The Real Global Price of What You Wear, Part 7

Last updated on January 6, 2024.

Hanging Shirts in Ombre order, from reds on left, oranges center, and yellows on right.
Photo by Greg Rosenke on Unsplash.

One of the best ways to fight fast fashion and textile waste is to make your existing wardrobe last longer. We can do this by washing our clothes less, but better, and by repairing and mending. “According to the EPA, for every 2 million tons of textiles we keep in circulation and out of landfills, we can reduce carbon emissions equivalent to taking 1 million cars off the road,” wrote Elizabeth L. Cline. “In fact, reusing a ton of textiles saves twice as much carbon as recycling a ton of plastic, one of the most commonly recycled materials.”1

But what else can we do?

Stop Shopping!

“Today’s rapid cycle of production, buying, and disposal of clothing impairs our ability to feel satisfied and connected with our wardrobes. It’s time for a new, slower approach to repairing clothes and to cherishing what we have.” -Zoe Edwards, Mend It, Wear It, Love It!2

Stop shopping. Or at least shop much less. Since most of us overbuy, we should buy less clothing going forward.

You don’t have to be a minimalist, but you don’t need closets and dressers and shelves overflowing with clothing. You can’t possibly wear all of it. Calculate how much clothing you need by how often you do laundry. For most people, this is one or two week’s worth. Then, account for the few special pieces you need – a black dress or a suit, or maybe you wear uniforms to work – it will be unique for everyone. Own only the amount of workout clothing you actually work out in. Don’t keep clothes that don’t fit (unless you regularly fluctuate in sizes). Limit excess of all types of clothing.

Subconsciously, or maybe even consciously, clothing represents who we are or the person we want others to perceive us as. Wear the clothing that makes you feel good. But fight against the influence of advertising, trends, and fast fashion sales. As Dana Thomas in Fashionopolis wrote, “[Fashion] preys on our insecurities and our increasingly short attention spans. We are prone to a barrage of fashion images –  on social media, on television, on billboards, in the press – begging us, taunting us to indulge in what one executive described as ‘temporary treasure.'”3 Be selective and intentional about the pieces you purchase.

“Volume is what gave birth to sweatshops. Volume is what makes fast fashion so profitable. Volume is what’s stuffing our closets. Volume is what’s rotting in our landfills.” -Dana Thomas, Fashionopolis4

Women's outfit lying on white background: white blouse, blue jeans, red and white striped t-shirt, and red shoes.
Photo by Junko Nakase on Unsplash.

We Can Spend Our Money Differently

“The number one reason we buy what we don’t wear is because it’s on sale or it’s so cheap that we’re willing to overlook flaws.” -Elizabeth L. Cline, The Conscious Closet5 

Don’t buy a $5 shirt because it is cheap. Buy a shirt because it feels good on your body. Embrace slow fashion, which is the idea that a thoughtful and intentional wardrobe greatly reduces environmental impact. It is the opposite of excessive production, overcomplicated supply chains, and mindless consumption.

“Most of our clothes are bought on impulse; we’re buying items without wider thought of how they fit into our lives or our wardrobes.” -Elizabeth L. Cline, The Conscious Closet6 

Buy Quality, Not Quantity

Buy more classic pieces and less trendy items. This will allow you to mix and match more easily and allow you to wear your clothes much, much longer. Buy fewer, higher-quality pieces and buy second-hand when possible. In The Conscious Closet, Elizabeth L. Cline wrote that you should be skeptical of cheap and heavily discounted items. She says to try everything on because it takes more time and hassle to return an item than to just try it on in the first place. Buy one or two quality pieces at a time instead of trying to revamp your whole closet in one shopping trip. Plan ahead, and hold out for those great items instead of settling for items that are just okay.7 

“Consumption has accelerated to such a furious pace that most of us don’t thoroughly consider what we purchase.” -Katrina Rodabaugh, Make Thrift Mend8

Cline offered these tips to identify quality clothing items:

Study the sewing and construction details of your own clothes that have lasted a long time. Look at your grandmother’s clothing or at clothes in vintage shops, as clothes made decades ago were not meant to be thrown away.

Check out a variety of brands and stores.

Look at men’s clothes, which are typically made better than women’s.

Quality includes good fabric, construction, fit, and a warranty. Usually the better the guarantee or warranty, the better the quality. “Nudie Jeans, a sustainable denim brand, offers free repairs on jeans for life, for example. Patagonia offers repairs, replacements, or refunds for damaged products or if the product simply doesn’t live up to expectations.” Other brands offer repairs within one or two years of purchase.9 

“Quality clothing is made to last, wear well, and look good over time.” -Elizabeth L. Cline, The Conscious Closet10 

Beware of Outlets and Off-Price Stores

There has been a drop in quality at factory outlets since the 2000s. These stores used to sell name-brand items with slight defects and imperfections, or overstock. But now most outlet stores have a special line of lower quality items, made just for those stores. It is the same for off-price stores such as T.J. Maxx, Ross Dress for Less, Marshalls, etc. These stores carry clothing without hems, fabrics that shed fibers in your hands when you touch them, and no regularity in sizing.

“Off-price stores and outlets were once a reliable way to land well-made and name-brand products at a discount, but no longer. Today, many sell a lot of factory rejects or canceled orders – the products that should have never made it to a store in the first place…[they are] manufactured exclusively for these stores and [are] intentionally mislabeled as discounted.” -Elizabeth L. Cline11

Circular clothing racks of shirts, organized by color.
Image by Michal Jarmoluk from Pixabay.

Buy from Responsible Brands

Research which brands are ethical and sustainable, or follow sustainable fashion writers like Elizabeth L. Cline to get the information. Or look for brands that use recycled textiles to make new clothing, such as Patagonia and Osom Brand.

Focus on what is most important to you. Sophie Benson, author of Sustainable Wardrobe, wrote, “Just as style is personal, so too are our moral drivers. For instance, I’m vegan, therefore I wouldn’t buy new leather. You might appreciate the longevity of leather but want to ensure it’s vegetable-tanned. One person might want to do their best to keep clothes in circulation by shopping exclusively secondhand via charity shops, another might be dead set on supporting independent brands who manufacture small batches at every opportunity. The better you understand your own principles and priorities, the easier it becomes to know whether a brand or product lives up to them.”12

Affordability

Sometimes buying higher quality or ethical/sustainable means the monetary cost is higher. Conscious fashion brands are mainly independent startups and smaller companies.13 So those companies have a higher overhead because they use responsibly sourced fabrics, little or no chemicals, and pay proper wages to workers. See Additional Resources below for a few brands that have good labor standards and sustainable practices, as well as an article on sustainable brands by budget.

But affordability is an issue. While it’s easy to say ‘just buy higher quality pieces’ or ‘purchase from sustainable fashion companies,” the reality of that is often difficult. What author Leah Thomas calls ‘the elephant in the room’: not everyone can affordably access sustainable clothing. Sustainable clothing often costs far more than the $10 shirt at H&M. Thomas argues that many sustainable fashion brands also do not offer plus-sized clothing even though over 60% of American women wear a size 14 or larger.14

Second hand shop clothing racks, lots of colorful article with a black short sleeved top on a headless mannequin in the foreground.
Image by Daniel Kapelrud from Pixabay.

Second-Hand Clothing

Affordability is why second-hand clothing is key: you can find higher-quality pieces without paying the high retail price. There are thousands of thrift stores, yard sales, and second-hand shops everywhere, as well as online stores.

Buying second-hand is always better for the environment and much more affordable.

There are also consignment shops in most areas. Just search “consignment near me” on the internet. These shops can vary from children’s clothing to boutique clothing to upscale women’s wear. Items at consignment shops have been inspected and vetted more thoroughly than items at thrift stores, and are sometimes cleaned or repaired before being sold.15

Used clothing is also all over the internet. Sites like eBay, Poshmark, The RealReal, Mercari, ThreadUp, and OfferUp are just a few places where you can find any type of clothing you want.*

Red-haired woman shopping at a thrift store, looking through clothing racks with other items in background, such as hats and framed art. Yellow tint to photo.
Image by StockSnap from Pixabay.

Stop ‘Wardrobing’

‘Wardrobing’ refers to buying the same item in multiple sizes when shopping online, and returning the ones that don’t fit. Now, it would help if companies would standardize sizes, especially in women’s clothes. But try using the size charts and measurement guides on clothing sites when they are offered.

The reason is that returned clothing sometimes gets landfilled. “Reverse logistics -which includes things like opening returned packages, inspecting returned items, steaming or cleaning them, adding them back into the system and repackaging them – can be time-consuming and costly, so many brands simply cut their losses and dispose of returned items. In the US, 2.3 billion kilograms (5 billion pounds) in weight of returned goods ends up in landfill each year, creating 15 million tonnes of carbon emissions.”16 This is a poor practice that companies should be barred from, but let’s do what we can to reduce returns in the meantime.

Build a Capsule Wardrobe

A capsule wardrobe is a curated but versatile wardrobe. As Elizabeth L. Cline wrote, “What defines a capsule wardrobe is not its smallness but the versatility and intentionality of its contents.17

Courtney Carver’s Project 333 is a great capsule wardrobe plan! It embraces minimalism and stress reduction, while fighting fast fashion and supporting sustainability.

“You get to wear your favorite things every day.” -Courtney Carver18

Renting

Renting is another viable solution. According to Dana Thomas, author of Fashionopolis, the average professional woman spends $3,000 or more per year on buying clothing. “Renting fashion could change the entire shape of the apparel industry. Imagine if that $3,000-a-year clothing budget was spent on renting instead of buying. Fewer clothes would be made, and what is out there could be circulated more, tossed less.” Rent the Runway is a well-known example.19 See Additional Resources below for an article covering several rental subscription services.

Rack of formal gowns in multiple colors, with sparkles and sequins.
Photo by form PxHere.

Consume Less

We need companies to produce less clothing, and we need to consume less. What changes can you make to reduce clothing waste?

So slow down, buy less, buy natural, buy better, buy second-hand. You’ll save money, time, and the environment. Please share and subscribe, and thank you for reading!

“If I had to give one piece of advice on what turned my wardrobe into a Slow Fashion wardrobe, I’d say ‘pause.’ If we could just pause our shopping habits, slow down our consumption, and pay attention to the clothes we bring into our homes, we’d collectively make a huge shift.” –Katrina Rodabaugh, Make Thrift Mend20

Wooden clothing rack with clothes in whites, reds, pinks and turquoises, with a shorter black empty clothing rack in front of it with hangers. Background wall is hunter green.
Photo by EVG Kowalievska on Pexels.

 

Additional Resources:

Here are a few conscious brands and related articles:

Eileen Fisher: Eileen Fisher produces 25% in the US and has living wages as part of its code of conduct.21 Their Renew program is a take-back and resell program. “Three-fourths of [the] garments are reconditioned with treatments like overdyeing with pomegranate or safflower to camouflage stains and embroidering with traditional Japanese Boro and sashiko stitching, which can hide, or highlight, tears and moth holes.”22*

Article, “The Pain of Progress: Our Renew Program Reaches 2 Million Garments,” by Kris Herndon, Eileen Fisher Journal, April 10, 2023.

Patagonia is a company that follows high standards for production, labor, employment, and environmental concerns. The company also buys, repairs, and resells its own brand of clothing and accessories.*

Reformation:  They are actively working toward a living wage for its Los Angeles workers. 23 Their “goal is to source 100% of our fabrics from recycled, regenerative, or renewable materials by 2025.”*

Elizabeth Suzann: This is a Nashville-based slow fashion brand that uses responsible materials and pays double the minimum wage in Tennessee.24*

Article, ” 99 Sustainable Fashion Brands By Budget (2023),” The Good Trade, October 3, 2023.

Article, “Thinking About Fashion Rentals? Consider These 7 Services,” by Alexis Bennett Parker, Vogue, January 12, 2023.

Article, “How To Thrift-Flip Your Wedding Dress,” canvasbridal.com, accessed January 6, 2024.

*I do not necessarily endorse these products and I do not get paid to mention them.

Footnotes:

The Real Global Price of What You Wear, Part 6

Many embroidery floss skeins in rainbow order, making a blank heart shape in the center.
Photo by Karly Santiago on Unsplash.

If you’ve been reading articles from my series about the clothing industry, then you probably want to know more about what you can do about fashion waste. The short answer is that first, you can take good care of the clothes you have by laundering them well and repairing them. Second, stop buying too much clothing – even when it’s a great deal! Try to buy only the pieces you really love and that fit well. Don’t just buy something because you found it on the clearance rack.

Globally, we have to stop the overproduction of clothing and fast fashion.

As Elizabeth L. Cline noted, in America, we spend more money on restaurants than we do on clothes. We don’t see any reason to spend more on fashion because of the availability of cheap clothes. “As any economist will tell you, cheaper prices stimulate consumption. And the current low rate of fashion has spurred a shopping free-for-all, where we are buying and hoarding roughly 20 billion garments per year as a nation…If we could only give up our clothing deals and steals, we might just see that there are far more fortifying, not to mention more flattering, ways of getting dressed.”1

“The most sustainable clothes are the ones already in your closet.” -Katrina Rodabaugh, Make Thrift Mend2

Close-up of a white front-load washing machine, with a hand turning the dial.
Photo by rawpixel.com form PxHere.

Wash Your Clothes Less

Washing our clothes less makes them last much longer. It also reduces the number of microfibers, that is, microscopic pieces of plastic from synthetic clothing, that enter our water systems. You can wear some articles several times before you launder them unless you sweat or spill something on them. You can freshen your clothes without washing them, by hanging them in the bathroom during a shower or hanging them outside. Read “Make Your Clothes Last Longer with Good Laundry Habits” for laundry tips.

“Americans in particular overwash their clothing and rely on machine washing instead of steaming or airing out their clothes, which shortens the life span of what we wear.” -Elizabeth L. Cline, The Concious Closet3 

Tan cardigan with white and yellow flower embroidery near shoulder.
Photo by Alex Baber on Unsplash.

Mending

“When you take the time and effort to repair or improve a garment, you will value it and, more importantly, enjoy wearing it.” -Zoe Edwards, Mend It, Wear It, Love It!4

Mending can extend the life of your clothing and keep them out of the landfill. Learning basic sewing and embroidery is worth the effort because you can save money and protect the environment.

In her book, The Conscious Closet, Elizabeth L. Cline offered an entire chapter on how to perform basic repairs and instructions on several types of stitches without sewing skills or a sewing machine. A few common repairs include missing buttons, seam splits, loose stitching, applying patches, and darning socks. You can find tutorials for all of these in her book. Often you can find tutorials online for free, as well.

Cline also recommended using a fabric shaver to remove pills,5 which are the little bobbles of loose fibers that build up on your clothes. Sophie Benson, author of Sustainable Wardrobe, wrote that you can also reuse an old razor to remove pills. Just avoid pulling them off with your fingers because that can cause damage to the fabric.6

BEAUTURAL Fabric Shaver and Lint Remover, gray, showing the device and two blade attachments.
This is the fabric shaver I use and I’ve been happy with the results. This is not a paid promotion or affiliate product.

Tip: You can even find sewing materials and notions – and even sewing machines – at thrift stores and second-hand shops. You don’t necessarily have to pay retail for those things.

“Wear visibly mended clothes proudly. Visible mending is a great conversation starter, and a visibly mended garment is the perfect uniform for the reluctant activist because it does the heavy lifting for you. Whenever you wear something visibly mended and chat with someone about it, you’re raising awareness that mending is possible, it can be creative and colourful, and caring for our clothes is an important thing to do.” -Erin Lewis-Fitzgerald, Modern Mending7 

Tiny flower embroidery on denim, many colors, needle with light blue thread at center.
Photo by Barbara Krysztofiak on Unsplash.

“In repairing our clothes, we send a message. With each stitch we declare, ‘I value the people who made this, I value the natural resources that went into making it and I value the version of myself that chose it.’ ” -Sophie Benson, Sustainable Wardrobe8

Hire A Tailor

If you don’t want to learn basic sewing or don’t have the time, you can take your items to a tailor. This costs more but still extends the life of the clothing you already own. Sophie Benson wrote, “Both alterations and repairs should very much be seen as part and parcel of the maintenance of our clothes. Any action that keeps your clothes in wearable condition is classed as maintenance, and this includes things like lowering hems, taking in or letting out waistbands, altering silhouettes and replacing linings. You might be surprised what a tailor can do.”9

“Through mending we slow down consumption, extend the life of our garments, and increase resilience and technical skill…As we mend our textiles we work on an individual scale to mend overconsumption, fast fashion, and the unethical treatment of people and the planet.” -Katrina Rodabaugh, Make Thrift Mend10

Reuse Old Clothes

You can reuse clothes for repair projects and even refashion them. You can also just find a way to reuse them around the house. “This is the way humans ‘recycled’ worn clothes for ages. Scrap denim is ideal for mending and patching…Cotton t-shirts make great cleaning cloths and rags. And worn or stained items and scuffed-up shoes are great to wear for yard work or other outdoor activities.”11 

You can cut off the sleeves of a long-sleeved shirt and make a tank top, or make jeans into shorts. This is especially true for children’s clothing! Other clothes can be repurposed into bags, dog toys, or pillows. Use your imagination! The internet abounds with inspirational ideas!

“Slow fashion is…saving up to buy fewer pieces of higher quality and keeping them for longer (or forever!); it’s shopping secondhand; it’s repairing instead of throwing away; it’s brands making to order to reduce waste; it’s local or small batch production; it’s personal style not trends; it’s releases once or twice per year instead of every week. It’s our way out of this mess.” -Sophie Benson, Sustainable Wardrobe12

Wear Clothes Longer

This is the goal: To wear your existing clothing longer.

If you take good care of your clothes through good laundering and simple mending, your clothes will last a lot longer. This will save you money and time, and it is better for the environment. “According to Greenpeace, wearing your clothes for at least two years will reduce greenhouse gas emissions by more than 24 percent.”13 We can all make a big impact when it comes to clothing.

“Mending, repairing, and caring for our clothes is the essence of sustainable fashion.” -Elizabeth L. Cline, The Conscious Closet14 

I hope this helps! Feel free to leave me a comment about your ideas for caring for or repairing clothing. Thank you for reading, please share and subscribe!

 

Additional Resources:

Website of Erin Lewis-Fitzgerald, author of Modern Mending.

Reuse shop, FabScrap, “FABSCRAP diverts thousands of pounds of commercial textile waste from landfills every week. These pre-consumer materials are often in perfect condition.”

Responsibly sourced wool and knitting materials, Peace Fleece store.

Good on You website, evaluates the ethics and sustainability of fashion brands around the world.

See books on Mending in the footnotes or on my Books Page under “The Textile & Clothing Industry.”

Footnotes:

The Real Global Price of What You Wear, Part 5

Colorful patterned fabrics, folded and stack together.
Photo by Rod Long on Unsplash.

Ever wonder what the names of different synthetic fabrics mean? Polyester, fleece, Spandex the list goes on. Over the years synthetic fabrics have come a long way in appearance, texture, and wearability. They can be very durable, although most fast fashion producers tend to make them cheaply with minimal thread count and stitching. Most synthetic fabrics are made from plastic fibers, which are made from oil, which comes from fossil fuels. Synthetic materials use about 342 million barrels of petroleum annually.

Unfortunately, the true problem is the fact that we are overproducing clothing in the Western world. There is so much clothing that all of the humans on the planet can’t even use it all.

Today we’ll review the most common types of synthetics used in fast fashion and textile production. If you want a refresher on natural fabrics, read Part 3 and Part 4.

Polyester

Polyester is plastic fabric. It requires a lot of energy to make, uses fossil fuels, and uses carcinogenic substances to produce. “It is made by refining crude oil or natural gas, breaking it into chemicals, and creating a polymer that is extruded and spun into fibers.” The polymer, polyethylene terephthalate (PET), is the same PET in a plastic bottle. Its petroleum base makes polyester flammable, so fabrics made from it must be treated with anti-flammable chemicals that are often toxic. China produces more than 75% of the world’s polyester fabric. These fabrics do not biodegrade and only a very small amount of them are recycled worldwide.1

“Polyester, the cheapest and most popular of fabrics, is petroleum based; nearly seventy million barrels of crude are required to make the virgin polyester used for textiles each year.” -Dana Thomas, Fashionopolis2

Polyester also affects climate change. “MIT calculated that the global impact of producing polyester alone was somewhere between 706 million metric tons of carbon dioxide, or about what 185 coal-fired power plants emit in a year.”3 We should stop production of this material for the most part, because the global impacts just aren’t worth it. There’s already enough on the planet to recycle and reuse. We don’t need any new polyester fabric.

“Producing polyester releases two to three times more carbon emissions than cotton, and polyester does not break down in the ocean.”4

Colorful rolls of satin fabrics.
Photo by v2osk on Unsplash.

Fleece

Most fleece is a type of polyester, so its origin is also plastic (and oil).
Because it is breathable, fast-drying, and allows moisture to evaporate it is used in sportswear and winter wear. It’s also what those $4 cozy, fluffy, fleece blankets sold at large box stores are made from.

Although it is a vegan alternative to wool, fleece is a poor environmental choice because it sheds microfibers quickly while laundering. More on that toward the end of this article.

Pink and purple fleece clothing with magenta background.
Photo by Tania Melnyczuk on Unsplash.

Spandex (also called Lycra and Elastane)

Spandex is also called Lycra (a DuPont brand name), or Elastane. It is prized for its elasticity and often combined with other fabrics to make apparel stretchy. Spandex is used mainly in athletic wear, swimsuits, yoga pants, skinny jeans, underwear, bras, and socks.

Companies make this fabric from a polyurethane base combined with other chemicals. While Spandex is not plastic, it still does not biodegrade in the environment. While not sourced from oil, the chemicals used in the production of spandex/elastane are potentially toxic to workers and perhaps even people who wear it.

Photo of about 7 one piece women's swimsuits in different colors, hanging from a woman's arm, a pair of goggles dangling from her hand.
Swimsuits are often made from spandex, nylon, or a blend. Photo by Malik Skydsgaard on Unsplash.

Nylon

Companies use Nylon, originally invented by DuPont, to make tights, stockings, sportswear, yoga pants, and other form-fitting clothing items. It is a polymer-based fabric (meaning plastic) made from a component of crude oil, hexamethylenediamine. It is energy-intensive and uses large quantities of water for cooling the nylon fabric fibers. That “water often carries pollutants into the hydrosphere surrounding manufacturing locations. In the production of adipic acid, which is the secondary constituent part of most types of nylon fabric, nitrous oxide is released into the atmosphere, and this is considered to be 300 times worse for the environment than CO2.”5 But it often makes strong, water-resistant fabrics.

Plastics

Some companies produce clothing made from straight plastic. One example is polyvinyl chloride (PVC), a high-strength thermoplastic material. Companies use PVC to produce transparent shoe heels, vinyl raincoats, synthetic leather, and many fashion accessories like handbags, belts, and shoes.6These materials often cannot be reused and are discarded. PVC is a known carcinogen and it leaches toxins when it gets into the soil (landfill) or water (ocean).

Red snakeskin print PVC skirt, model wearing a black long-sleeved top but her upper and lower body are cropped.
PVC skirt from Shein.

Acrylic

Acrylic fabric mimics wool. It is lightweight, warm, and soft. Companies use it in place of wool or blend it with wool or cashmere in order to reduce production costs. Producers make acrylic from the polymer polyacrylonitrile, which is a fossil fuel-chemical combination. Acrylic fabric pills easily and, like many synthetics, is highly flammable. The EPA found that inhaling polyacrylonitrile gives workers many health problems and may even be carcinogenic.7 

Navy blue acrylic sweater.
Sweater made from acrylic.

“Imagine a pair of yoga pants, or a fleece…try to imagine what they’re made of. It’s oil. They’re made of oil. Whether it’s polyester, fleece, spandex, elastane, nylon, or acrylic, our clothing is made, more and more, of crude oil that is turned into polymers…More than 60 percent of all of our textile fibers are now man-made synthetics, derived from oil.” -Tatiana Schlossberg8

Viscose Rayon

Viscose rayon is usually made from bamboo and eucalyptus. While those are plants, producers use so many heavy chemical treatments that most consider viscose rayon a synthetic. Companies market this fabric as “natural” and “sustainable” because bamboo, especially, grows quickly. But that is just greenwashing.

Companies sell viscose rayon under several names, such as bamboo, eucalyptus, modal, Lyocell, and Tencel. Producers make the fabric by “chemically dissolving wood from eucalyptus, beech, or bamboo trees,” and then reforming the chemical pulp into a fiber. Bamboo is a tough fiber and the chemical treatment is how they make it soft. These fabrics are a cheaper alternative to silk and cotton. But they have a huge environmental impact because they require a lot of energy and “has a higher global-warming impact than the manufacture of polyester and cotton.”9

Environmental Impact

Viscose rayon production uses large volumes of hazardous chemicals, including large amounts of bleach, sodium hydroxide, sulfuric acid, and carbon disulfide. The latter is “a neurologically toxic chemical that has a long history of causing insanity in exposed workers.”10 It can also cause reproductive problems. Further, the pulp mills sometimes release those chemicals into the environment. Many of the processing mills for rayon are in China, India, and southeastern Asian countries. 11

“The chemical usage to produce [viscose rayon] is so intense that it shouldn’t be considered natural at all.” -Tatiana Schlossberg12

This category of fabrics is a leading cause of deforestation, which is contributing to climate change and endangering wildlife. Manufacturers cut down between 120 million and 150 million trees annually to make clothing. Some of those trees are in endangered rainforests or ancient forests. Besides that, manufacturers also waste more than half of each tree during production.13

Better Types of Viscose Rayon

Look for the lyocell brand name of Lenzing Tencel, which is more sustainable than other fabrics in this category. “Tencel lyocell fabrics are cellulose fibers made from sustainably sourced wood pulp that is produced in a closed-loop system where the materials used are recycled with minimal waste and low emissions.” Tencel is biodegradable and requires less energy and water than cotton production.14

You can also seek out brands that partner with Canopy, the Forest Stewardship Council, or have Oeko-Tex safe-chemistry certifications (see Additional Resources below).15 

The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has warned and/or fined many companies to stop falsely labeling rayon products as bamboo. Those companies include Amazon, Macy’s, Target, Walmart, and Leon Max, but there are more that participate in this practice. Marketing rayon as environmentally friendly is greenwashing at its worst; advertising it as bamboo is an outright lie and illegal.

Various colors and patterns of rolls of fabrics, sitting upright with a white backdrop.
Photo by Andreea Pop on Unsplash.

Synthetic Fabrics Shed Microplastics

Synthetic textiles are becoming more and more commonplace, especially as fast fashion continues to grow. Unfortunately, these synthetic fabrics often shed small plastic fibers known as microfibers or microplastics. Just by laundering our clothing, microplastics are entering and polluting our waterways. This is because water treatment facilities cannot remove them, so the fibers persist, and enter the ocean, the food chain, and eventually human bodies. “According to the International Union for Conservation of Nature, there are 1.5 million tons of small pieces of what are known as microplastics entering the ocean each year, and as much as 34.8 percent of that pollution is coming from synthetic textiles.”16 It’s time to turn off the tap.

“What I actually want to say about synthetic fibers is that they are everywhere – not just in all of our clothes, but literally everywhere: rivers, lakes, oceans, agricultural fields, mountaintops, glaciers. Everywhere. Synthetic fibers, actually, may be one of the most abundant, widespread, and stubborn forms of pollution that we have inadvertently created.” -Tatiana Schlossberg17

Colorful and patterned fabrics, stacked vertically.
Photo by Kate Ware on Flickr, Creative Commons license (CC BY-NC 2.0).

Solutions

“It requires extensive amounts of energy to create textiles from plastic, which also releases petroleum and volatile particulate matter into the atmosphere.” -Leah Thomas, The Intersectional Environmentalist18

Most of the time, the clothing you buy is going to be a blend of either natural and synthetic fibers or a blend of synthetics. Chenille, for example, is usually a blend of fibers, including cotton, silk, rayon, and wool. Microfiber fabric is often a combination of polyester and nylon. Synthetics are so common today that we mostly overlook the fabric type listed on the tag. “Most consumers buy synthetics without even noticing. Polyester and nylon together make up almost 60 percent of all textiles manufactured globally, while cotton has shrunk to a quarter of the fiber market.”19

Today synthetics are better looking and more comfortable than in previous decades. And they are cheap! The cheapest fabrics to produce are polyester, nylon, acrylic, and conventional viscose rayon. The production of cotton and high-performing viscose rayon (modal and lyocell) costs a little more. Leather, silk, linen, high-quality cotton, cashmere, and wool are much more expensive than synthetics, so fashion designers use them less and less.20 But many synthetics used in clothing production are manufactured or treated with toxic and carcinogenic substances.21

Choose biodegradable plant-based fibers, such as cotton, linen, hemp, and wool over synthetics. Or animal-based fibers such as wool and silk. “It’s very hard to completely eradicate plastics from our lives, but we can reduce them significantly by choosing biodegradable fibers when available….biodegradable new materials, recycled fabrics, or secondhand textiles. Remember, there is no perfect sustainable lifestyle.”22

Corporations need to do better and stop producing cheap, fast fashion. As consumers, we can buy second-hand clothing. When we do need to buy new, we can choose to buy higher quality items. Since those types of articles are more expensive, we will automatically reduce the amount of clothing we buy. Corporations will pay attention if we buy less of something. If we all try to be more intentional with our clothing purchases, we can make a difference.

Thank you for reading, please share and subscribe!

 

Additional Resources:

Website, Forest Stewardship Council, the leader in sustainable forestry. Their purpose is “nurturing responsible forestry so forests and people can thrive. ”

Website, Canopy. People cut down 3.4 billion trees annually to make paper packaging and fabrics such as rayon and viscose. “Many of these trees come from the world’s most Ancient and Endangered Forests, integral for life on Earth.” This organization partners with brands to change that. Just ten suppliers produce seventy-five percent of all rayon. After fashion designer Stella McCartney partnered with Canopy, nine of those suppliers pledged that they would stop logging in rainforests.23

Website, Oeko-Tex, rigorously tests and certifies every component of the product, from the fabric to the thread and accessories, against a list of up to 350 toxic chemicals.

Article, “Microfibers & Textiles,” 5Gyres, accessed September 24, 2023.

Footnotes:

The Real Global Price of What You Wear, Part 4

Last updated February 10, 2024.

Three raccoon dogs peek out from their small wire cages at a fur farm in Poland. The animals are curious about the photographers doing this nighttime investigation. Poland, 2015.
Three raccoon dogs peek out from their small wire cages at a fur farm in Poland. The animals are curious about the photographers doing this nighttime investigation. Poland, 2015. Photo courtesy of Andrew Skowron, We Animals Media.

Understanding whether natural or synthetic fabrics are better for the environment is confusing. As I mentioned in Part 3 of this article series, we need to stop the overproduction of all textiles. But we can make better choices about clothing purchases if we know where something came from, how it was sourced, and how it was created. Today, we will review the most common types of animal-based fabrics used in fashion.

Wool

Humans have used wool from sheep since about 10,000 BCE.1 “Wool is gorgeous and durable. It has the magical capacity to resist odors, wrinkles, and stains,” wrote Elizabeth L. Cline. It provides warmth and can last for many years. Today’s wools are less itchy, softer, and sometimes even machine washable. But it is not always the most sustainable option.

As of 2015, people raised more than 1 billion sheep around the world, producing 2.5 million pounds of raw wool. But if not cared for properly, sheep and goats can overgraze areas which lead to soil erosion and desertification. “Fertilizers and pesticides are often used on pastures and the sheep themselves, driving up wool’s chemical impacts.”2

Sheep release methane and other greenhouse gases that contribute to global warming. Sheep farming – like cattle farming – also uses large amounts of water and land. Some even identify wool as one of the worst environmental offenders on the market.

Merino Wool & Mulesing

Merinos, typically raised in Australia, have very soft wool. People have specifically bred them to have wrinkly skin because this means they can obtain more wool per animal. But animal rights advocates typically advise against merino sheep products because the sheep are essentially mutilated.

The wrinkles collect urine and moisture, which attracts flies. The flies lay eggs in the folds of skin, and the larvae (maggots) eat the sheep’s skin. To combat what is referred to as ‘flystrike,’ farmers use a cruel procedure called ‘mulesing.’ This is where they restrain the sheep and cut sections of their skin away without any painkillers or anesthetics. These wounds can get infected and kill the sheep. If the wounds heal, the skin forms scar tissue and creates a smooth surface that doesn’t create a moist environment for flystrike. This is an inhumane practice that should be outlawed.

Worse, “after the sheep become too old to produce wool efficiently, they are shipped to the Mideast to satisfy the huge Muslim demand for halal meat.” Companies do not usually ship them under humane conditions and many sheep die on the way there.3

Shearling

Most consumers believe that shearling is sheared wool – but it isn’t. It is sheepskin, meaning the sheep’s tanned skin with the wool still attached to it. Shearling refers to a young sheep, a yearling who has been shorn just once. A shearling garment is made from a sheep or lamb shorn before being slaughtered for meat. Some industry members call shearling ‘a byproduct of the meat industry.’ But it can take dozens of individual sheep skins to make just one shearling garment.

Recycled Wool Clothing

Buying clothing made from recycled wool is a very eco-friendly option. As Patagonia wrote on their website: “Wool is a natural fiber that insulates, breathes and lasts for a long time. Producing wool, however, is resource-intensive. It requires vast amounts of land for grazing sheep, water to clean the fiber, chemicals to treat the wool and dyes to color the finished product. We use recycled wool to extend the useful life of fiber that has already been produced. As a result, we can make clothing with the same great qualities as virgin wool at a fraction of the environmental cost.”4 Buy products made from recycled wool whenever possible.

A white newborn lamb looks up at the camera.
A newborn lamb looks up at the camera. If the lamb is male, he will be sent to slaughter for meat at a young age. If the lamb is female, she will be reared for the production of wool and future breeding. Photo courtesy of Andrew Skowron, We Animals Media.

Alpaca fleece

Alpacas are domesticated South American camelids that look like small llamas. Their fur is a very soft and warm fiber that is also durable and lightweight. It may even be more durable than cashmere. These animals are not killed for their fur, and many companies argue that producers take good care of alpacas.

However, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) did an undercover investigation and discovered workers abusing alpacas during the shearing process. Regardless of what you think of PETA, the video evidence is hard to refute. And it is disturbing to watch. This video was taken at Mallkini, the world’s largest privately owned alpaca farm, near Muñani, Peru. “Mallkini is owned by the Michell Group, the world’s largest exporter of alpaca tops and yarn and a supplier of major brands, including Anthropologie.”5 Hopefully many other companies have followed.

The Alpaca Owners Association, Inc. responded that they were shocked and appalled by the abuse in the video. “While there are good and bad practices in every industry, the investigation uses the most egregious video of alpacas being shorn poorly and inhumanely. Kind and compassionate alpaca owners and shearers throughout the world far outweigh practices like the one shown.”6

Be sure to check that the alpaca clothing you’re buying is from a reputable and cruelty-free producer. You may have to contact the company to verify this.

The face of a brown alpaca against a black background.
This alpaca is taking shelter from the rain at The Farm Animal Sanctuary, Evesham, Worcestershire, United Kingdom, 2022. Photo courtesy of James Gibson Photography / We Animals Media.

Cashmere

Cashmere is made from the soft undercoats of cashmere goats, mainly in China, Mongolia, northern India, and Iran. The fibers are very fine and delicate and feel almost like silk to the touch, and it is warmer and lighter than sheep’s wool. It is one of the most expensive forms of wool because the production and manufacturing process is complicated.7

But two things happened: world demand increased and Mongolia transitioned from a Communist economy to a freer market. So lower quality cashmere clothing entered the market. Also, herders quadrupled the number of goats from 5 million in the 1990s to 21 million by 2018.8 Goat herding clears entire grasslands which causes dust storms and air pollution. It sometimes also causes starvation of the goats.9

There are different grades of cashmere. Sometimes producers mix it with other fibers, which can make it less expensive. But not everyone agrees that this is a good thing. As New York Times writer Tatiana Schlossberg wrote, “Making cashmere a less-than-luxury item…puts the responsibility for making the right choice on the consumer, and that’s not fair. It’s not within your control how some company sources and produces its cashmere, or the size of the herd that they got it from. That should be the corporation’s burden – whether they pay more to source better or they pay for the associated down-the-line impacts – or governments should make sure they act responsibly. And that may make cashmere cost more (upfront, though the long-term health and environmental costs would be less).”10

Be sure to purchase sustainable cashmere. “When shopping for cashmere, shop with brands that are transparent and can reveal where they source their fiber and the steps they’ve taken to source it sustainably.”11 You can also look for regenerated or reclaimed cashmere, which is “made from postmanufacturing waste, such as cuttings gathered from the factory floor. Regerneated cashmere is 92 percent less damaging to the environment than virgin cashmere.”12

Close-up of a white cashmere billy goat.
Image by Alexa from Pixabay.

Angora

Fur from an Angora rabbit is silky and super soft. It is warmer and lighter than wool and it felts easily. Angora fibers are often blended with wool to give it elasticity. Most breeds of Angora rabbits molt naturally about every four months, and producers “pluck” the molted fur from the animal. Some producers choose to shear the fur instead, which saves time, but results in lower-quality angora.

However, this is another type of fur you might want to avoid because it is an animal that producers sometimes abuse. In 2013, a PETA investigation showed human workers plucking live rabbits raw, meaning their hair was ripped from their skin (to obtain the longest fibers) while the rabbits screamed in pain. They are put back into cramped wire cages until their hair grows back. After three years the rabbits are killed.13 Unfortunately, China is the source of 90 percent of the world’s angora and that country has few laws regarding animal cruelty.

Silk

Silk is a gorgeous fabric. It is a natural fiber that is shiny and durable. It has a long trading history across the world. “Silk is the epitome of luxury due to its high cost to produce, soft feel, and elegant appearance…Different weaving processes result in different types of fabric, including crepe (a rough crinkled texture), organza (a thin, sheer fabric), and chiffon (a lightweight, plain-weave fabric with a slight stretch).”14

But it takes about 2,500 silkworms to spin a pound of raw silk. Elizabeth L. Cline explained how people harvest silk:

“Silk is produced by the saliva of silkworms that feed on the leaves of mulberry trees. A single silkworm can spin almost three thousand feet of usable silk thread while making one single cocoon. To extract the silk, a silkworm’s cocoon is boiled and the filaments unraveled.” This process creates very little waste but kills the silkworms. “However, fertilizers and insecticides are often used to grow the mulberry trees, and more energy is used to make silk than for most other textiles.” Some silk is dyed using heavy metals that can be toxic.15

There are organic silks and safe-chemical certifications available, so look for those because they have a lower impact on the environment. Other options include peace silk, which is made without killing the silkworms. A company called Bolt Threads manufactures a lab-grown silk alternative made out of yeast and sugar.16

Close-up of silkworm cocoons, with one opened at front.
Image by LoggaWiggler from Pixabay.

Leather

Humans have been wearing animal skins and leather for thousands of years. Today, companies mass-produce leather with a lot of harsh and hazardous chemicals. “Leather is a $100-billion-a-year business before it is turned into shoes, luggage, or coats,” wrote Dana Thomas, author of Fashionpolis. Consumer demand for leather rises by about 5 percent per year.17

The leather tanning industry produces a lot of solid waste and wastewater and has many polluted lands and rivers. “Leather has been linked to the deforestation of the Amazon and a variety of harmful chemicals are used during the tanning and production processes.”18

Governments regulate the leather industry in most places now, but there are exceptions. For example, some Bangladeshi tanneries don’t provide leather workers protective gear even though many people stand directly in vats of chemicals. The tanneries also dump untreated toxic wastewater into local rivers. “The leather-tanning district of Hazaribagh, Bangladesh, has been named one of the most toxic places in the world, although efforts are underway to clean it up.”19 Sohpie Benson wrote, “The Buriganga River, which runs through Dhaka, Bangladesh, is thick with effluent, hides and litter, and has been declared biologically dead due to the incessant flow of tannery waste.”20

The leather industry is also not known for being green or ethical. The leather industry discharges as many emissions as 30 million cars driven for a whole year.21 Cow leather is the most common type, and cows take a huge environmental toll. “The planet’s cattle herds and the fertilizer-and pesticide-intensive way they’re raised and fed are major drivers of deforestation, land degradation, climate change, and water pollution. Cows are also a major emitter of methane, a powerful greenhouse gas.”22

Buy leather for items you intend to keep long-term. If you take care of it, it will last many years. The Leather Working Group certifies and audits leather tanneries on their environmental standards (see Additional Resources below). Responsible companies are transparent about where they source their leather, how they tan the leather, and the environmental and ethical conditions.23 You can also look for upcycled leather at Recyc Leather.24

“Although leather is often positioned as a natural alternative to plastic, leather footwear is often coated in it to make it more durable.” -Sophie Benson, Sustainable Wardrobe25

A mother and baby cow, gray colored, in a field with other cows. They have yellow tags on their ears.
Image by Protocultura from Pixabay.

Furs

Humans historically used the furs of animals they killed to stay warm. But today, most people wear furs for fashion only. Animal farms raise and keep animals in cages explicitly to kill them for their fur. Most of the time, the animals live in horrible conditions. Almost always, the farms waste the rest of the animal after slaughter.

Don’t buy fur.

If you must have a fur item for your closet, please consider a faux fur option. They look just as nice and are just as warm and comfortable as real fur. However, as always, you must be wary of the faux products you buy, as reporters have exposed major retailers selling real fur mislabeled as faux.26 Remember, a good company will be transparent about its production line.

“Killing animals is the most destructive thing you can do in the fashion industry. The tanneries, the chemicals, the deforestation, the use of landmass and grain and water, the cruelty – it’s a nonstarter. The minute you’re not killing an animal to make a shoe or a bag you are ahead of the game.” -Stella McCartney, quoted in Fashinopolis27

Two grey mink on a fur farm stare through the wire mesh of a filthy cage.
Two grey mink on a fur farm stare through the wire mesh of a filthy cage. Korsnas, Finland, 2023. Photo courtesy of Oikeutta elaimille / We Animals Media.

Down

Down is a layer of fine feathers on geese and ducks, which helps keep them warm in colder temperatures and water. Companies commonly use it to insulate jackets, coats, and sleeping bags. But the practices the industry uses to collect it are questionable. “The vast majority of the 270,000 metric tons of commercial down produced each year is a byproduct of goose and duck meat industries in Asia and Europe, where the birds might be live-plucked or force-fed for foie gras before heading to the slaughterhouse. Animal welfare advocates consider these cruel practices that they want to see eliminated from down’s complex supply chain.”28

Elizabeth L. Cline recommends shopping with brands certified by Textile Exchange’s Responsible Down Standard (see Additional Resources below), which verifies high animal welfare standards.29

A mother goose with her goslings, green grass background.
Photo by James Wainscoat on Unsplash.

Read Labels, Buy Second-Hand

Always read labels to see what you’re buying. If something isn’t familiar, use your smartphone while in the store and do a quick internet search on the materials. Sometimes just looking up the name of a product or materials is all you need. Before I wrote this article, I almost bought a pair of shoes made with shearling. I thought that shearling was just sheared wool. I decided to look up what shearling meant, and thank goodness I did! Once I understood that those shoes contributed to the death of an animal, they were no longer attractive to me and I didn’t buy them.

“Any animal-based fiber comes with tremendous ethical responsibility.” -Elizabeth L. Cline, The Conscious Closet30

Stacks of sheepskins.
This image shows piles of salted sheep and cattle skins, at a slaughterhouse on the outskirts of Melbourne, Victoria. Photo courtesy of Jo-Anne McArthur / We Animals Media.

You can look for sustainable or organic materials certified by organizations such as the ones listed under Additional Resources below. There’s a lot to know, which is why sometimes it’s easier to buy second-hand. Buying used ensures that you’re not directly supporting a certain type of textile production and it reduces overall demand. Giving an article of clothing a second chance also keeps it from going into a landfill or cluttering the landscapes of developing countries. In my next article, I’ll review types of synthetic fabrics. Thank you for reading, please share and subscribe!

 

Additional Resources:

Fibershed.org is a nonprofit fostering the resurgence of small-scale farmers and regenerative farming practices around the world.

Global Textile Standard (GOTS) “is the worldwide leading textile processing standard for organic fibres, including ecological and social criteria, backed up by independent certification of the entire textile supply chain. GOTS-certified final products may include fibre products, yarns, fabrics, clothes, home textiles, mattresses, personal hygiene products, as well as food contact textiles and more.”

Organic Content Standard (OCS) is “a voluntary global standard that sets the criteria for third-party certification of organic materials and chain of custody.”

bluesign is has specific safety and environmental requirements regarding chemicals.

Cradle to Cradle Certified “Product Standard provides the framework to assess the safety, circularity and responsibility of materials and products across five categories of sustainability performance.”

Oeko-Tex certifies products and all their components as free of harmful toxins.

The Responsible Wool Standard, run by Textile Exchange, ensures that animal welfare and sustainable land management standards have been met.31

The Leather Working Group (LWG) is a “not-for-profit that drives best practices and positive social and environmental change for responsible leather production.”

The Responsible Down Standard (RDS) “incentivizes the down and feather industry to treat ducks and geese humanely and…gives companies and consumers a way to know what’s in the products they buy.”

Footnotes: