How Eco-Friendly Is This Outfit: Part 1
This is a two part post that was originally shared as a guest post on the Compassion Fashion Blog on October 8, 2018
How Eco-Friendly Is This Outfit
Let’s be real from the start, there is no perfectly sustainable clothing, but we hear more and more every day about how sustainable product x or product y is, and it’s typically a pretty vague proclamation. So how do we even start to determine just how sustainable a clothing item is? First, we need to be clear about what we mean when we say “sustainable”. There are many ways to define it, but for this post I’m going with the triple bottom line that accounts for people, the planet, and prosperity. This would mean that sustainability involves minimizing or eliminating harm to all people worldwide, reducing or canceling out negative environmental impacts, and ensuring this product provides lasting value to our global community. To understand how sustainable a piece of clothing is according to these three factors, we need to consider all of the stages in a garment’s lifecycle, and then identify the impact on people and the planet during each of those stages.
Drawing out a garment’s lifecycle from the cradle to the grave starts with identifying if a fiber began with farming or mineral/chemical extraction. There are 3 main categories of fabrics, those are cellulosic (plant fiber based), protein (animal fiber based), and synthetic (man made fibers). Both cellulosic and protein fibers start with farming, and synthetic fibers start with the extraction of minerals or other chemicals from the earth. The next step is fiber and yarn production, then fabric production, then dyeing and finishing, and finally cutting and sewing. This is then end of the manufacturing part of a garment’s lifecycle, but this isn’t the end of a garment’s lifecycle that has an impact on our world, and to really understand sustainability we need to look further and also consider the retailing of that item, the use and care of that item by the buyer, and finally it’s disposal or repurposing.
The 8 stages I just listed in a garments lifecycle are the bare minimum number of stages an article of clothing will go through, it’s not uncommon for a piece of clothing to to require over 20 steps before it even goes into a retail store, and every step has an impact on the environment and the people who come in contact with it. The main considerations for what impact is occuring are the amount of solid waste produced, the amount of water used, the energy used, and the emissions created. Right off the bat with the farming and extracting you would be amazed at how much energy is consumed and waste is produced. Another important consideration is that the stage in a garments lifecycle that uses the most water is the stage where the buyer is washing and wearing it, so we as individual consumers also play a large role in how sustainable our own wardrobe is.
There is no planet B, and learning about sustainability is our responsibility as global citizens who give a damn. The end goal of sustainable fashion is to produce minimal waste, to do the least harm to people and the planet, and to make sure everyone’s basic need for clothing is fulfilled without going overboard and without forcing us to compromise the valuable culture and individual creativity that is tied to the garments we wear. Now that we have walked through the steps to understanding what all needs to be considered to determine the sustainability of a clothing item, in the next post we will spell out how sustainable each of the common types of fabric, how our care for a garment impacts the sustainability of it, if thrifting your wardrobe and recycling plastic bottles is really helping anything or not, and a few other pieces to the puzzle. So stay tuned!