Choosing Sustainable, Ethical Fashion Matters
Do you think that your clothes make a statement? Whether we dress up, down, or downright don’t care what we wear – our clothing choices still say something about us. It speaks to our identities – how we see ourselves, express ourselves, and even our values.
Read below or hit one of the links above to listen!
The fashion industry has been called one of the most environmentally damaging industries, and after this episode, you’ll have an idea why. But I want to talk not just about the damage, but how the collective we can do better.
In the next few episodes, we will talk about adopting the habit of choosing sustainable, ethical clothing. This is probably one of the most challenging changes for people to make, even though it shouldn’t have to be. One of the reasons is that clothing ads constantly bombard us on every platform. And most people can justify buying new clothes frequently because we all wear them. We also have cultural habits around shopping for clothing, perusing stores, outlets, malls, and boutiques that can be found in every part of the country. We make it an outing – taking friends and family along with us to spend time looking through the different racks.
There are also individual habits many of us have developed around clothing. For instance, my friend group always went out and bought a new outfit for every event we went to – it didn’t matter if it was a concert or a night out, we wanted something cool and new to wear! I could’ve Instead had the opposite individual habit – re-styling something we already owned or even choosing to buy second hand.
There is so much psychological research around our buying habits. One of the most common is that we fall prey to the lure of a bargain. We’ve all done it and have unworn items in our closets and drawers to prove it (say hello to our old friend black Friday!) Say you’re looking at something in the store and you aren’t sure of buying it – oh but wait, it’s marked down by half! Our minds instantly shift to the amount of money we would save buying this piece rather than the actual cost of it (and no, I’m not just talking about money).
What is sustainable, ethical clothing?
Before we get to the actual cost, let’s define sustainable clothing. Think back to our main pillars of sustainability – planet, people, profit. To put it simply, sustainable clothing is an approach from businesses that have chosen to use materials and processes that don’t harm the environment or people. From where the fabric was grown (or manufactured), to the treatment of the animals used for their wool or hair, to the treatment and working conditions of the people who made it, as well as the aftermath of the product once it has been created: It’s the whole lifecycle of a piece of clothing.
Sustainable fashion is made from environmentally friendly materials, uses natural resources responsibly, and doesn’t hurt anyone in the process. Many people use sustainable and ethical fashion interchangeably, and we will too, but just remember that It is more than just buying something made with better fabrics in a building powered by solar power – it’s about the principle of it too.
The opposite of sustainable fashion is fast fashion. Fast fashion is inexpensive clothing produced rapidly by mass-market retailers in response to the latest trends.
We shouldn’t be excited that something is that cheap, but ask ourselves WHY and HOW it can be that cheap. That’s where we go back to the entire lifecycle of the piece of clothing (which includes accessories!)
The life cycle assessment of clothing
What makes something sustainable and ethical or not? I think it’s best to walk you through the short version of our conventional clothing practices, and you will see that these processes can be highly unsustainable and unethical.
Raw material production and cultivation
Starting at the raw material production and cultivation stage, there are many ways that something can be sustainable or ethical. Starting from what we already know from our episodes on valuing the earth’s soil – the agricultural processes for growth must be sustainable. But thats not the norm, For instance, even if a shirt is made from a natural material like 100% cotton – it may have been sprayed with numerous chemicals and pesticides that harmed the environment. Those same chemicals impact the health of the farm workers as well.
The same goes for the raw production of plastics that make up much of our clothing. The Plastic Soup Foundation reports that “Synthetic materials used in clothing & textiles such as polyester, acrylic, and nylon represent about 60% of the clothing material worldwide.” Unfortunately, those synthetic materials are plastic. And the production of those plastics can mean workers can be exposed to those chemicals.
There is also the issue of using animals for our clothing. Leather, for instance, is hazardous to humans and animals for several reasons, including the environmental impact to have enough land and resources to raise the animals, the morality of killing the animals, and the harmful chemicals used in tanning the leathers.
And fashion is also the second-largest consumer of water globally, between 6 and 9 trillion liters per year, with conventional cotton production making up a large portion of that. It takes around 1,800 gallons of water to grow enough cotton to produce just one pair of blue jeans – which is more water than it takes to make one ton of cement!
Then you move on to phase 2 – the manufacturing of the garment.
Depending on the item, there are many steps to producing clothing, and they all have different impacts. Generally, after the raw materials have been sourced, they are spun into fiber, then into the fabric, and then dyed and prepped for use. These facilities take a lot of energy and resources to operate.
FashionRevolution.org reports that “As much as 200 tonnes of water are used per tonne of fabric in the textile industry.” That same pair of blue jeans now has to be washed and dyed – bumping the water usage from 1800 gallons to 9,982 gallons of water. “The majority of the water used in production is then returned to nature as toxic waste in post-production, as it contains residual dyes, hazardous chemicals, and microfibers.” This happens because wastewater is typically unregulated and can easily make its way into water systems without being traced back to the company.
There is also the issue of longstanding unfair and unsafe working conditions for garment workers in countries that don’t have unions and lax health and safety regulations. One of the most notable incidents was the Rana Plaza building in Bangladesh that collapsed – killing 1,134 workers in 2013. This sparked global conversation about the human rights of these workers worldwide. However, many suppliers still incur these incidents, participate in child labor, migrant exploitation, and provide unlivable wages. Many companies don’t name their suppliers for these reasons, which is the exact reason why we need more transparency in the supply chain.
On to phase 3 – Post Production. After it is produced, the items have to be shipped, usually across the world, which continues to add to human-induced climate change (affecting everyone on the planet). And as you’ve probably seen, the fashion industry is also not very inclusive or diverse – although many companies are now working on their diversity and inclusion initiatives.
The decision to use harmful synthetic products has repercussions down the line. When we wear and then wash our clothes – tiny bits of microplastics are emitted into our waterways and oceans. Some estimates show that synthetic cloths contribute about 35% to primary microplastics in the world’s oceans.
What’s even more unfortunate is that many of these textiles get landfilled for all of this work, energy, and resources used. BBC reports that 85% of textiles are sent to landfills annually in the US, “and globally, an estimated 92 million tonnes of textiles waste is created each year.” The equivalent of a trash truck full of clothes ends up on landfill sites every second!
And the rate of production isn’t slowing down much. an astounding 100 billion clothing items are produced each year. The fashion industry is making billions of dollars in profit while many of its workers live in poverty.
Your effort matters
At every stage in the process, there is a need to access fair treatment and payment for laborers, energy and natural resources being used, and the impact those items continue to make on the environment even long after they are made.
If you’re still not convinced that your pairs of jeans or new tops make that much of a difference – think about your same actions multiplied by 7.9 billion. You can make a difference with your choice. Companies are beginning to listen and change their practices because of the demand for sustainable, ethical clothing. Our voice matters. So how should you shop for sustainable, ethical clothing?
How to shop sustainable, ethical clothing
The first step will always be to use what you have to reduce consumption. The most sustainable option will always be the option to use something already made.
Buy secondhand. Be smart about what you really need. Ask yourself questions before you buy anything. (Listen to the podcast episode ‘5 things to ask yourself before buying anything.’) Questions like: Who made this, and where did it come from?
Choose to support sustainable brands
The second step is to make sure you choose to support sustainable brands. You will know a sustainable, ethical brand by:
- Their transparency on worker’s rights and wages,
- Their use of environmentally friendly fabrics (which will be what we talk more about next week),
- The production of high-quality clothing results in longer wear and less waste,
- Employing energy-efficient and waste reduction tactics,
- Their diversity and inclusion measures,
- And they are vegan, protecting animals and ecosystems.
The pro tip is to not even look at the price before you ask yourself necessary questions about the brand’s values and practices – as the lure of a bargain might reel you in and affect your judgment.
Our entire supply chain system needs to be revamped to make these offerings more accessible, approachable, and affordable. I know that sounds like a lot – but it can be (and is) being done by companies worldwide. A few examples are Patagonia, TOMS shoes, Reformation, and Levis.
By choosing these brands, if you can, you’re making a statement that you don’t support the negative environmental impact of the fashion industry and that you believe in a better future.
And that future is moving towards Slow Fashion. I loved this definition of Slow Fashion in an article on Good on You by Madeleine Hill.
“Slow fashion is the opposite of fast fashion. It encompasses an awareness and approach to fashion that considers the processes and resources required to make clothing. It advocates for buying better-quality garments that will last longer and value fair treatment of people, animals, and the planet along the way. Realistically, slow fashion and sustainable or ethical fashion have a lot of similarities. They are sister movements and follow the same general guidelines. The main difference with slow fashion is that it hones in on reducing consumption and production more specifically.”
These brands take it a step further to create fewer collections, have made to order products to reduce overproduction, and focus on local sourcing, producing, and selling their garments.
Something to grow on
For this week’s something to grow on segment, I want you to take a look at your closet. Do you have pieces that you feel good about? Do you actually wear your clothes, or do you have many items that never see the light of day? That you know the story of? Are they trendy or timeless? Look at the tags and understand what fabrics show up the most and what brands you frequent. The fashion industry and consumerism have pushed us to detach from the real story of our clothing. However, once we know better, we can do better.
It’s time for us to take an authentic look at the impact of our buying decisions so that in the end, we aren’t just doing what’s right for the environment, people, and animals but helping ourselves as well. We can choose if we want to be part of the problem or the solution, and I know you’ll make the right choice, neighbor. I’ll leave you with a quote by creative director Antonia Bohlke, “Sustainable fashion is not a trend but the future.”
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