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Sustainable Living

Reducing the Impact Your Clothing Has on the Planet

Photo: Courtesy of Anne Nygård

If you’re reading this, then you’re probably trying to do your part to make conscious decisions about your lifestyle and what you buy.


Shannon Welch

Director of Partnerships, Fashion Revolution USA

You may have heard the term “sustainability” as it has exploded across the fashion industry, and beyond, over the past decade. So, it may surprise you to learn that the efforts to clean up apparel supply chains and their impact on the environment has been in the works since the 1990s. Work by NGOs, non-profits, and activists have revealed alarming practices within the fashion industry.

Throughout many fashion supply chains, toxic chemical leaching, greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, water pollution, and deforestation happen every day. A growing understanding of these issues has sparked a focus on tackling the problems, resulting in the adoption and enhancement of sustainability strategies practiced by many brands. However, alongside descriptors such as sustainable, organic, and ethically made lurks murky non-truths that can be hard to spot. The good news? Deciphering legitimate claims from “greenwashing” doesn’t require a PhD.

How to spot better-made goods

Being a conscious citizen means paying attention and educating yourself. When looking for something new, check to see if the brand includes information on their website about the materials they use, where it was made, if the people making the item of clothing were paid a living wage, and if the brand has a take-back program.

The more information shared usually equates to a more responsible brand that takes sustainability seriously and values transparency. You may check out the top 250 brands in Fashion Revolution’s “Fashion Transparency Index.” However, this report isn’t a sustainability guidebook; it measures brands based on how much information they share. But beware of vague claims such as “made of sustainable materials.” Ask yourself a follow up question: what makes this material sustainable? Is it made of organic cotton? What percent is organic?  Is this piece of clothing a part of a capsule collection? If so, what about the other clothing in its offerings?

Easy-to-spot and trusted third party certifications and standards can make this process easier, helping you to make smarter decisions. For ethically made clothing, where garment workers are paid well and are treated as partners, look for the Fair Trade seal. Materials that come from trees such as viscose and lyocell can be harvested irresponsibly causing deforestation. For those types of materials, make sure they carry the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) logo to ensure they come from responsibly managed forests that provide environmental, social, and economic benefits.

When purchasing products that are made from recycled materials, check to see if they have the Global Recycled Standard (GRS) or are Cradle to Cradle Certified®. For certified organic, look for the Global Organic Textiles Standard (GOTS). Hazardous chemical use isn’t just catastrophic to the environment, it can also cause many health issues for the people making the clothing and the end consumer who wears them. Bluesign® prevents hazardous chemicals from ever entering the supply chain and OEKO-TEX® tests materials to ensure high product safety.

Overall, these certifications provide peace of mind that products were made responsibly, but note that certifications come at a cost and smaller brands may not be able to afford them. Even if a brand doesn’t have any third-party standards accompanying their products, go back to step one and see what information is included on their website. But before making any purchasing decision, always ask yourself: will I get thirty wears out of it?

It doesn’t cost money

You’re probably already doing things that are considered sustainable behavior, like mending clothing when it shows signs of wear and tear or sharing items with friends when they no longer bring you joy. These actions are a part of the Buyerarchy of Needs, created by Sarah Lazarovic, which focuses on keeping clothing out of landfills and in the hands of people for as long as possible.

The Council for Textile Recycling says the average consumer disposes of 70 pounds of textiles per year, so when your clothing does reach the end of its useful life, be sure to recycle it. There are many organizations and brands nowadays that take back clothing from any brand and keep the materials in use. Making more conscious decisions won’t break the bank; your choices matter, and paying attention to your needs will help lower the impact on the planet.

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