The Hidden Costs of Cheap Clothes

Green Notes from the Environmental Committee


From fast food to “fast fashion,” we Americans are addicted to cheap prices and throw-away goods.

Apparel is the second largest consumer sector, after food, and according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average family spends $1700, or 3.5% of annual household income on clothes.  Costs have fallen, and consumer buying continues upward--we buy about 70 pounds of clothing a year, or the equivalent of 200 men’s T-shirts (and 94% are imported). Then, on average, we discard nearly 70 pounds of clothing and other textiles each year, according to the EPA.

Ten million tons of discarded clothes and textiles tossed in U.S. landfills every year damage the environment. Even more serious harm is done in fiber production, dyeing, and manufacturing processes.  Cotton growing in particular, uses astounding amounts of water, weed killer, and pesticides.

Cheap prices we pay for clothes do not reflect environmental costs of textile and apparel manufacturing, or health costs to workers in other countries. Groundwater for farming and drinking water are being polluted in many towns in southern India.  Significantly higher than normal occurrences of certain cancers in China appear to be caused by the harmful “micro-environments” ( factories) in which Chinese workers produce millions of cheap items Americans buy.

Unintended consequences

It’s hard for us as consumers to understand what harm we are doing when we take advantage of super buys from retailers in our country.  Most of us would not intentionally harm others. Yet the prices we pay for new cheap clothes do not provide a living wage for workers, many of whom are children, who labor long hours, in unsafe conditions.  The prices we pay do not provide for environmental clean-up of waters and soils polluted by textile production processes. Most importantly, the prices we pay do not provide for healthcare of overseas workers who get sick from unhealthy factory conditions and drinking water tainted by textile dyes from factories near their homes.

Global competition in the garment industry engenders poor working conditions for many laborers in developing nations.  In Bangladesh, a child laborer works for 10 hours a day to earn the equivalent of one U.S. dollar. Some Chinese workers make as little as 12-18 cents per hour.

What can we do?

Thrift stores are good for recycling clothing, but they represent a tiny fraction of total sales--less than five percent of the market for new goods.  Most donated clothes eventually are baled, shipped, and sold to impoverished countries. On Good Neighbor Day, we learned that stained and torn textiles can be taken to CHaRM, the Center for Hard-to-Recycle Materials (

By some estimates, 60% of the energy used in the life cycle of a cotton T-shirt is consumed in our homes--washing and drying at high temperatures.  As consumers, we can “go green” by using detergents that work well at lower temperatures, air-drying instead of machine-drying, extending the usable life of clothes, buying fewer and more durable garments, and recycling into the used clothing market.

There are many organizations striving to improve conditions of workers and protect the environment.  Here are just a few:

  • The Clean Clothes Campaign

  • The Ecumenical Council for Corporate Responsibility

  • The Ethical Trading Initiative

  • The United Methodist Church: Social Principles, Rights of Workers, Para. 163B, C

This is an update to an article which appeared in The Change Agent, an adult education journal, Sept. 2010.  -Jan Lichtenwalter