I own too many T-shirts

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LESSONS IN SUSTAINABILITY

I’m using the imposed Covid break from my usual daily routine to take inventory on what truly matters and what does not. I spent time musing about big topics such as: if humanity reduces its footprint, nature will recover. I also did relatively benign things like going through my closet and lining up every T-shirt I own. It’s official: I have too many T-shirts!

This statement does not seem very important until I started to reflect on why that is. One simple explanation is that we keep buying new things despite not truly needing them. We think: “I don’t have that color yet” and then pile the new purchase on top of old things we aren’t willing to let go of — hoping “one day I will fit into this again.”

But there are more profound reasons why we own too many T-shirts. For one, they don’t cost much. We grow cotton in Georgia and then export it to China where they use cut-rate labor and ignore environmental standards to produce T-shirts which then are shipped back to us. We have gotten used to this pattern of low-priced imports. But now we suddenly realize that being dependent on a long-distance supply chain might not be such a good idea. 

Will this pandemic be a historic, life-changing moment for America?

So let’s envision that instead we could manufacture better-quality T-shirts right here in the Carolinas like we used to. As a result, T-shirts would cost twice as much. Maybe instead of owning way too many of them, I would own just the right amount. Would I be less fashionable? Probably not. Furthermore, I would take pride knowing that I’m wearing something made locally and more sustainably, because it did not have to travel half way around the world twice.

But sustainability unfortunately has not been on the forefront of our thinking for a long time. Instead we have favored buying cheaper, owning more and treating things as disposable.

Sustainability is not just an environmental issue; it has other tangible implications. The meat packing industry, which is dominated by just a handful of big companies centralized in a few locations, has been disrupted by the pandemic as workers have fallen ill. Big factories and quasi monopolies by a few dominant players have been a way to lower prices for consumers and increase profits for corporations. But there are other models that work. 

In Switzerland, for example, farms tend to be small. Chicken, pigs and cattle grow up in more humane conditions. This increases the cost of meat, milk and eggs but not to a point where consumers can’t afford them. The plus side is that these small farms beautify the landscape, which attracts tourism and gives consumers a tangible relationship to their food supply chain. This model could be adapted here. But it would require a fundamental change in our mindset towards “sustainability first” versus “profits at all cost,” towards local and regional versus national and imported.

It certainly could be. Consumers might adapt a new way of looking at things where conscience drives buying decisions. This can be the moment when we re-tool our industrial base, become less dependent on imports, re-think our agricultural distribution system and let sustainability and self-reliance become the “leitmotiv” for everything we do.

In the long term, this shift would provide meaningful jobs and strengthen our economy, which is the one thing all Americans can agree upon. Equally important, it would be a good way to demonstrate leadership in the next big battle we face: climate change. The know-how and technology we would develop would be a more valuable export than cotton.

Will it happen? The idealist in me is hopeful. However, the cynic in me fears that, for the most part, we will go back to our old ways. 

It’s our choice. As consumers and voters, we have a say in this!