The shameful past
Before becoming a parent, I had little to no interest in eco-friendly textiles and how ethical my clothes were. My garment choices were primarily based on design and sometimes based on price. I rarely read the clothing label, except for (some) home clothes, expensive pullovers and sockets.
Most of my wardrobe was, at that time, made of synthetic fabrics like nylon, polyester and acrylic (here’s a list of synthetic fabrics and the synthetic fibers that make them). From pilates leggings to casual dresses, I was wearing a lot of plastic, on a daily basis.
After I became a parent, things suddenly changed. My child had atopic dermatitis (a condition that makes your skin red and itchy) for months and there’s no cure for this skin condition. It became pretty clear to me that I had to avoid synthetic fabrics for the baby’s clothes and switch to more natural, eco-friendly laundry detergents, among other things.
I made a promise to myself that from that moment, I would always read the clothing label and choose not to buy that piece of cloth if there’s more than 5% synthetic fibers within the fabric (the 5% being granted to elastan fibers, which make the clothes more stretchable).
Natural fabrics — the options
Cotton is by far the most suitable & affordable fabric for babies: it’s less itchy than wool and cheaper than silk (given that babies change the cloths size every 2–3 months for the first year of life). Problem is, if you’re used to buy your clothes from big retailers like Zara, H&M, Mango etc, then you’ll soon find out that most baby clothes contain some percent of synthetic fabrics (apart from the 5% elastan fibers mentioned above). Or are made entirely of synthetic fabrics. The reason? Synthetic fabrics are cheaper because they are made from chemicals, not from crops that need to be sowed, watered, harvested and processed. Plus, the production of synthetic fabrics does not depend on weather and seasons, which makes them ideal for the fast fashion sector.
Since sheep breeding gives us not just wool, but meat and milk also, then we would be tempted to think that wool is a not so bad environmental option for making baby clothes. The reality is worrisome, if you take into account cow & goat breeding too (which are sources of leather, wool, cashmere).
“Ruminant livestock produce about 80 million tons of methane (CH4), accounting for about 28% of anthropomorphic emissions each year”, says a study by Caroprese M., Albenzio M., Sevi A. (2015).
In my country, wool was the traditional fabric for centuries. Some modern parents still dress their children in wool clothes entirely, all year around. If you live in Bucharest and visited the brick&mortar HipHip.ro shop at least once, chances are you’re a big fan of wool clothes for babies.
I remember when I dressed my child for the first time with a 100% wool body. His first reaction was literally ‘Down, down!’ and started to pull off his body cloth. He was just 1 year and 8 months old and barely speaking, but somehow managed to communicate that he hated that wool cloth.
Wool & silk mix
Baby clothes made of a mix of wool and silk are softer, but very expensive (starting from 17€ for a wool and silk body). Remember, babies and toddlers grow fast (they change the clothing size a couple of times a year) and are messy (especially if you train them to feed themselves as early as possible). And after they start kindergarten, you’ll need one pair of changing clothes everyday. Literally. Because paiting… And DYI activities... And muddy playing in the kindergarten court… etc (if you’re a parent, you know the drill).
I had a similar itchy experience with linen, when I dressed my child in a mix of cotton & linen summer shirt. Linen is a bit itchy even for adults, based on other family experiences. If you ever scratched your skin with the clothing label (or you’re used to cut the clothing label to avoid itchy sensations when wearing the clothes), then linen is most probably not suited for you for direct-to-skin clothes.
Lessons learned. And a new quest
Cotton clothes are soft and versatile and an excellent choice for babies/adults with very sensitive skin. Problem is, production and processing of cotton uses a large amount of water. “Cotton is the most widespread profitable non-food crop in the world. Its production provides income for more than 250 million people worldwide and employs almost 7% of all labor in developing countries. Approximately half of all textiles are made of cotton. Current cotton production methods are environmentally unsustainable”, says a study of WWF.
“Some experts contend that cotton is the largest user of water among all agricultural commodities”, according to WorldWildLife.
So the organic cotton option was born, in a quest to reduce the water consumption and the chemicals needed for both cotton crops and cotton fabric manufacturing.
Later on, textile certifications appeared, as a proof that claims of retail companies are backed up. A solid textile certification is one that monitors the whole chain of production, from field to finished product.
My new quest, as a parent, was to search for and buy organic cotton clothes, as often as possible. Big retailers like Zara, H&M and Marks & Spencer sell baby (children) clothes made of organic cotton, all year around, at affordable prices.
But a new question arises: how do you know if a cloth labelled as ‘organic cotton’ really is organic? Shouldn’t the price tag reflect the fact that a cloth is made of 100% organic cotton?
“Like many crops, yields (per hectare) in organic cotton farms are typically significantly lower compared to conventional methods”, Wikipedia says.
Then how come a pack of 3 organic cotton shirts for small children can cost only 10,95€ at Zara Kids (roughly just 3.6€ for one piece of cloth)? Or a pack of 3 organic cotton tank tops for small children can cost only 9,99€ at H&M? And how come a shirt made of organic cotton, produced in EU, starts from 17,45€ (85 lei) a piece?
The devil is in the details
If you read the clothing label, you’ll notice that most clothes are made in Asian countries like China, Bangladesh, Vietnam and India. These countries have little laws and regulations to protect their workers against management abuse or economical crisis like the one generated by the newly coronavirus (SARS-COV-2).
The answer to cheap organic cotton clothes is cheap labour. And sometimes child labour. According to the International Labor Organization, about 152 million young people engage in child labor every single day.
“In developing-world sweatshops, workers’ wages still account for as little as 0.5% of the retail cost of a garment — just 25 cents of the price of your $5 T-shirt”, says an ex sweatshop worker.
Not to speak of the lack of environmental laws (or insufficient regulations) to keep in control the air, water and land pollution generated by the fashion industry.
Conclusion? An organic cotton cloth isn’t necessarily an ethical product. It may be better for the environment, compared to its conventional counterpart, but if you miss the social impact, then your organic cloth isn’t better overall.
No certification on many ‘organic cotton’ clothes
I can tell from past shopping experiences (both in stores and online) that this year I observed an increased number of ‘organic cotton clothes’ available from various brands. Yet many of them don’t display any third party certification on their clothing label, like GOTS, OEKO-TEX, BCI, Cradle to Cradle etc (full list of textile certifications here). Which is shady.
Here’s a possible explanation for the lack of textile certifications on many organic cotton clothes from major brands: “As companies try to cut down on costs to boost economic recovery, they are more likely to indulge in “greenwashing”, says an article from Vice.
Fabrics — the environmental impact
If you want, like me, to build a more eco-friendly wardrobe in time, a first step would be to learn which fibers are best and worst for the environment and keep that in mind next time you go shopping. Second step would be to check the clothing label for informations like fibers that made the fabric and country of origin.
For me, the following table helped a lot and I saved it on my smartphone for future reference. Made-By was a not-for-profit organisation with a mission to ‘make sustainable fashion common practice’, says this Good On You article.
This summer, I started the purge on my wardrobe: I donated many synthetic summer clothes and replaced them with more natural, eco-friendly versions: 100% lyocell t-shirts, 100% linen t-shirts, 100% organic cotton t-shirts, 100% lyocell dresses. I started to avoid clothes with more than 45% synthetic fibers — this would be my new worst choice in terms of fabric awareness.
Steps for a more eco-friendly, ethical wardrobe
0. Rate your current wardrobe
Step zero is the most important. You cannot understand the journey if you don’t know well your starting point. Make sure your closet is well organised and all of your clothes are in plain sight and worn during a full year (if you need advice on this topic, here’s a start). Donate the clothes you haven’t worn at all in the last 365 days and learn which types of clothes you really need based on weather and occasions. Count the clothes made of natural fibers (see above table) and put on their hanger a small sign, like a green ribbon, to mark them for stay (eco-friendly items). Estimate the overall rating of your wardrobe by looking how many hangers have a green ribbon on them, at the end.
1. Check the brands you’re used with
Prepare yourself for the next shopping experience by learning how eco-friendly and ethical your favourite brands are and what eco-friendly/ethical options they offer.
Ethical fashion apps like Good On You take into account 3 major aspects in order to rate a fashion brand as ethical: people, planet and animals. You can check on their website/app the rating of a certain brand, with 5 possible results:
- Good (Marks & Spencer)
- It’s a Start (H&M, COS, Wolford, Uniqlo, Gap)
- Not Good Enough (Zara, Oysho, Massimo Dutti, Stradivarius, Mango, Victoria’s Secret, Guess, Petit Bateau, Next)
- We Avoid (Intimissimi, Calzedonia)
The examples above are just some of the brands I use for me and my family. As you can see, my wardrobe is still full of “Not Good Enough” brands :( . This needs to change. Once I learned my favourite brands’ ratings, I began to buy much less from them. And my future goal is to ditch them forever, as soon as I find a more local, more ethical and more eco-friendly alternative.
Note that not all brands are rated by this Good On You app, so you might need to research further if you want to know the ratings for your personal brands.
2. Find local clothing brands
One of the rules of thumb for any eco-friendly shopping initiative (whether it’s about food or clothes or cosmetics) is to buy local. If you live in the European Union, for example, then buying a product that is made in EU (or better, in your own country) means you have a guarantee that environmental laws and social laws were respected during the fabrication of that product. Plus, you would save fuel from transport, instead of importing something from another continent.
3. Find local clothing brands that use eco-friendly fabrics
Organic cotton clothes made in your country? That’s even better than a traditional cotton cloth made locally. Beware that the cutting and sewing part of making a cloth may be made locally, but the fabric may be imported. Not all countries have a tradition with textile weaving factories, but at least you can ask this type of information when you search for a local brand to stick with.
4. Avoid the malls
Malls are full of fast fashion brands like Zara, Oysho, Stradivarius, Bershka, H&M, Forever 21 etc. Local brands might be present in some malls, but they usually have other brick and mortar shops in the city too (mall rents are huge). Plus, the temptation to buy some cloth you don’t actually need is bigger when you see everyone around you with at least one shopping bag.
5. Always low budget? Buy second hand.
Avoid synthetic fabrics, at least for babies (see table from above — synthetic fibers are the worst). Buy second hand cotton clothes. Look for programmes or charity chops that sell cheap clothes, but made of cotton, linen and other natural fibers.
6. Buy less clothes, less often.
This rule is not for everyone at first, but even a young adult will develop in time her/his own fashion style and therefore can start to stick to the basic types of clothes they need during each one of the seasons.
In a world devastated by the newly coronavirus (COVID-19), more and more people started to search for more eco-friendly alternatives, clothes included. Do your best and try to build, in time, a more eco-friendly and ethical wardrobe, both for you and your family. Teach your children how to choose smart, durable and eco-friendly clothes, once they start buying clothes for themselves. Read annually the status of major retail brands in terms of policies and promises they make for a better, greener future. And share with us what worked and didn’t work for you on your personal journey towards a more sustainable wardrobe.