more profits from selling the orange bags. They are not stopping plastic production at the source, even within their own company.

Is this just an excuse to justify the continued production of single-use disposable plastic products?

This is likely just a marketing campaign in order to increase their appearance of sustainability. If Hefty wanted to make a real difference, they would cover the cost of the bags for consumers, and/or cover some of the costs for the MRFs to do the extra collection and sorting. Even more, Hefty could have those plastics sent to them directly and they could reuse them in their own products.

I imagine it will be easy to spot these bright orange bags in landfills 50 years from now.

I hope this is helpful. Thanks for reading, please share and subscribe!

 

Footnotes: