Only second to oil, the retail industry is the largest industrial polluter. According to Zady, an awesome American brand dedicated to slowing down the fashion industry, 10% of the total CO2 impact comes from the retail industry. This is mostly because of the pace in which the industry runs, therefore called fast fashion. In current time, before the life-cycle of a clothing piece ends, it has been worn only seven times on average. Because of this more clothes are produced than ever before: around 150 billion pieces a year, which is over twenty pieces of new clothing for every single person on the planet every single year. Since there are so many social and environmental impacts within the supply chain of clothes, I decided to write a blogpost per chain. This way the posts won’t be chapters long and more fun for you to read! In total I will write five posts which will be about (1) materials, (2) fabric and garment production, (3) distribution and retail, (4) use, and last but not least (5) disposal. In this post I will start by clarifying what materials make our clothes, how they are produced and retrieved and what social and environmental impacts this chain has. Let’s start!
There are plenty of people that buy clothes without knowing what materials it is made of. Or like me, that do know, but had absolutely no clue how the materials were made or retrieved. Because who cares, as long as it looks good, right? When you get older, just like taste, wisdom matures as well. I have always loved beautiful clothes made of natural fabrics, but mainly because of the look and feel it has. However, natural fabrics have a lot of disadvantages compared to synthetic fabrics. And as you might know, synthetic fabrics are also not contributing to a more sustainable and clean world. Which basically just makes it very confusing in deciding what materials to wear. With this post I want to help you in choosing the right materials the next time you buy something and make you look at your clothing in a completely different light.
Materials are made by fibres which can either be weaved or blended together and can be divided by natural or chemical fibres. Natural fibres are plant- or animal-based. Some plant-based fibres are cotton, hemp and linen. Secondly to polyester, cotton is the most common and used fibre for our clothes. Since the best weather condition for cotton to grow is dry and warm, the crops need a lot of water to grow. One kilogram of cotton, which equals to one t-shirt and one pair of jeans, requires 10.000 L of water. Yearly 250.000 kilogram of cotton is produced over the whole world which requires a massive amount of water, namely 2.500.000.000.000 L. This is why countries where the cotton is produced, often suffer from water shortage. Cotton almost always grows chemically with the help of pesticides, fertilizers or genetically modified seeds. The pesticides lead to fresh water and ocean pollution. It also creates soil erosion, which makes farming ground unusable. As seen in the documentary The True Cost, in developing countries farmers and people surrounding the farms often suffer from major health issues caused by the chemicals in the pesticides. Maternal health is also endangered and new born babies are sometimes born with mental and physical disabilities. It can be concluded that even though cotton is a natural fibre, it is one of the most environmentally intensive materials.
Some animal-based fibres are wool, leather and silk. Wool, our itchy and warm best friend during the winters, is a fibre that comes from sheep. Since the fibre is breathable, besides keeping us warm, wool can also keep us cool in the summer. This explains the hype of wearing UGGs paired with hot pants ten summers ago. Since wool is natural, it is biodegradable and easy to recycle. Unfortunately, just as almost every material like you have discovered by now, wool is also not completely sustainable. The production of wool needs a lot of land, which sometimes can lead to environmental damage associated with overgrazing. Also, fabricating of wool uses large amounts of water. Now we must not forget our fluffy looking friends. Some ethical issues involved in obtaining wool are shearing and mulesing. Logically, shearing is the most important part in obtaining the wool. The practice is not only beneficial for the farmer’s business, but also for the sheep that will have a clean fleece and improved temperature control as a result of it. However, shearing is sometimes done by inexperienced shearers which can harm the sheep by cutting their skin, for instance. Mulesing is done at Merino sheep and unfortunately also a painful procedure. Merino sheep come from Australia and New-Zealand and are known for their thick and high quality wool. Merino sheep are able to produce this kind of wool because of the deep wrinkles in their skin. Unfortunately these deep wrinkles are also very attractive for parasites to lay their eggs in. Without treatment it would lead to the sheep’s death. To avoid this, mulesing is practiced by farmers. This involves removing strips of skin around the tail and buttock area of the sheep, often without anaesthesia. After mulesing, the Merino sheep will have no more wool growth at that specific area and are less vulnerable for to infections.
Chemical fibres can either by semi-synthetic or just synthetic. Semi-synthetic fibres are viscose/rayon, modal, lyocell and bamboo. These materials are natural but chemically produced. Rayon, modal and lyocell are made from wood chips from trees, but treated chemically. Thus although it may seem like these materials are environmentally friendly because they are natural, they are not completely environmentally friendly.
Synthetic fibres include polyester, acrylic and nylon and are basically just soft plastic fibres. Polyester and nylon are made from petrochemicals and the most used fabrics at the moment. Petrochemicals come from petroleum oil, which is a fossil fuel. Cars run on fossil fuel and as you probably get the point….. just like cars, the production of polyester releases a lot of CO2. Unfortunately, polyester also contributes to the plastic waste that ends up in our oceans. Since polyester is non-biodegradable, it cannot be recycled. Polyester is a popular fibre used by designers because of the diversity of the material. It can be hard, it can be soft, it lasts long because of its strength and can be shaped in many different products and materials. Also for consumers it is easy to use since it is cheap, easy to maintain, dries quickly and doesn’t shrink or wrinkle. Another benefit of using polyester compared to natural fibres is that no land, animals or pesticides are necessary.
So….? What does this mean?
Eventually, all of the fibres will have an impact one way or another. Some a bit more than the other. That’s why it is so important that sustainable fashion exists to provide us with clothes made from fabrics that are organic or can be recycled and produced in a fair way. I completely understand that after reading this bomb of information, you might not have a possible solution or conclusion. So, let me help you out. Here are some tips and tricks you can use the next time you buy something:
- Check the tags; always look at the materials of the garment you want to buy. After reading this post, I hope you see the importance of it.
- Rather choose natural materials over chemical ones. As you just read, the environmental impact of both the type of materials is sort of equal. However, we sometimes forget that synthetic fibres are still very hard to recycle, especially blended fabrics. So the next time you buy something, do not only think about the time you are going to wear it, but also when you are done with it and how you eventually can deposit it.
- Always search for organic cotton, bamboo, linen, hemp and other sustainable materials. These are eventually the most sustainable materials and thus the best choice.
- Be informed! Keep educating yourself (talking to myself as well) about new developments and discoveries involving materials.
I can’t say it enough. Knowledge is key. If you are not sure a brand uses the right materials or if the materials have minimal environmental and social impact: investigate. Be a material snob! Luckily, more brands start to become transparent about their materials as well as where and how it is made. And if not, just ask. Like the Dutchies always say: ‘You’ve got the no, you can get the yes’.