How to buy environmentally friendly clothing.

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Photo by Artem Beliaikin from Pexels

In the last two decades there have been major changes to the world of fashion. Clothing has become cheaper and mass produced. This new trend of “Fast fashion” allows clothing to go from runways to consumers hands as quick as possible. In this pursuit, what corners are cut, and how does it impact people and our planet?

Fast fashion has lead to an egregious over-consumption of clothing at the expense of the environment. Generating excessive waste and and a carbon footprint that accounts for over 8% of the worlds carbon emissions.[1]

We need to change our relationship with clothing. We should strive to own only clothing that bring us joy, and is both ethical and well made. With this newfound appreciation of clothing we may cultivate a healthier relationship with the things we own, and stop the vicious cycle of disposable clothing.

To understand the environmental impacts of your clothing, follow the journey of your seemingly innocuous cotton T-shirt:

Your Cotton T-Shirt. 

Your T-shirt starts on a farm.

2,700 liters of water is required to produce your T-shirt. [2]  Additionally, Cotton uses more insecticides and pesticides than any other crop in the world, [3] which can harm the health of field workers and damage ecosystems. [4] While some fabrics are organic, organic cotton makes up less than 1% of total production. [5]

The cotton is then shipped to textile mills in China or India. 

The fabrics travel, sometimes thousands of miles, to developing nations. The fabrics are brought through a highly industrialized process before they touch human hands. This process can involve the use of carcinogenic dyes. [6] Other chemicals are often released into the water or environment. (20% of industrial water pollution comes from textile manufacturing.) [7]

Your T-shirt is then sewed together by someone in developing countries such as Sri Lanka or Bangladesh. 

These countries have lax regulations, and workers in these factories suffer poor work conditions, all for the sake of fast fashion.

Your T-shirt is then shipped to developed countries to be sold. 

This gives the clothing industry its immense carbon footprint.

After you purchase your T-shirt, it will go through its most resource intensive phase. 

The average household uses 16,000 gallons of water on laundry every year. [8]

The problem only gets worse with synthetic fabrics. 

  • Synthetic fabrics have an even bigger carbon footprint. These fabrics are produced from oil. One polyester shirt has a 5.5kg carbon footprint, compared to 2.1kg for a cotton shirt. [9]
  •  20 to 35% of all microplastics in the marine environment are from synthetic clothing. [9]

Public Policy Solutions

Although concious consumers can make a difference, what is needed is public policy reform.

  1. Educate the Public 

If individuals knew the environmental and social costs of one T-shirt, they would likely sway their egregious consumption of clothing. This information could be available to the public through labels on environmentally harmful clothing the same way cigarettes contain a surgeon general warning.

    2. Regulate the clothing industry

Regulation could be implemented through lobbying and petitioning for taxes on businesses that don’t meet the GOTS standard, and tax breaks for businesses that do.

“Developing Nations produce 90% of the world’s clothing. Occupational and safety standards are not enforced due to poor infrastructure and organizational management.” [10] Therefore, regulation must be implemented in first world countries.

What can you Do?

1 . Buy GOTS or OTEX certified fabrics

By buying GOTS (the highest and most credible certification) certified clothing you can be certain your clothing adheres to a certain standard and avoid companies masquerading as environmentally friendly. As authors Bick et al. put it, “While some companies get (GOTS) certified…others are engaged in “greenwashing.” Capitalizing on the emotional appeal of eco-friendly and fair-trade goods, companies market their products as “green” without adhering to any criteria.” [10]

2. Shop second hand

By shopping and donating at second hand stores you can cultivate your own style for cheap.

3. Buy from sustainable brands

If you’re going to buy new clothing, try to support brands focused on ethical, environmentally friendly clothing. Here is a list of 35 such brands.

4. Change your relationship with clothing

By seeking slightly more expensive, well made, environmentally friendly clothing, you will likely value your clothing more.  I recommend Marie Kondu’s book, Spark Joy, to cultivate this appreciation of your clothing.

5. Change how you wash your clothing.

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Credit: sustainyourstyle.org

References: 

  1. Quantis. Environmental Impact of the Global Apparel and Footwear Industries Study. 2018. https://quantis-intl.com/wp content/uploads/2018/03/measuringfashion_globalimpactstudy_full-report_quantis_cwf_2018a.pdf

2.  “The Impact of a Cotton T-Shirt.” World Wildlife Foundation, January 16, 2013, https://www.worldwildlife.org/stories/the-impact-of-a-cotton-t-shirt.

3.  “Pesticides concerns in Cotton.” Pesticide Action Network UK, 2017, https://www.pan-uk.org/cotton/.

4. Aktar, Md Wasim, et al. “Impact of Pesticides Use in Agriculture: Their Benefits and Hazards.” Interdisciplinary Toxicology, Slovak Toxicology Society SETOX, Mar. 2009, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2984095/.

5. “Get the Facts about Organic Cotton.” OTA, https://ota.com/advocacy/fiber-and-textiles/get-facts-about-organic-cotton.

6. Giovanna Luongo. Department of Environmental Science and Analytical Chemistry. Stockholm UniversityChemicals in textiles: A potential source for human exposure and environmental pollution. https://www.diva-portal.org/smash/get/diva2:850089/FULLTEXT02.pdf.

7. Kant, Rita. “Textile Dyeing Industry an Environmental Hazard.” Scientific Research Publishing, Scientific Research Publishing, 31 Dec. 2011, https://www.scirp.org/html/4-8301582_17027.htm.

8. “The Life Cycle of T-Shirt”  YouTube, uploaded by Ted-ED, 5 Sep. 2017, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BiSYoeqb_VY.

9. “Fixing Fashion: Clothing Consumption and Sustainability.” Fixing Fashion: Clothing Consumption and Sustainability – Environmental Audit Committee, https://publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm201719/cmselect/cmenvaud/1952/full-report.html#heading-7.

10. Halsey, Erika, and Christine C. Ekenga. “The Global Environmental Injustice of Fast Fashion.” Environmental Health, BioMed Central, 27 Dec. 2018, https://ehjournal.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/s12940-018-0433-7.

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