The Real Global Price of What You Wear, Part 3

Updated September 12, 2023.

Cotton flowers in field with blue sky background.
Photo by Trisha Downing on Unsplash.

Are synthetic or natural fabrics better for the environment? Natural fabrics fare better, but the overproduction of both types of fabrics is the problem. The way we carelessly disregard and dispose of our clothing is a  problem too, as was emphasized in Part 2 of this article series. Elizabeth L. Cline, an expert on fast fashion and sustainability in the apparel industry, says that asking which fabric is greenest is actually the wrong question. “We need to improve the sustainability of all the materials we wear.”1

Though we all need to reduce everything we consume, understanding the differences between synthetics and natural fabrics will benefit us as consumers. If we know where something came from, how it was sourced, and how it was created and turned into fashion, we can make better choices and value our clothing more.

Natural fabrics refer to those made from natural fibers sourced from plants or animals. Let’s start by taking a look at the natural fabrics that come from plant-based sources.

“We need to improve the sustainability of all the materials we wear.” -Elizabeth L. Cline

Clothing rack with many attractive colors, small chalkboard sign indicates they are on sale.
Photo by Megan Lee on Unsplash.

Cotton

Cotton is grown all over the world, and its production provides income for more than 250 million people. There are about 35 million hectares of cotton under cultivation in the world. But it requires a lot of water, pesticides, and fertilizers.

Water

Cotton production uses 3 percent of the entire world’s agricultural water supply.2 Some experts argue that cotton is the largest water user of all agricultural production combined.3

“As much as 2,168 gallons of water is required to grow the cotton in a single T-shirt…While water is plentiful in some cotton-growing areas, almost 60 percent of all cotton is grown in regions affected by water scarcity…And while cotton could be a major source of poverty alleviation in rural and poor areas, in many places it is exploitive instead.”4

In some areas, surface and ground waters are diverted to irrigate cotton fields. This leads to freshwater depletion for entire regions, including Pakistan’s Indus River Delta and Central Asia’s Aral Sea. About 97% of the water from the Indus River goes to crop production, including cotton.5 Worse, the Indus River, upon which millions of people rely, is badly polluted with chemicals and plastic.

The depletion of the Aral Sea is one major loss. A Soviet Union project that began in the 1960s diverted the feeding rivers away from the Aral Sea in an attempt to grow cotton and other crops in Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan. This has almost drained the Aral Sea, once the fourth-largest lake in the world. That has caused the soil to become drier and saltier, and the dry soil creates dust storms. That dust is full of leftover pesticides and fertilizers, and people in those areas have significant reproductive issues, including miscarriages and malformations at birth. In addition, “Livelihoods, wildlife habitats, and fish populations have been decimated.”6

Aerial view: The Aral Sea in 1989 (left) vs. 2014 (right).
The Aral Sea in 1989 (left) vs. 2014 (right). Image by NASA and collage by Producercunningham on Wikimedia.

Chemicals

“Conventionally grown cotton requires the heavy use of synthetic fertilizers.”7

Cotton production requires about 220,000 tons of pesticides and 8.8 million tons of fertilizer yearly. “One-fifth of insecticides – and more than 10 percent of all pesticides – are devoted to the protection of conventional cotton.”8 Those pesticides are highly toxic to human workers and animals, and they pollute the environment. Industrial and agricultural chemical poisoning are among the top five leading causes of death worldwide.9 The World Health Organization classified 8 out of 10 of the US’s cotton pesticides as ‘hazardous.’10

Fertilizers that end up in waterways create nutrient pollution, meaning those excess nutrients (nitrogen and phosphorous) allow toxic algal blooms. Those deplete entire zones of oxygen, creating dead zones, which harm aquatic species and disrupt entire ecosystems. Fertilizers also contribute to greenhouse gases.11

Approximately 16% of all pesticides are used on cotton.12 Additionally, genetically modified crops, including cotton, have made crops toxic to common pests. This has reduced the use of pesticides but has not eliminated the need for them. “A large number of farmers have adopted genetically modified cotton seeds that include a gene protecting it from the herbicide glyphosate (the active ingredient in Monsanto’s Roundup). That way, the fields can be sprayed with the herbicide when the plant is young, easily eliminating competition from weeds.”13 However, this has made farmers dependent on those specific seeds, which are made by the same company that makes the pesticides and herbicides.

Forced Labor

Uzbekistan, once one of the largest producers of cotton, used forced labor for cotton production until 2021.14 Today, China and India are the largest producers of cotton. Parts of China use forced labor and parts of India use child labor for cotton production. According to the U.S. Department of Labor, the following countries also use child labor, forced labor, or both:15

                • Argentina
                • Azerbaijan
                • Benin
                • Brazil
                • Burkina Faso
                • Egypt
                • Kazakhstan
                • Kyrgyz Republic
                • Mali
                • Pakistan
                • Tajikistan
                • Turkey
                • Turkmenistan
                • Zambia

Soil Degradation

Cotton production severely degrades soil quality,16 because of the overuse of nitrogen-based mineral fertilizers. Cotton also causes soil erosion because of the large amounts of water it requires to grow.

Organic Cotton & Other Options

We can produce cotton organically, that is without pesticides and fertilizers, and therefore more sustainably. There are two leading organic certifications: Global Organic Textile Exchange (GOTS) and Organic Cotton Standard (OCS). Organic cotton only comprises around 0.33% of all cotton grown. Those chemicals never end up in runoff or the environment. However, organic cotton still requires large amounts of water. And, unfortunately, organic often means more expensive.

Initiatives such as “Better Cotton and Fairtrade Cotton focus on better land use, water practices, and labor standards but don’t have any proven environmental benefits.”17 Better Cotton is difficult to enforce and farmers who adopt it are not subsidized. Also, it allows for genetically modified organisms (GMO) seeds.18 So this is not the best initiative out there.

Cotton Made in Africa has more than 30 brand members, which supports small growers and environmentally friendly growing practices in sub-Saharan Africa.19

Recycled or reclaimed cotton sounds promising as well, but it does have drawbacks. According to cottonworks.com, “the majority of recycled cotton is claimed through mechanical recycling. First, fabrics and materials are sorted by color. After sorting, the fabrics are run through a machine that shreds the fabric into yarn and further into raw fiber. This process is harsh and puts a great deal of strain on the fiber. It is not uncommon for fibers to break and entangle during shredding. The raw fiber is then spun back into yarns for reuse in other products. The quality of recycled fiber will never have quality values equal to the original fiber. Specifically, fiber length and length uniformity will be impacted, which will limit the end-use application.”20 

“Current cotton production methods are environmentally unsustainable.” -World Wildlife Fund21

Field of cotton with a green cotton harvester harvesting the crop, blue sky background.
Photo by Karl Wiggers on Unsplash.

Denim

Denim is mainly made from cotton. It takes between 2,000 and 2,900 gallons of water to produce a single pair of jeans, mainly because of dying and finishing treatments. “In the 1970s and 1980s, hip fashion people decided that denim shouldn’t look like denim anymore, and they came up with stone washing and acid washing.” These processes use pumice (stones) and sometimes bleach or other acidic chemicals. The water used for dying and finishing is not reused or recycled, which means it ends up in the environment.22

“To achieve a faux-worn effect, jeans are sandblasted, hand-sanded, or sprayed with chemicals by individuals who inhale the fumes each day.”23

We must also consider the cost of transport for something such as a pair of jeans. There is “a big cost in getting the cotton from (for example) Texas, where it’s grown, to Indonesia to be spun into fibers, to Bangladesh to be made into denim, and sent back to the U.S. to be sold.”24

Some programs aim to reduce water in production, such as Levi’s Water<Less campaign. Their process reduces up to 96% of the water normally used in denim finishing, which is the final stage in making a pair of jeans. Levi’s claims to have saved more than 3 billion liters of water and recycled more than 1.5 billion liters of water.25 Always look at these programs critically, but if they are legit, try buying sustainable clothing.

Last, there is a recycling program for denim. The Blue Jeans Go Green program collects cotton-based denim and recycles it back to its original fiber state and transforms it into something new. The program claims to have kept more than 4.5 million pieces of old denim out of landfills.26 Denim is also a sustainable type of home and building insulation.

Man installing recycled denim insulation in a wall.
Photo by Rebecca Landis on Flickr, Creative Commons license (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).

Bast-Plant Fibers

Bast-plant fibers include fabrics like linen, jute, hemp, and ramie. Linen is a textured fiber made from the flax plant. It is naturally hypoallergenic and is very breathable, making it a great textile for warm-weather clothes. Jute is a coarse natural plant fiber from the jute plant that is used to weave fabrics like burlap cloth. It is a popular textile to make rugs and burlap sacks. Hemp is durable, versatile, and moisture-resistant. Ramie creates strong fabrics that look similar to linen. 

These fibers are biodegradable, renewable, and sustainable. Bast fibers are collected from the outer third of the stem of a plant between the woody core and the thin outer layer. These make strong, durable, and breathable cloth.

These plants support regenerative farming, which improves the environment. “Plants used in bast fibre production are often great cover crops working in rotation with other crops, keeping the soil covered to minimize erosion and incorporating organic matter to improve soil fertility. A greater diversity of crops within a farming system not only improves soil quality, but minimizes plant diseases, further reducing the need for chemical applications.”27 They use less water, fertilizers, pesticides, and energy.

You can also buy these fabrics recycled or organic certified (see Additional Resources below). Organic means that chemical pesticides and fertilizers weren’t used in the production of the plant or fabric.28

Close-up of a Linen beige button down shirt.
Photo by Taisiia Shestopal on Unsplash.

Bamboo

While bamboo is a plant, marketers often tout it as “eco-friendly,” but manufacturers make bamboo fabric by chemically pulverizing plants and trees. This makes it unnatural. Since this fabric is full of harsh chemicals, I have chosen to include it in the synthetics part of this series (Part 5).

Read the Labels

Now that you know more about natural fabrics, you may find that reading labels will at least give you the basic information you’re looking for. Is the item you want to purchase made with 100% organic cotton, or a cotton blend? If it’s the latter, what does the blend consist of? Also, where was the item made? Was it made in a country with decent labor laws?

If there’s a fabric you’re not familiar with listed on the tag, look it up. Most people carry a smartphone with them, which offers the opportunity to look it up before making a purchase.

Overproduction

While plant-based fabrics come from the Earth, they are not always the best option because of the pesticides, fertilizers, and chemicals that most producers use to grow them. But they are still better than plastic-based synthetic fabrics derived from fossil fuels.

Remember, the overproduction of all fabrics is the problem. Buy fewer but higher-quality articles when you can. Take good care of the clothing you do have, mend your clothing if you are able, and buy second-hand when you need to replace something.

In my next article, I’ll review types of animal-based fabrics. Thank you for reading. Please share and subscribe!

 

Additional Resources:

Website, Better Cotton. Their mission is “to help cotton communities survive and thrive, while protecting and restoring the environment.”

Website, Global Textile Standard (GOTS). “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.” According to Elizabeth L. Cline, “GOTS is the most rigorous organic standard, as it covers not just the cultivation of the raw materials but the processing of the textiles as well.”29

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

Website, Oeko-Tex, “certifies that every component of the product, from the fabric to the thread and accessories, has been rigorously tested against a list of up to 350 toxic chemicals.”

Footnotes:

The Real Global Price of What You Wear, Part 1

Last updated on February 3, 2024.

Interior of clothing store, wooden floor walkway flanked by mannequins, racks, and shelves of clothing.
Image by auntmasako from Pixabay.

The fashion and clothing industries contribute to climate change, environmental pollution, and human exploitation. Across the world, perpetuated by wealth, and rampant consumerism based on false urgency to keep up with ‘trends,’ the massive overproduction of clothing is killing us and our environment.

Companies have men, women, and even children, working in dangerous conditions with low or no labor standards. They are kept impoverished by low wages. Companies use toxic chemicals in clothing production, and those chemicals end up in the final products. The clothing industry uses unfathomable amounts of water in production, in a world where there isn’t enough water for everyone. Later, that water is discharged, often into the environment, polluting water and soil. Mass amounts of energy are used to produce both natural and synthetic fabrics. Transporting clothing from developing countries to the west uses astronomical amounts of fossil fuels. Worse, there is so much clothing in the world now that we can’t find uses for all of it.

All this so that we can buy $5 T-shirts that we don’t need. It’s called fast fashion, and it’s detrimental on many levels.

Interior of an Old Navy, a clothing store.
Image by DigestContent from Pixabay.

Fast Fashion

Fast fashion is a design, manufacturing, and marketing method focused on quickly producing high volumes of trendy but cheaply-made clothing.1 The term was coined by The New York Times in the 1990s “to describe Zara’s mission to take only 15 days for a garment to go from the design stage to being sold in stores.”2 By the 2000s, brands were taking ideas from the top fashion designers and reproducing them cheaply and quickly. Other big names in fast fashion include H&M, UNIQLO, GAP, Primark, and TopShop.

At one time, there were four seasons of clothing. Today, there are 52 “micro-seasons” per year. Fast fashion was artificially created. The demand “was carefully cultivated by fashion brands to change consumer behavior and make people want more and more, and quickly.”3 

But this disregard for quality has led to clothing going to landfills. “Constantly changing trends have encouraged consumers to discard clothing that’s no longer ‘in style’ even if it’s still wearable.”4 This is not sustainable.

“[Fast fashion] plays into the idea that outfit repeating is a fashion faux pas and that if you want to stay relevant, you have to sport the latest looks as they happen. It forms a key part of the toxic system of overproduction and consumption that has made fashion one of the world’s largest polluters.”5

Exterior of the Zara store in Tokyo, taken at night, lit up and brightly colored with a large digital advertising screen at top center.
Photo by Comunicacioninditex on Wikimedia, Creative Commons license (CC BY-SA 4.0).

Ultra-Fast Fashion

There is an even faster fashion now, referred to as ultra-fast fashion. Brands include SHEIN, Missguided, Forever 21, Zaful, Boohoo, and Fashion Nova. It is a recent phenomenon that is as bad as it sounds.6Ultra fast fashion turns fast fashion’s ‘weeks’ into days and ‘dozens of styles’ into hundreds and thousands. The numbers alone sound sinister. Brands like SHEIN and Boohoo are reportedly posting thousands of new styles to their websites on a daily basis. Sometimes, knockoffs of trending celebrity and pop culture styles will appear online in as little as 24 hours.” Social media, influencer culture, and online hauls certainly stoked the fire in the creation of ultra-fast fashion.7

“A generation now views ultra-fast fashion’s historically low price points and disposable culture as the norm, with many young people considering garments worn out after only a few washes. This overproduction and quick disposal has exacerbated fashion’s waste crisis.”8

H&M Store, Times Square in New York City, photo taken at night with store and billboards bright and lit up.
H&M Store, Times Square in New York City. Photo by Will Buckner on Flickr, Creative Commons license (CC BY 2.0).

Wasteful Overproduction

Companies produce more clothing than can be consumed. Some companies trash or burn the excess. “An estimated 2.2 billion pounds of overstock and unsold clothing are landfilled or incinerated around the world every year, according to a 2018 report by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation…Two billion pounds of clothes is the equivalent in weight of 5 billion T-shirts, enough leftover stock to dress the adult population of the planet. In 2018, H&M announced that the brand was stuck with 4.3 billion dollars worth of unsold goods.” It’s not just fast fashion companies, either. The same year, the luxury brand Burberry was caught destroying excess clothing and accessories worth around $24 million.9 

A woman reaching for a handbag. sourrounded by racks of clothing in a clothing or department store. The clothes appear to be organized by color.
Photo by Alexander Kovacs on Unsplash.

Environmental Costs

The world produces around 100 billion articles of clothing annually, and “92 million tonnes end up in landfills.”10 Fast fashion causes extensive damage to the planet, exploits workers, and harms animals.11 The fashion industry produces 10% of all carbon emissions and it is the second-largest consumer of water.12 

Clothing production requires tons of water. For example, it takes 2,000 gallons of water to produce a single pair of jeans. Worse, “the fashion industry is responsible for 20% of all industrial water pollution worldwide.”13 Textile dyeing is the world’s second-largest polluter of water as the wastewater from it is often dumped into bodies of water. “If fashion production maintains its current pace, the demand for water will surpass the world’s supply by 40 percent by 2030.”14

“The way we manufacture new clothes is truly unsustainable, commanding a staggering level of resources, especially water, chemicals, and fossil fuels, that can’t continue. Each year, clothing production requires 24 trillion gallons of water, enough to fill 37 million Olympic-sized pools. And the fashion industry spews more globe-warming carbon dioxide annually than all international flights and maritime shipping combined.” -Elizabeth L. Cline15

Stacks of blue denim jeans on a table in a clothing store.
Image by Linda Lioe from Pixabay.

Poor Labor Standards and Pitiful Wages

“Only 2 percent of the 40 million garment workers around the world earn a living wage – it effectively amounts to modern-day slavery.”16

Across the world, workers experience unsafe working conditions and low wages that are far below the minimum wage. Companies require garment workers to work long hours through forced overtime, often apply impossible quotas to their daily production, and sometimes even inflict abuse. They also expose workers to many chemicals and pollutants, which jeopardize their health. Unionization attempts and campaigns for improvements in safety, conditions, wages, sick pay, and job security are often barred by the threat of job losses and sometimes violence.17

The garment, textile, and footwear workers around the world deserve better. “Fashion is a powerful industry, one that can and should lift people out of poverty rather than trap them in it. It is a multitrillion-dollar business, with plenty of wealth to go around. And yet, according to Oxfam, the top fashion CEOs earn in four days what the average garment worker will make in a lifetime.” Increasing wages would require only a 1 to 4 percent increase in retail prices.18

“The difference in what it would cost for people to not to have to make these kinds of choices between paying rent and putting food on the table is less than a dollar per garment. Why in the world would any company choose every day to prioritize their profits and paying the lowest price possible over ending that kind of human suffering? Especially when it’s not complicated or unaffordable to fix it.” -Sarah Adler-Milstein, co-author of Sewing Hope: How One Factory Challenges the Apparel Industry’s Sweatshops19

Photo of the Eastex Garment Co. Ltd factory in Cambodia, one of garment factories that supplies Swedish company H&M. Shows women sitting at sewing machines in a large factory room with a conveyor belt running through the center.
Photo of the Eastex Garment Co. Ltd factory in Cambodia, one of garment factories that supplies H&M. Photo by U.S. Embassy Phnom Penh on Flickr, Creative Commons license (CC BY-ND 2.0).

World Exports

World map showing clothing exports with monetary amounts.
Map courtesy of HowMuch.net, a financial literacy website.

Each of the following countries exports billions of dollars of garment products annually:

China:

China is the largest clothing manufacturing country in the world, employing over 15 million people, mostly women. Companies in this country pay the highest wages but that still does not equate to a living wage for all.20

List of companies that source their clothing from China.
List of companies that source their clothing from China. Screenshot from the Business & Human Rights Resource Centre.

Bangladesh:

Bangladesh is the second-largest garment manufacturing country, but they are among the lowest-paid in the world. This is where the 2013 Rana Plaza factory collapse happened, which killed 1,134 and injured another 2,500 people. While “the disaster brought international attention to the alarming labor conditions in overseas garment factories,” only some improvements in safety issues came from it.21 H&M and the VF Corporations (Vans, North Face, Timberland, etc.) are two of the many companies sourcing from Bangladesh.22

After Rana Plaza’s collapse, no corporations stepped forward after the tragedy to acknowledge that they were manufacturing there. H&M executives responded with this: “‘None of the textile factories located in the building produced for H&M,’ it stated. ‘It is important to remember that this disaster is an infrastructure problem in Bangladesh and not a problem specific to the textile industry.'” The statement continued that it would contribute to solutions going forward.23 But this problem is specific to the textile industry.

“In 2013, [Americans] spent $340 billion on fashion – more than twice what they forked out for new cars. Much of it was produced in Bangladesh, some of it by Rana Plaza workers in the days leading up to the collpase.” -Dana Thomas, Fashionopolis24

India:

India employs millions of people but often under conditions of forced overtime, less than half of a living wage, and even child labor.25 There have been some improvements but many workers, of which the majority are women, experience physical abuse and sexual harassment. Companies sourcing from India include American Eagle Outfitters, H&M, Levi Strauss & Co., and VF Corporation. 

Vietnam:

Vietnam has a communist government that forbids labor unions, and wages are 60 percent below a living wage. There are around 6,000 textile factories that employ about 3 million people. Nike employs 450,000 people there.26 “Many of us are familiar with the news about Nike sweatshops, but they’re just one of the many fast fashion brands violating human rights for the sake of fashion. The people who make our clothes are underpaid, underfed, and pushed to their limits because there are few other options.”27 Zara and H&M are two of the major brands that source from there.

Cambodia:

There are about 600,000 garment workers in Cambodia. Women experience a great deal of abuse, sexual harassment, and low wages, which are 50 percent below a living wage. Many companies, including H&M, Gap, Nike, and Puma, source from there.28

“Brands are interested in getting clothing as cheaply and quickly as they can. They have consciously chosen to locate production in countries that do not enforce their labor laws. A factory that scrupulously complied with the labor law, respected the right to organize, paid all required wages, didn’t force people to work overtime: That factory will not be able to meet brands’ price demands. You can’t survive as a supplier unless you operate a sweatshop, because the brands are only willing to pay sweatshop prices.” -Scott Nova, Executive Director of the Worker Rights Consortium29

Photo of garment workers sewing on sewing machines in a a large factory room in Bangladesh.
Photo of garment workers sewing on sewing machines in a a large factory room in Bangladesh. Photo by Musamir Azad on Wikimedia, Creative Commons license (CC BY-SA 3.0).

Fashion Production in the U.S.

“In the 1960s, just 5% of all clothing Americans wore was
made overseas. By the 1970s, that figure had reached 25%
and today it’s somewhere around 98%.” -Sophie Benson, Sustainable Wardrobe30

The United States produces little clothing domestically today: Less than 3 percent, which is down from 50% in 1990. “And a Made in USA garment is no longer a guarantee of ethical working conditions.” The largest part of the garment business is in Los Angeles, where there are approximately 45,000 garment workers, many of them undocumented immigrants. “A 2016 US Labor Department investigation of LA’s factories found that 85 percent of inspected factories violated labor laws. Workers are being paid as little as 4 dollars an hour sewing clothes for well-known fashion brands, including Forever 21, Fashion Nova, Ross Dress for Less, and T.J.Maxx.”31 Another investigation found that companies paid sewers as little as $2.77 an hour.32

Even sadder, US garment workers are some of the highest-paid in the world.

“The large, middle-market brands who source from these sweatshops herald that their apparel is ‘Made in the USA,’ as if such a statement automatically confers authenticity and integrity, as well as superior quality, to clothes produced offshore. It’s a corporate marketing tactic to pander to consumers’ patriotism while flagrantly breaking US labor laws.” -Dana Thomas, Fashionopolis33

Department store clothing mannequins showing clothing.
Image by Photo Mix from Pixabay.

The Role of Companies

Companies have the power to make real, humane, sustainable changes. “It’s time for more big brands to step up to the plate,” wrote Elizabeth L. Cline. “Big companies are the ones with the huge economies of scale that could bring down the price of sustainable materials and fund the research and development of eco-friendly innovations, from textile recycling and nontoxic dyes to factories powered by clean energy. They can certainly afford to pay higher wages.”34 But we consumers need to hold these companies accountable.

Fast fashion companies sometimes use greenwashing to make consumers feel better about purchasing their items. Greenwashing refers to when companies deceive consumers by claiming that their products are environmentally friendly or “have a greater positive environmental impact than they really do.”35 “Fast-fashion companies tell their customers that it’s possible to buy their products and still have a clean conscience. H&M has ramped up its use of organic cotton and sustainably sourced materials; Boohoo sells 40 or so items partially made from recycled textiles.” Aja Barber, a fashion-sustainability consultant, called this greenwashing in an interview with The Atlantic: “It’s like, ‘Oh look, these five items that we made are sustainable, but the rest of the 2,000 items on our website are not .'”36

“[A] higher price reflects things like fair wages, ethical sourcing practices and higher costs for less wasteful production runs. Knowing all that, the real question we should ask is: how is fast fashion so cheap?” -Sophie Benson, Sustainable Wardrobe37

Man wearing coat with "Sale" tags all over it, as well as shopping bags. Depicts shopping for clothing at clothing or department stores.
Photo by Sora Shimazaki from Pexels

Our Role

“Fast fashion makes us believe we need to shop more and more to stay on top of trends, creating a constant sense of need and ultimate dissatisfaction.”38

We’ve all supported it at some point, probably mistakenly. We found a great deal on a cute cardigan or funny t-shirt and bought it. Buying new clothes, especially when they’re on sale, brings pleasure to our brains. “This means of instant gratification from the fast fashion complex is a recipe for disaster for our brains, our wallets, supply chains, and the planet.”39 But we have to stop supporting fast fashion now. 

Think about the human factor. Every time we purchase from a company that does not follow ethical labor standards or pays poor wages, we are supporting the mistreatment of our fellow human beings. “We are rarely asked to pay the true cost of fashion. The pollution, carbon emissions, waste, and poverty our clothes create aren’t tallied up and included in the prices we enjoy. It does cost a bit more to do things the right way, to operate safer, well-paying factories and farms and to use longer-lasting, sustainable materials and craft more durable products. Ethical and sustainable clothing doesn’t have to be unaffordable, though,” wrote Elizabeth L. Cline.40

We can do better. Follow my upcoming series to learn more about clothing production and learn what you can do differently. Thank you for reading, please share and subscribe!

Large well lit clothing store with racks of clothing and stacks of shoes.
Photo by Alexander Kovacs on Unsplash.

Additional Resources:

Article, “10 Fast Fashion Brands We Avoid At All Costs,” by Christine Huynh, Good On You, April 30, 2021.

Website, The Magazine of the Sierra Club: Elizabeth L. Cline author page.

Blog, Elizabeth L. Cline Books.

Publication, “A New Textiles Economy: Redesigning fashion’s future,” Ellen MacArthur Foundation, November 28, 2017.

The True Cost cover artFilm, The True Cost (2015)

 

 

 

 

Footnotes:

Toilet Paper: Paper, or Plastic?

Last updated on June 16, 2024.

frog figurines next to toilet paper
Photo by Alexas_Fotos on Pixabay.

Toilet paper is one of those things that we all buy and use. But have you ever noticed that the vast majority of brands wrap it in plastic? We throw that plastic in the trash because it’s not recyclable. My family used Quilted Northern (or other brands if they were on sale for years) and threw away the plastic packaging every week. Some, like Charmin brand, have packs of 4 wrapped in plastic and then 3 or 4 of those grouped and wrapped in plastic, again, to make a 12 or 16 pack. Plastic wrapped in plastic.

I’ve looked almost everywhere locally, and the majority of toilet paper is plastic-wrapped, sadly.

“It turns out that regular toilet paper—at 1.5 pounds of wood and thirty-seven gallons of water per roll—is surprisingly wasteful.” -Eve O. Schaub, author of Year Of No Garbage1

Plastic-Free Toilet Paper

I discovered a company called Who Gives a Crap, which makes toilet paper from recycled paper and bamboo, meaning they use no virgin paper and don’t cut down any trees to make their products. Their products are plastic-free and they don’t use inks, dyes, or scents. The company also gives back: “We donate 50% of our profits to ensure everyone has access to clean water and a toilet within our lifetime.”2 So plastic-free and toxin-free, and the company does good for the world? I don’t normally buy anything in bulk, but I had to give them a try.

Who Gives A Crap toilet paper
My Who Gives A Crap toilet paper order. Photo by Marie Cullis.

The result is that we’ve been using this toilet paper exclusively since 2018. The company makes recycled toilet paper from “post-consumer waste paper (things like textbooks, workbooks, office paper, etc) and a small percentage (around 5%) of post-industrial paper.” Using recycled paper allows them to reduce their carbon dioxide and particulate matter emissions, and it also saves water. It is also free of BPA because they use recycled paper that is free from BPA.

Who Gives A Crap’s bamboo toilet paper is the one I prefer. Bamboo, which is a grass, is a sustainable option because it grows fast, is very renewable, and needs no irrigation or fertilization. Their bamboo is mainly grown in remote areas of Sichuan Province in China by farmers who plant bamboo on the outskirts of their family farms in order to supplement their income.

For extra fun, you can reuse the paper from the rolls to make gift-wrapping paper! Who Gives A Crap also offers blog posts about other crafts you can make with their paper wrappers.3

Who Gives A Crap’s Mission

When the founders discovered that 2.4 billion people don’t have access to a toilet and that contaminated water from lack of toilets contributes to over 1 million deaths per year, they wanted to do something about it. Here’s how they describe it:

A toilet could make all the difference, but billions of people worldwide still live without one. Without a loo, waste ends up in local waterways – the same place people collect water for drinking, cleaning and bathing. That’s why toilets are an integral part of a bigger health initiative called WASH, which stands for water, sanitation and hygiene. Together, these three elements strengthen communities and save millions of lives.4

This is a really great cause and one we don’t think of much in the U.S. We take toilet access for granted!

Who Gives A Crap recycled toilet paper.

Affordability

Who Gives A Crap’s bamboo rolls cost $68 for 48 rolls, which equals about $1.42 per roll. Their recycled rolls are about $1.29 each. Their rolls are double length, so I’m comparing ‘mega” sized toilet paper rolls in the other brands:

        • Charmin 30 mega rolls $32.98, or $1.10 per roll
        • Target brand 30 mega rolls for $20.49, or $0.68 per roll
        • Great Value brand is $21.84 for 24 mega rolls, or $0.91 per roll
        • Angel Soft 24 mega rolls at $15.46, or $0.64 per roll
        • Quilted Northern $20.98 for 24 mega rolls, or $0.87 per roll

So the average cost for Who Gives A Crap is slightly higher than regular store brands, but their products are forest friendly, plastic-free, toxic-free, delivered to my door, and half of the company’s profits go to help others across the globe. Keep that in mind!

UPDATE, June 13, 2024: Whole Foods recently started carrying Who Gives A Crap recycled toilet paper. It is sold in much smaller quantities than it is online, so it costs more per roll to buy it in person (4 rolls at $1.75 per or 8 rolls at $1.69 per). But, this is still a step in the right direction!

Blue boxes of Who Gives A Crap toilet paper on a grocery store shelf.
Who Gives A Crap is now sold at Whole Foods. Photo by Marie Cullis.

“Throwaway tissue products don’t have to destroy forests…tissue products made from 100 percent recycled content have one-third the carbon footprint of those made from 100 percent virgin forest fiber.” -filmmakers and authors, Laurie David and Heather Reisman

Sustainable Toilet Paper

Many toilet paper brands are damaging to forests and the environment in general. The Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) issues an annual report rating toilet paper brands by sustainability called Issue with Tissue. They are rated with a grade between A-F. In 2023, Who Gives a Crap recycled toilet paper got an A, while Whole Foods’ 365 brand received an A+. Among the companies that received the worst rating, an F, were brands by ALDI, Target, Publix, and Wegmans.6

There are 4 rated A+, but all but one are packaged in plastic, which is also as harmful to the environment. The exception, Natural Value, is packaged in paper but costs much more than Who Gives A Crap brand. So I’m going to stick with Who Gives A Crap for now. Unfortunately, I may have to switch from their bamboo toilet paper to their recycled toilet paper, since the former only received a B rating with the NRDC.

I’ve linked the NRDC scorecard under Additional Resources below. For those of you who cannot buy 48 or 60 rolls at a time, try to buy a brand rated well – avoid all of those brands that received a C, D, or F. There are still plenty of budget or storage-friendly products rated A and B to choose from.

“Toilet paper may represent one of the most egregious and wasteful causes of forest loss. The largest US toilet paper brands drive a dangerous tree-to-toilet ‘pipeline’ that is contributing to an unsustainable loss of trees, including the boreal forest in Canada.” -filmmakers and authors, Laurie David and Heather Reisman

Alternatives to Toilet Paper

Modern bidet.
Modern bidet. Photo by Basan1980 at German Wikipedia/Wikimedia.

Yes! Bidets are like an additional toilet used for washing your nether regions. “The classic bidet is a miniature, bathtub-like fixture situated next to the toilet, with taps on one end. Its tub is filled with water, and the user straddles themselves over it to wash below the belt,” an article in The Atlantic described.8 An article on how to use a bidet explained that you should “Always use the toilet before you use the bidet. A bidet is intended to help you wash and clean up after using the toilet, but the fixture is not an actual toilet.”9 But they are more popular in Europe and Japan than in North America. 

Does the use of a bidet reduce toilet paper consumption, and hence save trees? Yes, according to an article in Scientific American, they save trees and also they save water, from the production of toilet paper!10

Personally, I’d be willing to try this but there is just no room in our small bathroom. But in a future residence, perhaps!

Reusable Wipes

Don’t buy disposable wipes. They are made of plastic, are not biodegradable, and cause major damage to sewer systems. “Once flushed, the wipes glom together with any fat from food waste and can form what are called “fatbergs”—iceberg-style blockages that can clog a whole system.”11 They are expensive to extract and repair the damage they cause. Disposable wipes also end up in waterways, the ocean, and beaches.

If you must buy these, please throw them in the trash even if they are advertised as ‘flushable.’

Cloth wipes, sometimes referred to as family cloths, are reusable cloth wipes that you launder after each use. I had a family member who made her own to use while she was pregnant because she was peeing so frequently – brilliant! Many people have strong opinions for and against this process.12 I sewed some family cloths for our home to use instead of disposable wet wipes. I simply took cotton flannel scraps and old t-shirt fabric and made two-layer rectangular wipes. We have found them very useful as a supplement. We rinse them out after use and then wash them in the washing machine.

Toilet paper rolls in a white basket.
Photo by Vlada Karpovich.

Other Ideas?

Have you found other brands of plastic-free toilet paper? Or have you tried one of these alternatives, or another that I did not cover? I’d love to know if you’ve thought of something else, leave me a comment! Thank you for reading and please share and subscribe.

I did not get paid or receive gifts to write about Who Gives A Crap’s products. The opinions in this article are honest and mine.

 

Additional Resources:

Issue with Tissue scorecard, Natural Resources Defense Council, updated September 19, 2023.

Footnotes: