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Fast, cheap apparel has long, costly impact

Where does your shirt come from? What is it made of? What is its environmental impact? Anita Stech asked the attendees of the Women's Professional Network these questions when she spoke on Sept. 26. Stech is the owner and head seamstress of Cut L...

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Anita Stech holds up a bag she made and asks, "When is a shirt not a shirt? When it's a bag." Stech spoke to the Professional Women's Network about upcycling and reusing clothing. (Photo by Teri Cadeau)

Where does your shirt come from? What is it made of? What is its environmental impact?

Anita Stech asked the attendees of the Women's Professional Network these questions when she spoke on Sept. 26. Stech is the owner and head seamstress of Cut Loose Creations, a small business focused on upcycling used fabric and materials. Stech shared her research on the environmental and human costs of fast, cheap apparel.

Stech began her talk by examining how people in the past used their clothes and how that has changed today.

"Back in the 1920s, people treated their clothes a whole lot differently than we do. When they grew out something it was repaired, mended, tailored for the next kid down, used for rags or upcycled into a new product," Stech said, gesturing to a quilt made of old cloth pieces from used clothing.

The '20s had this motto concerning fashion and clothing: "Make economy fashionable lest it become obligatory." The '30s had a similar, yet "more catchy" motto: "Use it up, wear it out, make it do or go without." Stech had the attendees repeat the slogans aloud.

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"I think that's what I'll remember the most about this talk. The idea of wearing out my clothing and not rely so much on what's in fashion," said audience member Anna Pulles.

"I'm talking about second chances for usable materials. Looking at something in a different way," Stech said.

Why is it important to wear out clothing and reuse it? Because, as Stech points out, there is no way to make material that doesn't have adverse effects on the environment.

"Polyester is not a friend to the environment. It uses all kinds of chemicals and relies heavily on fossil fuels, which are not sustainable," Stech said. "What about cotton? Fluffy, friendly cotton? Not so much. Cotton is a water hog. You can look up those statistics, but this one is way easier. It takes 256 gallons of water to make one T-shirt."

Cotton production also uses synthetic fertilizers which contribute to global warming, Stech said.

Although most cotton is exported by the United States, only about 2.5 percent of the clothes sold here are produced here, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

"Your T-shirt has probably traveled more than you ever will in your life. Look at your tags. The cotton may be grown here but it's probably milled someplace, then someplace else to be cut, then someplace else to be sewn and then it comes back here to be sold. It makes the rounds and, of course, all that uses fossil fuels," Stech said.

The costs of mass clothing consumption aren't just environmental. There are human costs as well. Stech highlighted Bangladesh as one of the biggest clothing producers that has felt these costs.

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"Vulture.com had an article that said that our appetite for clothing is directly related to this big boom in Bangladesh, where they were putting people and machines in buildings that should never have been used for manufacturing. And what happened there? The Rana Plaza collapsed and killed 1,129 people," Stech said.

At this point in her lecture, Stech recognized that most of this information is "very depressing" and hard to digest. So she moved on to talk about eco-fashion and the small steps individuals can take to better the situation.

"Decrease your consumption. Shop differently. Choose garments that will last longer. Do it yourself, making, mending, customising, altering, and upcycling your own clothing. Educate yourself and others," Stech said. "I'm not going to sit here and tell you that eco-fashion will save the world and all of the problems that we've created. What we really need to do here is to slash consumption where it's the highest. Which is here."

Stech ended the talk by inviting listeners to come up to the front to make a "Greensleeves" bags, cloth bags made from shirt sleeves.

Daisy Wallace made a bag and remarked that she would probably make more of them.

"I'm really crafty and I know it's important to reuse things," Wallace said.

Related Topics: ENVIRONMENT
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