The true cost of our cheap crap economy

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I am not, by any definition, a fashionable man.

I wear clothes that came off the rack when dial-up internet was the gold standard — only because I’m too fat for the clothes I bought before that. If I’m wearing anything that looks the least bit well-put-together, it was a gift from my wife.

All that being said, I am in no position to speak authoritatively about fashion, much less the fashion industry.

But, we all should pay attention to today’s fashion industry, even if we’re willfully unfashionable, because this behemoth industry seems to be a good bellwether of our social leanings.

In her recently released book “Fashionopolis,” author Dana Thomas digs into the dark underbelly of the fashion industry, and what it really says about our society (spoiler alert — it’s not good).

The days of seasonal fashion lines have given way to the trend of “fast fashion,” where fashion companies work feverishly to drive their own products out of style within weeks.

Avid fashion-fans, answering the siren’s call of “what’s next,” purchase and discard clothes every 1-2 weeks. It is a symptom of our society’s insatiable and never-ending quest to fill that empty spot in the center of our being with more stuff.

And where does all that stuff end up? It goes the way of all the things we buy with our disposable income — into the trash.

By some estimates, as much as 60% of textiles produced end up in the trash within a year. An estimated 14 million tons of clothing went to the landfill in 2018 alone. And many of those clothes, being non-biodegradable synthetics, will remain in the landfill for up to 200 years.

In all, the World Bank estimates fashion is responsible for nearly 20% of all industrial pollution annually and releases 10% of carbon emissions — more than the commercial shipping and airline industries combined.

We should be concerned about the environmental impact of “fast fashion.” But there are much larger issues at play here than today’s capris and skinny jeans turning into next week’s trash.

Production of all those trash-clothes demands the labor of 40.3 million slaves, 71% of whom are women, according to a Global Slavery Index 2018 report.

Why do we allow this to happen? In “Fashionopolis,” a sweatshop worker in Los Angeles gives us the answer we all know, and few of us want to admit.

“‘Listen, we all know our s**t’s made in sweatshops,’ she said. ‘But we put it in the back of our minds. Nobody cares.’”

Nobody cares. That is a damning, and damn accurate, indictment of our society.

We live the way we live off the backs of others, who scrape out a living on pennies a day, in conditions we like to believe were eliminated a century back.

I am not begrudging anyone their stuff. I have stuff. I like my stuff. But, if we have any sincere desire to live in a just and equitable society, we need to start being honest about the true cost of our stuff — on the lives of those who produce it and on our children, who will inherit the earth in which we’ve buried and burned our discarded crap.

There are no easy solutions to issues like “fast fashion,” cheap consumer products designed to be replaced, or the millions of people who scratch out their meager living from producing all this crap.

The only solution that actually works — and which none of us want to hear, let alone embrace — is if we demand to pay more for the things we buy. Yes, pay more.

Of course, there can be unintended consequences in tackling issues like environmental impact, injustice, slavery and child labor. Preventing those unintended consequences will require carefully crafted macro-level solutions that ensure fair, living wages on the supply side, paired with costs that actually match the value of the labor and materials involved.

But, why would we even try? Why would we drive up the cost of the crap we like to buy?

The answer to that requires a couple of questions.

Do we value our planet, and our children’s place on it, more than we value our cheap crap?

Do we value the inherent dignity, well-being and human worth of the workers who produce our cheap crap, more than our ability to buy that cheap crap cheaply?

If our answers to those two questions are “Yes,” then we have some hard work ahead of us — work past due, and well-worth doing.

If our answers to those questions are “No,” well, then, our society is worth nothing more than the crap we discard.

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