Fashion can be a fun form of self-expression but it can also be extremely damaging to the environment. Sure, most of us are now more environmentally conscious than ever before (which is a great thing), but we can probably shop a bit more sustainably too. Unfortunately, some of the biggest names in sustainable fashion come with a higher price tag than most of us can afford. What student has the spare cash to drop three or four figure sums for lab-grown spider silk or Pinatex?!
Although buying second hand where possible is the best strategy, if you’re going to invest in a new piece, here are some things to bear in mind….
- Cotton has earned a bad name (and rightfully so) for using huge quantities of water and pesticides to produce. Lessen its impact by purchasing clothes made with organic or recycled cotton, which is eco-friendly and biodegradable. Banana Moon and Rapanui sell super affordable organic and regenerated cotton clothes.
- Leather has a higher environmental impact to produce than any other material. However, it can last decades if properly cared for. ‘Vegan leather’ (often touted as a more ethical choice) is mostly made from PVC, a plastic which uses fossil fuels and highly toxic chlorine to produce. It wears out very quickly, does not biodegrade and breaks down into microplastics, which contribute to the destruction of marine life. Pinatex and cork are also used to make vegan leather and are better choices, if difficult to find.
- Hemp requires little water and no pesticides to grow. It’s a much classier fabric than its hippyish connotations might suggest - drapey with a very soft texture - a cross between linen and high-grade cotton. 10/10 we’d recommend.
- Tencel (also known as lyocell and modal) is a semi-synthetic created by dissolving wood pulp - not only is it easy and non-toxic to produce, its breathability makes it an excellent choice for athleisure as well as daywear. Komodo stock stylish tencel clothes. They’re also 100% vegan and cruelty free.
- Linen is more breathable and durable than cotton, and requires less water, less plant waste and fewer pesticides - so it’s a more sustainable choice than cotton as well as a stylish one, but more expensive up front. Although linen is traditionally viewed as a spring/summer fabric, it’s surprisingly insulating, making it a great winter layer. For beautiful and sustainable linen clothes all year-round, check out Linenfox.
- Bamboo is often touted as a sustainable material as it’s ultra renewable and requires little water to grow, but fabrics made from it typically require lots of treatment with harmful chemicals. Bamboo linen is an OK choice, as it’s softened mechanically rather than with chemicals, but it’s expensive and difficult to find.
- Wool is ethically and environmentally problematic, but is a better option than most synthetics in terms of quality and reusability. Wool products last longer than synthetic equivalents, and can be repaired more easily. They’re also more straightforward to recycle. High street fave H&M incorporate recycled wool in their Conscious range and so do Monki. The wool with the lowest environmental impact is alpaca (it’s also incredibly snuggly, so a win-win).
- Non-biodegradable plastics such as polyester, acrylic and nylon are derived from fossil fuels. All shed microfibres when washed, which make their way into the water supply and - eventually - the food we eat. Although they have a smaller environmental impact to produce than cotton and wool, they’re hugely destructive in the long term. Avoid them wherever possible.
Some fabrics, like cotton, have a high environmental cost due to the requirements of their crop. Others become problematic due to more aesthetic considerations.
Denim, a fashion staple, deserves a special mention here, as many of the methods used to distress it are highly destructive to the environment. Stone-washing is a water-intensive process, made worse when chlorine is added to achieve an acid-wash look. Sandblasting involves the highly toxic chemical potassium permanganate which can cause pulmonary oedema (a condition caused by excess fluid in the lungs) when its fumes are inhaled by workers.
The solution? Buy raw (also known as dry), shrink-to-fit indigo denim, which hasn’t gone through any pre-washing or shrinking, and fade it yourself for a custom fit and unique look. A pair of raw denim jeans should actually be worn for at least six months before their first wash.
Nudie sell high quality raw jeans and prioritise sustainability, recycling jeans and offering free lifetime repairs for each pair sold, though they’re a bit pricier than high street denim. A cheaper compromise is to buy from denim brands currently taking action to reduce the water they use and incorporating recycled denim, such as H&M and Levi’s Water<less collection.
Also consider the colour of your clothes when shopping sustainably. Textile dyeing is the second biggest global polluter of clean water (after agriculture) and many of the 8,000 chemical dyes used by the clothing industry are highly toxic as their waste products are dumped into the water supply.
Azo dyes (which make up about 70% of the dyes used in textile making and are responsible for creating high-intensity colour in clothes) are a known carcinogen. Not only do they cause pollution during production, but they’re also absorbed through the skin. Sticking to undyed fabrics is better for your health and the planet’s. But, if you’re craving colour, opt for companies that use CO2-dyeing rather than via traditional industry methods to dye their clothes.
Around 25% of the environmental impact of a piece of clothing comes from the water used to wash it during its lifetime.
Machine washing and tumble-drying drastically shorten the lifespan of many fabrics, including denim and anything with stretch. So it’s a double whammy, wasting water and forcing you to buy more clothes at the same time. Sponge any spills or stains off your denim clothes and put them in your freezer in a plastic bag to kill germs instead - both the planet and your bank balance will thank you. During the summer months, hang them out on the line to dry and let the sun and wind freshen them.
You can also reduce washing by choosing clothes made from antibacterial fabrics. Bamboo linen, tencel, hemp and merino wool are antimicrobial and an eco-friendly choice. Methods of harvesting merino and other animal products are often profoundly cruel, however, so if you’re buying high street make sure you choose brands like Uniqlo, who guarantee no inhumane techniques.
If you’re not sure about the ethics of a clothing brand, eco directories such as Good on You are really handy. Just enter the name of the company and you’ll get a breakdown of their ethics and sustainability. However, you might find you get a bit obsessed and spend HOURS checking every brand you own… or that could just be us.
The bottom line: fast fashion is by definition unsustainable. If you’re not shopping secondhand, it’s better to buy one high quality, ethically sourced garment that you can wear for years than a cheaper alternative you’ll throw away.