I became interested in sustainable clothing in grade eight, when I did a science fair project on natural indigo. What I discovered made me not even want to drink Kool-Aid. The dyes used in food processing are the same dyes that are used in clothing manufacturing. When I was in grade eight, blue Smarties were dyed with a dye made from aniline, formaldehyde, and hydrogen cyanide–the same dye that is used to dye blue jeans. You know, the same blue that colours your legs when you put on a new pair of jeans. The same dye that washes into your watershed, the first time you wash that pair of jeans.
What defines sustainable clothing and fashion?
Green Wiki defines sustainable fashion as:
…fashion that is designed to be environmentally friendly. It is part of the larger trend of ‘ethical fashion,’… using more environmentally-friendly materials and methods in clothing production…
The chief in the toxicity of commercially produced clothing is the dyes. Commercial clothing is dyed with fibre-reactive, coal-tar, and other petrochemical based colorants. Most commercial dyeing is done in third world and developing countries due to the laxity of environmental controls. The lack of environmental controls means that the dye companies dump the effluent into rivers, crop producing fields, and the water table without proper filtration of harmful chemicals. One chemical dye, synthetic indigo, is made up of three carcinogenic chemicals, aniline, formaldehyde, and hydrogen cyanide, which is dumped on farm fields and into rivers without being filtered. Not only do the chemicals have an adverse impact on the environment, but the chemicals also harm the health of the farmers, their families, and their animals and crops. Some chemicals will be picked up by the crops and passed from the crop into the food supply of others.
Fibres used in the production of commercial clothing are often petrochemical based, such as polyester, and acrylic. Fibres can also be retrieved from a toxic chemical soup from rayon processing such as, bamboo, corn and soya fibres. These fibres are not natural or environmentally friendly, despite the marketing hype.
Natural fibres such as cotton are grown using toxic pesticides and herbicides which remain in the soil for years, and never break down. These pesticides and herbicides are also carcinogenic and cause health problems for the farmers who use them. Other natural fibres such as wool are treated to an alkaline bath to dissolve the vegetable matter in the fleece. This process coarsens the fleece, and contributes to the allergenic properties of wool.
Further most cottons and wools are produced overseas, shipped to other China for processing, and then shipped over to the consumer countries. This makes clothing one of the larger contributors to our carbon foot print, even bigger than using a car to drive two blocks to work every week day.
5 Tips To Increase Your Sustainable Practices
1. Buy local raw fibres, or locally sourced clothing from local artisans
For those who spin, weave, felt, knit, or crochet, buy yarn and fibres that are localy grown and processed. This will not only support your local economy, but will give an individuality to your work over those who buy imported Ashland Bay, and other fibres and yarns. Often local fibre producers cannot sell their fibre, and some sheep farmers will send their entire clip to the dump. Some farmers would be willing to give away fleeces for mulch purposes, if one gets a good quality fleece, one does not have to put it on the garden. For those that enjoy the interest of searching for a fair quality fleece, among poor quality, it may be worth contacting sheep farmers who are doing mostly meat production and asking what they do with their fleeces after shearing. Creating a relationship with a sheep farmer could get you more inexpensive fleeces that you can use, although this depends on the farmer. Another option would be to offer to make a special item, such as socks, mittens, or a hat, for the farmer in exchange for a fleece, which would be a good way to deepen a relationship so the farmer does not think that you are only there to take. Not all farmers are willing, and it is better to approach the sheep farmer who raises for meat, than one who raises for wool. With the popularity of llamas and alpacas your local fibre palette does not have to be limited to wool.
2. Do your own natural dyeing
Natural fibres come in all shades of white, brown, black, and grey. To increase your colour palette you can dye your locally sourced fleece or handmade articles with locally grown or sourced natural dyes. As each region grows different wild plants, and can grow different domestic plants, each regions colour palette is different and your handmade clothing will reflect that difference. This is also a good way to demonstrate your creativity and be adventurousness, to see what beauty can be made from local fibres and dyes.
3. Learn New Textile Skills.
It is no good buying a fleece if you do not know what to do with it. Therefore, learning new skills will help you to increase the sustainability of your lifestyle. As an example: If you know how to knit, and want to make a sweater from local fleece, everything seems easy until you realize that the fleece is raw. A raw fleece needs to go through three or four steps before you can make the sweater. Each of these steps is a skill that can be learned and taught to others. For a fleece it should be washed (skill one), carded (skill two), spun (skill three), and dyed with natural and environmentally non-toxic dyes if you do not want a natural colour sweater (skill four). These four skills are then added to the one you already had, which means that at the end of the sweater you had five skills, where before you only had one.
4. Purchase locally made, sustainably made, fair trade, organic, or naturally dyed clothing.
Purchasing locally made clothing supports and strengthens the local economy. Clothing that is made in a sustainable fashion or fair trade can also be purchased through different companies such as Maiwa Handprints in Vancouver. This clothing supports economies in third world localities and also supports traditional handcrafts. Organic cotton clothing is also available, couple it with natural dyes and you have a fairly good choice for sustainable clothing. The only problem with it, is that the clothing was probably processed in a manufacturing country and a large quantity of petroleum was expended in shipping it back to the consumer, so while it is a more sustainable choice than Wal-ville, it still comes with a high carbon price tag.
5 Repurpose, up-cycle, downsize, and pass on clothing
Clothing such as jeans and t-shirts can be repurposed and up-cycled into new and useful items. This saves wear and tear on landfills, and also answers for new items that would have to be purchased for the same purposes. Joybilee Farm gives a tutorial on their blog on turning jeans into rugs here.
When buying locally produced clothing items or making it yourself, it will naturally be more expensive than buying from Wal-Ville. However, the clothing will be better made, and last longer. If it seems hard to get locally made clothing within your budget, cut down on what you need in your wardrobe, and get extras from thrift and second hand clothing shops. Again, second hand clothes will probably last for awhile, and your purchase is not increasing the consumption of new products, and besides used can save money too.
If you clean out your closet, to get rid of unsustainable clothing, do not throw out the high quality clothing made with manmade fibres, pass it on. This will decrease the amount of manmade fibres that are purchased new and find their way into the landfill, when the next season’s fashions come out.
Back to you:
What have you done to increase the sustainability of your wardrobe? What have you discovered on your journey to sustainability? Leave a comment.