Most of our clothes have a dark past of dangerous chemicals, unfair working conditions and are commonly designed to last a short amount of time. We discuss simple choices to get a more sustainable wardrobe.
The Power of Clothes
From the day we are born clothes are our second skin, swaddling and extending our bodies into its fabric. We are so deeply entangled with clothes, that the very way we think and feel is embodied in what we wear. Clothes seem to hold a magical quality, that can change our moods, our perceptions and our own sense of self.
We now buy and discard more clothes than ever before: the world consumes about 80 billion new pieces of clothing every year – 400% more than the amount we consumed just two decades ago. We keep clothing items for a much lesser time – about half as long as we did 15 years ago – for instance, in the UK, the estimated average lifetime for a garment of clothing is 2.2 years. And we trash them at a staggering rate – for instance the average American now generates 82 pounds or 37 kg of textile waste each year. Even further, on average, we do not wear a large percentage of the clothes we keep in our closets – for example, in America people don’t wear more than 80% of their wardrobes, while in the UK that value is more than 70%.
This seems to mean that people buy clothing in a rather irrational and impulsive way.
But maybe more importantly people seem to buy clothes pursuing who they think they are or who they want to be.
Even though we are so deeply entangled with what we wear, we generally know very little of how our clothing came into existence: Who made our clothes? In what conditions? What materials and processes were used to make them? Are all usually unanswered questions.
Clothes appear to have an innocent and abstract quality, as if objects with no history nor earthly roots: garments seem to be purely perceptual objects, innocently born out of the marriage of art and technology. Nonetheless, that which we so dearly choose as our intimate second skins was inevitably brought about by nature and by human hands together, in a series of processes far more intricate and complex than ever advertised by the fashion industry.
In reality far from being a straightforward process: “Fashion is a complicated business involving long and multiple supply chains of production, raw materials, textile manufacturing, clothing construction, shipping, retail, use and ultimately disposal of garments.”
Most of our clothes are weaved in labyrinths of hazardous chemicals, in sweatshops, between child hands and a trail of tragedies – and purposely designed to become unattractive or obsolete to increase consumption and the industry’s profit.
Our closets hold more than just clothes.
The dark side of our closets:
3 secrets of the fashion industry and how to avoid them
Hazardous to the environment
Almost half of all the clothes in the world are made from cotton. The other half is made with non renewable synthetic materials derived from petro-chemicals. These man made fibers, like polyester, nylon or acrylic, are forms of plastic that contribute to ocean pollution in a subtle but dramatic way: simply by washing the clothing that contain these fibers, thousand of fibers leach into the water supply (a typical wash can leach up to 700,000 fibers).
All the plastic we now continuously throw into the ocean can remain there for generations: it is projected that by 2050 there will be more plastic in the oceans than there are fish (by weight).
All of these tiny fibers eventually reach the ocean, where they become part of the immense microplastic pollution that’s accumulating in the food chain – that we are a part of, meaning that we are eating that same plastic. Microplastics can be toxic to wildlife on their own, but they can also act like sponges, soaking up other toxins in the water. The studies on this area find staggering amount of plastic inside the stomachs of fish – even animals that live in the deepest part of the ocean, the Mariana Trench, are eating microfibers.
Natural fibers are more eco-friendly but unfortunately there are some downsides. For instance, growing conventional cotton with its massive inputs of water and pesticides, is responsible for the destruction of large-scale ecosystems and despite representing 2.4% of the world’s crops, non organic cotton production accounts for 24% of global insecticide and 11% of pesticide sales.
Hazardous to our health
Although in the majority of our clothes the knowledge of the actual content of harmful chemicals is limited seven of the 15 pesticides commonly used on cotton in the United States are listed as “possible,” “likely,” “probable” or “known” human carcinogens by the Environmental Protection Agency.
It is easy to forget that our clothes were made by nature, machines and people together,
and that our clothes have gone on a long journey: passing through the hands of cotton farmers, spinners, dyers or sewers. The information given by the fashion industry is scarce. Labels just don’t carry that kind of information.
However, it is a fact that the majority of the people who make clothes for the global market live in poverty, unable to afford life’s basic necessities. Many are subject to exploitation; verbal and physical abuse, working in unsafe and dirty conditions, with very little pay.
In Asia, where the largest part of our clothes are made according to a report:
“Workers often have to perform their tasks under ‘sweatshop’ conditions. They work long hours every day, sometimes without even a weekly rest day, and are often not paid for overtime. Many of them do not have a regular contract.” and “systemic hazardous conditions represent a common feature of many factories”. Buildings are regularly turned into factories without the necessary safety measures, extra floors added or increased workforce and machinery to levels beyond the safe capacity of the buildings, old and outdated wiring at risk of short circuit and fire exits deliberately blocked by factory owners.
What you can do:
3 simple choices towards sustainable clothing
Buy better & wear longer
Make sure you are buying something you will like to wear for years to come is important. Consider style and fit.
Inspect the fabric
Feel the fabric with your hands. Unless it is purposely designed to be lightweight, good quality clothing feels substantial and heavy and it should have a dense weave, even if it’s thin.
Examine the stitching
The stitching should be straight, and places where seams meet should be neat. Areas where fabrics meet should not be untidy.
Read the label
Look for items made in countries where generally fair labor standards apply – for instance the USA or countries belonging to the European Union.
Check for the garment composition and choose natural fabrics.
Behaware that a fabric listed as blended (“wool blend” or “cotton blend” for instance) can contain a very large amount of synthetic fibers.
Buy second hand clothing
Extending the lifetime of clothing can significantly reduce its original impact. Also buying preloved garments can postpone or prevent the item to enter the landfill.
Choose certified organic clothing
Organic cotton represents 1% of all cotton produced worldwide and has it it is grown without harmful chemicals, it produces around 46% less CO2 and consumes 91% less water than conventional cotton.
Why an external certification is very important
Unlike food, textile products don’t have to be certified in order to be described as organic. A product claiming to be organic might only contain a small percentage of organic cotton or may be made of organic cotton but dyed using toxic chemicals which would never be allowed in certified organic products.
The use of any organic cotton is a great first step, but in order to be sure a product really is organic from field to finished product, look out for either the Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS) symbol, the Soil Association symbol or the Organic Exchange symbol.