Sunday, June 3, 2012

Third World Green Daddy 35: Clothes

How you treat your clothes is an important part of being green.  In a modern consumerist economy, clothes have gone from being a durable good (like cars or washing machines) to being a consumible, disposable good (like candy or toilet paper).  There are many raw materials that go into the clothes, such as cotton, detergents, synthetic (petroleum-derived) thread, dyes, etc.  There's nothing wrong with using raw materials to make a finished product.  Indeed, it's what makes us human and what drives any true economy, from Stone Age hunter-gatherers on up.  But as with any aspect of Nature, it's important to respect and revere those raw materials and the natural systems from which they're extracted, and consequently to use no more than is absolutely necessary.  So when you buy new jeans or new shoes or new shirts every few months instead of using them for the years they could last in perfectly decent shape, you're wasting a lot more resources than you need to, not to mention creating more solid waste for your local landfill or incinerator.

All these realities shape my family's clothes purchasing habits.  We rarely buy new clothes, and in my case most of my clothes were bought years ago in some thrift store.  This outerwear of mine undergoes a gradual transition from the respectable, nice clothes category, to serving for less formal occasions once it's a bit worn out, and then finally my most ragged and holey clothes are reserved only for when I'm hoeing a field or rooting around in pig shit.  My big annual clothes-buying bonanza occurs when we visit my hometown of Chicago.  We go to a nearby Marshall's store and I buy a whole bunch of undershirts and boxer shorts and socks.  It's very exciting, though my new acquisitions don't mean I immediately throw away my old underwear.  Rather I wear my old undershirts and socks until they are threadbare or even have holes, at which point I stage a ceremonial clothes-ripping a la The Incredible Hulk.  The torn clothing then finds its way to our cleaning rag pile.  The boxer shorts usually last longer, but they too undergo a ripping ceremony when they've worn out.

My wife is similarly frugal, though her more upscale work environs dictate that she maintain a slightly larger and more respectable wardrobe than I do.  My daughter-in-law is thankfully unconcerned with clothes, and my nephew is almost dismissively hostile towards clothes, wearing holes in socks with abandon and then continuing to use them.  This is problematic, because since we don't buy new socks that often, he's also started wearing through mine, which get thrown together with his in the wash.  Even our baby Sam has clothes from a number of sources that span in size from a 3-6 months ripped jacket that he insists on squeezing into, to Oshkosh B'Gosh stuff for 2-year-olds that he also barely fits into.

This generalized frugality when it comes to clothes is all fine, and I'm sure it helps the planet some little bit that our household largely abstains from consuming clothes.  But my wife and I have recently decided that we're going to try to be a bit less radical.  We do work after all, and are fairly intelligent, well-paid professionals.  There is no reason we should look and feel like indigent Dickensian rag-pickers.  Who knows?  Perhaps our extreme self-denial in terms of clothing leads us to make extravagant, wasteful purchases in other areas of our lives just to feel less like hobos.

One step I took a few months ago was getting my clothes tailored.  I had a number of shirts and pants that I'd bought years ago, and because they were a size or two too big I'd spent all that time wearing them with belt tightly cinched and cuffs rolled up various times over.  Again, like a 1930s rails-riding hobo.  But I finally took advantage of the non-wasteful craft economy here in my town (in middle-income countries like Colombia there are a fair number of people who fix old things as opposed to everyone's just buying everything new) to have all my shirts and pants taken in to my measurements, for about $15US altogether.  As seen in the photo above, the end result was that I had clothes that actually fit, and consequently I felt better about myself and my outward presentation.

The next step we'll take to be a bit less compulsively self-depriving is that in late July, when we visit Chicago, we're really going to stock up on underclothes, not just for me but for Caro and my nephew Manuel.  Maybe this way we'll feel like civilized folk and not always have to scrounge about the house to find a pair of clean, intact socks.


  1. Your dad would be so proud of your clothing habits, Greg. Remember how the Haitians stuffed their pillow cases with old "Kennedys"? Nothing wasted.

  2. "like a 1930s rails-riding hobo" great mental image.
    I'm proudly wearing dress pants I bought right after undergrad for the Hertz rent-a-car job. I have a couple other pairs and shirts from then.