The fashion business grows in size each year with more and more people spending their disposable income on looking and feeling good. From “cheap and cheerful” clothing stores up to the designer labels, clothes are big business.
Any industry this big has a very real effect on the environment – either positive or negative – because it serves so many people all around the world and is involved in producing and manufacturing huge numbers of garments each year.
So how green are our normal everyday clothes, and when it comes to eco living, what garments should we be looking to buy?
We use ever more different fabrics to create our clothes but there are a few constants. Examples of these fabrics might include natural fibres like wool, silk or cotton, as well as artificial fibres like polyester or nylon.
Many people, given the choice, would rather choose natural fabrics because they seem to offer more luxury. After all, is an upmarket hotel more likely to offer crisp white cotton sheets or something made of polyester? Artificial fabrics like polyester and nylon conjure up images of cheap, scratchy clothes. Practical perhaps, but hardly exciting.
Many of the man-made fabrics in common use today are in fact based on the use of fossil fuels to create them. Polyester, as an example, is made from PET, the same plastic that is used to make plastic drinks bottles. And we know how good *they* are for the environment. Nylon, too, is made from petroleum.
So if man-made fibres are often bad for the planet, is it safe to assume that natural fibres are better?
In many cases, the answer is in fact “no”.
Cotton is a perfect example of a natural fibre which is tremendously unsustainable. It has been described as one of the thirstiest crops of all, requiring enormous amounts of water to grow. Water that would otherwise be drunk by wildlife, local people or go to irrigate the wilderness or the farms of small subsistence farmers is used to produce clothes for people like you and me.
Certain natural fabrics may prove more environmentally friendly than cotton, but looking across the range of everyday fibres, there aren’t a lot of genuinely sustainable choices.
This isn’t looking too hopeful so far. Unfortunately things are about to get worse. Clothing manufacturing may involve all sorts of highly toxic chemicals which have the potential to harm both wildlife and people should they come into contact with it.
We have also all heard about the sweat shops in developing countries where many of our clothes are actually made. The demand for cheap clothing has encouraged Western retailers to outsource production to countries where wages are lower, and often where working conditions are not up to Westernized standards.
If many of our clothes are made in foreign countries, it also follows of course that these garments need to be shipped thousands of miles around the world to arrive at their final destination. Which means more carbon emissions. And that’s before we even start talking about all the packaging that can go into our clothes.
In other words, the evidence suggests that most “normal” clothes available from your average high street store are very bad for the environment for a huge number of reasons. Unsustainable sources, poor working conditions, environmental pollution, high transport costs and so on.
So what are we to do if we’re not going to all become naturists? Fortunately it does seem as though there are some smart business people at work, creating eco clothes that are not only good for the environment but also look as good as any other clothes. Fibres like hemp and bamboo are being used to create sustainable fabrics. Transport is being kept to a minimum and natural dyes are being used to color cloth.
Eco Business Linkshas a great listing of eco clothing suppliers that is well worth checking out if this topic has made you think about what you wear.