Moral Fibre

When I counted the contents of my wardrobe, I took note of what everything was made of. This is what I found:

59% cotton
22% polyester, nylon or acrylic
15% wool, alpaca or camel
3% cashmere
2% rayon, viscose or bamboo
1% leather or silk

Having an interest in textiles for a long time, I already know most of the issues with different fibres, and that there are none that don’t come with baggage. The above proportions are the product of many year’s accumulation and culling – older clothes that stood the test of time mixed with newer clothes. Fibre-wise it’s a good representation of my current approach to shopping.

So what would I change?

The greatest percentage of fibre in my wardrobe is cotton. It’s my fibre of preference because I have no allergy to it. I always knew there were issues with cotton growing like water-consumption, but I didn’t know how bad it was. The cotton growing industry is rife with water, pesticide, and pollution problems, GM scams and worker abuses. Producing cotton uses more energy than any other fibre, including polyester.

Many of these problems are dealt with or lessened in the production of organic cotton. Usually – though not always – when a brand goes organic they’re cleaning up other aspects of production too. Since I’m a cotton-preferring buyer, I’ll make a big difference by shopping for organic cotton whenever possible.

I’ve already blogged about my shock at how much polyester had crept into my wardrobe, and my determination to not buy any more. While the way polyester fibre is produced, with the fibre being extruded in the colour required, means the potentially polluting and water wasting dye process can be eliminated, many brands are now having basic garments made in the standard ‘greige’, shipped closer to home, then dyed and embellished as required so they can respond faster to trend shifts and meet those “new designs twice a week” aims. Polyester also produces toxic gasses during production, and, of course, uses oil reserves. It takes hundreds of years to decompose. Adding to that, learning that when there’s a house fire these days it turns into an inferno within a few minutes thanks to so much inside being made of petrochemicals has made me even more wary of polyester and it’s kin.

So polyester is out. What to buy instead will depend on the garment. I was disappointed to learn that while Bamboo is a great crop because you just chop off what you need and it grows more, the process of making the fibre is the same as rayon and viscose (which use wood pulp): water-hungry, polluting and toxin producing – and that’s before the dyeing. In the book Overdressed Tencel and Modal were said to be okay, because they’re made in a ‘closed loop’ where the chemicals and water are retained and reused. The trouble with all these ‘cellulosic’ fibres is that it’s hard to remember which are good or bad. To be sure, I’ll buy them through ethical brands.

I have no silk, linen or hemp garments in my wardrobe, but I do have hemp bed linen – a big investment that is paying off as they’ve done exactly as was promise: become softer in time and yet are wearing really well, are warm in winter and cool in summer. None of the books I read touched on the ethics or sustainability of linen, but hemp gets a thumbs up and silk is fine if you’re not a vegan. I’ll be keeping all three in mind as options for fancier clothes.

Merino keeps coming up as a relatively benign fibre, though there are environmental issues with fleece preparation and dyeing if either aren’t done properly. The most famous issue is mulesing, which isn’t fun for the sheep, but necessary to prevent flystrike. Other, less savage methods to combat flystrike are being developed and adopted, however, so if I was going to buy more woollies I might look for producers that are using them in order to support the effort.

Some of the garments in my wardrobe come with particularly gnarly issues:

Jeans
If the cotton growing issues weren’t enough, jeans production is loaded with environmental and worker conditions issues. Whole river systems have turned the wrong kind of blue from dyeing, and the methods used to create wear effects gobble up water and energy, in particular sandblasting, which clogs up the lungs of workers with silica. I’ve always thought pre-distressed jeans were a bit wanky and look for the darkest, un-treated pair I can find, so now I have another justification for doing so. Or maybe wear some other kind of pants.

Cashmere cardigans
I had no idea that bargain cashmere was a thing, but it turns out it is in the UK – where I bought two of my cardigans. However, it has led to overgrazing in Mongolia, destroying what is a unique and very fragile ecosystem. Ironically, this has also led to a degradation of the quality of cashmere. The micron count of cashmere is now so bad you may as well buy merino.

Leather jackets
“The World Bank identifies leather as among the three most polluting industries on the planet” (Wardrobe Refashion, by Claire Press). Tanning produces toxic vapours. Most is chromium tanned. That’s the poison of issue in the film Erin Brockovich. Fifty million litres of it end up in the Ganges every day. And the idea that that leather is a by-product of the meat industry is just that, a nice idea. All but one of my leather coats is second hand. You can get vegetable dyed leather, or products from factories that capture and recycle water and chemicals, so I’m ever tempted to buy leather in future I’ll make sure I buy second hand or from ethical brands.

Fur and skins
There’s no real fur in my wardrobeā€¦ as far as I know. My fur-like shrug is supposed to be fake. However, since real fur is cheaper than fake fur thanks to the growth of farmed fur, sometimes garment manufacturers lie about the source. Often the animal isn’t what the label says either, especially if it was produced in a country where cat and dog fur is already produced in the millions. In some places they practise live skinning to avoid cutting the pelt, and you don’t want to know what they do to snakes. If this isn’t enough to put you off, the processing of fur is as polluting as leather.

Well, while counting the item in my wardrobe seemed bit over the top, I did discover a lot about my clothes. I know what to look for when I want to replace something. Not just seeking out ethical brands, but checking out organic cotton, linen, hemp and silk. Avoiding distressed jeans, seeking out alternatives to jeans. Buying merino (preferably non-mulsed) instead of cashmere. Avoiding polyester and leather. Continuing to be repelled by fur.

Most of all, I’ll try even harder to not buy much at all, because so much of the evils of garment production stems from fast fashion – cheap, disposable clothing sold for ridiculously low prices, pretending to be trendy but really just the same old thing embellished and recoloured in order that stores appear to have ‘new’ styles in their stores every few days.

That issue will have a whole post of its own.