A Guide to Selecting Clothes that Have a Minimal Impact on the Environment
As we approach the holiday buying season where a lot of us buy gifts for friends and family, we thought we'd provide some resources to help you cut through the greenwashing clutter as it relates to what clothes and materials have the least impact on the environment.
Unfortunately, just because a clothing maker states "Eco-Friendly" on its website - it doesn't mean much given there's no standard for what comprises this term. I've searched recently on sites that use this term and their clothes don't have anything environmentally friendly about them. It would be ideal if the apparel industry had some scoring system to help consumers understand the pros/cons of each material or at least a carbon emissions score for every item. Not too many companies do this today.
So we thought we would help shed a bit more light on this, it certainly isn't a straightforward process for consumers to wade through the variables that determine an item's environmental impact, but we thought we should give it a go-to help out as much as we can.
What's in our clothes anyway?
So what are the most common materials used today in making our clothes? The chart below helps tell the story:
A summary of the item groups are below:
- Synthetics - This group consists of polyester (both virgin and recycled polyester) nylon, acrylic, polypropylene and elastane (spandex). Around 98% of all future fibre growth is expected to be in synthetic fibres.
- Cotton - Both organic and non-organic cotton make up this category.
- Cellulosics - These materials begin as cellulose extracted from a natural source (bamboo, wood, cotton waste, vegetable/fruit waste, etc) that is then crushed, pulped and transformed into fibres using a similar process to the one used in making polyester. Rayon is an example of this fabric, as is Tencel and Modal - which we are seeing more and more.
- Wool - Has a small and decreasing share of the world market. About 2 billion kilograms of raw wool is produced every year.
- Other - This includes experimental fibres such as those made from fruit and vegetable waste or other agricultural byproducts.
So What Makes a Material Good or Bad for the Environment?
This is where it gets complicated. As a consumer, there are many attributes that can make a piece of clothing "good" or "bad" for the environment. Assuming a piece of clothing is actually needed (really, another shirt?), the key categories of consideration for environmentally friendliness include:
- Biodegradability - Can the product be decomposed by bacteria or other living organisms? Cotton and wool score high in this category, synthetics like polyester score poorly.
- Petroleum-based production - In 2015, 330 million barrels of oil (Source) were used to make polyester and other synthetics. The energy to produce synthetics along with the pollution impact on making synthetics should be a consideration. While recycled synthetics use 50-60% less energy than virgin synthetics, the carbon footprint is higher than cotton, hemp, and other natural fibers.
- Water Usage - Most people don't realize that 1 cotton tee shirt takes 2,700 liters of water to produce - enough water for one person to drink for 2 1/2 years (Source). Synthetics, wool, and cellulosic materials use much less water than cotton. Given that water is becoming one of the more scarce resources, alternatives to cotton are being examined for use in apparel along with organic cotton that uses just rainwater versus irrigation water.
- Use of Land - How much land is required to produce the material? What is the yield per acre? Cotton scores poorly on this compared to synthetics and the cellulosic materials that produce a higher yield per acre than cotton.
- Length of Use, Quality of Build - Will the product you purchase be around for 10 years or more? Consumers should weigh the cost/quality tradeoff on what they are buying and whether it's going to be around for months or years.
- Potential for Labor Abuse in Production - Certain materials like cotton are typically harvested in low-income countries, where potential for abuse in labor practices can exist. Cut and sew operations can also be in locations that don't practice fair trade. For many products customers don't know where their clothing is made or the condition of the facility and working conditions.
- Use of Washer/Dryer - Does the product require washer and dryer? We all know what happens when we get caught in the rain wearing a cotton tee. Quick dry synthetics many times will be hang dried while cotton scores poorly on this metric as they are the most water absorbent materials (Source) out there and are difficult to hang dry. Given that a household could reduce it's carbon footprint by 2,400 pounds a year by hang drying it's clothes, this is an often overlooked consideration in selecting environmentally friendly materials.
- Microplastics Impact - The most recent consideration is the impact that synthetics have on microplastics. The use of Guppy Bags, Cora Balls, and the installation of Lint Luv filters in washing machines are a start to minimize this impact. Synthetics produce up to 70% of microplastics in recent studies (Source) - so this is the big fail for these materials unless you use the preventative products when you wash.
- Use of Toxic Chemicals and Dyes - Does the material use toxic chemicals and dyes in the manufacturing process? There are certifications now such as OEKOTEX that provide transparency to let consumers know if toxic materials have been used, but not all textile producers have gone through this process. Non organic cotton scores poorly here as does most synthetics unless they carry the OEKOTEX tag.
- Can the Product be Recycled? Can the material be recycled? While all clothing can be donated to Goodwill and doesn't need to be headed to landfill, certain materials, specifically those that are 100% one material - are better candidates for recycling. Blended fabrics (i.e. 50% cotton, 50% polyester) cannot be broken down into their core elements to be re-made into another product - they can be repaired and re-sold or given to Goodwill and can be used as fill for other products. Goodwill accepts ALL textile donations, in any condition (except wet or contaminated with hazardous materials).
- Does the Brand Re-Use, Repair, Donate? Many brands are beginning to create return supply chains. Patagonia was one of the leaders in this space, but others are also accepting used clothes to be re-sold, repaired, or to provide a convenient channel to donate.
- Is the Brand Climate Neutral? This year the non-profit Climate Neutral started to certify brands that offset any carbon emissions from the production and distribution of their clothes - so that the carbon impact from purchasing clothes was neutral. JOOB is proud to be part of this growing list of companies.
So What's a Consumer to Do? Given that there's not an over-arching study on the lifetime carbon contribution to all materials including recycled and organic materials - we thought the basic guidelines would help. But we empathize with the consumer on how to pick the most environmentally friendly clothes - it's complicated. To sum up the above variables in simpler (we hope) terms:
- If you go with cotton, look for organic and fair trade cotton - It uses less water and has less potential for labor abuses than traditional
- If you like wool - look for climate neutral brands who offset the methane/CO2 emitted from it's production. Wool tends to score poorly from a carbon emissions perspective, but highly when it comes to biodegradability, recycling capability, and zero use of the dryer. It's durability and long life also make it a good choice.
- If you go with synthetics, look for recycled and OEKOTEX tagged items - they use less energy, take out plastics and oil from the production process, and use less toxic chemicals. Be sure to use Guppy Bags or other filters to prevent microplastics. As the field of Bioplastics grows, we may see a new category soon in this area that doesn't have the cons of the current synthetics materials.
- Look for cellulosic materials - While they are not as common as cotton and synthetics, these products are looking to be the most environmentally friendly - items such as Tencel, Modal, and newer fibers are being developed such as Nullarbor - are transforming the apparel industry.
- Look for the Climate Neutral tag on any item - Many brands are focusing on their supply chain's CO2 emissions, which would include the impact on the carbon from sourcing to production to distribution. While this wouldn't help you understand the water usage or fair trade elements of their supply chain, it can give you some piece of mind related to carbon footprint impact on what you are buying.
- Look for quality versus cost - With clothes its typically true that you get what you pay for. Look for products that have high quality rankings that will last several years, not just a season.
We'd love to here from you on this topic - send us a note to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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