How to Choose Eco-Friendly Garments
1. Choose Local Production
According to the U.S. International Trade Commission, the U.S. imported $127.7 billion in textiles and garments during 2020, largely from China with Vietnam growing in importance. Shipping from overseas clearly exceeds the environmental impact of transportation within the continent. When possible, choose brands that manufacture in the U.S.
2. Consider Environmental Impacts
Published studies report that between 3% to 8% of total carbon emissions are due to the textile industry. It is tempting to think that leather, cotton, bask fibers (jute, flax and hemp plants), and wool are more eco-friendly than petroleum-based synthetics (polyester, nylon, rayon, etc.), however the report “Reducing the footprint? How to assess carbon emissions in the garment sector in Asia” published in March 2021 by the International Labor Organization suggests otherwise. The analysis considered five factors:
Abiotic Resource Depletion: The depletion of nonliving (abiotic) non-renewable resources such as fossil fuels, minerals, clay, and peat used primarily in gathering of raw materials and for energy during manufacturing.
Eutrophication: The production of nutrient waste, which frequently reaches land and water sources where it creates an unnatural growth of plant-life and algae and results in the death of animal life (fish and aquatic animals in particular) from a lack of oxygen.
Global Warming: The emission of greenhouse gasses during extraction of raw materials, processing, and manufacturing.
Water Damage: The contamination of water used in extraction, processing, and manufacturing.
Here are the results:
It turns out that natural fabrics leather, silk, and cotton have the highest impact on the environment. And bast fiber like jute and wool are high as well. However, it is important to consider the long term impact of garment purchases as well. Typically,
“Low-impact” translates to “Low cost” and the downside of cheap petroleum-based fabrics like polyester and rayon is that they allow consumption of more garments. Cheaper garments, manufactured with cheap designs, have led to a surge in “Fast Fashion” defined as a garment that is owned for less than 30 days and discarded, most often to a landfill. Purchasing a larger number of low-impact items does not result in an overall benefit to the environment. And that flips the equation on its head.
For example, the purchase of three rayon tops in the spring has 150% of the impact of a cotton top worn for those three months and a 450% impact over a cotton top that is worn each spring for three years. So high-quality, timeless garments made from natural fibers are still a better solution for the eco-conscious consumer.
3. Consider Ethical Factors
Although bast fiber production has the 4th largest environmental impact, they comprise only 4.5% of the total textile industry and reportedly provide much needed employment in poor communities in India and Bangladesh. This humanitarian impact would seem to outweigh the relatively small environmental one.
4. Choose Second-Hand
What’s even better than a new, high-quality, timeless garment? A locally sourced garment purchased second-hand and worn as-is, modified to your own style, or repurposed into a new item. That’s why I upcycle leather, wool, and cotton garments into purses.
I hope you will, too!