The clothing industry is the second largest polluter (after oil) in the world and the destruction of our environment and human rights infringements are frightening. The amount of pesticides and chemicals leeched into our waterways (including growing bt cotton, producing man-made petroleum based fibers, and dyeing fabrics), the off-gassing of man-made fibers and its effect on workers, the carbon dioxide overload, the waste created by clothes thrown out after only a couple of wears (don’t kid yourself, most of it goes into a landfill, not a second-hand store, not to mention most of it won’t compost because of the petroleum based man-made fibers) and the human rights violations (low pay, poor working conditions, health risks, long hours, child labor) remain invisible to the majority of us.
My current read is Fibershed by Rebecca Burgess, which highlights many of these problems. The difference between Burgess’s book and others that pull back the nasty little curtain on the fashion industry, is she offers an eloquent solution – proof there is a better way. I learned about Burgess in 2010 when she decided to:
“develop and wear a prototype wardrobe whose dyes, fibers and labor were sourced from a region no larger than 150 miles from the project’s headquarters.
Burgess teamed up with a talented group of farmers and artisans to build the wardrobe by hand, as manufacturing equipment had all been lost from the landscape more than 20 years ago. The goal was to illuminate that regionally grown fibers, natural dyes, and local talent was still in great enough existence to provide the most basic human necessity – our clothes. Within months, the project became a movement, and the work Fibershed and the working concept behind it spread to regions across the globe. Burgess founded Fibershed’s 501c3 to address and educate the public on the environmental, economic and social benefits of decentralizing the textile supply chain.” – from the Fibershed website.
The book looks at the true costs of fashion but it also offers an alternative steeped in regional farming traditions and science. It’s a reminder that we are all interconnected and interdependent – soil, water, air, plants, animals, humans – and when we disrupt the delicate balance of one, we effect all, no matter how much we want to bury our heads in the sand. Organic foods have become prevalent because we understand spraying poison on our food crops will poison us. It also follows that the chemicals in the fibers of our clothes (especially man-made) will be absorbed into our bodies, given skin is our largest organ.
As I look at my fabric and yarn stash (not to mention my closet…) I feel like a hypocrite. I want to be a part of the solution, not the problem but berating myself over past behavior doesn’t serve any constructive purpose. As Maya Angelou said, “Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better.”
What do I do now that I know better?
Do I get rid of all my man-made, chemically (vs. natural) dyed stuff (which to be honest, would be most of it)? With man-made fibers, most of the harm is done through the manufacturing process but that doesn’t mean the finished product is harmless. But the majority of my stash has been with me awhile so it’s probably off-gassed any chemical residues. There is still the issue of skin absorption, but I can always wear something underneath it, if I’m really concerned about it. I think at this point it would be more sustainable for me to keep what I have and use it rather than give it away (I wouldn’t throw it out) and buy something else. The idea isn’t to get rid of everything and start over, unless you want to and have the financial means to do so. For me, it would be too overwhelming. As with any change, baby steps.
Here’s my plan moving forward:
Wash my clothes less often.
This helps clothes last longer and lessens the amount of small fibers and plastic particles (from man-made fibers) that infiltrate our water systems. Also, I choose detergents with as little chemical additives as possible.
Buy natural and naturally dyed fibers.
Protein (wool, angora) and plant (linen, hemp, organic cotton) based fibers will compost and add nutrients to the soil after their life as clothing is done.
Natural fibers are also more comfortable and comfort is a huge consideration for me. I live in Austin which is hot most of the year but I still have to wear layers pretty much year round because air-conditioners are set at arctic temperatures and in winter the temperature can fluctuate a lot (cold in morning, warm in the afternoon). I’m a pretty laid back person but I will get cranky if I’m cold. Natural fibers keep me warm in winter and cool in the summer.
Be careful, though, because of the lack of transparency in the fashion industry and bastardization of the terms “organic” and “natural” for marketing purposes means there’s a lot of smoke and mirrors. Do your research.
Buy local or from smaller, sustainable, transparent businesses.
The COVID-19 crisis has really driven this point home, not just for fashion. I want to support businesses that are ethical, socially and environmentally conscious. Here in Austin we have several designers such as Miranda Bennett and TogetherSegal (petites) using linen, natural dyes and local manufacturing. For my own projects, I’m sourcing locally raised fibers – organic cotton yarn, wool and linen. The point is large, centralized, monoculture systems aren’t benefiting anyone except shareholders.
Quality over quantity.
I wonder, do people really think a $5 t-shirt that falls apart after 3 washings, is cheaper? To make a product requires labor and material costs. If a t-shirt is $5, someone down the chain is getting shafted or dodgy shortcuts were taken. We expect to be paid fairly for our labor yet we rarely think about someone else’s time when shopping. We’re so caught up in the thrill of the bargain, which isn’t really a bargain after all if you consider cost per wear and how often you’d have to replace a garment. For instance, I bought a leather coat in 2001 and paid $150 for it (not really all that expensive for a leather coat). It’s 19 years old and I still wear it so the cost per wear is in the pennies, if even that. On the other hand, I bought a fake leather jacket (yes, I’m just as susceptible as anyone else to fashion’s allure) about 5 years ago and paid $125 for it. The leather coat still looks brand new while the fake leather is flaking and falling apart. In the end, I’m willing to pay more upfront for something that is ethically made, pays people fairly and lasts longer.
Timeless over trendy.
By using quality materials and good construction techniques, I expect my clothes to last longer but I don’t want to look stuck in a time warp. The solution is classic styles that don’t go out of date – jeans, a classic T, a Fair-Isle sweater or a well-tailored blazer. I’m focused on good fit to flatter my body anyway, not what is trendy.
There once was a time when fashion had only two seasons – fall/winter and spring/summer. The start of school was when I got new clothes. But fast fashion changed all that and in order to get people to buy they have to make yesterday’s (literally, because new styles are appearing weekly) clothes obsolete. But spending a month knitting a sweater that’s going to go out of style in another month isn’t a practical use of my time or materials.
Mend and repair.
I’m a child of the 70’s and I’m a sucker for color and pattern. Long gone are the days of iron-on patches, mending has become art. It’s not only creative but it extends the life of the garment. In Japan they have a tradition of mending called Boro. The history and art of these pieces are amazing and I wonder if there is any of the original garment even left underneath the generations of neatly sewn patches.
I admit, this really appeals to me and gets my creative juices flowing. I love the idea of recycling, upcycling and reusing materials. It goes nicely with my 70’s aesthetic for color, pattern, patchwork and embellishment. If I had to choose between a high end department store or a thrift store, I’d choose the thrift store. Not only is buying used environmentally friendly and easy on the budget, there is a wealth of educational and creative opportunities.
First, you can look for pieces to add to your wardrobe. I look for natural fibers (cotton/denim, wool, silk, linen) and solid construction which means sifting through a lot of cheap, trendy, ill-constructed garments. I’m not restricted by size because I can alter pieces to fit me. And the variety is endless. There’s the latest trends mixed with vintage pieces.
Second, I see raw materials for new projects. A lot of my yarn is recycled from men’s thrift store sweaters. I prefer men’s sweaters because the colors are neutral, they’re bigger (so they yield more yarn) and usually made with natural fibers. For under $10 I can have a sweater’s worth (sometimes two) of wool or cotton yarn.
And finally, I buy garments to make patterns from or learn different construction techniques. If you want to learn tailoring, find a good jacket and take it apart. It’s a wealth of information.
If the lure of the newest, brightest, trendiest, etc. is hard for you to resist or your whole purpose or identity is wrapped up in having the newest/trendiest fashion and you’re addicted to the high of instant gratification of shopping, then you probably think I’m nuts. I love the idea of working with systems nature has provided us and following practices that support rather than harm the environment and all the living things within it. I’m excited by the creative possibilities of working within this framework to connect, build community and create.