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Clothes & avocadoes - consider the real cost

I was watching a program about Luton which in 1801 had about 3,000 inhabitants, but today has 214,000. Its prosperity grew because of the Victorian love of hats, which were made of straw. After the First World War the demand for hats changed and hats were made from felt, so the Luton hatmakers had to learn new skills and install new machinery to adapt. Since the 1930's hat making in Luton has been in decline, but even today hats are made there. The maker on the programme said that he can match a colour precisely and produce a bespoke hat and has done so for the Queen. So Luton has some claim to have invented what is known now as fast fashion. Unfortunately fast fashion is costing us more than just the price of ever more clothes.

The story of clothes can be read here It's clear that clothes are not really neccessary - read about the Yaghan people of Tierra del Fuego who Darwin observed 'going about naked and barefoot on the snow' here Today wearing clothes is habitual and serves social purposes, including setting us apart from one another. One of the reasons that naturists prefer to be naked is that it puts people on the same social level. Another reason is that it seems to allow you to feel a part of nature in some way. Many naturists are environmentalists to one extent or another. I have only recently become aware of the true cost of the tremendous scale of modern clothing production. It's just another example of the costs that companies and economists ignore to keep the system going that requires more to be produced every year.

100 billion clothes are produced annually in the global economy. China produces around 2 out of every 3 clothes made. It’s estimated that clothes are worn less than 10 times before being discarded and a significant proportion are never worn. Global clothing production doubled between 2000 and 2014. More than half of the fastest-fashion items made are chucked away within a year of production. Recycling rates for clothing are very low and much is burnt or goes to landfill.

Water scarcity already affects every continent. Around 1.2 billion people, or almost one-fifth of the world's population, live in areas of physical scarcity, and 500 million people are approaching this situation. Another 1.6 billion people, or almost one quarter of the world's population, face economic water shortage.

A swimming pool 32 feet long, 16 feet wide and 5 feet deep contains 20,480 gallons of water or about 90,000 litres. This amount of water is required to grow 4-10 kilogrammes of cotton. Another 1,300 litres of water per kilogram will be used to turn the cotton into a textile for clothing.

‘17 to 20% of industrial water pollution is from textile dyeing and treatment; 72 toxic chemicals in China’s water originate solely from dyeing - 30 cannot be removed’.

The textile industry produces large quantities of waste water, solid waste and requires a large amount of energy in production. It is one of the big dischargers of ammonia and nitrogen and textile plants emit heavy metals into the water, including cadmium, chromium, mercury, lead, and copper.

Almost all apparel today is made of a mix of materials—very often including polyester. Recycling requires separating it out, and that is is difficult. Clothes made of polyester do not last as long and washing these clothes releases large amounts of plastic microfibres. ‘One washing load of clothes could be shedding up to 17 million tiny plastic fibres’. These fibres are now found everywhere including beer and table salt as well as in seafood.

The US imports 98% of its clothes and 99% of its shoes and one of the reasons is that regulation of the industry and high wages in the US means that costs are much higher than in China.

The estimated cost of the pollution and health related problems caused by the industry in China was $100 billion a year in 2007. As wages rise in China, factories are moving to Bangladesh, Pakistan and Vietnam, where regulations are even lighter.

Oh and don’t start me off on avocados! On average, about 283 litres of applied water are required to produce a kilogram of avocados (that’s in addition to rainfall and ground water).

In 2016, world production of avocados was 5.6 million tonnes. Mexico produces 34% and the Dominican Republic, Peru, Columbia and Indonesia together produce 30% of the world total (Wikipedia). Interestingly avocados are propagated by grafting in greenhouses to maintain quality and this also reduces the time to fruiting from 10 years for seedlings to 4 years. About 20,000 hectares of the Michoacan forest in Mexico is converted for agricultural use each year. Avocado orchards now cover 23 per cent of this part of Mexico. The enviromental cost does not end there as, like so much of our food, avocados are chilled on route to 3-6C, having been picked green.

Desalination is here to stay. The US spent $21 billion on desalination plants in 2016. The most dependant area is the Gulf states with the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Qatar, Bahrain and Oman having nearly half of the global desalination capacity. The output from the process is twice the volume of the clean water produced and the discharge is saltier than the ocean. As the sea gets saltier it is more difficult to generate clean water.

So maybe when you go to the supermarket just think that what you buy, or perhaps what you don't buy, could be important for us all.

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