How to know that my clothes are sustainable?

It has been known for decades that the textile and clothing industry is a highly polluting and environmentally destructive industry. From the large scale exploitation of natural resources for the sourcing and transforming of raw materials, the dangerous toxic chemicals to the many transport needs from raw material acquisition to product distribution… And this is without taking into consideration the immeasurable amounts of material waste throughout the production chain and post-consumer generated waste from over-consumption.

While food waste is now part of the collective consciousness, textile waste is still relatively unknown to the majority of those same people and unspoken of elsewhere in the world. Clothing is just another product to « consume », bought to satisfy a presumed need to wear the latest trend, for little cost, and for which we hold no responsibility for. Where it’s from and where it goes doesn’t usually affect our purchasing choices. After all, if it’s on the store rack, whether we buy it or someone else does, what difference does it make? Actually, a lot is everyone starts to take ownership and responsibility for the kind of future they want to provide not just future generations with, but our own. Deforestation, climate change, air and water pollution are not problems of the future, they are problems of today.

Collectively, we influence the decisions made by key actors in the garment industry and have a chance to turn around what is currently the world’s second most polluting industry. Since long anchored in the model of a disposable fashion, “fast fashion” brands led by major brands such as H&M sell and buy from their subcontractors at very low prices, and catch up on volume, with new collections typically every fortnight. The result? Tens of thousands of new designs every year. The concoction of novelty, marketing and low prices encourages consumers to buy their products tirelessly and without moderation. The prices are so low, but the profits remain high: so much so that brands have been accusing of burning all of the unsold or excess, all without burning into their profit margins! So where do you start as a little consumer? You have more power and more responsibility than you like to believe (because it’s easier to use the excuse that one person can’t make a difference).

Slow fashion: buy less, buy better

The first thing to do is to ask yourself what you need and resist fast fashion marketing and the resulting unnecessary buying impulses. My wardrobe is progressively letting go and rehung the residents that aren’t used regularly, and has had two additions only over the past year. Yes, I can actually count what goes in now. I don’t consider myself deprived or less fashionable, something which my fashion student self of years ago would have struggled to understand. This is because “slow fashion”, the opportunity to literally slow down our rate of abusive consumption which we have normalised, offers alternatives that are more respectful of people and the environment while meeting both ethical and ecological standards. Don’t buy on impulse and think through how often you’re going to wear why you consider buying.

Stop limiting yourself because of the price

As with food, low prices are generally a bad sign and necessarily defies the economic rules. If the tag is a couple of $, you can be sure that somewhere along the line the cut costs are at the expense of the workforce. Whether it be to cut wages, unhealthy work hours, unsafe conditions (unclean, poorly maintained, use of health-threatening chemicals in dyes, fabric treatments etc), the consequences affect people and the planet. Can’t afford a $40 T-shirt but can buy 4 cheap ones for as much? Reread that sentence: see you can afford it, even more so because unlike cheap clothes that won’t survive past the few weeks they’re designed to last, your investment pieces will stick with you longer than an army of Zara tops. That said, buy cautiously: the price isn’t a sole factor. Some higher priced garments from medium to high-end brands are also produced in deplorable conditions. For this reason, favour small independent manufacturers who are not subject to the pressure of large companies.

Get to know the brands and labels

When you start your green wardrobe mission you’ll inevitably feel like you’ve reduced your choices significantly, especially if you’ve followed fashion trends for a long time. Remember that it’s your choice to make well-informed purchases and feel empowered by your commitment. Join Facebook groups that share brand information and recommendations and learn a little about certifications for textiles. A few social certifications are: the Fair Trade mark, Max Havelaar Fairtrade Certified Cotton, World Fair Trade Organization (WFTO), Fair Wear Foundation (FWF).

As for organic and environmentally considerate labels, we can mention GOTS (Global Organic Textile Standard), Biogarantie, Soil Association, Organic Standard Certification, EKO Sustainable Textile, Nature Textile, etc. Some bloggers have also embarked on the conquest of responsible shopping and give many tips to distinguish ethical and other brands, as well as tools to assess a brand’s ecological footprint such as RankABrand. While not perfect and everyone can privilege an agenda over another, they are all insightful and useful articles.

Garment Composition tag

read it, please

Probably the most complicated part to sum up.. but I will try. There are natural fibres and there are synthetic, man-made fibres. Not all natural fibres are environmentally friendly, which is why there is such a big focus on organic cotton, to avoid the masses of pesticides from entering the ecosystem. But organic cotton isn’t an end-all solution! Cotton uses a lot of dye for colouring, and consumes much more water than other crops such as hemp or nettles!
Yes, weeds! Hemp is a very fast growing plant that requires very little water and no herbicides, pesticides, synthetic fertilisers, GMO seeds… and on top, its cultivation improves soil health! Hemp fabrics kill bacteria naturally, so no need for all the chemical treatments that many fabrics undergo to become anti-microbial, something sought after in the fitness industry. Nettles is similarly attractive for much of the same reasons.
Leather is a contentious topic, and whether a by-product or not of the meat industry, a topic of its own, it contributes to demand and the treatment of hides to become leather is not without consequences on the environment. Alternatives? Vegan leather (not PU) from plants and food waste such as banana peels, pineapple leaves, wine-making residue… Top of our list is mushroom leather which, naturally, is organic, highly absorbent, antibacterial and insulating.
Finally, kapok, often used in cotton blends, saves a lot of water compared to the average 100% cotton t-shirt (about 3000 litres for 4 t-shirts or 15 full bathtubs).
Polyester and polyamide aka Nylon… likely, 90% of your wardrobe is made of either material. Why? Made from petroleum (yup, like your damned straws and shopping bags, but we don’t see those banned do we?), they are the cheapest, fastest and most readily abundant fibres on the market, increasingly used for performance wear and dominating the activewear industry. They dry fast, blend with lycra/spandex for comfort, are easy to dye or sublimate (printing)… they’ve made their way to our underwear, swimwear and our Nike trainers.
The biggest problems are, besides requiring petrol to form the raw material, which, in reality, accounts for a tiny percentage of fuel used in the overall fashion industry). the amounts of chemicals released in their special treatment (for softness, anti-wick properties, anti-odour, etc) and that they release micro-plastics in the form of micro-fibres in the environment. Just washing your clothes in the washer releases them into the water system, and we don’t have filters capable of controlling this today. To limit your impact on the environment however, you can choose the brands that use recycled synthetics, the one great advantage of these materials. Plastic collected from the oceans can be transformed entirely to make brand new yarn (but remember, reducing is first, recycling is only just before landfill!).
I will also call out rayon viscose because while it is made from a plant, that’s about all that it has working for it and it is being sold as a “natural” fibre. It’s actually worse in my opinion than polyester, because of how it’s made (toxic chemicals that transform a natural fibre, cellulose, into something far from it), and how the plants are (often) sourced (read here: the destruction of age-old rainforests). The fashion industry loves to play on the “naturally” sourced part – as dear Stella McCartney would like to drill into our heads, she makes clothes from trees! – and thus the fibre has done very well for itself. But rayon also called viscose and used interchangeably, requires chemicals such as sodium hydroxide and carbon disulphide into a “vicious” liquid (hence the name) then spun using sulphuric acid, often too toxic to comply to regulations in the USA for instance.
So much more to say.. but this should get you looking into fibres a bit more and to challenge your assumptions on sustainable fibres.

Swapaholic or runway renter?

If you think you can’t survive without a revolving wardrobe of new looks, you can look towards new business models built on exchanging clothes without the dollar factor being considered (you get swap points for submitting clothes, that you can use to “swap” for someone else’s donated items, and can never buy what’s on offer through conventional currencies) thus providing you with ways to responsibly part with clothes you don’t put to good use and at the same time allowing you to swap for new looks without contributing to fast fashion or smashing your wallet.
Need special outfits for events? How about doing your own swap party? What about subscribing to a rental service? In Singapore, StyleTheory has you covered from office wear to fancy parties in a simple flexible subscription (no lock-in commitment), while if you’re looking to show off some serious red carpet stuff check out Rent The Runway.

“We are what we wear”

Until a few years ago, textile production was still unclear and its impacts could be overlooked. Now, you’ll be hard pressed to find a company that doesn’t feel obliged to have it in their bio description. If it’s not there… you can almost bet on the fact that they’re hiding something.

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