Last night, my husband and I sat down to watch a documentary called The True Cost, which looks at the true cost of the fast fashion industry that has developed over the past few decades. By the end, tears were streaming down my face and I was overwhelmed with anger at the clothing companies who are getting rich at a very high cost to us. I was familiar with the concepts in the documentary from reading a book called Overdressed: The Shockingly High Cost of Cheap Fashion, but seeing video footage of the problem always makes it hit home harder than words in a book. Clear your evening and watch the documentary (it’s on Netflix); it’ll take 90 minutes of your life and is guaranteed to move you, but to paraphrase a bit of what it covers:
- Fast fashion is a relatively new trend; we went from owning fewer clothes of better quality to more clothes of cheaper quality that wear out quickly and are disposed of quickly. This is causing an environmental crisis because the cost of producing clothing is high to both our environment and people who work in the garment industry.
- 50 years ago, most of clothing worn in the United States was made domestically, but now most of it is made overseas, where ever labor is the cheapest.
- Leather works and locals nearby the factories in India suffer from chromium poisoning and it is leading to jaundice and mental retardation in their children. Are you okay with that being a price that people pay for us to buy cheap clothes? I’m not.
- Thousands of garment workers in Bangladesh have died from buildings collapsing or catching fire in recent years. THOUSANDS. Watch the documentary to understand why this is happening.
- Our trend of throwing away clothing is filling landfills around the world which emit toxic gases. If we donate our used clothes and they aren’t sold domestically, they are sent to poor countries where people can buy large quantities of our cheapest, worst clothes for cheap, killing their local clothing industries and eliminating jobs.
Honestly, there is so much more to say…just go watch the film now. It’s really well-made and you won’t regret it.
What it did not have time to cover is how clothes are a global product; rather than making clothes in the United States where we grow cotton, we send raw cotton to China to be woven into fabric, then that fabric is shipped to another country in Southeast Asia where labor is cheaper to be sewn into a product that will then get shipped back to the United States. Shipping things across an ocean is cheap and thus companies can make a ton of money by sending it wherever in the globe they can get the best deal, but this has a very high cost to our planet. If you aren’t familiar with the problems with the global shipping industry, be sure to watch the documentary Freightened. In a nutshell, we pay people on board low wages to do a dangerous job on ships that pollute our oceans and the air near our ports, cause hearing loss to cetaceans (e.g. whales), and emit insane amounts of greenhouse gases. I had the chance to see the documentary followed by a Q&A with an engineer from the industry who confirmed what the documentary covered was all accurate. But I digress; that’s a story for a different post…
The other thing the movie does not cover is the problem of plastics in clothing; when I was a kid, all of my shirts were 100% cotton. Over the last decade, I have seen them get more and more polyester and nylon blended in. Now, it’s hard for me to find clothing made from natural materials that will biodegrade when I wear them out. Why? It’s dirt cheap and it makes clothing durable, because it’s a product that won’t ever biodegrade, which is part of what makes it so dangerous in my mind. It also gets extremely stinky and has to be washed often, which at face value seems fine for longevity of the garment because it doesn’t seem worse for the wear after all of the washing, but it wastes a ton of water and when you wash it, the fabric sheds microfibers into our water supply that get eaten by fish who accumulate plastic chemicals in their bodies, which as you can imagine, is quite unhealthy for humans to eat. I only learned about the microfiber problem from synthetics in the past year when on Patagonia’s website reading this blog. While it is really great that they are aware of the problem and are looking for ways to minimize the impact of their products on our oceans by offering consumers ways of capturing the microfiber space that shed through installing a filter in your washing machine or washing your clothes in a bag that will catch the microfibers, they are sadly not moving away from designing and manufacturing polyester products themselves. I love Patagonia’s outer layers (which are made from plastic, but I personally don’t know of any good ski jackets made from waxed cottons or other natural fibers) and their dedication to making quality gear that will last, but I stopped using their base layers years ago because I was tired of smelling bad after a day of skiing, replacing them with 100% merino wool base layers from Smartwool, Icebreaker, and Ibex (my favorite sustainable clothing brand who announced they are closing shop a few days ago).
So, what can you do?
We all have a choice: we can either play into this system or opt-out of it. Here are a few simple things you can do without much effort to opt-out of the system:
- Shop less. This is probably the simplest thing that you can do. To get started, unsubscribe to all marketing emails that will try to tempt you to go shopping when there isn’t anything you need and ask company’s sending you catalogs by mail to stop. If you get a newspaper, stop looking at the advertisements that come on weekends. I love getting a deal and so this was hard for me, but I ultimately had more clothing than I knew what to do with and didn’t really need anything. In the end, I saved money, because I stopped buying clothes that I didn’t need. If you think you need a lot of clothes, I challenge you to check out Project 3-3-3.
- Make your clothes last. Are your favorite shoes wearing out? For around $20, you can get them re-soled at a cobbler. Did your leather purse strap break or is the leather starting to break? For a few dollars, you can also get that fixed at a cobbler. Did a button fall off or is a hem starting to come loose? Often times, your local dry cleaner can fix that or if not, a tailor certainly can address it. Did you spill something on your clothes? Immediately put it in cold water and Google how to fix it; my sister swears by putting dish soap on almost any stain the minute it happens and tosses it in the laundry without scrubbing it at all. I’ve only tried it once and it worked like a charm.
- Borrow clothes. If you need a dress to wear to a special occasion and don’t have one in your closet already, rather than buying a dress, try borrowing one for a friend or using a service like Rent the Runway to rent a dress. Not only are you not buying into the system, but you’re saving money.
- Buy used. As a kid, I thought that only poor people shopped at thrift stores. Why buy used, when you could buy new? Then I moved to San Francisco, where I was introduced to higher end thrift stores and learned that I could find designer clothing that was barely worn for reasonable prices in certain neighborhoods. Eventually, I realized that Goodwill also has some gems and the dress that I get complimented on the most was a Goodwill buy. If you love a bargain, rather than shopping sales, shop thrift stores. It’s a better deal for you and the planet.
- Do a clothing swap. Are you sick of what you have? Invite friends to bring clothes they are sick of and shop your friends’ closets. This works best when you have friends who are around the same size as you or each other, so that everyone can find something to go home with.
- Shop smarter. When you do need to buy something, be sure that it is high-quality, won’t go out of style quickly and will last a long time. Ideally, it would be made from natural fibers like organic cotton, merino wool (my favorite fabric for being non-stinky, lightweight yet warm, breathable, and soft), cashmere, silk, alpaca wool, hemp, or even possum (this is popular in New Zealand where possums are ruining native forests due to having no natural predators and it’s very light, warm and soft, but sheds easily). Bamboo rayon is controversial due to the dangerous chemicals used to turn it into rayon, but you see it often at health food stores because bamboo itself is a renewable resource.
Figuring out which brands to buy from is the hardest thing in the above list to do, because it’s really hard to find anyone doing it quite right. I’ve spent the past few years looking into alternative brands that offer good solutions to these issues. Finding the combination of high-quality clothing made from sustainably grown, natural materials that are produced with fair labor practices, made locally is practically impossible to find. The best option I had found was Ibex, but as mentioned earlier, they are going out of business (sob!). If you’re dedicated to continuing to shop, here are some good resources on sustainable fashion:
- 9 USA Denim Brands Actually Making America Great Again This blog has a bunch of great options for jeans. Yes, these jeans will cost more than the cheap ones coming out of a sweatshop in Bangladesh. However, they will last longer too and you should be calculating cost per wear, not purchasing cost. A $20 pair that you were 50 times before it gets a hole costs the same as a $200 pair that you wear 500 times before it gets a hole.
- United By Blue has a great selection of organic cotton t-shirts but some of their other products have poly, so check on fabrics before buying. I have four of their shirts and my only complaint is they are very thin, which is perfect for a hot summer day, but I don’t think these will last many years to come.
- American Giant – all of their clothes are made in the USA. The hoodie that made them famous is made from 100% cotton, but I don’t think it is from organic cotton, which is a bummer.
- Icebreaker sell a few products that are 100% merino wool, but most of their products have become cheapened in recent years with nylon or spandex, and they just don’t last as long as the 100% merino products that I’ve bought in the past.
- Smartwool sell both 100% merino wool product and cheaper products, like Icebreaker. I own a few of their merino base layers, which are thick, warm and soft. They offer fewer everyday styles than Icebreaker.
- Wee Woolies is one of the coolest small brands out there. They have adorable 100% merino wool sleepwear for babies and toddlers that is manufactured in Canada. Their merino is sourced from New Zealand and is processed without toxic chemicals or dyes, which is even more important for children than it is for adults.
- Woolly Clothing has a small but very affordable selection of 100% merino wool for men, with very few options for women. I’m not sure where the clothes are manufactured or if fair trade is important to them, but it is getting harder and harder to find 100% merino clothing, so they’re are worth checking out from that perspective alone.
- Patagonia will repair any gear that fails so you can make it last a lifetime, which is fantastic if you need to buy a synthetic shell for rain or snow. They also offer some organic cotton clothing, which you can filter for in the menu, although some of it gets blended with synthetic materials so be sure to look at the fabric details before purchasing.
- People Tree were featured in the documentary and they focus on fair-trade clothing, which is all quite fashionable and some is made from organic cotton. Their factory workers seemed quite joyous in the documentary and worked in a brightly light, uncrowned factory. Unfortunately, they are based out of the UK so if you’re in North America and want to buy their stuff, it’s getting shipped across the world to make it you.
- Farm to Feet focuses on a 100% USA supply chain for their socks, so the socks are knit domestically. Unfortunately, they blend in nylon and elastic with the wool, but it’s almost impossible to find socks that don’t have this because they tend not to perform as well.
- Darn Tough makes socks in Northfield, Vermont and is so confident that their socks are of the highest quality that they offer an unconditional satisfaction guarantee on their product for its entire lifetime. My brother-in-law is an avid outdoorsman and swears by them. Like with Farm to Feet, they also blend in synthetics, but as previously mentioned, it is almost impossible to find anyone making socks from 100% natural fibers.
- Magnolia Organics aren’t a clothing business, but are worth mentioning here. They make 100% organic cotton bedsheets that come in a fabric bag instead of a plastic one. We got their Dream Collection sheet set a year back and the quality is solid.
If you know of great other brands that should be added to this list, please add them into the comments!