Today, many of us are more in tune with where our food comes from — we can even go so far as to buy directly from the farmer who grew our veggies or harvested a pasture-raised chicken. Having this knowledge empowers us to make choices that improve the health of the planet and our bodies. However, most of us don’t have that level of understanding when it comes to our clothing. And yet, like food, getting dressed is something we often do multiple times per day going from sleepwear to activewear to workwear and back again. Deciding what we put in our bodies and on our bodies are opportunities to exercise our values. But in order to make choices that reflect our values, we have to understand the options.
Let’s start here. Clothing, like food, comes from the earth in surprisingly similar ways:
But it can also come from manmade process:
So which one is better? Well, it depends on how you want to define better — do you value water use? Carbon emissions? Microplastics? Each type of fiber impacts the environment differently. If you want to learn more about the environmental footprints of products, check out the Sustainable Apparel Coalition’s Higg Index.
At a basic-level, most fibers have a main ingredient that is derived from petroleum (i.e. from crude oil). For synthetic fibers there are a series of chemical and melting processes using petrochemicals to create yarn; and for natural fibers grown conventionally the use of fertilizers and pesticides made from petrochemical sources encourages crop growth and yield.
The impact is not small. Clothing is responsible for about 3% to 6.7% of global human-caused CO2 emissions. (By the way, if you want to calculate your own environmental footprint try out the Footprint Calculator by the Footprint Network, it’s fun and easy to see how to change your life to be kinder to the earth.)
Producing synthetic fibers for textiles uses an estimated 342 million barrels of oil every year, and the production of cotton is estimated to require 200,000 tonnes of pesticides and 8 million tonnes of fertilizers annually. For perspective, cotton cultivation globally consumes about 16.5% of all pesticides used annually — that is more than any other crop.The amount of oil we use to make synthetic clothing every year is equivalent to filling our 20-gallon tanks 342,000,000 times… and if we fill-up once per month for 90- years, this enough gas for 322,222 people!
Unfortunately, the impacts of clothing production are growing. According to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, consumption of non-renewable resources of the textile industry, including oil to produce synthetic fibers, fertilizers to grow cotton and chemicals to produce, dye and finish fibers and textiles is expected to triple between 2015 and 2050 from 98 million tonnes to 300 million tonnes. The textile industry’s share of the global carbon budget is going from 2% to 26% in the same timeline (based on maintaining a 2-degree increase scenario). And it is estimated that again between 2015 and 2050, 22-million tonnes of microfibers will be added to the ocean.
So what to do? How do we make choices that reflect our internal awareness and love for the planet?
Start with buying less. Then be discerning when you shop. Look for clothing made with recycled fibers (recycled polyester, cotton and wool can be found) that also claims to be high-quality — check the warranty, if a brand has a great return and/or warranty policy then they likely are making high-quality products. And make sure you buy things that you think you’ll wear for a long time because they are classic styles and not so trendy that you’ll be over them in a month. Care for them properly so that they last longer and if they are not being used, find them a new home.
The takeaway? Buy fewer things of higher quality that are made responsibly. And take really good care of them! (we’ll take more about caring for clothing in a future post)
Do these changes make a difference?
Yas! WRAP UK reported impact of changes in textile lifecycles between 2012-2016 including more energy efficient washing and drying of clothes, use of growing secondhand sales and online exchange platforms and increased use of sustainable fibers that resulted in an 8.3% reduction in carbon emissions and 6.9% reduction in water use per tonne of clothing in use.
Just like food, there are choices that are better for our body and the planet. And similarly to needing to eat, we also usually have to wear clothing therefore, the most important thing we can do is educate ourselves to empower us to make choices that reflect our values.
Amiga Yoga is committed to helping make information accessible through our blog and providing our community with sustainable product choices.