Over the past few years, there has been widespread awareness of many simple things that we can do to help the environment. However, for the abundance of clothes in our society, there’s not much attention drawn to the faults of the industry and how we can opt out of contributing to environmental damage and causing fellow humans to suffer.
By using the labels on garments of clothing, we can see how environmentally-friendly and sustainable the fabrics are. Many common materials have environmental impacts, for example:
- Polyester and nylon are made from petrochemicals and are non-biodegradable. The manufacturing process of nylon creates nitrous oxide, a greenhouse gas 310 times more potent than carbon dioxide.
- In order to make rayon, large areas of forest and subsistence farmers are replaced by pulpwood plantations. The wood pulp is also treated with hazardous chemicals, such as caustic soda and sulfuric acid.
- Cotton is the most pesticide intensive crop in the world; the pesticides used injure and kill many people every year. Other toxic chemicals are also added to cotton, but these remain in the fabric and are released during the lifetime of the garments.
- Workers who make wool in the UK suffer from exposure to organophosphate sheep dip.
- Leather production involves polluting tanning and dyeing processes, as well as intensive farming impacts and animal rights issues.
- PVC is a notoriously toxic material.
- Harmful solvents are used in glues to stick plastic coatings to waterproof fabrics.
Alternative fabrics, which are more sustainable, are available:
- Organic cotton garments reduce the problems from pesticides used in cotton. It’s likely to be free from chlorine bleaches and synthetic dyes.
- Hemp is highly productive and easy to cultivate, with few or no chemicals needed.
- Bamboo is hypoallergenic, absorbent, fast-drying and naturally anti-bacterial. Some chemicals are used in its processing, but it’s a sustainable choice compared to most other fabrics.
- Linen is made from flax, which needs few chemical fertilisers and less pesticide than cotton.
- Organic wool is produced using sustainable farming practises and without toxic sheep dips.
- Recycled polyester is now being used in clothing; used drinks bottles are being transformed into fleece jackets.
Another issue of the clothing industry is the ethics of the production of the garments. We hear allegations against companies that child labour has been used, or the workers haven’t been paid sufficiently (or at all), or the workers are in poor conditions, such as in dark, damp, overcrowded rooms. But we don’t know if there’s any validity to these claims, or if they are over-exaggerated. People often don’t think about it whilst shopping in cheap high-street stores, but the general belief is that if a store sells cheap clothes, they will be produced unethically.
If every unethical garment of clothing was marked with a big red cross, many people would avoid buying these; however this unfortunately isn’t the case. By exploiting their workers, companies can create maximum profits – so they aren’t going to admit to unethical production that easily. Ethical clothing is becoming increasingly available, if you search for it. There are many specialised companies on the internet who ensure their workers aren’t exploited. This is a great improvement, but the majority of people need ethical clothing to be pushed in front of them when they shop. Otherwise, people will continue to buy the clothes that are easily available, sold cheaply and following the fashion or in the style they like.
Personally, I find myself facing an on-going battle – do I buy clothes that I see in a shop and love, but suspect to be unsustainable and unethical, or do I search for clothes that I like and are sustainable and ethical? I can’t answer this definitely because if I buy more clothes which are better for the planet and its people, I will probably still be tempted by an item in a shop which I just have to have! If companies weren’t so profit-focused and we could guarantee that every item of clothing for sale is sustainable and ethical, then there would be no problem. But this is a problem for us all, and it’s our decision on how we react to it.
Here is the link to a great online Fair Trade Clothes shop!