By Sarah Ripper on Sunday January 22nd, 2017
Buy less. Choose well. Make it last. Quality, not quantity. Everybody’s buying far too many clothes. —Vivienne Westwood
We are becoming increasingly aware of what we eat, and what we put on our body in terms of cosmetics and other personal care products. It is becoming more common for people to be mindful of the social and environmental impacts or benefits of their consumer choices. This awareness is filtering into parts of the clothing industry and fashion world.
It seems the fashion industry is spearing down several paths and some companies are increasingly compelled to utilise transparency and ethical practice as part of their sales pitch, but how authentic are their claims? The bulk of it is clothing with very short life spans. I’m definitely not a fashionista. I source lots of my clothes from op shops, pieces that are hand sewn (not by me, I lack the sewing knack) or made by local designers.
But, I still have pieces in my wardrobe with questionable supply chains – those bits and pieces that were cheap or convenient for me to buy. What’s the real cost of my choices?
Following the Trends
At this point in time, we are buying 400% more clothes than we did 20 years ago. Fashion carries with it the connotations of seasons, style, capitalism and four fashion shows a year telling you what to wear. People buy the watered down versions from affordable sources as part of fast fashion, which churns out 52 micro-seasons a year.
From fair working conditions to questioning the integrity of supply chains, the conversation is growing, particularly since the shift to fast fashion has seen the move from natural materials to synthetic petrochemical based fibres.
What’s the solution? Should we all just give up and become nudists?
Who is making our clothes and how is it affecting our planet? There are a few reasons why our current fashion and garment industry is problematic. Aside from crude oil, fashion is the most polluting industry in our world.
The Destructive Impacts
The gender footprint is also considerable. Fashion is the largest employer of women across the world, but only 2% of these workers are receiving a living wage. Now that I know a bit more about where my wardrobe was sourced, I’ll be thinking differently next time I make a new addition.
It takes 2700 litres of water and a third of a pound of chemicals to create a cotton t-shirt, with 20% of global industrial water used for dyeing textiles, which impacts on the water supply and quality for both the people and environment in which the dyeing takes place. The bulk of mass manufactured clothing are created from synthetic fibres (many with hazardous chemicals on them) that are cheaply made and sold.
A study in 2014 found 85% of man-made materials found on shorelines were microfibers, which derive from the synthetic materials used in clothing. The average American sends 68 pounds of textiles to landfill every year and because they’re petroleum based synthetic fibres, they aren’t great for decomposing. The residual chemicals on clothing include lead, pesticides, insecticides and flame-retardants and other known carcinogens, which dwell on our largest organ, the skin. What’s the solution? Should we all just give up and become nudists?
If we vote with our money and actions for the world we want to see, then how can we be more aware of what we’re supporting or saying “no thanks”, to? Funnily enough, the approach to being more mindful with our clothes is similar to our food – ethical, natural, local.
Funnily enough, the approach to being more mindful with our clothes is similar to our food – ethical, natural, local.
Refreshingly, there are plenty of researchers, businesses and communities working with nature’s creations, be it hemp, seaweed, pineapple, bamboo and even kombucha to create materials for clothing. All this innovation and research can be expensive to pioneer and seldom fits the requirements of the fast fashion machine.
The Environmental Impact
Dyes have a huge impact on our environment regardless of which materials are being used. Potential positive impacts of moving to natural dyes include using the by-products for fuel and compost, which is a great possibility. At present, using natural dyes still has negative environmental impacts including being water intensive and using chemicals to bond the colour to the fabric. However, with more support and research this could be overcome.
Berkeley researchers have taken on reconsidering how denim production can be kinder to the earth. The humble jeans, which are found in many a wardrobe use one of the world’s oldest dyes, indigo. The petroleum derived indigo, like all dyes, has a dark side.
The 40,000 tons of indigo used a year pollutes waterways, corrodes piping in waste water plants and is toxic to fish and other aquatic life. With three billion pairs of jeans manufactured globally every year, Berkeley researchers have taken on exploring alternative options to modifying the gene and bacteria to produce indican, the blue colour required for denim.
Simplify Your Wardrobe
Research and innovation is vital to creating clothes that are kind to the earth and people. There are also the Sustainable Clothing Research Group from Nottingham University keeping their finger on the pulse.
You could try doing a clothes swap with your friends, or donate them. For those pieces of clothing that aren’t able to be passed on in their current state, the next incarnation to save them from landfill could be to upcycle them. Be mindful of green washing when purchasing more ethical clothes and ask questions about their supply chain to ensure it’s aligned with your purchasing ethics.
Well-made + good materials = longer life span (for you, or the next wearer).
Function Over Fashion
Some people are even opting to simplify their clothing choice by thinking about what they wear at work. The uniform or utilitarian dress movement, inspired by the male corporate suit, has been happening for a while. Wearing a work uniform is becoming more popular for the time, energy and stress it saves. People are selecting an outfit or a few outfits to wear during work time and opt to leave all other clothes for play.
From President Obama to Steve Jobs, many high profile people have had similar responses to why they wear the same or very similar clothing when at work – they don’t want to make decisions about food or clothes because they want to focus on how to do their job. It is, in essence, workable to have one or a few select outfits that look, feel and are appropriate, for the job.
It’s time for the new era of sustainable fashion where clothing is both ethical and produced with quality.