Shopping with a clean conscience: what can we still wear?
We all want to buy sustainable, organic and fair trade clothing; however, we really don't know if this small conscious label will really save the world. Time for a crash course "shopping without guilt".
1. How sustainable is organic cotton really?
Organic cotton is grown without pesticides and has not been genetically modified. However, the production usually requires twice the amount of water as normal cotton. Organic cotton plants produce fewer fibres and therefore you need more land to grow the same amount. The ratio is 2500l water for organic cotton versus 1000l for a traditional cotton T-shirt. Moreover, the organic cotton label doesn't say anything about the next steps in the production cycle; dying, finishing, labour conditions. The Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS) does contain guidelines for the use of both chemicals and water. With Fairtrade of Fairwear, you get confirmation of the ethical standards. Each website lists the brands that comply with their ethical standard of production. The quality of organic cotton is better, which makes it more sustainable and you are kind to the raw material.
Organic cotton alone will not change the inherent transience of fashion. The Cradle-to-Cradle philosophy for circular fashion requires that raw material stays in the economic cycle, so it gets repaired, reused or recycled. What makes a product sustainable is not just the raw material (organic cotton) but also the way you use it; do you wear it often, do you wear it till it falls apart, do you throw it out or donate it or sell it as a second-hand piece?
Finally, also washing can be detrimental to the environment. Seepje, a Dutch brand (Seepje is a wordplay on the Dutch word for soap), has a solution for this using the shells of a Nepalese nut which, when they get in contact with water, produce soap. You can use the shells 3 times after which you can compost them, 100% natural and fair trade! (I have been using them for a while and absolutely LOVE IT) They also have ready-made liquid soaps based on the same principle of the soap nuts and the bottles are made from recycled milk bottles.
2. Are faux leather and faux fur more or less ecological than the real deal?
No animals are killed for faux fur, so potentially ideal for whoever following a vegan lifestyle. Faux leather can be made from cork, the bark of trees, coated cotton, paper or, mostly, from PVC and polyurethane. The last 2 are chemical petroleum based materials containing phthalates and solvents that are commonly found in hairspray, deodorant, perfume, nail polish, the wheel of your car and even in sex toys. (YIKES) Clearly, vegan shoes are not the only polluters. Luckily, there are more and more alternatives appearing in the market such as Pinatex (leather made from pineapple leaves) and leather from banana fibres or fish skin. (I'll stick to the vegan ones I reckon)
The leather production also doesn't end at killing a cow (worldwide the cow population produces more than 550 million litres of methane a day. Methane is a greenhouse gas that is far more damaging to the ozone layer than CO2). The skin is treated with – except for organic/natural treatments – different chemicals and toxins, causing harm to both the workers and the environment. Even stating that leather is a byproduct of the meat industry isn't true anymore: the reverse is actually true. The leather industry accounts for half of the profits of the slaughterhouses!
Faux fur contains petroleum derived product such as nylon, acrylic and polyester, which are chemically treated until they are hairy and soft. Industrial processes require 3 times as much energy as real fur according to the International Fur Trade Federation. The fur industry likes to stress the unethical aspects of faux fur, that is often produced under fast fashion standards, after 1 season it is thrown out and it can take up to 1000 years to biodegrade (real fur decomposes after 6 months to 1 year). Washing faux fur releases small plastic parts (also called microplastics or microfibers) in the water which in turn ends up in our oceans
(and on our plate in we take it even further). However, technological advancements try to mitigate these negative points. In the meantime, Stella McCartney introduced faux fur on the runway (though expensive since it has been produced ethically). Big fashion houses such as Gucci, Michael Kors, Armani and Ralph Lauren have recently made statements to ban fur from their collections. Additionally, you need to pay close attention, since the faux fur isn't as faux as you would like it to be. There have been cases reported where cats and racoons fur have been used instead, often those products come from China, including the cute pompoms or your winter hat! Note: also natural textile with a small ecological footprint is not always animal-friendly: the silkworm is killed after producing the silk and sheep bred for wool production don't always receive the best treatment either.
So if you ask me, no fur at all, not real and not faux!
3. Can't we wear jeans anymore?
The most typical aspect of denim is also the biggest polluter: indigo. Traditional production requires the yarn to be treated with the very toxic polyvinyl alcohol (PVA). Afterwards, it is removed with warm water, around 300 litres per kilogram. However, new technologies are emerging to give our fav textile a green edge. Jeans producer ItalDenim replaced PVA with Chitosan, a biological variation based on the exoskeleton of shellfish. The result is 80% less water, 80% fewer toxins and 80% less energy use. Also, the Belgian Atelier Noterman uses this method. The Dutch label Mud Jeans focusses on recycling by leasing the jeans and lifelong deposit money on your purchase. 90% of the water is re-used during production, washed looks are created without chemicals, through a combination of laser, ozone and stonewash. The completely transparent North-American company Everlane Inc produces eco-conscious jeans in a modern factory in Vietnam: 98% of the water is returned to drinkable water, jeans are air-dried and left-over denim is transformed into bricks to build houses. The factory runs on renewable energy and the closed water system reduces the 1500l water per jeans to 4l. You see, it is possible!
4. What about modern slavery?
Here, the fast fashion retailers are to blame, however, there are also high fashion label or more expensive brands that produce in low-income countries. Expensive does not equal sustainable, but with a T-shirt of 5€, you know for sure someone in the chain is suffering, and it isn't you or the retailer!
The textile industry in producing countries has a double problem: the bad treatment of the people working in the factories and also the influence on their (and our) environment. The water pollution by dumping chemicals, air pollution and climate change endanger life in the producing countries. 4 out of 5 countries where the consequences of rising sea levels are most felt, are the biggest players in the fashion industry: China, Vietnam, India and Bangladesh, according to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). By buying the polluted clothing and washing, we unconsciously attribute to the water pollution far beyond the producing country.
Besides that, the low wages force people into poverty. The minimum wage they receive is barely enough for a third of their monthly expenses. End of 2013, H&M promised that all 850.000 textile workers would receive a fair and honest wage from 2018. The Dutch Schone Kleren Campagne (Clean Clothes Campaign) highlighted end of December 2017 that it was awfully quiet on this side of the fence. In May 2017, H&M was still setting up the system and they said it was going according to plan. H&M responded by saying: “H&M is convinced that we will reach this goal before the end of 2018, making the means available for fair and just pay by the suppliers to their employees. This will be established by setting up committees which have been democratically elected and improved management systems at the suppliers who represent 50% of our production volume. Our long-term vision is one where all our supplier will pay an honest living wage to their employees.” In 2016, H&M had a profit of over $2 billion. According to the Schone Kleren Campagne, it would cost H&M only 1,9% of that profit to pay all its workers in Cambodia the $78 per month needed for a living wage.
5. Is shopping locally a solution?
Sadly, also “Made in Europe” isn’t necessarily a quality label, because also in Europe (especially in Eastern Europe) and the UK, cases of abuse in the textile industry have been reported. Textile workers live, despite the long working hours, in poverty and the working conditions are bad, to say the least. For the conscious consumer, it is often challenging since labels often refuse to mention the exact locations of their factories. Sustainable labels such as Bruno Pieters’ Honest By and the Swedish Filippa K strive for total transparency of every piece they make.
Only shopping local brands doesn't really solve things either: local brands also outsource their production to cheaper places, otherwise, it is not economically viable. Even if the production in India is legit, the air transport is not (10kg CO2 per kg cotton is a lot!). If your T-shirt would be made in your village, cotton still does not grow there (it might when climate change really kicks in, but not quite yet in Western Europe). Shopping locally does make sense if you make sustainable choices: less “throw away” fashion in favour of a timeless quality piece from a local designer. Another option is investing in new up and coming talent, so they will have the means to make the right choices when they start growing.
The advantages of online shopping are offset by the fact that free shipping means that somewhere obscure an underpaid employee is packing your things at a crazy pace in order for you to have those eco-socks in the morning. If you return goods, sometimes they are thrown out because it’s easier than putting them in stock again.
6. So, does the ‘green’ closet only contain basics?
The best thing you can do is buy less and choose timeless pieces that last. You build a capsule wardrobe where you collect some versatile pieces that can be mixed and matched endlessly.
Fashion is time-sensitive and volatile, it even changes multiple times per season. Of course, fashion is also creative, artistic, exciting, activist, provocative or just beautiful. Do we have to turn our backs on this? Absolutely not. Fashion is also innovative. At Kering, for example, a lot of research is being done behind the scenes to enable more sustainable fashion through new materials and production methodologies.
It is very important that we as consumers continuously show how important sustainability really is. That way the brands will pick it up and a circular fashion world will be reality sooner rather than later!
In the meantime, we can be more mindful of our clothes. You don't only have to buy expensive, locally produced, organic fashion. Select more carefully: the more often you wear a piece, the more sustainable it gets. Check what the sustainability policy of your favourite fast fashion brands is. Hold back during the sales period: whatever is on sales, is overstock, goods that didn't sell full price during the season. Why not force companies to reduce production rather than dumping excess stock at low prices? Still hooked on the sales, try a second-hand shop. Because of overproduction, there is a boatload of rejects. Only 20% to 45% of that goes to second-hand shops, the rest is turned into insulations, carpets or rags, shipped to the developing countries or, worst case scenario, incinerated. Shopping pre-loved clothes is a great addition to your sustainable basic wardrobe. And thanks to specialized vintage shops for luxury fashion, someone’s bad buy can be your statement piece!
7. Do we need to pay more for our clothes?
By 2020 the majority of the population will consist of millennials and companies will cater to their needs. According to American research by The Boston Consulting Group (BCG), millennials are already being led by sustainability while shopping, a third prefers to shop sustainable brands. But: only a small percentage is willing to pay more for it. Fast fashion eagerly jumped on the sustainability wagon by creating green capsule collections with recycled material, organic cotton or bamboo for fast fashion prices. So why would you pay more?
Creating awareness is key, also the labels bear responsibility here! Let them know you want sustainable products. Call, tweet, mail and ask for the provenance of the top you want. The development of new technologies and innovative ecological materials costs a lot, but if demand increases, the laws of scaling come into play. Therefore, consumer demand is more powerful than any regulation or tax!
Note: Original article in Dutch Knack Weekend, 17/01/2018 translated by me. http://weekend.knack.be/lifestyle/mode/shoppen-met-een-schoon-geweten-wat-mogen-we-nog-dragen/article-longread-949825.html?utm_source=Newsletter-22/01/2018&utm_medium=Email&utm_campaign=Newsletter-RNBWEEKNLABO&M_BT=173275915839
Images resource: http://weekend.knack.be/lifestyle/mode/shoppen-met-een-schoon-geweten-wat-mogen-we-nog-dragen/article-longread-949825.html?utm_source=Newsletter-22/01/2018&utm_medium=Email&utm_campaign=Newsletter-RNBWEEKNLABO&M_BT=173275915839; all pics except faux Fur come from Istock, the faux Fur pic is from Imaxtree.