Hopefully the notion that Greens have to dress in itchy sack-like garments and old boots is way out of date. There are Green fashionistas out there, indistinguishable from everyone else. The fashion industry itself is coming to realise that it needs to do something about its environmental impact. Much of what we read in the mainstream press is about high-end brands and clothes costing hundreds of pounds. Meanwhile high street brands are also taking small actions to lessen their impact – and improve their reputations.
But that doesn’t mean that how we do clothes is all OK. Even clothes made from natural fibres have huge environmental impact. Cotton may not be a plastic like polyester or acrylic but the production of cotton textiles uses up large amounts of resources, such as water and energy, as well as releasing by-products of starch, paraffin, dyes, pesticides and other harmful pollutants into the air and soil.
Each year, over two billion t-shirts are sold worldwide and 520 million pairs of jeans are sold in the U.S. Producing one t-shirt uses 700 gallons of water and one pair of jeans up to 1,500 gallons. A Levi’s plant in El Paso, Texas, uses 15% of the city’s water supply. In a study by Levi’s, researchers found that manufacturing one pair of jeans requires 400 mega joules of energy, and expels 71 pounds of carbon dioxide. The amount of carbon dioxide emitted to produce one pair of jeans is equivalent to driving 78 miles. (Huffington Post)
T-shirts may have travelled thousands of miles across the globe before you buy them. This is hidden from the consumer since labels only tell you where the garment was constructed.
What to do?
If you’re feeling flush, you could always go on sustainable clothing websites. You may be able to find fashion items made from re-cycled textiles or fibres, and WRAP have investigated fibre-to-fibre recycling. Clothes made of organic cotton, British wool or fibres such as bamboo and hemp tend to be more expensive. But then they are also often of good quality – and you can wear them for years. Then you can re-use them as cleaning cloths or patches for other clothes, and even throw them on the compost heap (honest).
Of course, all manufacturing uses energy and other inputs. Growing organic cotton also uses huge quantities of water. Like cotton, bamboo textiles require large amounts of water and energy, as well as dyes and other chemicals as they are processed. Hemp is kinder to the environment than cotton since it grows easily in the right conditions without agri-chemicals or irrigation, but processing it for textiles is complicated. And again there is the transport: hemp was once grown widely in the UK and could be again, but presently hemp cultivation only covers 1000 hectares.
I don’t know of anyone producing clothes from British wool in High Peak, but you can get beautiful sweaters made in Yorkshire from British Swaledale wool on line and in person. I’ve worn them myself and received lots of compliments.
Does it have to be new?
Why not try Oxfam on-line, where you might be able to find anything from a vintage Harrods evening dress to a pair of cheap sandals. To be greener, and avoid the carbon emissions from delivery of your pre-loved clothing, you could also browse the charity shops next time you are out shopping. In High Peak, Buxton is a particularly good place to look for second-hand clothing. Or you could look at other web sites out there, where people a lot cooler than your writer swap clothes - though as with e-Bay, you’d have to make sure that they are not just selling on new clothes.
Recently there have been articles about not buying new clothes for a year. Not buying new clothes, as recently discussed in the media, clearly cuts down a person’s environmental footprint and reduces waste. So does using them for longer: WRAP say that the average lifetime for a garment in the UK is 2.2 years. Extending the active life of clothing by just nine months can significantly reduce its environmental impact.
Some of that impact comes from a garment’s use, especially if it is washed every time it’s worn
in water at 60⁰ or dry cleaned, and then thrown away with the other millions of tons of textiles which go to landfill each year. This impact is, according to some sources, much less than that of production, but clearly the person wearing the garment has much more control over it. .
For example, frequent machine washing and tumble-drying could be responsible for 47% of the environmental damage caused by a pair of jeans. Washing clothes less frequently, in cooler water, and hanging them out to dry, means they’ll last longer as well as saving energy and water. A tumble-dryer uses five times as much energy as a washing machine. Derbyshire is hardly a place where you can hang your clothes up to flap merrily in the breeze each time you dry them, but you could try giving them an extra spin and drying them indoors.
Retail therapy isn't good for our health - or the health of the planet
Frank Trentmann points out in Empire of Things that there are so many clothes in charity shops because we buy too much, not only because we want to dispose of our things responsibggly. Clothing consumption is astonishing: you can read of people who buy a new garment every week. In 2015 the average household spent £1700 on clothes, of which 30% were never worn.
How can it be responsible to buy something which you so emphatically don’t need only to give it away almost unused? And again there’s a financial aspect to this: WRAP estimate that £30 billion worth of clothes is lying unused in British wardrobes.
If everyone really does have so many clothes in their wardrobes, perhaps they don’t even need to go to charity shops. Why not just look in the cupboard and see what you find. It's fun to ring the changes on what you're wearing but that doesn't need to mean buying more. Different combinations can look great. Maybe you'll find that your once-favourite sweater has a hole. You could darn it! Maybe ask a friend to help. For special things, even pay to have them mended or altered.
At the moment, our economic model depends on us going out and buying ever more stuff. But as behaviour changes the economy will adjust. There could be more jobs in repairing and restyling clothes. And those jobs would be local - not on the other side of the planet.
Dressing Greener (in any colour)
The Green Party’s policies for natural resources and waste management would help reduce the environmental impact of the clothing industry, through supporting ways of growing the raw materials more responsibly, the development of new textile technologies and recycling and re-use initiatives.
WRAP has advice for all stages of a garment’s use, from buying to disposal and recycling.
A less needy relationship to fashion
It’s easy for a Green to say that people buy too many cheap clothes they don’t need. This doesn’t take into account the huge pressure on people to be fashionable, to shop, to wear new clothes. On top of this, clothes, even more than other possessions, are often integral to a person’s sense of themselves – even for those who always buy organic cotton or shop at charity shops. So it may be difficult to persuade people to buy fewer clothes, to shop with the environment in mind, and to wear what they already have more frequently.
The psychological and social pressures to consume clothes are complex, but the Green Party’s Political Programme and many of its policies for covering social welfare would contribute to the resilience which might reduce people’s dependence on throw-away fashion.