The Clothes We Wear

January 20, 2021

Wearing my all time favourite sustainable fashion brand Attire.

Do you know what your clothes, that you’re wearing right now, are made of?

This wasn’t something I used to pay attention to either, at least not until about 6 months ago. If I liked something, I bought it! But when the pandemic began last year and reports emerged of garment workers not being paid and clothes that couldn’t sell being thrown away, a spotlight was shone on sustainability, or lack thereof, in the fashion industry, and I couldn’t look away.

I started to learn more about this topic, seeking out information from as many different sources as I could find. Recently, I completed an online course on Sustainability in the Fashion Industry. I learned some sobering statistics, like how clothing has the fourth largest environmental impact after housing, transport and food. But I also learned how we, the consumer, can make a difference. We create significant environmental impacts through the clothes we purchase, and the way we use, wash, dry and dispose of our clothing. But our clothes don’t have to be a problem – we can still love fashion and adopt a more sustainable approach to how we buy, use and care for our clothes.

Sustainability is an incredibly complex topic, much too large to cover in one blog post! So what I want to talk about today is fashion sustainability as it relates to our personal clothes, and specifically the fabrics that we wear. The materials that make up our clothes have a huge impact on the environment, and I think it’s important to understand those impacts so we can make more informed decisions when purchasing clothing.

The Environmental Cost

Around 63% of our clothes are made from synthetic fibers, such as polyester, acrylic and nylon, which are all plastics, made from fossil fuels. This is problematic in two big ways. First, the production process of turning fossil fuels into textiles for our clothing releases significant amounts of greenhouse gas emissions. A polyester shirt, made from fossil fuels, can have more than double the carbon footprint of a cotton shirt.

Second, research has shown that everytime we wash our synthetic clothing, tiny particles of plastic are being released into our water systems, ending up in rivers, lakes and oceans. When we wash our synthetic clothing, plastic microfibers (aka microplastics) can detach from our clothes and go into the wastewater. These microplastics then pass through filtration processes and end up in the marine environment. They are then ingested by marine animals (many of which end up as our food), and can cause a myriad of health issues that affects the balance of whole ecosystems. Moreover, the polymers that make up the microplastics contain chemical additives, flame retardants, and antimicrobial agents, which also leach out into the environment.

We need to turn the tide on plastics entering the environment now so that we can stop destroying oceans, their wildlife and our health. And the fashion industry must take responsibility for its impact on the amount of plastics in our oceans – this is a huge issue that cannot simply be left up to the consumer.

It’s not only synthetic fibers that can have detrimental impacts on the environment. The growing of conventional cotton requires a staggering amount of water, plus pesticides and insecticides on the crops that alter ecosystems and biodiversity.

So what are some of the alternatives?

There are of course many different alternatives, but in order to keep this post semi-concise, I will focus on alternatives to the two fabrics that I’ve focused on thus far, cotton and polyester.

Organic cotton is a great alternative. In organic certification systems, cotton’s water requirements can be met by a combination of precipitation, irrigation, and / or soil moisture. In fact, 75-80% of organic certified cotton is rain fed. Organic certified cotton has the added benefit that it prohibits the use of pesticides and insecticides, meaning no risk of toxic chemicals running off into our water supplies. Another great alternative is linen, which uses even less water than cotton. I wrote previously about the sustainability of linen, which you can read more about here.

We also need companies to accelerate the development of better textile recycling technologies, because there is a huge waste problem within fashion. Synthetic fibers made from recycled materials tend to have lower emissions than using new, virgin fossil fuels. For example, clothing made from recycled polyester can reduce emissions of a polyester garment by around 50%.

What can we, as consumers, do?

If you’re looking to buy new clothes, look for natural and recycled materials, and materials with environmental certifications. Collectively, if fashion brands see the demand for sustainably sourced cotton and other materials (like wool, linen, etc.) or recycled materials increase, then they will begin to source more of what people want.

However, I think it is important to note here that while recycled materials, like recycled polyester, do help to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and have an important role in the circular economy, it doesn’t solve for the microplastic problem. As we know, thousands of microplastics are released each time we wash plastic containing clothes. So what can we do with our garments made of recycled plastics? Minimize washing as much as possible, hand wash as opposed to machine wash, and use a guppy bag to filter for microplastics. (You can read more about the guppy bag here, but it is essentially a bag you put your clothing made from synthetic materials in when you wash them, and it reduces the amount of microplastic shedding).

I find it helpful to think of sustainability as a spectrum, rather than “good” vs “bad”. For example, you see a sweater that you love and want to buy, but you check the tags and see that it is made of polyester. Maybe you can find a similar sweater made from recycled polyester, or cotton, or even organic cotton. Or maybe you realize you already own a sweater like that, and it just needs to be repaired! This is what I mean by a spectrum. It’s not about making people feel guilty for buying a polyester sweater, but rather bringing awareness to the environmental impacts of certain materials, and empowering consumers with the knowledge to make more informed decisions about the clothes they purchase.

Some other useful tips when buying clothes:

  • When buying new, consider the fabric and quality of the garment. Look at where the fabric sits on the sustainability spectrum – what are the environmental impacts of this fabric, can you find something similar made with less of an environmental impact?
  • Buy smarter! No more flimsy fabric and skimpy stitching that falls apart the minute you get home. Big fast fashion brands are the worst with this.
  • Do you love it enough that you will commit to having it repaired if it breaks? If you love fashion (like I do), if you truly enjoy wearing clothes, then you should commit to the clothes you’re wearing and care for them like the good friends they are.
  • If it truly is the last hurrah for a piece of clothing, bring it to your nearest textile recycling bin, where it can be sorted and recycled properly – never throw clothes in the trash.

Fashion is a manifestation of the culture we live in. That is its power, and you speak with the clothes you wear and make a statement. So why not make it a good one?