“Too useful to be idle.” I recently came across this advertisement from a Canadian outdoor apparel company launching a “Used Gear” program in an effort to further minimize its environmental footprint by keeping its high-quality outdoor gear in use. Their message: “If you’re not wearing it, we’ll find someone who will.”
I’m often impressed when a company takes out a full page Ad in a publication like The Wall Street Journal – it shows commitment to message, if nothing else.
And this one reminded me of the of the iconic “Don’t Buy This Jacket” advertisement from Patagonia from a few years back. The powerful message that Patagonia delivered was that existing jackets (and clothes in general) still have plenty of utility. There’s no need to continually replace them, as we do so cavalierly in developed counties, due to rapidly changing tastes. In fact, there’s a very high cost to doing so – not only the financial cost to the consumer – but the cost to the planet as well. Think of all of the resources embedded in that jacket, not just the materials and labor that went into producing it – but all of the resources involved in the distribution process from producer to final consumer. Now multiply that impact to include the annual production of all clothing throughout the world. The negative environmental impacts (i.e. externaliites) in terms of resource consumption, water consumption, and greenhouse gas emissions are enormous, to name a few. When we casually discard clothing that is still perfectly good, we’re throwing away all of those resources, and we are laying the foundation for more production which leads to even more environmental externalities. It’s a costly cycle that we can’t afford.
This is why “fast fashion” is receiving so much attention for its environmental impact – and rightly so. We are producing relatively inexpensive clothing items with the intention of enabling consumers to simply discard and replace them a few months down the road when our tastes or perception of ‘in” styles change. Many consumers justify this behavior by donating their old clothing as they move on to new items – after all, someone will benefit from receiving them, right? But how efficient are those donation streams? And what percentage of those clothes actually get used, and for how long? By definition, they are not very durable.
The parallels between fast fashion and the food system are enormous. Food is relatively inexpensive and always available. As with clothing, efficient supply chains ensure that food surrounds us in great variety. As a result, we buy a lot of food – and since it is so easily replaced – we tend to waste a lot of it, too. And just as we might experiment with new clothes, we are increasingly experimenting with new food items. In some cases we donate our excess food, but much of it – particularly fresh produce items – goes to waste. Too much of the food donation stream consists of poor quality (i.e. low nutrition) food, which perpetuates health problems among those with the least financial resources.
The key takeaway here is that we need to come to terms with these costs and quickly begin to value our resources properly.
Our fashion and food systems are fueling costly cycles of overproduction which consume excessive resources and pollute the environment through extensive global production and distribution processes. Supplemented by easy, cheap disposal options, they perpetuate a linear “take-make-waste” mindset and inhibit a shift to circular production processes. We’re not recognizing the value in preserving the environment that produces the most basic items that we rely upon for survival. That must change.
Sustainable Development Goal 12, which focuses on responsible consumption and production patterns, provides the needed framework. As the UN notes, worldwide material consumption reached 92 billion tons in 2017, an increase of 254% from 1970, with the rate of acceleration increasing every year since 2000. In addition, material footprint per capita has increased substantially. In 1990, just over 8 tons of resources were extracted to satisfy an individual’s annual needs, while in 2015 that figure had grown to nearly 12 tons.
These are big numbers, with big negative impact – and they aren’t sustainable.
It’s clear that we need to consume fewer resources by wasting less. And we need to adopt more circular production and consumption models.
Food and fashion are key places to start. We need to make waste unfashionable.
So going forward: Don’t waste the food. And don’t buy the new jacket – try the used one. You’ll likely feel much better about your purchase, and you can send a signal to change our culture around excessive consumption. Because it’s too useful to be idle.