If you’re feeling overwhelmed and bewildered about what constitutes planet-friendly fashion, you’re not alone. Claire Brunette unpicks the multilayered environmental and ethical issues within the fashion industry.
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Clothing is powerful and necessary, and a handwoven burlap sack just doesn’t do it for most people these days. The right clothes can help get you the job you want, keep you safe, change how you see yourself and how others see you; they can be a source of joy.
If clothing production ceased tomorrow, there would be enough clothing in the world to keep us going for a very long time, but we keep producing more than we can use. It’s getting harder and harder to process the wall of information about clothing that is out there. What is actively environmentally harmful? What is exploiting the people making the fabric? What seems sustainable, and says it is, but shimmering below the surface has the nasty tint of greenwashing?
An oft-repeated statement is that the most sustainable piece of clothing is the item you already own, but what if that item is releasing tiny microplastics into the ocean every time you wash it? Microplastics are now found in our kaimoana, our honey, our salt and our blood. A report published by Scion in 2019 showed that 87 per cent of microplastics found on Auckland beaches were likely to be from fabric fibres released during laundering.
So how do we get dressed in the morning in a world that’s tugging us in different directions? Information is empowering, so before you buy anything, especially anything new, let’s explore fabrics. It’s important to note that no fabric is perfect and all have their own unique impact. It is still an essential tenet of sustainability to use what you have and to seek items that are already circulating.
The big bads of fabric. Derived from fossil fuels and irresistibly cheap to make. Polyester, nylon, acrylic and their ilk are to be avoided whenever possible. They continue their dirty work post-production, shedding microplastic fibres into the marine environment every time they are washed. Many vegan alternatives are simply plastic. Companies are rushing to make garments out of recycled polyester, turning plastic bottles into tracksuits, but as these items are still capable of fibre shedding, it’s best to save your recycled polyester purchases for items that don’t need to be washed, such as shoes. See the box on page 64 for ways to reduce the impact of washing synthetics.
Viscose, rayon and bamboo all come under the umbrella of semi-synthetic cellulose. The wood pulp, bamboo or other raw plant material is put through rigorous, chemical-intensive processes to break the fibres down into a product that can be spun and woven into fabric. The resulting fabric is biodegradable, breathable and silky on the skin, making it extremely popular with consumers.
Unfortunately, the environmental and human cost of producing cellulose is high. According to the non-profit environmental organisation Canopy, 3.2 billion trees are cut down every year for cellulose production, up to 30 per cent of which is from ancient and endangered forests. The Changing Markets Foundation released a report in 2017 revealing that viscose factories in Indonesia, China and India were dumping highly toxic wastewater into local waterways, destroying marine life and exposing workers and local populations to harmful chemicals. Awareness around these issues has increased, and manufacturers have been making changes, so when purchasing cellulosic fabrics, look for brand names, such as EcoVero, that encourage responsible, closed-loop production.
Flora Collingwood-Norris is an ethical, low-impact knitwear designer based in Scotland, and a champion of visible mending – a technique where repair work is deliberately made into a feature.
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Soft and smooth, cotton allows air to circulate, keeps you cool in summer and is an ideal inner layer in winter. We love cotton! It also is an incredibly thirsty crop using often inefficient irrigation systems that divert water from natural sources. According to WWF, cotton cultivation severely degrades soil quality, leading to expansion into new areas and the attendant destruction of habitat. Cotton production is heavy on pesticide use, threatening the surrounding ecology of cotton-growing areas and the people that live there. It is hard to forget the dark past of cotton production, and bonded and child slavery are still of concern today.
GMO cotton has long been touted as an alternative and now accounts for close to 100 per cent of cotton grown in Australia. It is designed to increase both insect resistance and herbicide tolerance (so products such as glyphosate can be applied for a longer period of time) while reducing the need for water. An obviously controversial choice.
If you want fresh cotton in your wardrobe, organic is the best choice. Check for labels with GOTS (Global Organic Textile Standard) certification. GOTS is a non-profit that prohibits the use of GMO cotton while maintaining high organic, labour and welfare standards.
Most recycled cotton comes from pre-consumer waste, scraps and excess from factories. These are shredded and woven into new fabrics, which often have a pleasing speckled appearance. There are innovations that are creating a pulp out of those scraps by dissolving them with a solvent, so it’s worth looking into how the garment you are buying is recycled, but luckily most producers have this information prominently displayed on their websites.
Breathable, moth-resistant and durable, linen is grown from flax (Linum usitatissimum – a different species from Phormium tenax, our native harakeke), a resilient, ancient plant that can thrive in poor soils and requires a fraction of the water that cotton does. Organic linen is even better, as nitrates and toxic dyes aren’t used in its production. GOTS certification is also available for linen. Overall, linen is an excellent choice. The con is that all this comes at a premium price.
Our beloved national fibre is natural, warm and biodegradable. But is it sustainable? There are currently over one billion sheep in the world. That’s far too many to be considered planet conscious, and sheep farming is resource-intensive. According to Circumfauna, who do research on the impact of animal-derived materials, more than 367 times the amount of land is required for wool than for cotton in Australia, and an Australian wool-knit sweater emits about 27 times more greenhouse gas emissions than a cotton-knit sweater. The wool industry comes with a host of issues relevant to those interested in animal welfare. If you are looking for wool, check for accredited or organic wool to mitigate concerns. It may be easier for hand knitters to trace their wool through small suppliers. Recycled wool is often blended with polyester for durability, so beware. There is nothing like the warmth of wool, so consider looking for second-hand items to keep the chill off.
The fanciest fabric of all, silk biodegrades and keeps rural artisans in business in an almost zero-waste industry. Unfortunately, it’s a fussy fabric to maintain, with the care instructions usually demanding dry cleaning. Its animal welfare credentials are nil, thanks to the traditional step of boiling the silkworms alive to separate the silk from the worm. Sericulture requires very little land use but unfortunately is water-intensive. The dyeing process is where toxic chemicals can shimmy their way into production, so look for naturally dyed items. New alternatives, such as peace silk (where the silkworms aren’t killed), spider silk and silk made from fruit fibre are being developed and offer exciting possibilities for the future.
Second time round
Cost can be a significant barrier to accessing responsibly produced clothes for many. Making beautiful clothes in a way that takes the planet and its people into account is unavoidably expensive. Natural, organic fibres cost more than synthetic, and fair labour costs more than exploitation.
Purchasing second-hand clothing is a lower cost option, but generally requires a larger investment in time. Op shops can sometimes be a challenging place to shop as the racks are becoming increasingly filled with the poorly constructed, synthetic-heavy clothes of recent years. There are a number of people selling second-hand clothing online, curated according to particular needs or aesthetics. However, for some people, the stigma of second-hand clothing is hard to shake. And if you are at either end of the size spectrum, finding quality second-hand clothing can be close to impossible. It’s easy to see the allure of shops that stock your size, in your style, at a price that won’t eat too far into the weekly shop.
Slow wins the race
Where the sustainable industry fails, where fashion fails in general, is in providing for a plus-sized market. Amanda Matthews, owner of KoiNo, a Hamilton-based, size-inclusive, sustainable fashion label, agrees that many brands don’t see the value in extending their sizing. “Increasing a size range to include plus size is not always as simple as extending sizing by taking standard sizes and making them bigger. Often new patterns are needed, with adjustments made to make the style fit well on a bigger body.”
To avoid this problem, and its associated costs, Amanda bases her patterns on an XL, grading up or down from there, as she finds this creates a better fit on a wider range of sizes. This isn’t the only clever model that Amanda has adopted. Her garments are made to order, essentially eliminating unsold pieces. “I don’t need to invest in making every size in every style in every colour. I only make what is needed.”
In Aotearoa, we are lucky to have a raft of fashion designers who are eco-conscious and innovative, from I Used To Be, who make frankly adorable bags out of discarded pool toys, to the chic Kowtow, whose clothes read as a love letter to the rain-fed, fair-trade organic cotton they are made from.
Change is coming to fashion. Technology is firmly focused on future solutions. It won’t be long until we are wearing mushroom leather and lab-grown wool. Until then, choose your clothes wisely and love them well.
Claire Brunette is a writer, worrier and textile enthusiast who lives in Tāmaki Makaurau.