One Small Step: Wear the Change
Changing clothing habits is an easy fix to 11 environmental calamities
They always find me. Even in a new state, the clothing catalogs have wormed their way into my mailbox, trying to allure me with spring fashions. This deforestation theme of mailers used to drive me crazy. But in the grand scheme of carbon and pollution, it’s not the uninvited catalogs that are the big environmental issue, it’s what we order from them.
Clothes are a surprisingly big player in nature’s woes. A couple of years ago, the United Nations even dubbed fashion an environmental emergency.
Clothes are also something that our singular voices have a lot of power to fix.
The Ugly Side of our Pretty Clothes
Carbon: fashion accounts for 10 percent of greenhouse gas emissions worldwide. Synthetic materials like polyester and acrylic are especially high-carbon, high-heat manufacturing endeavors (not to mention that synthetics themselves are largely made from petrochemicals). By 2030, polyester is projected to make up almost three quarters of the textiles market, while creating carbon emissions equivalent to the output of two Australias.
Water: cotton crops require a lot of water, like 1,800 gallons for a pair of jeans. The clothing industry is the world’s second-largest user of water, after farming. Just the process of dying uses roughly two billion gallons of water each year. That’s alarming, as towns like Cape Town, Jakarta, São Paulo, Cairo, Beijing, and others are approaching “day zeros,” that moment when residents turn on the tap and nothing comes out.
Pesticides: non-organic cotton crops are problematic, because while they take up just 2.4 percent of farm land, they account for 25 percent of all pesticide use.
Plastic: still, synthetic fibers are probably worse. All of those yoga pants, fleece jackets, and sport-wicking T-shirts are made mostly from virgin plastic, and shed microplastics in the wash, which end up in rivers, oceans, and even raindrops.
Dyes: many dyes are made from harsh chemicals, all souped up with salts, alkalis, and heavy metals used to afffix color to thread. Three quarters of all water used by dye mills becomes undrinkable waste, which gets dumped into rivers, and kills ecosystems.
Pollution: other toxins come from PFAs, or forever chemicals, which are used to make waterproof clothing, softer shoes, stain-resistant carpeting, and a lot of other things that you’d probably rather not know about, like food wrappers. PFAs rise from smokestacks and also get dumped into rivers, where they cause problems for animals and people, like hormone issues (a.k.a. endocrine disruption, which leads to diseases like obesity, cancer, and infertility) and altered DNA in future generations.
Human rights: some of the chemicals used in Indian dye houses are toxic enough to be banned in Europe. Workers are exposed to these. Of course, there’s also the better known array of human-rights abuses and child labor problems rampant in the clothing industry.
Crops: many natural materials come from genetically modified seeds, which are expensive for farmers and are believed to create a host of environmental problems.
Shipping: one T-shirt can be the product of many countries, from the crops, to the processing, weaving, dying, sewing, and ultimately shipping on ocean freighters, before being trucked to a storefront or our front porch. That’s a lot of oil, not to mention the harm that the noise from big ships does to whales and other sea creatures.
Landfills: our used-up clothes degenerate and release greenhouse gases, along with plastic toxins that can leach into the ground for hundreds of years. Worse yet, once the fashion has passed, fast-fashion companies sometimes toss their new clothes straight into the dumpster, before they even hit the shelves.
Animal cruelty: those of us who love the outdoors adore down. But most down is a high-cruelty product. Geese are emotionally sensitive animals. They mate for life. Some down comes from conditions too awful to write about (think bi-monthly live plucking for years).
Towels and bedding: yep, same issue as clothes.
Longevity, A More Fashionable Mindset
Many people are working on industry-scale solutions, like creating biologically inspired dyes, switching the fashion grid to renewables, and using regenerative agriculture and organic crops — all while trying to protect the well-being and incomes of vulnerable garment workers, who are primarily women.
But while they’re working on that, there is a lot we can do — a lot we must do.
Un-fasion: let’s decide shopping is not a hobby. It’s not worth it to buy something just because it’s on sale. If we can jettison our cheap, throwaway mindset, we can focus on buying only the most useful items. This isn’t too hard to do. After all, the latest fashion trends don’t look so cool when we know the ecological nightmare left in their wake.
Buy used: there is real power in used clothing, since the damage has already been done.
Swap: bored with an outfit? Trade it with a friend.
Be gentle: treat clothes as if they are special. Mend them. Wash them gently.
Repurpose: once they’re worn out, turn them into cleaning rags, sew them into produce bags, and let imagination take over.
Start a mend co-op: not everyone is good at sewing, but some of us are, and we can do it for others in our community. The co-op could even be a place to swap clothes and stories with neighbors. This idea is good for more than just wearables. Think furniture and small appliance repair, and libraries of tools, crockpots, weed whackers, and other useful things.
Buy natural: when you do buy new, natural fibers like cotton, hemp, linen, silk, and wool are usually a bit better for nature. If you can afford organic, even better. Also, showing consumer support for regenerative fibers will give incentive to more companies to make that switch.
As for down: some companies are starting to use down sourced as a byproduct of the meat industry, which means it's only plucked once the geese are killed. Other performance companies have come up with vegan-friendly alternatives. If you're getting rid of a down anything, don't throw it away. Someone will want to reuse the insides. It's too precious to waste.
A bit about donations: Unfortunately, a lot of our clothing donations go to the landfill. A good deal of them used to go overseas, where they would be worn again, recycled, or reused as rags and stuffing. But that market has dried up. So, try to find charities that resell clothes locally, and only donate what seems resellable. Better yet, first try giving it to a friend or family member.
More resources: For more about the environmental impacts of the fashion industry, here’s a good article from the BBC, and another from the Washington Post. Vogue has some ideas on fixing dyes. And the climate newsletter Hothouse has some good in-depth coverage as well.
For getting the most out of your clothes, here’s a good one from the Guardian.
Atlas Obscura is even hosting a class on innovative mending ideas. It starts March 10.
News From the Valley
It’s been another good week out here in the boonies. Steve found the septic tank lid, and even better, it appears to be a modern, functioning system. He also rebuilt the back wall of the house. Pretty impressive.
On our day off, we had a stroke of luck. We were driving around exploring, when we happened upon a maker of windows. We had been struggling to find a good place to order them from, and now we have a local option. The best of all worlds. The place is run by a delightful Amish family, with two of the friendlies Aussies we’ve ever met. One actually give hugs.
As far as other nature in the Valley, in the evening we’ve been hearing owls chatter. They change their noises when they’re talking amongst themselves, but the most repetitive call is a short who, a long who, and then a short one. Anyone know what species they might be? We haven’t been able to spot them yet, but we haven’t tried too hard, as we don’t want to disturb them with a flashlight.
A parting thought.
Sunsets are more than just pretty views. Scientists have found that watching sunsets has positive psychological effects, like reducing stress, becoming more empathetic to others, and enhancing a long-lasting satisfaction of life.
That’s all for now. Have a great week and keep up the good! And if you like what you just read, one way to speak up for nature is to share it!
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