'Trashion': How our spiritual emptiness harms the environment
Upon entering a large secondhand store, I'm immediately struck by the volume of used clothing. A sea of garments greets you, rack after rack. I'm there to find a cute used flower pot. You know the old saying, "One woman's trash is another woman's treasure."
I'm a treasure hunter at heart.
But all those clothes stop me in my tracks as I wonder, "Who is going to buy all this? And what happens to the leftovers?"
If you, like me, have weeded through a closet thinking you'll give away stuff to someone who "needs" it -- and thereby justify buying more stuff -- there's an eye-opening documentary worth your time. "Trashion: The Stealth Export of Waste Plastic Clothes to Kenya" can be googled and watched on YouTube.
What's "trashion"? It's "fast fashion," or clothing that has become so cheap it almost seems disposable. Wired Magazine reports that fashion brands are producing twice the volume of clothing than they did in 2000. And literally, much of it becomes trash -- sometimes in the most environmentally unfriendly ways.
Living simply is a near-universal principle of spiritual practice. When I joined the Jesuit Volunteer Corps decades ago, "simple living" was one of the tenets, and it still is. But we are immersed in a consumer society. Coming to grips with our spending, especially on clothes, is a spiritual challenge.
In Kenya, 900 million items of clothing arrive annually, sometimes illegally in the dark of night. Maybe some of it was mine once. The supply vastly outpaces the demand. We're introduced to real people who deal with this as a business. They're unpacking the bales and weeding through them to see what may be marketable.
A woman, wearing a cute T-shirt, possibly a "find" among the bales, shows us the waste contained in these bundles. A stained shirt, pants with holes, fabrics stretched or ripping. As she makes a pile of items worth saving, the waste pile quickly outgrows it.
Kenyans have no more desire to wear torn, stained clothing than you or I do.
And what are "plastic clothes"? Many items in our closets fit this category. Amazingly, 342 million barrels of petroleum are used annually to produce plastic-based fibers such as polyester, nylon or acrylic. These fibers are cheap materials, but are not biodegradable and will be around, polluting rivers and oceans with microfibre, for centuries. Fashion is a surprisingly large contributor to our environmental crisis.
A man in the documeƒntary shows us the nearby Nairobi River, clogged with garbage clothing. We see discarded remnants burning as fuel on an open cooking fire, spewing microfibers into the environment.
Some African nations -- Zimbabwe, for example -- have banned the import of secondhand clothing. But other nations endure the same problems as Kenya. Many of these nations have a poor capacity to manage landfills and process waste.
Here's another statistic that's mind-blowing: yearly, 8 billion plastic hangers end up in landfills.
What does this have to do with Catholicism?
Well, I love clothes as much as the next person and I've been guilty of "retail therapy," that idle shopping which often results in the purchase of clothes I don't need and wasted money which could have gone to a better cause. Filling our closets with things we don't need won't fill up any holes in our lives, or our spirits.
For items we do need, there are lovely consignment shops. There are also upscale thrift stores, like the one I shop at frequently that supports a home for unsheltered pregnant moms.
Shopping in a more environmental fashion is an option, but when am I merely filling my own emptiness with more stuff, I need to stop and ask why. And how do I resist the pull of the void that is our consumer culture? How do I honor the environment and my faith by living more simply?
Effie Caldarola is a wife, mom and grandmother who received her master's degree in pastoral ministry from Seattle University.