When we think about problems in the way clothes are made we think mainly about the ethics – the people who make them and how they are treated. This is a really serious concern, but just as serious, is the environmental footprint of our clothing.
Recently Sam Judd from Sustainable Coastlines, highlighted the problems with plastic (polyester) in clothing – the pollution their production creates and the plastic fibers they shed into the environment when they are washed.
It is true that plastic based fabrics are pretty horrid, they can be made from recycled plastics, which has some benefits over new polyester fabric in terms of the environmental footprint – but this does not prevent micro plastics being shed into the ocean. Frankly, given the environmental problems with plastic generally, why buy something with plastic in it if you can buy something that is just as functional, if not more functional, without it?
Natural fibres like cotton and wool, hemp etc are often touted as being preferable: there are some buts. Non organically grown cotton uses a huge amount of water in production, a lot of pesticides on the crop (which ends up in the soil, and eventually the bodies of farmers and their children) and the fabric dying process creates a vast amount of toxic water waste, which in countries without strict regulation is pumped directly into waterways untreated, creating a toxic soup in local water supplies and eventually the sea.
Wool (a supposedly natural and environmental friendly fibre) has to be cleaned (a sheep wore it through bushes and pooed on it before you got it you know). Such cleaning (called scouring) is mostly done with harsh chemicals to dissolve the dirt, chemicals which again end up in local waterways in China, India, Bangladesh and other textile producing developing countries.
HOWEVER, not all is lost! There three main ways to ensure that the clothing in your wardrobe has as little impact on the environment as possible (apart from producing it all yourself that is!)
1) Buy PRE-LOVED organic and sustainable clothing.
By buying sustainable garments that have been loved by someone before you, you make them even more sustainable. The production of any new garment (organic or not) is hugely resource intensive, its dispatch to you and subsequent disposal to landfill also has a significant environmental impact. So ensuring it has as long a life as possible will stretch the resources across more people for longer, and all this seriously reduces the total environmental footprint of that garment. Costs you less for fancy organics too!
Research from the UK shows that extending the average life of clothes by just three months of active use would lead to a 5-10% reduction in each of the carbon, water and waste footprints.
2) When Buying NEW go for certified organic or other sustainable fibres
- Certified organic production of natural fibers ensures harmful pesticides and fungicides are not used when growing the fibres.
- In the case of organic cotton the water footprint is much smaller than conventional cotton because it is primarily a rain fed crop in developing countries.
- During the production & manufacture of certified organic fabrics heavy metals and chemicals that are most damaging to the environment, adults and kids and babies are not used and others only at very low levels.
- All water that is used during production is is treated in a closed loop system, so it is not discharged into the surrounding land or waterways until it is confirmed as totally benign.
3) Put the pressure on makers of clothing (especially big brands) to source independently certified organic and sustainable fabrics.
Without the certification it is really hard for anyone including the company themselves to know of truth of the matter. Also encourage clothing companies to be totally transparent about their ENTIRE production chain, right back to the source of the fibre. Ask them to tell you where everything came from and how it was produced (don’t expect them to have it all perfect, but expect some honesty about their efforts to improve things). Money is talk here. Customer pressure alone will not revolutionise the garment industry, but together with other structural and economic pressures we can bring to bear on clothing producing countries and companies, customer voices count for A LOT.
And finally, in an unashamedly transparent plug, all of this is exactly what muka kids (an online marketplace for pre-loved sustainable, organic, eco and ethically produced clothing) is being set up to do: encourage more production (and purchasing) of sustainable and ethical clothing and reduce the environmental footprint of clothing already in use.
Got any other tips for reducing the environmental footprint of your wardrobe? Love to hear them
Muka kids’ social enterprise, is a platform to trade pre-loved organic and ethical clothing. Muka kids helps make quality, ethical and sustainable clothing more accessible to all. In additional, a percentage of sales made on muka goes towards giving small business loans (micro-finance) to women cotton farmers in India. Helping them find financial independence and escape the debt trap of subsistence cotton farming (the substance 80% of our clothing is made from).