My ten year old son, Casey, seems to think that clothes and shoes are disposable, single-use items. Okay, well maybe they get several uses, but not nearly as many as they should. Holes and snags in t-shirts, shoes soaked in mud with soles partially detached, socks with holes at the top (still haven’t figured that one out), are all too common in this house. It wasn’t until Casey was completely baffled as to why I was snapping photos of him in his mutilated t-shirt and sneakers, that I was able to capture his attention long enough to have a conversation about the environmental impact of this disposable clothing mindset.
It’s not that I haven’t brought it up before, but the conversation used to go a little more like this: “You are going to have to start buying your own clothes if you keep destroying yours in two or three wears.” Not surprisingly, this tactic did not work. In his mind, I’m sure he pictured wearing t-shirts with gaping holes and shoes with the sole torn off, because he honestly wouldn’t care, as long as he was comfortable. The issue isn’t so much about the money spent on replacing clothing, as it is about the need to take care of and appreciate what we have. It doesn’t matter if it’s something as big as a house or as small as a pair of socks; it’s all the same. There is a character trait that needs to be developed and a lesson around conservation that should be taught.
So, because this really goes back to the essence of why we are challenging ourselves with the Suburban Smackdown, I’ve decided that I am going to structure my new message to Casey based on hopeful outcomes. I really want my kids to learn and grow from this experiment of buying nothing new. I want them to truly appreciate what they have. I consider them quite fortunate children. In their eyes, however, surrounded only by children with lives much like their own and no real understanding of an outside complicated world, they likely do not see how fortunate they are. I want them to develop an understanding of how every buying decision people make can have a tremendous impact on our planet; from resources and energy used in production, to pollution, to horrendous working conditions, to needless waste in landfills. I view this challenge as 100% opportunity….not deprivation. Deep down I know Casey (and I think this goes for most kids) will better honor this planet we call home, when presented with the right information. I believe he will be motivated to make better, more responsible decisions. While I’m not surprised my threat of making him buy his own clothes didn’t work (how could I have followed through with that, anyway?), I feel certain I can make him at least think twice before he decides to climb over barbed wire with a new t-shirt on.
All that said, what kind of impact will holding onto that “I’ll just go buy a new one” mindset have? In my research, I’ve discovered that there are a tremendous amount of resources consumed in the processing and transporting of clothing and apparel. In fact, the “average t-shirt travels the equivalent distance of once around the globe during its production”, according to Kate Fletcher in her book, Sustainable Fashion & Textiles. Very often, the land used to grow cotton is more needed for food production. That land, however, is so degraded from cotton production that the soil is rendered unsuitable for growing food. Cotton is the most pesticide intensive crop in the world and accounts for 1/4 of all the pesticides used in the United States. The EPA considers seven of the top fifteen pesticides used in cotton in the United States as “possible”, “likely”, “probable” or “known” carcinogens. It takes about 1/3 pound of synthetic fertilizers to make just one t-shirt. These hazardous materials end up in our air, water and soil. Beyond that, it will take one cotton t-shirt 3-6 months and one pair of tennis shoes 50-80 years to biodegrade!
So now what? First and foremost, I will be sharing much of what I learned with Casey so he better understands the consequences of treating clothing as disposable. I’m holding onto the hope that he will be inspired to change, or at the very least, be conscious of his habits. As for me, I learned a good bit from my research. When the time comes (after the Smackdown, of course) and the need arises, I’ll be looking for more “fair trade” or “organic” cottons or other sustainable fabrics, such as hemp and bamboo. And from here on, buying only what is necessary and reusing all that we can.