Ever since the first fig leaf, apparel has been an item.
We humans are the only species that clothes itself. The earliest materials used for this purpose were probably fur, leather, leaves and grass that were draped, wrapped or tied around the body.
Archeologists have found sewing needles crafted from bone and ivory in Russia, from about 30,000 BCE. Since then, for the vast majority of people over the vast majority of time, what we wear has been driven by functionality and scarce resources.
But that has changed dramatically in the modern era. Looking at Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, clothing nowadays slots into just about every strata of human aspiration, from basic physical necessity all the way up to “self actualization.” Billions of humans live in an age of prosperity, our cupboards filled with items that often languish in its dark recesses, untouched for years.
And while we may think that the way we dress is an expression of “who we are,” our choices are for the most part, explicitly or subliminally driven by the huge economic and marketing powers of the fashion industry. We may be shocked by the way Facebook and Google manipulate our decisions, but the fashion juggernauts, Nike, Chanel et al, have been doing so since the advent of modern fashion.
Until recently, no one thought of the ecological damage resulting from the acquisition and collection of clothes for pleasure, oblivious to the environmental impact of filling a “walk-in closet.” For example, the average pair of jeans contains a kilogram of cotton, which requires 10,000 liters of water to cultivate. The stretchy elastane material woven through many trendy styles is made using synthetic materials derived from plastic. Levi Strauss estimates that a pair of its iconic 501 Jeans produces the equivalent of 33.4 kg. of carbon dioxide across its lifespan.
Cotton, which appears in 40% of all clothes, is known as the “dirtiest crop.” While only 2.4% of the world’s cropland is planted with cotton, it consumes 10% of all agricultural chemicals and 25% of insecticides. In one of the greatest ecological disasters as yet, the Aral Sea, once the fourth largest lake on earth, was destroyed by the misguided planting and irrigation of cotton crops. Today the Aral is a barren wasteland.
Made from petrochemicals, polyester and nylon are not biodegradable and consume great amounts of energy in their production. Nylon also emits a large amount of nitrous oxide. And it takes about 70 million barrels of oil just to produce the polyester used in fabrics each year. More than a half trillion gallons of fresh water are used in the dyeing of textiles each year and untreated dye wastewater is discharged into nearby rivers, flows to the sea and spreads around the globe.
We shop mainly at the giant fashion chains, many of them specializing in fast fashion. By design, the industry changes with the seasons, but fast fashion can change weekly, summed up by a sign in H&M, the second largest clothing retailer in the world, “New stuff is coming in each and every day. So why not do the same.” It’s not uncommon for shoppers to wear an item once or twice before throwing it away for next week’s style, abetted by the poor quality of many clothes, which cause them to fall apart after several washes.
All in all, the fashion industry accounts for about 10% of global carbon emissions, and nearly 20% of wastewater, utilizing more energy than both aviation and shipping combined.
Now, after two centuries of wanton abuse of our habitat in search of the illusion of happiness through conspicuous consumption, we have reached that moment in human history where we either frivolously continue to self-destruct or change our ways. Steven Demetri Georgiou, better known as Cat Stevens, before his Yusuf Islam days wrote, “the first cut is the deepest.” But it can be done.
And where best to start than with our wardrobes? I say, let us “the people” create a new fashion fad that reflects the reality of our age. Every generation has had its own style, often influenced by its circumstance. In the 1940s for example, patterns reflected the war years, with slim, uncluttered, practical designs. Women began to wear pants as a safety precaution in the factories where they worked and military style shoulder pads were “in.”
Those of us growing up in the 1960s and ’70s will recall bell-bottom jeans, batiks and business suits, minis, tie-dye and caftans. Just as the trends of the 1940s echoed the war years and the 1960s, political and cultural upheaval, so the 2020s must be defined by the necessity for minimalist consumption and restoration of our habitat.
Although my wife, Cheryl, would disagree, until recently I considered myself an average clothing consumer. Then on Yom Kippur 5781/2020, in the midst of personal accounting, I resolved to design my future clothing purchases on the “buy-to-need” model.
As I write, a year and a bit later, I have spent around NIS 200 on a few essentials and re-tasked a number of worn items into cleaning cloths without replacing them. I do not believe that my friends and colleagues have noticed any discernible downgrade in my sartorial standards. Not only do I not feel deprived in the slightest, but looking in the mirror, I am invigorated by a feeling of empowerment. I encourage you too to try out this new fashion statement. I call it “wear-to-care.”
It is painfully true that if we drastically reduce our clothing purchases, the livelihood of millions will be affected. Yet the same argument was used against computers when considering the secretaries. The secretaries managed to re-configure their skills. Skeptics argue that these actions are a freshwater drop in a polluted ocean. They may be right. Or not. All we can do is give sustainability our best shot and encourage more and more to do the same.
Any reasonable human being knows that our children and their’s face a devastating calamity which in the earthly time-frame is heading in our direction at breakneck speed. And it is because of the way we live. Yet it’s almost never too late to change our ways. Almost.
The writer is the author of the Prayer for the Preservation of the Environment.