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The Dartmouth
May 22, 2024 | Latest Issue
The Dartmouth

Hidden Costs of Free Swag

Think about the t-shirts you own. How many did you actually buy? It’s almost impossible to resist the allure of free stuff, so swag from clubs, events, internships, Greek life and more is bound to accumulate in one’s closet. However, despite these goods being free, they come at a significant cost, both socioeconomic and environmental. Fast fashion refers to the culture of consuming large quantities of cheap goods, and usually only wearing them a few times.

That’s an issue that Elisabeth Delehaunty ’93 is trying to combat. Delehaunty started a clothing company called “Elisabethan,” which sells recycled and reworked clothing. According to Delehaunty, the problem with the modern clothing industry lies in the low cost of some of the clothing. 

 “Part of the problem is that clothes are just so crazy cheap. You buy cheap, you use it for a little while, and then it becomes useless,” Delehaunty said. “At those prices, someone’s getting screwed ... the people making the clothes are being exploited. We’re going beyond where we can come back from. I just become more and more aware that the stuff we get rid of doesn’t really go away.”

For Delehaunty, her central concern are sweatshops and the low-wage workers who work in them. While increased trade with a developing country may grow a country’s economy and benefit its workers, that growth sometimes comes at the cost of labor rights such as adequate breaks for rests, safe working spaces, adequate compensation and preventing the use of child labor. In her view, companies often lack incentives to produce their clothing ethically, which can perpetuates a cycle of oppression of workers in developing countries. 

The issue is well known in the fashion industry. Designer Eileen Fisher stunned New York audiences in 2016 when in an award acceptance speech, she said “The clothing industry is the second largest polluter in the world ... second only to oil,” the Washington Post reported. At the time, that was a shock, but more research has drawn attention to damage done by the fashion industry. 

The apparael industry alone accounts for 10 percent of global carbon emissions, and may get worse as the culture of fast fashion intensifies. A recent report by Greenpeace found that since 2000, global clothing production has doubled, and the average person now buys 60 percent more items of clothing annually, while keeping them for half as long. Forbes magazine found that almost 70 million barrels of oil are needed to produce the amount of polyester used yearly, while the fabric’s decomposition rate is 200 years.

Dartmouth students certainly have cheap clothing in their closets. Reva Dixit ’22 said she estimates about half of her t-shirts were free, while William Chen ’22 estimates the majority of his t-shirts were free. Katheryn Caplinger ’20 said she only bought “a quarter of my t-shirts” and “at least eight” are from Dartmouth clubs and events. 

Delehaunty also brought up that people tend to think they’re not a part of the fast fashion problem if they donate the clothes they don’t use. 

“I think there is more supply than demand for donated clothing ... the thrift stores and donation centers get buried,” she said.

When we talk about global trends, it’s hard to think of it as a Dartmouth problem, but for Kerr, these issues are close to home.

Director of the Dartmouth Sustainability Office Rosi Kerr ’97 said that synthetic clothing in particular are a problem since the material breaks down into microfibers of plastic that persist in the environment. 

“I have talked to the landfill where Dartmouth sends its waste, and that’s a problem they’re having,” she said. “Some of those goods take a long time to rot, and they’re difficult to handle ... We have heard from them that that’s an increasing problem.” However, Kerr added that there is evidence of the fashion industry becoming more sustainable by creating “durable lasting goods.”

While production costs are surely higher than they would be without Delehaunty’s regard for durability, she seems to love her job and feels passionately about the work she’s doing. 

“I love interacting with customers and being reminded how special the stuff I make is to them,” she said. “I have people who come up to me with a skirt they’ve had for 10-15 years, and tell me how much they love it.”

According to her, the biggest thing consumers can do to buy ethically is pay higher prices for longer lasting  pieces of clothing and make sure to dispose of old garments responsibly.

Free t-shirts aren’t the cause of this problem, they’re a symptom. The accessibility and cost efficiency of making clothing makes it easy to use t-shirts to promote an event or group. We rarely consider the broader consequences of our actions because we feel so far removed from them. We are all so deeply intertwined in methods and culture of consumerism, it would be exhausting and probably impossible to consider the true cost of each item of clothing we encounter. Still, there are ways for the individual to resist this culture of the quick disposable. There may not be a fast solution to the issue of fast fashion, but awareness and consideration of the true cost of free swag is the first step.