Plastic Clothes 5/11/21

Thoughts by Richard Bleil

The year was 1978. My mother offered (for unknown reasons) to buy my any coat that I wanted. A rare treat, and I wanted a leather bomber’s jacket. I had the exact jacket in mind that I wanted, so mom took me, as we did back then, to the department stores. None of them had the one I pictured in my mind, though. There was one that was a nice suede, though, and there was only one store left, so mom and I made a pact. We would go to the last one, and if it wasn’t there, we’d come back for the suede coat.

But, they had it. The very last one of its kind on the shelf, and as if that’s not miraculous enough, it was the correct size. I loved it. Instantly fell in love with it. Ironically made in India where cows are sacred (my friend from India later explained that cows are sacred, but bulls are not). This afternoon, I have to take my old truck out to install a new stereo, and it’s a rather cool day. I will wear that jacket.

Over forty years later, it’s still my favorite jacket. The lining is falling out, unfortunately, and it’s definitely looking worn, but of course people pay extra for that “worn” look in clothing today. Every time I put it on, I think of my mom. It has been criticized by others of being “dated”. Well, maybe, but it’s been in and out of style about three times now. I wore that jacket when I dreamed of a career as a chemist, and now I’m retired from that same discipline. And the jacket is beautiful.

The fashion industry hates stories like this. That’s okay. I get it. The truth is that long term clothing hurts their bottom line. They would rather have us buy new clothing at least two or three times per season. They invent phrases and terms like “that’s SO last season” to shame us into aligning with the current fashion trend. For me, I can honestly respond, “last season? Try last century!”

Not very long ago, I was working in an upscale department store in one of their men’s departments. I learned quite a bit about clothing and fashion, and actually purchased my first up-scale shirt. It was probably three times more expensive than the shirts I had been buying (that’s not true with the discounts I got), but today, four years later, those same shirts are still a part of my active wardrobe, and still looking like new. At three times the price, these shirts saved me money as I’ve felt the need to replace none of them. Some might argue that they are “out of fashion”, but for me, I’m more interested in how they look. Who cares about current trends? I just want to look good.

Some kinds of clothing, like some of the original jean’s companies, knew this long ago. One of the ways companies get people to buy new clothes (as constantly as groceries if they had their way) is to make clothes cheaper and easier to become worn out. They’re designed so they look great in the store as the customer looks in the mirror, but they really don’t care how they look a week later. As a result, there is a current crisis of clothing ending up in landfills, and because they are increasingly made of various forms of plastic, as they decay they contribute to the “microplastics” problem.

The clothing industry isn’t alone. My friend is currently doing without an oven (much to her dismay as she loves baking). She wasn’t surprised when the oven failed though, because she bought it, she said, “almost five years ago”. Fortunately, it was just shy of five years and so still falls under the warranty, although because of the microchip shortage they haven’t been able to repair it yet. In my last house (as a renter), the stove was out of the ‘70’s, back when these things were made to last. My uncle had a toilet seat break that he had bought nineteen years earlier. The funny thing is that he both remembered that it came with a twenty-year warranty, and he still had the original receipt. Yes, he got a brand-new toilet seat. Today, I wonder if toilet seats come with a warranty that extend more than two years. And yet, as consumers, we’ve not only come to accept this philosophy of disposable purchases, but we embrace it. Every time we don’t mind buying a new washer after five years, or trade in a car in three, or throw away clothes because they’re too “last season”, we not only buy into the idea of disposable products, but we contribute to the problem.

As a philosophy, I’m sticking with the ways in which I was raised. I buy upscale items, ignore fashion trends, and try to fix my own purchases. Just yesterday I opened up my old laptop to replace the battery, the second time I’ve extended its life since I had already replaced the hard drive. And I have to tell you, that feels almost as good as wearing a forty year old jacket.

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