It’s not super complicated. Good materials + fair production are the things that we can check for on a garment’s label. A lot of companies also have processes in place to reduce waste: clothing patterns that tesselate (fit together without gaps), solar powered factories (DL1961 Denim, USA), waterless dye processes (Triarchy jeans, USA), or they accept the clothing at the end of it’s useful life (For Days tees, USA).
The last step, Care & Feeding, is up to us! Depending on the garment, about half of its carbon footprint comes from growing the fiber, harvesting it, making the fiber, sewing the tee shirt, and trucking it to you. The rest - washing it, mending it, and eventually donating or disposing of it - is in your hands, and what you do makes a difference!
Natural fibers like hemp, linen, organic cotton, bamboo, silk/peace silk, wool, tencel/lyocell, viscose and rayon will naturally biodegrade over time.
Hemp and linen are very clean crops, and are normally grown almost without pesticides and insecticides - so if you find an organic option, great, but your conventional options are also very clean.
When it comes to cotton, you want organic. Cotton is a dirty crop - it makes up around 2% of the world’s crops but something like 16% of the world’s pesticide/insecticide use. There is an abnormally high cancer rate among farmers in cotton growing areas of Texas and India, and a high birth defect rate. To add insult to injury, seed giant Monsanto sells expensive pest-resistant seed to cotton farmers in India, driving them into debt. And when they find that the cotton isn’t actually pest resistant, farmers are driven further into debt buying pesticide. Crippled by debt and desperate, about 200,000 cotton farmers in India have committed suicide over the past 30 years. It is the largest rash of suicides in human history. Please shop organic, or companies that have committed to helping farmers convert their farms to organic, like Kotn (USA/Canada). (Source: True Cost movie)
Bamboo grows voraciously, but the process to soften up those woody stems into the buttery fabric we know and love is filled with harsh chemicals. I bring up the chemical issue because then you are wearing a chemical-laden fabric against your skin for 16 or 18 hours a day, and your skin is covered in pores! I still wear bamboo, but I choose other options when they are available.
Silk comes from the cocoon of the silkworm, and in the traditional harvesting process, the worm is boiled with the silk. Peace silk allows the silkworm to hatch before using the cocoon. Silk is naturally light, breathable, and takes dye fantastically. Personally, I’m hoping the next trend in workout gear is silk knits!
Wool, the original baselayer! Shearing a sheep for it’s wool does not hurt the sheep - it’s like getting a haircut. However, there’s a nasty process called mulesing, where some farmers remove the skin on the sheep’s rear end so the wool doesn’t become fouled. This is not necessary, and I always check with brands to make sure they are using non-mulesed wool.
Tencel, lyocell, modal, rayon, cupro, acetate, and viscose can be made from wood pulp, so they are biodegradable over time.
Recycled cotton and natural fibers - Each time a fabric is recycled, the fiber length breaks down and is shortened a bit. Wood pulp has naturally short fibers, so it can be recycled only once before the fibers are too short to re-use. Cotton has long fibers, and can be recycled 3-4 times. There is enough waste cotton (gross old tee shirts) in the US to make all the viscose that is currently produced in a year - and recycling cotton would save 150 million trees a year.
Recycled and upcycled materials also divert waste. There are fabrics made from recycled plastic, like Repreve and EcoNyl, and biodegradable options like Amni Soul Eco, a polyamide used by Aurai Swimwear (NZ) that is biodegradable in an anaerobic environment like a landfill!
Deadstock fabric refers to when a company has bought leftover fabric from another brand - this is actually pretty controversial, because many people think that the initial brand should have ordered less fabric in the first place. I’m currently of the opinion that using deadstock is fine, but let’s definitely encourage brands to reduce waste going forward.
Vegetable leathers - I love the variety of naturally derived leather alternatives, like Pinatex (pineapple leather), apple leather, mushroom leather, and grape leather. All of these options are biodegradable - check out HFS Collective (USA) for cute Pinatex bags. Just a heads up - Pinatex isn’t going to fool you into thinking it’s leather, but it’s charming on its own merits.
Animal leather - Okay, so this is where it gets complicated. The traditional method for tanning leather uses chromium, a dangerous chemical. Handled improperly, in an unsafe work environment, being exposed to chromium can increase the risk of cancer and skin lesions for tannery workers. The alternative, vegetable tanning, is less toxic but also imperfect. Vegetable tanning uses a lot of water and frequently the tone comes out uneven and unusable, so more hides are wasted. I lean towards vegetable tanned options, but when I know that the factory is safe and well run, I will recommend brands that use chromium tanning, like Coclico (USA) shoes, which holds itself to an incredibly high standard of safety. All that said, if you want leather, please try shopping vintage or secondhand options first. There are also lots of leather upcyclers - Pelechecoco (Denmark), Better World Fashion (Denmark), and Deadwood (Sweden), all make leather jackets from old leather jackets, and Remade USA makes gorgeous bags from old leather jackets and sofas.
Vegan leather - Unless vegetable leather is specified, this is usually code for plastic. You are not saving any animals by carrying a plastic handbag that will take 1,000 years to decompose. It’s well intentioned, but avoid it.
Faux fur - See my comments on vegan leather. Well intentioned, but it’s plastic.
Real fur - I recommend vintage. It’s biodegradable and does not create demand in the primary market. Vintage furs also tend to be pretty cheap, and most furriers will rework fur - cut and sew it into a updated design. If you are considering fur, please remember that it needs to be conditioned annually, and should be stored at 50 degrees at 50 percent humidity. Most furriers will glaze and store your furs for well under $100 a summer.
I look for companies that pay a fair wage and give their workers a safe work environment, or are produced in the USA or EU. I realize that this isn’t a perfect metric, as there are underpaid workers in the states and in Europe, but these are generally considered countries with lower risk of human rights issues.
There are some really fabulous brands that produce in NYC or LA (or Italy or Spain), where sustainability might not be their initial purpose, but their high quality materials and fine workmanship definitely meet these standards for sustainability. This allows me to introduce you to brands like dreamy bridal designer Elizabeth Fillmore, who produces her ethereal silk gowns right in NYC, most of them made to order (which is also a great way to reduce waste!).
If you are doing your own research, some key words you can look for on a company’s site are living wage, fair trade, and factory inspections.
In a number of garment producing countries, the national minimum wage is far below a living wage - in Cambodia and Vietnam, the minimum wage is about 20% of a living wage that will give you a safe place to sleep and a full belly.
CARE & FEEDING
This is where we, the consumers, come in. About half of the carbon footprint of a garment comes from the consumer! Here’s what we can do to reduce the carbon footprint of our garments:
Shop consciously. Don’t shop until you know you need something. There will be a moment when you are getting dressed and you’re like, “Man, a red blazer would really tie this together!” Shop only for that blazer, try several options and pick one you really love.
Wash less often. How many times do you wear a sweater just to go out to dinner, and then change right after? Hang it back up! Only throw the garment in the wash when it actually needs it.
Wash cold, and hang dry when possible. The most traumatic moment in a garment’s life is when it is washed. So much heat and friction! Wash your clothes as gently as possible - either on cold & delicate in the washing machine, and wash your wool sweaters by hand in the sink. (Don’t feel bad about washing sheets or workout clothes hot - if they need it, they need it. Nobody wants a stanky sports bra.)
Let items hang dry when you can - my rule of thumb is if it feels mostly dry coming out of the wash, I just hang it up - like wicking clothing or thin items. Washing cold & delicate saves the energy it would take to heat the water, and it’s less friction for the garment, so the piece will last longer. Hanging dry saves energy as well. :)
Mend if possible. If your jacket loses a button or the tie on your pants tears, try fixing it! Seriously, anyone can sew. It’s not scary, you aren’t going to ruin anything. Just thread the needle, put a knot at the end and go in and out. If it doesn’t work, cut out the stitches carefully and try again. You will be fine!
When you are done with a garment, dispose of it responsibly! Swap with friends, sell it online with Poshmark or eBay, donate to your local thrift or consign with ThredUp, or recycle it. Just please don’t throw it in the garbage. :)
What’s on the horizon? A lot of really cool stuff.
On Demand Manufacturing - Maintaining inventory is a huge cost and also a massive source of waste for clothing brands. Some concepts that are quickly becoming reality are items being made to order, whether by hand, 3D printing, or on demand knitting machines.
Recycling - The materials we need for tomorrow’s fabrics are sitting right here in our closets and local thrift stores. Companies like Evrnu have figured out how to break down textile waste (stained old tee shirts) into their individual components - cotton thread, poly thread, stretch thread, PET plastic pellets, and fucking carbon fiber because why not. As I mentioned in the Materials section, there are enough gross old tees in the US to make all the viscose that we currently produce in a year, which would save 150 million trees.
Consumer Awareness & Demand for Change - We are better educated consumers than ever before, and companies are doing their best to offer good, earth friendly options!