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Make Do and Mend: Consumer Waste

I've spent half a century writing for radio and print (mostly print). I hope to still be tapping the keys as I take my last breath.

"Mend", get it?

"Mend", get it?

People don’t darn socks anymore, nor do they save string or brown paper. Devices such as coffee makers, power drills, and televisions are rarely repaired when they break down; they are usually chucked out and a cheap replacement bought. This wasteful behaviour means we are gobbling up finite resources faster than we need to.

Discarding Clothing

The British children’s charity Barnado’s carried out a survey of the clothing habits of 1,500 women. The study found that “women have adopted a ‘wear it once culture’ when it comes to their wardrobes and only wear items a handful of times before considering them ‘old.’”

Some findings:

  • A third of the women consider clothing old after wearing an item three times.
  • One in seven said being pictured on social media in the same outfit twice is a fashion no-no.
  • The average fashion item is worn seven times before being discarded.

Benjamin Leszcz writes in The Globe and Mail, “The average Canadian buys 70 new pieces of clothing each year, about 60 of which ultimately wind up in a landfill. (Thrift stores only sell one in four pieces of donated clothing.)”

The Man in the White Suit

In the 1951 movie The Man in the White Suit, Alec Guinness plays a scientist who invents a fibre that repels dirt and never wears out. He is, of course, attacked by corporations for potentially ruining the apparel trade and by unions because his creation will lead to garment workers losing their jobs.

Global Fashion Waste

E D G E is the name of a group that says it “takes a step forward to look at fashion from an intelligent, artistic, and practical perspective.”

In a recent report, it noted the following:

  • “Nearly 20 percent of global waste water is produced by the fashion industry."
  • “Cotton farming is responsible for 24 percent of insecticides and 11 percent of pesticides, despite using only three percent of the world’s arable land.”
  • "It takes 20,000 litres of water to produce enough cotton for one t-shirt and one pair of jeans."
  • "According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency the fashion industry produced “15.1 million tons of textile waste ... in 2013.”

To which Climate Change News, a United Nations publication, adds “The fashion industry, including the production of all clothes which people wear, contributes to around 10 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions due to its long supply chains and energy-intensive production. The industry consumes more energy than the aviation and shipping industry combined.”

Gotta get some of that kit for the next Probus luncheon.

Gotta get some of that kit for the next Probus luncheon.

Bloated Consumption

It isn’t just the clothing industry that wastes resources. Canadians now spend almost twice as much on consumer packaged goods as they did 25 years ago. There’s no reason to suppose this statistic isn’t also relevant in the United States, Australia, and elsewhere in the developed world.

We have accumulated so much stuff that we rent self-storage units to accommodate the overflow. There are now almost 50,000 self-storage facilities in the United States; about three-and-a-half times the number of McDonald’s restaurants.

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Is there a cobbler in your neighbourhood?

Is there a cobbler in your neighbourhood?

We are forced into over-consumption by manufacturers who design products to fail after a limited time. Some toothbrush models, laptop computers, cell phones, and other appliances have sealed-in batteries that can’t be changed. If the battery fails, the whole product has to be thrown away.

Software upgrades make perfectly good computer products obsolete so they have to be replaced. There are now printers that have a “kill chip” in them that triggers after a specified number of print-outs; the chip causes ink to leak, making the machine inoperative.

And, we get suckered into buying totally useless products:

  • For $425 there is the gold pill, like a medication capsule that contains real gold.
  • A man in the U.K. invented a trolley with a tank mounted on it so you could take your goldfish for a walk.
  • Pre-peeled bananas packaged in plastic have been sold in Germany/
  • Rear Gear were little floral stickers designed to be placed on a dog’s butt.
  • A pair of jeans that have been ripped to shreds. Or . . . but that’s enough frivolity.

Never replace anything until you have exhausted all possibility of repair, restoration or rehabilitation. No matter what it is, they don’t make it as well as they used to.

The Official Preppy Handbook

Fighting Back Against Waste

There are people who have had enough and are working to reverse the throw-away trend.

The Right-to-Repair movement is seeking government action to force corporations to make products that can be repaired by ordinary folk. In October 2018, the Copyright Office of the U.S. Library of Commerce changed regulations to allow consumers to hack into software to fix such items such as smartphones and appliances. A small victory.

In the United Kingdom, the Restart Project organizes community-based parties where people are connected with others who teach them how to fix toasters or washing machines. The group says “We work with schools and organisations to help them value and use their electronics for longer. And we use the data and stories we collect to help demand better, more sustainable electronics for all.”

Furniture made out of particle board will withstand one, maybe two, moves before it starts to fall apart. However, grandma’s walnut china cabinet can be passed on to future generations. Because people don’t want brown furniture anymore such old pieces can be picked up cheaply and they’ll never let you down.

Perhaps darning eggs will once again become useful household items rather than just curios at flea markets.

Bonus Factoids

  • The worldwide market for clothing is estimated to be worth three trillion dollars.
  • Worn bedsheets used to be cut down the middle and the unworn sides sown together. Difficult to do with fitted sheets.
  • According to the BBC, “Under French law it is a crime to intentionally shorten lifespan of a product with the aim of making customers replace it.”
  • Electronic waste has become a massive problem. According to a United Nations estimate, the amount of such waste thrown away every year is the equivalent of 125,000 jumbo jets.
  • Every day, Americans discard 416,000 smartphones.

Things are in the saddle, and ride mankind.

Ralph Waldo Emerson


This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2019 Rupert Taylor

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