One of the most interesting discoveries I’ve made this year as I’ve pursued ridding my life of plastic is this: I’m paying more attention.
When I make a purchase, when I walk down a city block, when I see an ad pop up on my Yahoo sidebar, I look a little more narrowly at the places where plastic might exist.
This has been both eye-opening for me (sorry, bad pun), yet also depressing. I’ve realized that plastic is a foundation of our society. As I type this, my fingers pulse against plastic keys, my coffee sits at my side in its purple plastic container. From where I sit in a coffee shop, I can see four plastic knobs fitted to the bottom of the legs of a wooden chair, keeping it from scuffing the plastic linoleum floor underneath.
In this detective mode, I’ve started to focus almost obsessively on the small pieces of plastic that surround us, and one item I’ve started to notice repeatedly is the plastic clothing tag.
Nearly every time I purchase a piece of clothing, I have to snip or pull off a tag, releasing the plastic stem from where it has threaded through the cloth. A bundle of these little beheaded tags have started to fill my giant plastic-collection bin at home.
What surprises me about this accumulation is that I actually don’t shop much for clothes (some might say not enough since I sometimes wear shirts from high school), yet I’ve still collected several of these plastic clothing tags over the course of five months.
I can understand how these tags are handy. They reduce confusion for shoppers by immediately giving information on size and price. And they make for a very quick and easy checkout at the register. On the weekends, I work at a small shop in my neighborhood, and when a customer tries to buy an item that’s missing its price tag, there can be a mini catastrophe. If we can’t find the price on a matching item in the store, the manager has to run to the back and search our files for the original order. When the store is in a busy swell, this can be stressful.
Beyond making it easy to know information about an item and creating buying efficiency, plastic tags are also used as security devices in clothing, reducing theft. In mega-stores like Macy’s or H&M, I see how these plastic devices are essential.
But what I’ve started to wonder is why we can’t at least replace the plastic tags with something biodegradable. On some high-end lines that we carry at my neighborhood store, the retailers use string or a colored piece of twine to attach a paper label. Avoiding plastic in the tags seems to make these clothes more “hand-made” or artistic somehow. They seem more desirable, and seem to me to subtly communicate that they weren’t mass-produced.
String tags don’t seem much more expensive to make to me, but perhaps they take a lot more time to tie onto a piece of clothing. Perhaps this is why we so constantly see the plastic tag fixing prices to clothes. With the plastic tags, there’s a handy gun (also made of plastic) that swiftly pierces the cloth, fixing a tag to it. Likely, in the giant production factory, there’s a machine that can do it. It’s speedy, and I imagine that a bundle of those plastic tags are less expensive than a role of twine. Also, the plastic tags are just common practice. It’s hard to make global changes to a system that’s making big money, one that appears to be running flawlessly.
I tried to research the amount of these plastic tags that are produced annually, and I couldn’t find any reliable figures, but I’m sure it’s massive. Frequently, I’ll find more than one of these tags in a single shirt or pair of pants, and after being in H&M last weekend, standing in a flood of people buying heaps of clothes, I’m sure the number would shock me. It bums me out to think of how many of these tags are floating in our oceans, becoming unintentional food for the life out there.
Of course, there are many other things to worry about when it comes to the fashion industry, more problems than just the small plastic tags attached to pieces of clothing. This Vogue article shares interesting points about the environmental impacts of the garment-production machine—the making of clothes, deforesting the rainforests and dying rivers electric blue, the chemical treatment of fabric, releasing toxins into our atmosphere and lungs, and the environmental harm of shipping, using plastic bags to package items and airplanes to transport clothes from places like India and Bangladesh to the United States.
This all without going into the human rights violations.
So perhaps my small focus on the plastic tags isn’t the most pressing point to consider here. But I do feel like the small details reveal the larger realities. Seeing these plastic tags in clothes more potently symbolizes for me the giant system that turned its wheels to churn out my one pair of jeans or one new affordable cardigan. These small details are actually helping me conceptualize just how big our problems are when it comes to environmental care and human justice. So many clues reveal these truths.