What Clothes Are Made Of (And Why It Matters)
If you’ve been browsing the web lately, you’ve probably heard of fast fashion. It has become a sort of buzz word, but what does it really mean? Why is it bad (because it certainly seems to be)? How is it affecting our planet?
According to google,
Fast fashion is a term used to describe a highly profitable business model based on replicating catwalk trends and high-fashion designs, and mass-producing them at low cost.
At first glance, this doesn’t seem all that bad. It is highly profitable, and makes would-be expensive designer trends affordable to those of us who can’t get a small loan of a million dollars to redesign their closet...
The key here is mass-production. This is what makes fast fashion problematic for people who are trying to minimize their environmental impact. Mass production means mass consumption.
Fast fashion creates the idea that you constantly have to be buying new clothes to stay on trend. Just to put it in perspective, we are consuming 400% more clothing than we were two decades ago. We are constantly buying and throwing away clothing.
Due to mass production, the market makes it easy. In fact, it encourages it. A lot of clothing is cheap and low-quality -- two things that make it easier for people to throw away a pair of pants once they get ripped instead of getting out the sewing kit. This creates an endless cycle of waste. Clothing is made out of resources that require a lot of energy, water and labor. They are manufactured and sold for cheap, then thrown away a year later. After that, they continue to be a detriment to the environment by sitting in landfills for years, sometimes decades.
Let’s take a closer look at what you’re wearing:
About two years ago, I went on a shopping trip with my boyfriend since he needed some new shoes. Now, my boyfriend is vegetarian and was trying to limit his consumption of animal products, so he was looking for shoes that didn’t contain leather. This meant a lot of label-reading and research. One name kept popping up: Polyester.
It was only then that I decided to check what polyester really was, since all I knew about it was that a lot of shoes and clothes were made out of it. Turns out polyester is a type of plastic, which can’t be good for the environment. In addition to emitting over 15 pounds of CO2 for each pound produced, polyester is extremely hard to recycle and takes 2 to 4 decades to decompose.
We all know plastic is bad for the environment, but did you know that over 60% of clothing in stores contains polyester? Not only that, but a study by Patagonia titled “Microfiber Pollution and the Apparel Industry” discovered that every time you wash a polyester fleece jacket, over a gram of polyester microfibers contaminate the water. Up to 40% of this eventually ends up in water systems.
So Polyester is not the way to go. What about cotton?
It’s soft, it's comfy, and most importantly... it's not plastic! In fact, it's a plant. How could a plant be bad for the environment? Well, there are a lot of ways.
The demand for cotton has been growing exponentially, and small farmers have continually struggled to keep up with it. Growing cotton requires a lot of water, pesticides and insecticides. In fact, cotton is responsible for about 25% of the total insecticide use in the world! The mass-spraying of cotton farming land is forcing smaller farmers to abandon their trade as they struggle to keep up with insecticide costs. What's worse, it negatively affects the health of communities living near these cotton farms by exposing them to harmful toxins. Cotton also happens to be an extremely demanding plant, requiring more than 5,000 gallons of water to grow 2.2 pounds of cotton.
Organic cotton is a good alternative, as it limits insecticide use and thus reduces the amount of water pollution. Still, producing as much cotton as the world is currently consuming is not sustainable because of how much water it requires.
Let’s go back to the shopping trip with my boyfriend. He did end up finding shoes that didn’t contain leather, but after reading such awful things about polyester he wasn’t too keen on buying that either. In fact, he thought about buying leather instead. He assumed it would decompose much faster than polyester and thus be better for the environment (RIP cows, I suppose).
Surprisingly, this was not the case. As it turns out, synthetic leather is much better for the environment than real leather. Real leather is probably the worst material to consume if you are trying to be environmentally conscious. This is in large due to leather tanning, the process which turns animal skin into leather by changing its protein structure. The process uses many harmful chemicals (including lead) that are notorious water polluters, not to mention the health hazard they pose to workers. To put it in perspective, synthetic leather only has a third of the environmental impact of real leather! This was determined by taking into account pollution, resource depletion, greenhouse gas emissions and water use.
Okay, so all materials have their downsides... What now?
After defaming the materials that most of your clothes are made out of, I should probably offer some ways for you to still rock your look without supporting an industry that is negatively impacting the environment. Now, you should try to do a bit of research about which companies you give your money to, as the vast majority of them don’t take the environment into account. Thankfully, there are plenty of brands trying to make a difference. If you’re just starting out, I suggest checking out Lucy & Yak, EcoVibe, Kotn, Back Beat Co. and Tentree.
But entirely avoiding polyester, non-organic cotton and leather is unrealistic for most of us. So the most important thing when it comes to consuming sustainably is not buying into fast fashion. You shouldn’t feel that you need to constantly be buying clothes to look good. This causes unnecessary stress to always stay on trend, and can leave you with a closet filled with clothes you don’t even wear often. Focus on buying pieces that feel good to you and the planet. Fill your closet with timeless pieces that you won’t want to get rid of in a year. Consume less without sacrificing the self-expression inherent in fashion. And when you do decide to upgrade your closet (and there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that), opt for a sustainable clothing brand or hit your local thrift store!
To find out more about how to make the most out of your trip to the thrift store, check out last week’s article here.
Check out the sources for this week’s article:
The True Cost documentary (2015) https://truecostmovie.com/learn-more/environmental-impact/
Fiber Briefing: Polyester https://www.commonobjective.co/article/fibre-briefing-polyester