Bernie Sanders and Our Clothing Problem

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I had been planning to write this blog post about the environmental impact of our clothing this weekend. And then Bernie Sanders showed up at Joe Biden’s inauguration and caused a flood of Internet memes. If you’ve missed it (and how could you?), Sanders’ choice of parka and wool mittens while surrounded by fashionable suits and dresses has made quite a stir. Looking beyond the cute memes of Bernie in all sorts of different situations, he’s sent an important message.

Sanders himself says he was just trying to keep warm. Quite plausible for a freezing cold day in DC. Some have suggested it showed he didn’t care. It might even be tempting to suggest that Sanders is just a cranky old guy who is showing his resentment over not being the incoming president.

Bernie Sanders in parka and mittens sitting at a board room table with The Avenbers

Consciously or not, he’s sending a much more important message; Our clothing is creating a big problem.

It all Comes out in the Wash

Most of us have been aware, recently, of the discovery of dry cleaning chemicals in the Arctic over the last decade or more. But there’s a new threat from our clothing habits.

A great deal of our clothing is made with plastics. Nylon and polyester are ubiquitous in our clothing. Unfortunately they are also becoming ubiquitous in the environment.

North Americans are putting an estimated 870 tonnes of plastic into waterways and oceans each year. Research has found significant amounts of polyester in the Arctic ocean, the type of plastic and colours almost certainly pointing to clothing as the source. These plastics inevitably end up in the food cycle, which will inevitably cause problems for all of us.

Shipping From All Over

How many of us look at the labels on our clothes before we purchase them and make conscious decisions about where they are from? Clothes made in China, India, and Bangladesh are common. Some of us have, indeed, struggled with the worries about sweatshop labour as we plop down our money for inexpensive fashion.

What we often don’t realize is that the “Made in” tag does not tell the whole story. As the Knowledge Network documentary Freightened points out, a single piece of clothing may include materials from multiple countries; the raw material, the fabrics, the dying process, zippers, buttons, etc. Some buttons, for example, may be made from recycling plastics shipped from Europe, manufactured into buttons and then shipped again to the assembly line.

All this stuff is moved in container ships. Huge, bunker oil burning ships. 60,000 of them sail the world’s oceans, putting far more carbon into the atmosphere than automobiles and playing havoc with ecosystems.

Today’s Fashion

“Fashion” is a big problem too. The industry itself discards millions of garments every year before they are even worn. Mistakes in colours or order specifics consigns tonnes of material to landfills and incinerators.

Our personal behaviour plays a role in the mountain of waste. We all like new clothes. We feel pressured to look sharp and be fashionable. So much so, in fact, that, some studies suggest most clothing only lasts two to three years before we replace it.

Back to Basics with Bernie

And here’s where we come back to Bernie and his daring fashion statement on January 20. He has had those mittens (made with reclaimed wool and fleece from recycled bottles) for at least four years and he’s been seen quite regularly out campaigning in that parka. This is functional and durable clothing that serves a purpose and will last for years.

Kamala Harris’ purple dress was loaded with symbolic meaning. An unintentional symbol of consumption, It is unlikely to be seen in public again.

That is not a condemnation of Harris, who’s attention to fashion is guided by both office and gender, but it does make an interesting contrast with Sanders’ silent statement.

What We Can Do

These are big issues and it would be easy to feel discouraged but there are things we can do. The bottom line is that these issues are about, well, the bottom line. Changing consumer behaviour changes business practices.

  • Wash your clothes less often.
  • Keep your clothes until they are worn out because the longer they last, the less they shed in the washing cycle.
  • Buy fashion resistant clothing so you aren’t tempted to replace them often.
  • Become fashion resistant yourself. Be like Bernie.
  • Use a front loading washing machine because they are gentler and remove fewer fibres from clothing.
  • Install a lint trap on your washing machine. Yes, they exist.
  • Shop Local, whenever possible.
  • Invest in well made, durable clothing.

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