True Cost

Those of us who make and use what we make are aware of the “true cost” (or at least truer cost) of, for instance, knitting a sock, weaving a hand towel, crocheting a blanket, carding fleece, spinning yarn and dying yarn. SockButtonRecently on a hot afternoon as I sat knitting (a sock), I viewed “The True Cost” (2015) on Netflix. A documentary, The True Cost explores the true cost and impact of “fast fashion” – a term new to me.  As opposed to the traditional two-season fashion releases per year, “fast fashion” is  52 seasons a year, something new every week. The result? 

Autumn Newell explains:  Today, overconsumption of cheap, poorly made clothing is contributing to epic waste generation. Items are often available at prices so low one can purchase a new piece of clothing for the same price as a bottled of water. These prices are so irresistible to consumers that more often than not people have more clothing than they know what to do with. Problems with quality, fit and durability are turning the habitual overconsumption of apparel into a less satisfying experience and creating a growing waste stream of textiles when consumers clean out their closets.

According to The True Cost,

  • Today we purchase over 80 billion pieces of new clothing each year – 400% more than two decades ago.
  • The average American throws away 82 pounds of textile waste per year.  This translates to 11 million tons per year, most of which is non-biodegradable, sitting in a landfill for over 200 years while releasing harmful gases into air.

BalesClothesYou might be thinking (as did I), “Well, at least my family donates used clothing to thrift stores.”   I learned that in the U.S., only 10% of the donated clothing actually gets sold; more likely our donations are packaged up and sent to developing countries where people struggling to make a living try to repurpose and resell them.

As the price of clothing has dropped for the consumer, the way of making clothes has completely changed.  As recently as 1960s, 95% of our clothing was made in U.S.  and we outsourced 3% of it.  Today we outsource 97% to developing countries around the world. Outsourcing:  Another, serious problem with fast fashion.

Companies (and not just U.S. companies!) outsource and bargain with manufacturing plants in developing countries. In efforts to increase company margins without adversely affecting sales, the outsourcing companies demand lower prices from the manufacturing plants.  The outsourcing companies at the top of the product chain choose where their products will be be made and will switch manufacturers in an ever-moving quest to boost profits.  Seeking to maintain the outsourcing companies’ business, the manufacturing plants meet the demands, maintaining their own profits on the backs of workers and the environment.  (The fashion industry’s profits are almost $3 trillion per year.) Dhaka_Savar_Building_Collapse

It’s uncontrolled capitalism at its finest/worst:  Those clothes that seem like such a bargain come at a great cost – especially to workers, for instance, 1,129 dead and 2,515 injured in the 2013 collapse of the Savar building in Dhaka, Bangladesh.  (BangleTriangle_Shirtwaist_Factory_fire_on_March_25_-_1911desh is now second only to China in clothing exports.)  This tragedy was worse than the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in New York when 156 workers died.  In fact, three of the four worst tragedies in history of fashion manufacturing happened in a single year, 2013.  (Of course, the environmental impact is another discussion – also addressed in The True Cost.)

How did the 2013 tragedy affect the profits of companies known for outsourcing as they search for the biggest margin increases?  Not adversely.  As noted by The Guardian, In the shops that sell cheap clothing, no one has observed any drop in the brisk sales of €2.50 t-shirts, $19.99 jeans, or £5.90 king-sized duvets. Shares in Associated British Food, Primark’s parent company, were up 6.5% in the week after the collapse of the building which housed its manufacturing contractor.”

Thor and I had an interesting discussion about whether corporations have or should have a social responsibility.  In the U.S., except for minimum legally-mandated requirements, corporations are not required to be socially responsible.  CEOs, in fact, are legally mandated to work in the best fiduciary interests of their shareholders – not the public and not the consumer.  Thus, perhaps it should be of no surprise that U.S. corporations generally and the fashion industry specifically have grown into post-modern Lernaean Hydra; as activists attempt to force governments rein companies in on a certain area or topic, companies move into others.

Is there a better alternative?

Robert Reich (Chancellor’s Professor of Public Policy at UC Berkeley, Senior Fellow at the Blum Center for Developing Economies, and Secretary of Labor in the Clinton administration), argues:  “The answer is to reform capitalism. The world’s productivity revolution is outpacing the political will of rich societies to fairly distribute its benefits. The result is widening inequality coupled with slow growth and stubbornly high unemployment.” (Click here to read his full discussion/article.)

In The True Cost, Richard Wolff, Ph.D. (economist and graduate of Harvard, Stanford and Yale), said that America is a peculiar country where we could criticize the education system to make it better, we could criticize the transportation system to make it better, but we couldn’t criticize the economic system.  He stated that, “If you don’t criticize something for 50 years it rots. A healthy society subjects its component systems to criticism so it would do better.”  Wolff argues that to effect real change, we have to deal with the system, not merely focus on improving worker rights.  (Here’s an provocative 2014 interview with Dr. Wolff available his web page.)

If interested in learning more about the fast fashion industry and what journalists and activists are trying to change about the fast fashion industry, take a look at the work of Lucy Siegle, a British journalist and broadcaster who focuses on the environmental and social impacts of the fashion industry, and London-based Livia Firth of Eco-Age.

I asked myself what percent of my overall wardrobe is from fast fashion.  Admittedly I have several pieces (mostly t-shirts) that come out the fast fashion arena.  Yet I don’t replace them very often (sounds a little defensive!); most of mine are several years old.  When they are no longer wearable, I need to start making rag rugs.  (See what Craft Passion did with old bed sheets!)

handwovenSeptOct2015RagRugThe whole fast fashion-repurposing clothes conundrum has weighed heavily on my mind since I viewed The True Cost.  Well, it must have been Providence!  I opened the most recent issue of Handwoven (September/October 2015) and saw Amanda Robinette’s T-Shirt Rug!

Do you repurpose clothes and, if so, into what? 

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About sweatyknitter

Fiber art devotee, author, and amateur artisan bread baker.
This entry was posted in Miscellany, Slow Clothes/Slow Fiber and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

79 Responses to True Cost

  1. Pingback: Back to Basics | The Sweaty Knitter, Weaver and Devotee of Other Fiber Arts

  2. Pingback: Spending on Clothes | The Sweaty Knitter, Weaver and Devotee of Other Fiber Arts

  3. tonymarkp says:

    Crocheted.

    Like

  4. Woven or crocheted? >

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  5. tonymarkp says:

    They’re awesome. My niece made a few rag rugs some years back. She requested worn out clothes from the family. Three of my tees are in them. I love making rag bags. I have a bag obsession.

    Like

  6. I’m thinking about rag rugs …

    >

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  7. tonymarkp says:

    I’m like you and wear my tees until they are rags. I do all kinds of things with my clothes. I like to rag crochet with strips of fabric I cut from my worn out clothes. I don’t repurpose until I’m done with the mending process. I mend my clothes and wear them more before I repurpose them, which I think people have stopped doing because of this fast fashion stuff. The bizarre thing is that often new clothes are fashioned to look worn or mended.

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  8. Tuathaa says:

    I really enjoyed this post. Watched the movie and was very moved by IT. I don’t shop much clothing for myself, and my kids get mostly second hand stuff. I can’t help but think though that it applies to most our consumption. Including yarn. Yikes. I do like buying that and even though I don’t necesserily go for the cheapest, I don’t always get the organic faitrtade either. This might merit a future post.

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  9. Pingback: Resolute (and determined)! | Duck And Cover

  10. You make a good point re disposability of clothes and loss of knowledge (and interest!) in mending. I have a darning egg and have used it. In fact, I’m currently knitting several pairs of wool socks that will replace the SmartWool socks we bought 18 months ago that wear out very quickly! I’m going to repurpose the old socks into some sort of braided rug!

    >

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  11. Margaret says:

    Great post!! I love that you mentioned the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire. I read a really interesting book on the fire called “Triangle: The Fire that Changed America,” which did a really good job of weaving historical context into the narrative about the fire. Had you not mentioned the fire, I never would’ve made the connection between today’s fast fashion and the shirtwaist, which was the turn-of-the-century version of fast fashion. A comparison of the social factors surrounding both movements would make a fascinating essay. I actually don’t buy fast fashion except for small accessories. Firstly, it’s all made of synthetic, non-breathable materials, and I live in Louisiana. Secondly, my style is more “classic preppy” anyways. And thirdly, I like owning things that will last for years. I also think that a collective cultural loss of the domestic skills of mending and darning contributes a lot to the disposability of today’s clothing. Before I took up knitting and embroidery, I’d throw out a sweater that got a hole in it. Now, I can just darn the sweater. If a sweater isn’t salvageable, I unravel some of the yarn and wind it on embroidery floss holders. Then I can use that yarn to darn similar sweaters that I foolishly lost the spare yarn cards for. I’d love to be able to recycle old yarn by breaking it back down into the fibers and spinning new yarn from it, but I have yet to learn spinning. So there’s that.

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  12. Pingback: Not such a bargain after all | Release the Penguins

  13. It was indeed! No am still thinking about the film.

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  14. Lyn says:

    Very informative and thought-provoking post! Definitely seeking out that film.

    Like

  15. Maggienesium says:

    You’re most welcome, you gave me some food for thought and figuring out the ensuing chapter in my crafting is amazing thus far 🙂

    Like

  16. Maggienesium says:

    Hi there, I just wanted to let you know that I’ve nominated you for a Sunshine Award. https://projectaccomplished.wordpress.com/2015/08/21/sunshine-award/

    Like

  17. I am pleased you enjoyed this post. What a wonderful idea – textile recycling pick up!

    Liked by 1 person

  18. J says:

    This is a great post! I’ll forward it over to a friend who has just posted on this subject. I haven’t seen true cost but it sounds right up my street! Generally I will sell or donate my clothes I don’t want any longer. And i tend to buy from ebay and charity shops too. But for things like old socks, I have used them as shoe polishing rags before. Or if it is a real nice cotton print, i will reuse it in quilts or cut pockets from it. Alas I have just found out there is a textile recycling point around the corner from me! Also, in the UK, if you live in an area where you get your wheelie bin collected off your curb, if you bag textiles up separately they take it as recycling. I’m not sure if they still do that, but they definitely used to. ☺

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  19. What a great suggestion! Thank you! The grandkids will be here soon for a week long visit … I’ll teach them how to make braided potholders out of the SmartWool socks!

    Liked by 1 person

  20. When I was younger, my mom took all of my dad’s old tube socks, cut them up, and used them to make potholders, which she is still using 10+ years later… We tried not to let anything go to waste. 🙂

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  21. You are welcome! My reaction to the film parallels yours. I think this should be shown to high school and college students. Maybe it would affect their future purchase choices. I am in the process of knitting about 5-7 pairs of socks for the winter to replace my SmartWool socks (which keep wearing out), and now I have to figure out what to do with my old socks. Cut them up and weave into a rag rug? Make a fat yarn out of them? I’m not yet sure.

    Liked by 1 person

  22. Thank you for recommending the film! I just finished watching The True Cost and I am just astounded by the lives of the garment factory workers, the ecological impact of the fashion industry, and the lack of accountability from the major clothing retailers. I feel absolutely appalled by our society’s need for materialistic consumption and I am now looking at my own past and present consumption in a new light. It’s time to turn a new leaf and start living a life that does not revolve around materialistic goods.

    Like

  23. It is a problem that isn’t easily resolved. Democratic capitalists argue that consumers can vote by their consumption choices. Too glib a response and almost impossible given the choices and realities facing consumers.

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  24. Rebecca says:

    The fast fashion model has become so structured into capitalism it is very hard to step outside of it. You have to be thinking about every purchase and what it means. And then in a moment of ‘your child is required to wear a black tracksuit for this production’ has you running for the cheapest thing at the Big Box cos it is needed next week and you know it will never be worn again and suddenly you have bought poison cotton and sweated labour because it was just so easy and convenient. The right choices are hard to maintain because the wrong choices are the ones consumer capitalism wants us to make.

    Like

  25. Deb says:

    I can honestly say that by the time our children are done with the clothes I would be embarrassed to donate them! LOL!

    Like

  26. belinda says:

    Don’t get me going on products outsourced to China — including yarn.

    Like

  27. Yes! Thor used to always buy Clark shoes (made in the UK). But then Clark outsourced to China and the shoes haven’t been the same. So now Thor and several other people I know who at one time bought Clark shoes will no longer buy them. So they take good care of their old Clarks! 🙂

    >

    Liked by 1 person

  28. belinda says:

    I agree,. My wardrobe may be smaller and I may be wearing the same thing for several (if not many) years, but they’re clothes I’m proud to wear. Even when worn thin, they look better than cheap clothing.

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  29. This is wonderful! I’m sure if they don’t work for your cousin & children, there’s got to be someone they know in Minnesota would appreciate your craftsmanship and give the sweaters a good home!

    >

    Liked by 1 person

  30. belinda says:

    I’ve actually finally found the right person — or people — who will appreciate the work that goes into a handknit sweater and are the right size. My cousin and her two high school daughters, who live in Minnesota, are getting a box-full of various hand knit goods sometime in the next month. I’m really excited. I actually don’t care if anything happens to the sweaters, if that makes sense, because I know they genuinely appreciate the craftsmanship. But I’m confident they will take good care of them.

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  31. I know, it’s a conundrum. “True Cost” interviewed an organic cotton farmer in Texas. Wow … there’s a really good reason we should support organic cotton farmers efforts.

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  32. If your hand knits are still in good shape, gift?

    Liked by 1 person

  33. My father always told me to save my money to buy something that might cost a little more but would last longer than the cheap version. Sage advice!

    Liked by 1 person

  34. My daughter’s family keeps a pile of clothes to be mended and then waits for my next visit to ask me to mend them. 🙂 At least they don’t throw them away! I’m going to ask my daughter to keep all the tshirts that the grandkids outgrow so I can use them in weaving rag rugs.

    Liked by 1 person

  35. Thanks for visiting. I am pleased you enjoyed the post.

    Like

  36. Yes indeed! A great way to repurpose clothes. When I was a young mother our neighborhood had a little shop of previously worn children’s clothes called “Mother’s Exchange.” If you brought in clothes, you earned a store credit to be used against store purchases. All the clothing had been previously worn but all had lots of life left in them!

    Like

  37. Talya says:

    Reblogged this on Duck And Cover and commented:
    I’m about to break one of my rules. I told myself that I would NEVER re-blog someone else’s post. I thought it was tacky, and that the point of blogging in general is to be as original or true to yourself as possible. But this is a GREAT post, and I don’t think I can improve upon it.

    It also gives me a LOT to think about, and kind of makes me want to knit myself a wardrobe, so I can leave as many fast-fashion clothes as I can behind.

    Like

  38. Deb says:

    Great post. Now I feel better that we are big on hand me downs with our children.

    Like

  39. Laura says:

    I followed the link from Pinko Knitter and I really enjoyed reading your post!

    Liked by 1 person

  40. liwella says:

    Agree (1,000)

    I think there’s definitely something about being a maker that makes one acutely conscious of the time and effort involved in making something, and the real cost of materials. So I deliberately invest in well-made pieces that will last, and I deliberately choose to buy second hand (ie “new to me”) things to prolong their lives. And I wear them until they either fall apart or I pass them on to my Mum. I was shocked to find out my SIL doesn’t even have a needle and thread in the house. If a button comes off or a gem comes down she throws something away. That would be inconceivable to me.

    Like

  41. belinda says:

    I should add I found this post more than thought–provoking. I’ve always felt spending more on quality clothing was justified, and this is a — I wish I had the right word — a different sort of justification. Something a spouse might roll his eyes at initially. This is information to share.

    Like

  42. belinda says:

    I do the old-fashioned thing with my t-shirts — rotate them into the “pajama pile” (sexy!) then tear them up into rags. Wish I could say I was more creative. It’s my handknits I don’t know what to do with!

    Like

  43. Maggienesium says:

    Worsted? I’m not sure. A couple of weeks back I upcycled some t-shirts and cut half inch strips for continuous yarn. There are some pictures on my blog.

    Like

  44. Maggienesium says:

    I had no idea! Thanks for letting me know – we were thinking about getting some of those too but now we can just go with Cuppow. Crazy.

    Like

  45. Maggienesium says:

    Dooooo eeeeeeet! It sounds really cool and it will feel amazing to get it done at last!

    Liked by 1 person

  46. I think the “who to blame” is a bit of the chicken-and-egg argument. If we look at the problem holistically, it’s so multi-faceted. The U.S. has historically “taken” without a backward look to effect. Today we are starting to see the results of the horrific spike in CO2 emissions that started in the late 1800s. Yet individuals seem more willing to put the blame on corporations, not on their own habits – for instance, the U.S. obsession with driving cars! Those who try to use public transportation instead may find themselves living in a city that’s grown under the auspices of real estate developers or the Big 3 motor companies. Public transportation, compared to European counterparts, is almost a joke. So the country disinvested in public transport infrastructure and thus privatizing transportation – a lot of people have made a lot of money on our car culture! With regard to fast fashion, the ability to buy clothes for almost pennies takes people’s attention away from the fact that the real dollar value of their wages has sunk … yet as long as they can buy food and clothes “cheap” – no matter the environmental or social cost – they don’t question the “system.” The U.S. has given away its manufacturing base, a base that once sustained the middle class, but as the middle class is quickly eroding … arghgh!

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  47. You’re most welcome. In all honesty, since leaving the world of lecterns and consulting, I spend more time focused inward (probably a good thing!). Having grandchildren makes me think deeply about the world we’re leaving them. My grandchildren will be up to stay with us for a bit before school starts, and I plan on asking them for old t-shirts. My hope is that it will start an interesting conversation.

    Liked by 1 person

  48. Some bloggers have creative approaches to dealing with cast offs!

    Like

  49. Thank you! I forgot about braided rugs; thanks for reminding me!

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  50. Thank you … though I must admit retirement has exacerbated my “social consciousness.” I’m not sure why. More time to think?!

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  51. Thank you. 🙂

    Like

  52. Hmmm, the way you describe your old nightgown, it might not be the best for a rag rug. 🙂 I’ve had clothes like that too … I keep until my daughter, mortified, has literally cut them up with scissors so they are impossible to use again!

    Like

  53. Sounds like a fun project – and useful once done!

    Liked by 1 person

  54. Yes indeed! I’m sad to see the younger generations seem to view their clothing as disposal as tissues.

    Like

  55. T-shirt yarn … what weight?!

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  56. It’s tough, isn’t it?! I bought a set of “drinking” caps to put on Ball jars. As Ball (a US company) canning jars are made in the US, I assumed their drinking caps would be too. After I got home I read the packaging. Nope: China. So I returned them and found a local store that carries Cuppow and bought some of those instead.

    Liked by 1 person

  57. I think the “cheap” cost of clothes is one of the things that keep people from looking at the fact that – at least in the U.S. – the real dollar value of their income has sunk way down as we increasingly have a pyramid-shaped (economic) society. As long as the “average” person can buy more junk/stuff, they ignore ugly economic realities.

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  58. I have a lot of those good intentions packed away in boxes too. 🙂 But now I’m keeping an eye on Thor’s t-shirts and dress shirts … as soon as they start looking a little worn, they’re going into another box! 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  59. Thank you. I learned a lot viewing “The True Cost.” I hope you get a chance to see it!

    Like

  60. Daryl and Cat's Hats says:

    Some great information here. I will be sure to check out that documentary.
    I hate to say it, but I am not someone who keeps up with fashion, nor any clothing trends, and I am, ahem, lagging way behind the times. I generally only buy clothing every four to six years, and wear things until I can no longer wear them any longer.

    One thing I love to make are reusable totes from old t shirts, and little sewn zipper bags out of old jeans.

    But who is really to blame here? The consumers, or the companies? The companies are at fault for selling us articles of clothing that are practically disposable. Some top manufacturers of clothing make their products so thin and flimsy that it cannot possibly last nearly as long as items of clothing lasted years ago. But on the flip side, we as the consumers are partly to blame by buying into it.

    Just some food for thought.

    Like

  61. What a wonderfully thought provoking post. I really appreciate the break-down you did of the documentary and the subject at large. I think you bring up some interesting points and definitely something to consider. Thank you for your insight and for writing on something that inspires discussion.

    Like

  62. Susan says:

    glad you put this up, saw it on needleandspindle.com and even this morning someone said Oh, where did you get that? Had to confess it was 30 years old…………argh feel like a walking rag bag sometimes but everything is clean 🙂 and no holes! Am sewing a lot more these days and from stuff that came into out quilting group that could not be made into quilts. It would have gone to the thrift store otherwise. Thanks for keeping ‘us’ honest!

    Like

  63. Janet says:

    I reblogged this. Great post. I have lost track of the number of braided and hooked rugs I have made from castaways.

    Like

  64. I reblogged this, and I also shared it on FB. Thank you for being a socially-conscious knitter/blogger.

    Liked by 1 person

  65. Reblogged this on All Kinds Of Knitting and commented:
    This is one reason why The Sweater Knitter is one of my favorite bloggers.

    Like

  66. salpal1 says:

    I had to chuckle at your last question – what do I make with my old clothes? Usually, rags. I wear things so long they literally are falling apart. I just put a nightgown in the rag bag that I remember buying more than 20 years ago. the sleeves long ago came off, the poor old thing is worn so thin it is full of holes and is too thin to repair. Like you, I probably only buy “fast fashion” t shirts, and if I cull things, they go to GoodWill. But now you have me thinking – what could I do differently? I have plans to sew more, and this has inspired me to really do that, but I am a bit stuck for ideas of what to do with old clothes. Do I really want a rug made of threadbare nightgowns?

    Liked by 1 person

  67. Lesley King says:

    Thanks for this -I need to watch the documentary too. I’ve posted a little about this following a trip to Ethiopia last year to meet with a group that are trying to grow organic cotton. C&A and H&M have expressed interest in buying the cotton which has me in a quandry. i want to boycott these shops as I hate the conditions the garment workers live in but I want to support ventures that increase sustainable markets for people in developing countries.

    Like

  68. andalexand says:

    It was supposed to be bath mat sized. I ran into needle size issues and never resolved them. I was using one strand of rug yarn and one of t shirt in a “log cabin” style. Just talking about it makes me want to dig it out and finish it!

    Liked by 1 person

  69. Thank you for this fascinating post. I had never thought about the impact of cheap clothing- and yes most of us have way too many clothes that we never wear.

    Like

  70. Maggienesium says:

    I just discovered t shirt yarn! I’m sticking to throw pillows though (owl shaped ones), a rug sounds like too big a commitment!

    Liked by 1 person

  71. Maggienesium says:

    I’m loving that pin! While I haven’t seen the film, I keep getting glimpses into it from friends and articles, to the point my wife and I decided not to ever get stuff from a place we haven’t thoroughly vetted. As it is we don’t shop much, so the stuff we get should be as ethical and sustainable as possible. This means I get to knit more and that we are sticking to the handful of USA retailers we have researched.

    There is a blog here called Knit My Closet that I’m digging, I don’t have that level of skill set but I’m inspired!

    Like

  72. kiwiyarns says:

    A very thought provoking post. Thank you! I think about this a lot too and get frustrated that we are locked into this system because most of the time that is all the majority of people can afford. I recall that as a child, clothes were valued, cared for and handed-down – there was no such thing as ‘throw it away’ in my family. It was quite an eye-opener to discover how others lived. The True Cost very accurately describes how garments are sourced and manufactured.

    Liked by 1 person

  73. andalexand says:

    Very informative–thanks! I have a 30% completed t shirt rug languishing in a box in my basement. It’s remained packed through at least three moves. I have good intentions…

    Liked by 1 person

  74. Recniky says:

    This is a great piece. I’ve posted it on my FB page.

    Like

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