Do you know what your clothes are made out of? Take a look at the tags of the shirt you’re wearing now. Every article of clothing has a story to tell and has its own impact on the planet. #WhyItMatters: Because the varying levels of resources, energy, fossil fuels, labor that go into producing clothing are either sustainable…or not.
Clothes can be made out of one of three things:
(1) Synthetic fibers
(2) Plant-based fibers
(3) Animal-based fibers
Synthetic fibers are man-made and, though they don’t feel like it, they’re all essentially plastic. They include polyester, acrylic, spandex, acetate, and nylon (notice how none of these SOUND natural).
An Earth Island report found that every time a synthetic article of clothing is washed in a conventional washing machine, it sheds around 1,900 plastic microfibers. Many studies have confirmed that these microplastics enter freshwater and saltwater bodies and are then subsequently consumed by animals, accumulating in greater quantity up the food chain until reaching humans. A 2017 study out of King’s College in London hypothesized that ingesting plastic could be toxic, but the degrees of toxicity are still unknown. Unfortunately, synthetic materials are cheap to produce, making them prolific in most clothing.
Shop secondhand or participate in clothing swaps with friends to extend the life of synthetic clothing. This means less in landfills (and perhaps less plastic breaking down and seeping into groundwater) as well as less consumer demand for new products. Demand for “new” is extremely taxing and detrimental to the planet, but many of us are bombarded with marketing that encourages to “Buy this!” and “Buy that!” to keep up with the latest trends, look younger, feel healthier. But that’s all it is: marketing for money. Chances are, the trends of today can be found in someone else’s closet from yesterday.
You might think, “I’m just one person, what difference can I make?” But when thousands, millions of people make just one shift in their purchases and their decisions, it has a ripple effect that can have a lasting and profound impact.
Plant-based fibers are what you’d likely imagine: everything from cotton to tencel, cork to linen to hemp. There are also materials like rayon, viscose, and modal that are made from wood pulp (I didn’t know this—I actually thought that both viscose and rayon were synthetic because they sound unnatural!).
Not all plant-based fibers are sustainable though. Similar to certain kinds of foods, the land and plants used to grow and harvest plant-based fibers can be over-exploited, water-intensive, and may even use harsh man-made chemicals, which can harm local ecosystems and pollinators.
When you can, choose organic materials over non. For example, my friends at Happy Earth Apparel use organic cotton, which is “levels above conventional cotton when it comes to sustainability. It means 90-100% less irrigated water, 60% less energy, natural pest control (like molasses traps), healthy rotated-crop soil, and uncontaminated rivers and lands.”
Animal-based fibers are also self-explanatory but come with some caveats. Fibers like wool, cashmere, silk, and mohair can be sourced humanely from animals, but that’s not to say that they always are. Locally made clothing is often a better choice, and more companies are being transparent about their supply chain so you can learn exactly where the product is coming from. Better yet, some companies are opting to apply for various “green-approved”-like certifications, so keep an eye out for those too.
Another good thing about both plant and animal-based fibers is that they will biodegrade naturally over time if they haven’t been treated with chemicals or are not bonded with synthetic fibers.
Fur, feathers, and leather are also animal-based textiles, but the process to produce these goods is often inhumane. Animals are kept in cages, treated poorly, and live stressful lives. If you’re craving something made from these animal-based fibers, look for items that are “reclaimed’ or hand-me-downs from generations ago.
What about the clothes already in my closet?
My friends at Happy Earth created this list to minimize the impact of your synthetic clothes on the environment:
- Wash synthetic clothes less frequently and for a shorter duration.
- Wait for a full-load. A full washing machine results in less friction between the clothes and fewer fibers released.
- Opt for the tap water setting. Higher temperature can damage clothes and release more fibers.
- Slower dry spin. Higher revolutions increase the friction between the clothes.
- Consider purchasing a Guppy Friend wash bag. In tests, the bag captured 99 percent of fibers released in the washing process.
- Purchase a washing machine lint filter. These filters require more of an investment, but they will benefit your septic system and the environment.
Want to get some clothes that are sustainably made AND stylish? Use my discount code, MaggieD306, for 15% off at happearthapparel.com.
Want to know what I found in my closet? Check out this video I did for Happy Earth.