Let us count the ways
Part 2: Clothing and Health
by Theresa Peluso
In my previous column I reported that Canadian families, with an average debt-to-income ratio of 171 percent, now have not only the highest level of household debt since records were first kept, but also the highest debt of all G7 countries. I explained how we Canadians are depleting the Earth’s resources at an unsustainable rate as we accumulate that debt, specifically with respect to food, shelter and transportation. But that’s not all, folks, oh no, that is not all.
Canadians, according to Women’s Wear Daily (http://wwd.com/business-news/forecasts-analysis/apparel-spending-list-10203626/) were the second biggest spenders in the world on clothing in 2014, forking out an average of $831 per capita each year — $200 less than the first-place Australians, and $150 more than the fifth-place Americans. According to Statistics Canada, Ontarians spent an average of $3,884 on clothing and accessories per household in 2014. At an average of 3 people per household, that actually comes to more than $1,296 per person per year.
An appetite for New York 5th Avenue designer apparel, perhaps? That may be part of the reason – a 2014 MacLean’s article (http://www.macleans.ca/economy/money-economy/living-beyond-our-means/), “Living beyond our means” by Chris Sorensen, explains that Toronto’s Sears Canada flagship store is being superseded by Nordstrom, a U.S. retailer that serves a crowd with more expensive tastes – such as $2,000 handbags and $400 pairs of jeans. Although this is not necessarily an environmental issue, it’s certainly a financial one!
Another approach to spending money on clothes – and decidedly more environmentally unfriendly – is to buy an excessive quantity of clothes, and then junk them as they lose their appeal. A CBC article on October 4 of this year (http://www.cbc.ca/news/business/fast-fashion-environmental-makeover-1.3789537) explains that millennials are buying five times as many clothing items as the generation before them, and then throwing out many of them. A study by the association SMART (Secondary Materials and Recycled Textiles) has shown that North Americans throw away almost 37 kilograms of textiles every year. (Multiply that by 350,000,000 (the population of the United States and Canada), and you end up with a lot of landfill for clothing alone!) The motivation is low prices, and the desire to wear the latest trends. Instead of buying one well-made classic sweater on sale for $40, the urge is to buy three for $70.
Instead of switching from the manufacture of tanker-ships-full of cheap clothes (most made in sweatshops in Asia) to the production of well-made, classic clothing, the clothing industry is now considering new, “closed loop” technology, where items of clothing can be broken down and recycled to make new items. Although recycling is definitely a better approach than landfilling textiles, this process is, from an environmental point of view, much worse than simply not producing substandard clothing in the first place and then brainwashing people into buying it.
As one commenter on this site, John Oaktree, phrases it:
Yes, that environmentally friendly blouse is wrapped in plastic and then put in a box which is wrapped in plastic so it can go into another box that’s wrapped in plastic so it can be put on a pallet that’s wrapped in plastic and then it’s shipped half-way across the world…
Once at the store, the plastic is thrown in the garbage because not all shopping malls recycle – even though the plastic goes into a “recycle” bin. The article of clothing is hung on a plastic hanger that’s a single-use hanger and put into a plastic bag after it’s purchased… Ya – that’s some environmentalism… LOL. (end of quote)
Then there is the matter of health. According to Jacques Peretti’s documentary, The Men Who Made Us Spend (http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p01zxm9b/episodes/guide), mass marketing of health products started with Listerine, driven by promulgating a false fear that halitosis was the reason why many people were unable to appeal to potential romantic partners and business contacts. Although mouthwash is not demonstrably harmful to your health, the same can’t be said of industry’s promotion of other health-related products.
According to a recent on-line posting by Drugwatch, an American organization sponsored by The Peterson Firm, a law firm in Washington, D.C., “two-thirds of adults take some kind of action after seeing a drug or device ad, and about 40 percent make an appointment with their doctor. Americans also have a high level of confidence in these ads when it comes to drug dangers, and about 76 percent feel drug companies adequately explain side effects and risks, according to a survey by Harvard and STAT (STAT is a Boston Globe-affiliated investigative health news outlet).” (Ref. https://www.drugwatch.com/featured/big-pharma-marketing/)
Drugwatch goes on to say that:
Americans tend to think newer is better. If it costs more, therefore it’s better. If it’s new and it costs more, then certainly it is better,” Diana Zuckerman, president of the National Center for Health Research, told Drugwatch. “They sometimes think that the FDA only approves new drugs if they are better. There is no requirement in the law, nor does the FDA require that a new product be better. I’ve heard FDA officials say, ‘We’ve approved this drug. It doesn’t mean we recommend it.’ In fact, about 43 percent of Americans think only completely safe drugs are allowed to be advertised, according to Pew Charitable Trusts. They have so much confidence in these drugs’ safety and effectiveness that they ask their doctors to prescribe them. (end of quote)
Sales of drugs with DTC ads (“DTC” stands for “direct-to-consumer” which refers to advertisements directed towards the patient, rather than medical professionals) increased 43 percent versus just 13 percent for all other drugs, according to an article from the Journal of the National Cancer Institute. For every dollar spent on advertising to consumers, sales of prescription drugs rose $4.40.
As we all know, the Canadian medical system is quite different from the American system, and Health Canada has rules to restrict DTC ads. Having said that, it should be noted that a CBC news item dated December 10, 2014 (http://www.cbc.ca/news/health/prescription-drug-ad-law-notable-for-lack-of-teeth-1.2867362), reports that the government is failing to enforce its laws banning advertising for prescription drugs, according to a review by University of British Columbia public health researcher Barbara Mintzes and Joel Lexchin of York University in Toronto, who reviewed Canadian cases of drug ads from 2000 to 2011, and pointed out, among other violations of advertising rules, 10 cases involving drugs for acne, birth control, arthritis, cholesterol lowering, smoking cessation, obesity and shingles prevention.
Another CBC news item titled “Canadians using more prescription drugs, tracking firm reports” (March 27, 2009) (http://www.cbc.ca/news/technology/canadians-using-more-prescription-drugs-tracking-firm-reports-1.804817) reports that IMS Health, a company that tracks worldwide pharmaceutical sales, has identified an increase of more than 7 percent between 2007 and 2008 in the number of prescriptions filled by Canadians. Prescription drug spending increased by more than $1 billion from $20.2 billion in 2007 to $21.4 billion in 2008. You may attribute this increase to Canada’s aging population – but, in the opinion of Steve Morgan, a health economist and researcher at the University of British Columbia, who is quoted in this news item: “the greying of Canada’s population accounts for an increase in pharmaceutical use of only about one per cent a year, ‘not by this seven or eight per cent you see in the [IMS] data.’ He pointed to a proliferation of medicines developed in the last two decades and increased marketing of those products to both doctors and patients.” (end of quote)
So not only are these prescription drugs having an effect on health-care spending, but they are also ending up in our soil and water. In yet another CBC news item titled “Drinking water contaminated by excreted drugs a growing concern”, posted Sept. 22, 2014 (http://www.cbc.ca/news/health/drinking-water-contaminated-by-excreted-drugs-a-growing-concern-1.2772289), reporter Kelly Crowe explains that “a group of researchers detected drugs in the Great Lakes at levels high enough to be ‘of environmental concern,’ according to a study that found traces of acetaminophen, codeine, antibiotics, hormones, steroids, and anti-epileptic compounds, and dozens of other chemicals.” The CBC news report goes on to state that:
In February, Environment Canada officials told a Senate committee hearing that more than 165 individual pharmaceuticals and personal care products have been identified in water samples, as of this year. Two things are happening. New technology is making it easier to detect trace amounts of these pharmaceutical chemicals. And people are taking more and more drugs. ‘With aging boomers, the amounts of pharmaceuticals which are being consumed are going up between 10 and 15 per cent a year, here in North America,’ said environmental toxicologist Chris Metcalfe of Trent University in Peterborough, Ont. ‘So we can view this as a developing problem that will probably get worse, in terms of the amount of pharmaceuticals we can expect being discharged into the environment.’ (end of quote)
Then there’s the increase in use of non-prescription drugs, including abuse of substances such as OxyContin, an opium-based painkiller, which has led to untold tragedies in the tens of thousands, in the form of deaths and ruined lives, in large part due to misleading advertising by a major pharmaceutical company which asserted that this medication was not addictive.
Here is an excerpt from an article in the Los Angeles Times by Victoria Kim and Harriet Ryan, dated May 11, 2016 and titled “Maker of painkiller OxyContin loses legal battle to keep lawsuit records secret” http://www.latimes.com/local/california/la-me-kentucky-purdue-records-20160512-story.html
Purdue Pharma, the maker of OxyContin, lost a legal battle Wednesday to keep records and testimony about its bestselling and widely abused painkiller secret. A judge in Pike County, Kentucky, a region hard-hit by prescription painkiller abuse, granted a motion by a news outlet to unseal records from a lawsuit by the state accusing the company of fraud, conspiracy and negligence in the development and marketing of the drug. Purdue settled that suit in December for $24 million without any admission of wrongdoing.
Circuit Judge Steven Combs granted the request of Boston Globe-affiliated investigative health news outlet STAT to unseal the documents, writing: ‘The Court sees no higher value than the public (via the media) having access to these discovery materials so that the public can see the facts for themselves.’ (end of quote)
Cosmetics and fragrances are yet another growth area in Canada. According to a report by Statista (https://www.statista.com/topics/2896/cosmetics-in-canada/) titled “Statistics and facts on the cosmetics industry in Canada”, there were more than 2,800 cosmetics, beauty supplies and perfume stores in 2014. From 2010 to 2015, sales of cosmetics and fragrances in Canada increased from $2.29 billion to $2.89 billion. That works out to approximately $100 per year for every single Canadian, regardless of gender, over the age of 10 years old. Clearly the total expenditure will be considerably higher for some individuals, more than for others, but regardless, there is no doubting the environmental harm caused by the disposal of trillions of pieces of packaging and “product” (including environmentally harmful ingredients such as microbeads, tiny pieces of plastic used in personal care products of which billions are washed down the drain daily, only to end up in our waterways, absorbing toxins in the water and harming marine life).
So you’ve read all this discouraging news – and perhaps realized that you yourself, a family member or a friend may be in this situation of buying things they don’t need and can’t really afford.
Several websites and self-help books offer useful advice on helping people to get a handle on their spending. As with all bad habits, it’s important to first acknowledge that your overspending is a problem, and that you need to form a plan to control it. Getting sustained encouragement from a best friend, a support group, a spouse or other family member is crucial. The next step is to log every single purchase you make in a notebook, and add up the totals for each spending category every month. That helps to make you accountable to yourself for your spending, and also identifies what your triggers are. In addition, the spending log helps you to see where you can cut back, and create a realistic budget. Canadian Mortgage and Housing has an on-line budget calculator – just enter https://www.cmhc-schl.gc.ca/en/co/buho/buho_022.cfm to find it.
Whenever possible, pay cash rather than use your credit or debit card. Studies have shown that people spend 15 percent more when using a card rather than paying with cash. Also, going grocery shopping (about 15 percent of the average person’s income) with a fixed amount of cash and no cards ensures that you’ll stay within your budget. You’re more likely to buy only what you need, and gravitate towards the sale items. You can find even more money to save by reducing the number of items you own that require regular outlays of money, such as a second car, locker storage, or a timeshare. Renting a tool or vehicle that you use only occasionally instead of buying it is another option, as well as buying second-hand. When planning holidays or entertainment, challenge yourself to find cost-effective options – renting a movie instead of going to the cinema, arranging a staycation somewhere in the province that you haven’t visited, or organizing a potluck dinner with friends instead of going out to a fancy restaurant. It’s important to set a goal to motivate yourself, such as paying off your high-interest loans and debts, and, if possible, building up a substantial savings account as a safety net for unexpected setbacks. And think of the environmental benefits: fewer carbon emissions, less demand for non-renewable resources, and less landfill!
As with any bad habit, it’s critical to persevere in developing newer, more financially sound habits. And a real bonus is that your impact on our planet will be so much more beneficial.
Sad to say, there are even MORE ways that Canadians misuse their money and needlessly pollute and pillage our planet, which will require yet another column on this theme. So please keep an eye out for Part 3.