Sustainability and our clothing – part 1

Reading Time: 9 minutes

The following text was first posted on my Instagram over 10 posts recently, but to be honest I thought it might have the legs to be posted to the blog as well. It does pretty much sum up a lot of my thoughts on sustainability related to clothing and covers a number of points that tend not to be mentioned all that often. I also mention points that the industry that makes clothing may not be too keen to be focused upon. I’ve split it into two parts for your convenience.

Post 1: Intro

It’s important to keep in mind that there are two distinct sides to the issue. On the one hand we, the consumers, have choices we can make and actions we perform to help achieve a greater level of sustainability. On the other hand, we have a huge industry that covers a chain of processes from growing fibres, weaving materials, to making and selling garments, and even recycling them, employing a huge amount of people in everything from fields to sweatshops, to logistics operations to fancy boutiques. You can probably imagine which of the two hands experiences the most resistance to change.

Dressed in the manner of a man that follows the current fashion.

Dressed in the manner of a man that follows the current fashion.

It’ll be relatted to garms and such, have no fears, I’m not about to tell you all to go vegan or anything, but I think the topic of sustainability with regards to clothes has a fair amount of merit. The reason I posted this first photo was to kick off was that on the occasion this was taken I was styled to look fashionable. Which, to be honest, was kind of an odd experience, as while I like nice clothes, I pay very little attention to what is deemed to be currently fashionable.

Have you noticed though how much talk there is “going green” in the fashion industry now? Various talks and summits where they are discussing how to make the clothing industry more eco-friendly? As far as I can tell though, there is very little said about the real issue (making too much disposable fast fashion) and mainly talk about sustaining the industry (as in “how can we keep increasing volume, but without the environmental issues”). Very much like the car industry trying to convince us that we must all buy new cars if we’re to save the planet. While I’m sure we’d all like nice new cars, even the most dim-witted see the flawed logic at play.

Post 2: The environmental impact of production

Huge amounts of discarded, bundled and shipped off somewhere where it becomes someone elses problem.

Huge amounts of discarded, bundled and shipped off somewhere where it becomes someone elses problem.

It’s pretty much agreed that the fast fashion industry is not sustainable, but why is this so?

Two main issues, as I see it: The environmental problems in production and the sheer volume produced.
The former consists of the pollution and water involved in producing cotton, the pollution used in making viscose and related fabrics and the oil and chemicals used in creating synthetic and tech fabrics.
The massive volume of cheap clothes produced means that the journey from factory to shop may be long, but the time taken for the garments to become part of a landfill is stunningly short.

Marketing micro-collections at ever shorter intervals, the shops need to shift stock rapidly to keep up, so sales are also increasingly frequent. And let’s not forget the workforce that makes this possible: The factory workers in whichever third-world country is currently offering the laxest labour conditions and least stringent environmental laws. It’s a race to the bottom that only the owners of the fast fashion companies will “win”.

Post 3: The environmental impact of fabrics

The process of turning raw materials into colourful fabrics results in potentially massive environmental issues.

The process of turning raw materials into colourful fabrics results in potentially massive environmental issues.

In post 2 I mentioned how cotton, viscose and synthetic fabrics were a problem. Facing up to the environmental impact of popular fabrics, we need to be aware of what is what.

There is a lot of organic cotton being made today, which is well and good. I’d admit I’m surprised at how quickly this has become widely available, given the stringent demands made for something to be called organic, but I’ve no proof that organic cotton is faked.

Viscose, the synthetic silk-like fabric, also known as rayon, Tencel etc uses huge amounts of acid to extract the cellulose used to create the threads and working conditions in production are harsh. And yes, the bamboo fabrics you see around result from the same process, and any beneficial claims made for “bamboo fabric” are absolute tosh. Then we have the synthetic fabrics made from an oil base.

As most of us are aware, we’re nearing the end of our guiltless enjoyment of oil. The wells are running dry and synthetic fabrics from nylon onwards will become too expensive to keep making. Should I even mention all the chemicals added to create tech fabrics and add water repellency? You get the picture.

Post 4: Eco-friendly alternative fabrics

There are alternative and less harmful raw materials, such as hemp that requires much less water, fertilizer and pesticide than the common cotton.

There are alternative and less harmful raw materials, such as hemp that requires much less water, fertilizer and pesticide than the common cotton.

So, parts 1 to 3 were all doom and gloom, as required by traditions and so forth. In this part, I’d like to offer up a few suggestions to fabrics that help make our clothing more sustainable.

I mentioned organic cotton yesterday, so I’ll skip that now and go directly to more interesting ones. Wool is a good one. By no means news, but in reality, it may be the most sustainable and eco-friendly of materials and a contributor to human survival in so many ways, in addition to being very versatile and natures own tech fabric.

Then we have linen, the fibres from the flax plant. The work involved in processing the fibres into fabric isn’t the cheapest, but it makes a strong and distinctive, and very traditional fabric.

Spare a thought for hemp as well. Hemp was widely used for all manner of things up until around a hundred years ago. A remarkable plant, creating strong fibres, requiring little water, fertilizer or pesticide. Why did we stop using hemp? I’m afraid hemp became a victim of its controversial cousin marijuana, so when weed was outlawed, the identical-looking hemp plant was given the same treatment, even though it has none of the narcotic properties of the marijuana plant. Times they are a changing though, so hemp is slowly making a comeback these days, and I for one would absolutely get into a pair of raw hemp denim jeans.

Post 5: The amount of clothes we throw away

Everything we make must be produced with a second life in mind, recycling beats landfill all the way!

Everything we make must be produced with a second life in mind, recycling beats landfill all the way!

Most of us will have seen photos of landfill sites bulging with once fashionable clothing. Or seen reports from clothes markets in Africa, where tonnes upon tonnes of Western garments are shipped in to be dumped, sorry, “made available for resale”. The problem is that Africa no longer wants the Western surplus (in the same way that China no longer wants all the plastics waste from the West), so unless we stop making as many junk clothes and find some way to reuse the clothes waste we already have, we’ve got a real problem that will just grow larger.

Stop for a moment and think about this though: We have insane amounts of clothes we can’t get rid of. Isn’t there some warped logic at work here? How about we actually use up these clothes? Call it secondhand, vintage, pre-loved, collectables or the basis of upcycling, it would be a big step in the right direction to actually use things up before tossing them away. Use them, repair them, repurpose them and finally, say goodbye to them. Naturally, much of what is being thrown out now was almost worthless the moment it was made, so we’d need to do some sorting to find and keep the better bits. When even tiny Norway throws out unwanted clothes to the tune of 30 tonnes a day, we see how crazy it has become.
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In the spirit of recycling, I’m wearing a cardigan made from recycled denim fibres that Lyle & Scott made a couple of years back and a shirt by Gant that contains 7% recycled plastic gathered from the ocean. And linen trousers by HebTroCo.

Finally: Will you be joining Fashion Revolution on April 22nd?

Part 2 can be found here.

6 Comments

  • Roland Novak 13/04/2019 at 13:06

    Great post and full of great researched information! Thank you Nick!

    Reply
    • nick 13/04/2019 at 13:45

      Thank you, Roland! Part two will be along in a day or two.

      Reply
  • Lizzie 14/04/2019 at 11:27

    I think that the main thing is just to stop producing so much, and as you say, we’ve got to repair and re-use before we even recycle. And yes definitely go for fabrics like hemp and linen.

    As one who cycles, I have got perhaps 4 garments designed specifically for cycling – 3 jackets and a pair of tights. Two of these were cheap but do the job well, from Aldi. One was much more expensive, from Vulpine. These would be the hardest for me to replace in a more environmentally way if I needed to. In the group of about 10-14 that I cycle with, all wear synthetic gear – except me who wears some and one (who started following you though my blog). wears none. The outdoor clothing manufacturers really need to get their heads round this.

    Reply
  • Rachel 15/04/2019 at 16:13

    I love this post! I recently wrote about “fast fashion” myself and ways to reduce our impact.
    Over the past few years I’ve been a lot more conscious about what clothes I’m buying and if it’s necessary and making sure to mend anything that breaks or charity shop anything still usable that I no longer want.
    Thank you for sharing this! The more people that stop and think about it the more change will happen 🙂

    Rachel

    Reply
  • kenny 16/04/2019 at 17:09

    Great post, thank you for putting the time in to write it. I’ve shared it with a few friends as I think it sums the problem up well.

    Kenny

    Reply
    • nick 16/04/2019 at 17:10

      Thank you, Kenny! Part two is out now, includes a little more positivity!

      Reply

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