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Reflections: The cost of plushy fleece

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Carbon footprints would be much more understandable if only we could see them, as once we saw oily plumes of smoke roiling from the steel factories of the Great Lakes states in the 1950s. I think of my carbon footprint every time I fly, wondering what my personal cloud of CO2 would look like. Would it fit in a breadbox, or a Greyhound bus or might I need something like an Olympic swimming pool to contain it?

Until recently, trying to offset my flying by getting carbon neutral was what I considered my biggest personal challenge to sustainability. It may still be, but that was before learning about the industry responsible for 1.7 billion tons of carbon dioxide emissions each year. That footprint exceeds the emissions of all international flights and shipping.

If you’re thinking it has something to do with plastic, you’re close. Third largest industry by water consumption, the culprit is the fashion industry, 65 percent of whose products are the wearable plastic synthetics named polyester and nylon. Eighty-five percent of this fossil-fuel-based apparel winds up in landfills where it does not decompose. When shipped as donated goods to Central America or Africa, the flood of tee-shirts, hoodies and sweatpants diminishes the market for locally produced fabrics and fashions, hurting struggling economies and further ensuring impoverished folk will continue to look for cheap clothing. And it won’t decompose in a foreign landfill either.

Those super soft and plush fleece garments, blankets and teddy bears shed billions of microscopic fibers straight out of the washing machine into a watery environment where no filter is capable of screening all of them, ending up in our lakes and oceans.

Invisible, or nearly so, to humans, those bits and fibers look exactly like food to the tiny occupants of the lowest level in the food chain. As those critters are consumed by ever bigger fish, turtles or marine mammals, the plastic concentration rises. Hundreds of millions of marine animals die from consuming the substance which we so prize for the convenience it affords us.

What to do? Well, forego that fleece, no matter how soft and cuddly. Make your clothes last longer, invest in quality and natural fibers, purchase from vintage or used stores. Be aware of the relative impacts of various fibers like hemp (very good) and nylon (really, awfully, heavily impactful) and all the natural and synthetic fibers in between. Don’t forget to account for water consumption and fertilizer impact, especially for your next pair of blue jeans, which will cost the environment an average of 33 kilograms of CO2. That’s about ten times their material weight.

Remember, it’s not just your clothing to consider. Textiles are present all over your home in carpets, curtains, bed linens and bath accessories.

I’ve written before that an externality is a cost of production not born by the producer. It has been reported that the fashion industry must reduce emissions by 80 percent by 2050 to align with a 2 degree rise in global temperature. When we consume cheap clothing or anything else without accounting for the cost in carbon emissions, scarce water or applications of unnatural chemical fertilizers, the externality is inflicted elsewhere. In the end, nature pays.

Kathy Bouchard is a member of the Rotary Club of Big Sky’s Sustainability Committee. She has been a Montana resident for twenty years and is inspired to work for sustainability on behalf of her grandchildren.

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