Clothing and Sustainability

Clothing is an integral part of human life: it protects from the elements, signals cultural messages, and communicates far more than most people realize. In modern America, we spend a great deal of our income, and our credit card debt, on clothing. The vagaries of the market limit most people to buying off-the-rack clothing that rarely fits well, is not constructed well, and does not last. Corporate practices of astronomically expensive marketing campaigns, use of non-sustainable resources, cheap production overseas, shipping long distances, and selling through high-overhead storefronts accompanied by vast asphalt-covered parking lots are damaging to the environment, and damaging to the economy. But as a culture, we have become so entrenched in capitalistic acquisition, and the system of ready-to-wear clothing production that arose during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, that even when individuals wish to escape this destructive and insidious system, their options are severely limited. Few people even know how to sew anymore, and most of us are not able to see far beyond the system to which we are accustomed. We buy too many clothes, they wear out too quickly, and even when we hate shopping, we buy more clothes.

It hasn’t always been like this. I study historical clothing and needle arts, and I know how different things used to be. Progress is rarely as simple, or as uniformly positive, as it might seem. What I study may seem irrelevant to the larger world, or simply frivolous. I disagree. What I have learned from studying the roles, uses, and construction of clothing in the past has informed my interactions with clothing in modern-day life. I can sew and alter my own clothes, I can alter second-hand clothes for fit and style, I can select materials that will last and that are not made from fossil fuels, and I can plan my wardrobe carefully so as to limit the acquisition of material goods. Using techniques and tricks that would have been obvious to people living during World War II or earlier, I can significantly limit my consumer waste and minimize my spending, while living a more sustainable life in a entirely satisfactory and individualized way.

Often, discussions about clothing and sustainability center on issues of fiber production (for instance, organic cotton versus conventionally grown cotton, or whether bamboo textiles are actually environmentally friendly) and workers’ rights, without fully exploring the many different ways in which the ways that we deal with clothing impact the environment and different aspects of the world around us. What new clothes are made of, and how they are produced, and how that production effects workers, is only part of the story.

It’s not just about what we consume; it’s also about how we consume it, and what we do when we’re done with it.

Food for thought: is it more sustainable to buy a conventionally manufactured cotton shirt second-hand, or to buy a new shirt made from organic cotton? What if the organic cotton shirt was not necessarily made in a factory with fair labor practices? What if the secondhand shop is a charity which helps workers? It’s not always easy to say, and ultimately my point is simply that the relationship between clothing and sustainability is complex and multi-faceted, and that there are many valid ways to approach it.

Personally, I use a combination of approaches:

First, I consume less. I don’t arbitrarily get rid of items in my wardrobe; I keep things and keep using them for a long time. I don’t acquire a lot of new (or new-to-me) clothes anymore, and it’s friendly to both my budget and my planet. I focus on owning garments which can last, and which I will want to keep, so that I can send fewer things to landfills, and so that I contribute to less production-of-stuff in the first place. To this end (and also, because I am in general a very practical creature), I mend or alter existing garments when they need it, and I don’t over-clean clothes. I wash them when they need to be washed, and I don’t use dry cleaners (though I do need to find an eco-friendly dry cleaner to tend to a white cashmere-wool coat which had an unfortunate makeup encounter). I use cold water most of the time, gentle detergent/soap, and minimal heat when machine drying. I hand-wash particularly delicate items, use lingerie bags in the washer for moderately delicate items, and always hang dry anything frilly. I systematically ignore “dry clean only” labels, and usually get away with it quite successfully – but I am very careful about my laundry practices.

Second, I consume selectively. I am very selective about acquiring clothes, and I try to be certain that anything I add to my wardrobe is something I will really use, and which can be reasonably expected to last a long time. This goes for new purchases, secondhand purchases, free items, and things I make myself. I take into consideration the garment’s care needs, and the fibers it is made from; when possible, I avoid synthetic fibers (which are often very toxic to the environment, are uncomfortable to wear, and do not hold up well). Naturally I would prefer fabrics, or garments that are made from fabrics, which are sustainably produced, but I am most often dealing with secondhand clothing and with particular fabrics that aren’t usually available in special environmentally-friendly versions.

Third, I consume specifically. I know what I have in my wardrobe, and I keep a mental tally of what I want, what I need, and what I desperately need. Generally, unless it falls in the latter category or is a really good deal on something genuinely useful (read: that I will genuinely use), I won’t buy it new. I mentally track things like “I need more casual shirts” or “my wardrobe would stretch farther if I had a properly fitting black pencil skirt.” I also keep my wardrobe centered on a color scheme of black, gray, white, ivory, and red. I also have clothes, accessories, and jewelry in other colors, but I hesitate longer before acquiring those things, because they will integrate into my existing wardrobe less easily. Using this color scheme makes it easy for me to mix and match without having an enormous wardrobe. (Except, of course, when I am given, or felicitously acquire, lovely things in colors which don’t coordinate, which always creates new wardrobe challenges.)

Fourth, I consume for myself. I try to either make clothes or alter clothes, and for garments that are unlikely to fit me off the rack – I don’t even bother anymore. I am not interested in wasting my time, my energy, my money, or my planet’s resources on clothing that doesn’t work for me, my body, or my life. I keep myself in mind when I am dealing with clothing. When I have clothes that I like, that suit my life, and that suit my body, I will happily wear them often, keep them for a long time, and continue to use them.

This is, of course, only the tip of the iceberg. I will write more on the subject in entries to be posted, and I will probably edit this page later, but for the moment, I will leave you with a collection of links that deal with the relationship between clothing and sustainability:

This next set of links are more specifically about the relationship between sustainability and sewing one’s own clothing:

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