Fashionista, turn the page. My editor proposed that I take a good look at “green” clothing for this year’s fashion issue—you know, all that bamboo-fiber underwear, and those organic cotton t-shirts popping up at places from the Gap to Wal-Mart to the independent eco-boutique around the corner. Always skeptical, I started reading, and talking, and sure enough, bamboo is a great plant to make clothes from—it grows like a weed, never needs to be reseeded or plowed (no soil loss and erosion) and needs no fertilizers or pesticides, and relatively little water. Organic cotton is also a great improvement on conventionally grown, which is one of the most heavily treated crops we grow, taking some 25 percent of all pesticides used in the United States. And since we’re the world’s largest exporter of cotton, that’s a fuck-ton of pesticides.
But the real problems with clothing come as much (or more) in the middle of the chain of production, and at the end, in the habits of millions of consumers. Cotton, organic or not, is shipped around the world, most often to China, where it is cleaned, spun and dyed. So are wool, linen and hemp. All these processes take huge amounts of energy; dying often involves terribly toxic chemicals, eventually released as wastewater into rivers and streams. The production of polyester and other synthetics is even more energy-intensive and polluting, releasing volatile organic compounds and toxic gases. The EPA classifies many textile manufacturers as hazardous waste generators.
Once the fabric has been made, it has to be turned into clothing. Again, energy is needed to run machinery, and armies of women and children are employed to cut, sew and embellish. In some places, the prevailing wages for workers are as low as 10 to 18 cents an hour, and the working conditions are dangerous and detrimental to workers’ health. And once the clothes are made, they have to be shipped back to us, to be sold.
And sell they do, with a vengeance. The American consumer has been conditioned to buy buy buy, past the point of anything resembling necessity. On average we each buy a new piece of clothing every five days, and we toss out a whopping 67 pounds of textiles each and every year: about four percent of our total waste stream is textiles, and that percentage is rising rapidly. The quantities of clothing in our homes are rising too, necessitating more space, more furniture and bigger closets. How can this be? Well, thanks to the glories of late-stage capitalism, and the advent of $10 jeans and $3.45 tank tops from the likes of Forever 21, Old Navy, Target and their ilk, we mostly buy what we want when we want it. Repairing, mending and recycling (when was the last time you turned a shirt into a quilt, or a dress into a skirt?) have fallen by the wayside as prices have dropped.
Finally, the vast majority of energy consumed in clothing us is used not in producing said clothing, but in keeping it clean. To really green your wardrobe, wash your clothes less frequently: you don’t need to toss everything in the hamper after a couple of hours of wear (and washing wears your clothes out faster too). Jeans and skirts, and lots of shirts, can be worn two or three or four times before they are truly dirty. When needed, use biodegradeable, plant-based detergent, and wash your clothes in cold water when they get dirty.
Eco fashion, unfortunately, isn’t about a new fabric or a new anything: to green your wardrobe you need to buy less and reuse more. Frequent thrift shops and resale joints, and take your discards there when you’re done with them. Use really trashed tees and socks to clean, instead of paper towels. Avoid synthetics like the plague they are, and when you really need some new underpants look to bamboo, organic cotton and hemp. Or check out the beautiful recycled cotton socks at Muji. Because even I won’t get my socks secondhand.