Category: Inside Story

Defining Trash


Jodhpur, Rajasthan | This I Wear

There is a very clear difference between culture shock and experiencing an overwhelming culture. In my case, it is the latter as I knew what to expect when I arrived in India. I expected to give up many comforts from home, to experience an infinite influx of new sights/sounds/tastes/smells, and to wear bug spray 24/7. I expected to binge on souvenirs, to travel in rickshaws, and to see a drastic contrast between the wealthy and the poor. I also anticipated that there was just going to be a lot of people.

Given the sheer size of the Indian population, it is not surprising that there is a waste problem. Trash doesn’t disappear here – it remains a part of the community even after it has left the home. In fact, if there is a trash pickup service, it is probably an informal one. Trash picking is a livelihood for significant numbers of people. It is not uncommon to see a landfill excavated for anything of value to be reclaimed and sold or reused in creative ways.

Even beyond the trash pickers, reuse is part of the culture here. In Rajasthan, the textile capital of India, shops overflow with beautiful quilts, scarves and fabrics. Looking more closely at many of these products, it is easy to see how scraps from one item become the appliquéd camels on a patchwork bedspread or recycled sari fabrics are sewn together to create new items in a tradition known as Kantha. More formal recycling efforts are led by such organizations as Goonj that uses textile recycling both to create employment and to provide essential goods to those in need throughout India.

I, conscious of my limited experience, would like to propose that the main difference between India and the U.S. in this situation is in our definitions of trash. Let’s for a moment, consider the lowly dandelion: To the owner of the perfectly manicured lawn, it is a weed to be destroyed. To someone else, it’s a beautiful flower. It’s only a weed if you choose to see it as disruptive or inconvenient, and the same view applies to trash.

Waste is a problem in the U.S. even if we can’t see it as easily as on the streets of India, so the challenge to reduce what we send to the curb already exists. Will it only be when we are faced with limited resources and a visible pile of trash in our neighborhood that we will be willing (or forced) to reconsider our concept of waste? I hope not.

If you’re interested in exploring more sides to this topic, a few additional resources:
– Pietra Rivoli’s book, Travels of a T-shirt in the Global Economy (specifically the section on textile recycling and the secondhand clothing market in Africa)
– Patagonia’s Common Threads Initiative is using some unconventional methods to keep their products out of landfills

Comment below or tweet @ThisIWear and share how you define trash.

One more thing, apologies for the delay in posting! Writing and prepping a post is a bit more of a challenge for the time being, but I’ve got some great interviews that I hope to share soon.

Book Review: Future Fashion White Papers

FutureFashion White Papers Review | This I Wear

“When people are seduced into being thoughtfully and actively engaged with what they wear – asking crucial questions like, Where does this come from? What are its possibilities now? What will happen to it next? – then sustainability will be within our grasp.” – Kate Fletcher

In 2008, when I first became interested in sustainability within the apparel industry, I wasn’t quite sure where to look for information. It was not quite the hot topic it seems to be today. But I did find a wonderful resource in FutureFashion White Papers, published in 2007.

What do you think of when you hear “sustainable fashion”? Organic fabrics, local manufacturing, reduced water waste or pollution, fair trade labor practices? The sheer complexity of the apparel industry is one of the reasons I became interested in it in the first place. Sustainability means so many things to so many different people, so if you are confused or don’t know where to even start when it comes to sustainable fashion, you are not alone.

If you are looking for a one-stop resource to give you an overview of the incredible scope of sustainability within the apparel industry, this book is a great place to start. Editor Leslie Hoffman turned to experts within their respective specialties to explain how they see sustainability in the apparel industry. Contributors include Julie Gilhart, Natalie Chanin (designer, Alabama Chanin), Michael Braungart (author, Crade to Cradle), and one of my favorite voices in the field, Kate Fletcher. This means that you will get the inside scoop on the “side effects” of different materials (cotton, bamboo, leather, hemp), the lifecycle of clothing (have you thought about the impact of laundering your clothes the last time you bought a garment?), obstacles to innovation in the field (from GM crops to intellectual property sharing), and everything in between.

A few factoids that surprised me:
– Cotton naturally occurs in a spectrum of colors, not just white.
– Clothing dyed with natural indigo reaches the optimum color after a year of washing and wearing.
– Textile recycling is extremely lucrative but can’t be added into the typical curbside recycling because natural fibers would mold.
– There are two types to bamboo fiber production – one more mechanically intensive, the other more chemically intensive (i.e. how eco-friendly is that bamboo item you bought?)

All of those wonderful things said, you shouldn’t read this book without a questioning mind. I don’t agree with all of the conclusions, which can sometimes seem shallow or business-influenced. If you do pick up this book, look at who writes each article and question their motives. You might be new to sustainable fashion, but a willingness to question is the key characteristic of a responsible consumer.

Comment below or tweet @ThisIWear with your favorite sustainable fashion reads or a book you’d like to have reviewed here.

The truly clean closet: How to donate the right way

This I Wear | Lost Sock Textile Recycling

When I was growing up, my mom regularly dropped off donations to a shelter for victims of domestic violence. It was just one of the ways she served our local community. She set a great example for me, and it’s a habit I still keep. But are we all good donors? While donating unwanted clothing is a great way to do something good and clean out your closet, are we donating the right way?

Small nonprofits, such as your local shelter, have little capacity to process these abundant donations. After seeing this firsthand during a recent volunteer stint, I realized that some individuals are dumping rather than donating. Instead of thoughtfully contributing to a cause they want to support, donating becomes a quick way to get rid of the burden of unwanted clothes. We know we shouldn’t throw away that moth-eaten sweater, so we tuck it in a donation bag in hopes that someone else can do our dirty work for us. Are we all guilty of this classic “donation hit-and-run”?

It is time to start being responsible owners of the things we’ve allowed into our lives and closets. Here are a few tips to make sure your closet clean up makes a difference:

1. Target your donation. If your donation is a handful of evening gowns, and the nonprofit you plan to give to needs business attire, your dresses won’t be of much help. In this example, a quick search for “evening gown donation” will direct you to a nonprofit like that provides prom dresses for high school students in need. A little research will ensure your donations make it to the right place and deliver the maximum impact.

2. Ask the nonprofit for its needs and requirements. Each nonprofit is different, which means they all have unique rules for donations. Rules could include that clothing must be on hangers or only seasonal or certain types of clothing are accepted. Call ahead or check their website to make sure your donation is drop-off ready.

3. Wash those clothes. This may seem like common sense, but if you’ve ever volunteered in a donation center, you know it is not. There are no secret Laundromats in the back of charity shops and donation centers, so make sure the clothes are clean before you drop them off. If you’ve had a piece dry-cleaned, keep the dry cleaner tags on. This may take time and even a bit of money, but proper cleaning makes sure your donation is put to use rather than tossed in the trash.

4. Recycle rather than donate damaged or unusable clothing. Many cities now host textile recycling days or have drop off points for clothes that are seemingly beyond repair. This includes clothing with holes, stains, broken zippers, and yes, even that lone sock. To find a center near you, search for “clothing” recycling in your area. In NYC, textiles are collected at select Grow NYC Farmer’s Markets. Textile recycling is a huge industry and your items are likely to find a whole new life.

As a little lagniappe, here are a few of my favorite places to give:
Housing Works (NYC) – Great charity shops that support the organization’s incredible work serving New Yorkers living with AIDS.
Dress for Success (International) – Provides suits and career support for low income women who are job hunting.
Bridge House / Grace House (New Orleans) – Donations to their thrift shops support their residential recovery program for men and women with alcohol or drug dependencies.

Comment below or tweet @ThisIWear #cleancloset to share your favorite place or tips to donate or recycle clothing.

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