Most people have at least one area in which they are trying to be better humans, whether that’s buying their veggies from the farmer’s market or supporting a higher minimum wage or participating in the Women’s March.
I think one of the best ways to start getting into sustainable fashion (alternately called ethical fashion, slow fashion) is to connect it with something you’re already passionate about. So I’ve come up with five different topics and connected them with fashion, including words to look for and a few brands to get you started!
If you want to dive in head first, check out my great big giant slow fashion directory!
01. You buy organic veggies and non-factory-farm meat.
You care about where your food comes from and how it was grown. Just like growing food, crops grown for textiles use huge amounts of pesticides and water. Cotton accounts for about 3% of farm crops, yet uses 25% of the insecticides and 10% of pesticides. It takes about 2720 litres of water to make one cotton t-shirt—the amount you drink in three years.
The increased use of pesticides has coincided with a major increase in cancer in farmers and birth defects in their children. If you’re thinking “but food goes inside my body and clothes are just on the outside!” remember: your skin is your body’s largest organ.
What to do: buy organic cotton
Organic cotton obviously avoids using nitrogen fertilizer (and the energy that goes into making it, and the environmental impact of it sitting in the soil and seeping into groundwater). But the roots of organic cotton plants are significantly better at retaining water, which means it uses a whopping 91% less water and 62% less energy to grow.
Look for certifications like:
- GOTS, the Global Organic Textile Standard, which has strict rules about chemical use as well as waste water disposal
- OEKO-TEX, which tests for harmful chemicals and provides four class distinctions based on how close the product will be to your skin (e.g. underwear vs. tablecloths)
02. You believe that workers should earn a living wage.
On January 1, 2018 the minimum wage in Ontario jumped from $11.60 to $14/hour and next year it’s going up to $15. This is part of a larger movement occurring in other Canadian provinces and American states. Behind it is the idea that a business’s success should not be dependent on paying wages so low that staff can’t meet their basic needs.
The fashion industry is well known for low wages and dangerous conditions in its factories. Even brands that say they have regulations in place turn a blind eye when their approved factories subcontract the production to even worse factories—all in order to make cheaper and cheaper garments.
In the year 1900, Americans spent 14% of their household income on apparel. By 1950 that had dropped slightly to 12%. But by 2003 it sunk to a measly 4%, and yet we are buying more clothes than ever before. The decreasing cost of clothing isn’t coming out of the CEO’s take home; it’s being squeezed out of the most vulnerable workers. As journalist Lucy Siegle has said, “Fast fashion isn’t free. Someone somewhere is paying.”
What to do: buy Fair Trade or B Corp certified
You have probably stumbled across a fair trade symbol before, maybe on Ben & Jerry’s ice cream or your Patagonia fleece. Fair Trade certification means that the garments were made in safe factories where the workers earn a living wage—often more than what the country legislates. Similarly, B Corporations “meet rigorous standards of social and environmental performance, accountability, and transparency.”
03. You are vegetarian.
If you’re vegetarian you’re probably onto the whole “don’t buy leather bags” thing. And you know what, you’re onto something. Most leather is tanned using chromium, an extremely toxic chemical that harms factories workers. Its waste often flows directly into waterways damaging the surrounding environment.
For a long time the alternative to leather was plastic, which from an environmental perspective is PRETTY TERRIBLE. If your goal is to save the animals, poisoning/destroying their habitat isn’t a great move.
What to do: buy non-plastic leather alternatives
There are some cool leather alternatives coming out of the plant world:
- Piñatex makes leather from pineapple leaf fibre
- Mycoworks makes leather from mushrooms—and can grow designs right into the mushrooms!
- Plus other alternatives like cork, teak leaves, apple fibres, waxed cotton, recycled rubber, banana trees, and grapes.
People are even starting to make leather-like goods from the bacteria-yeast skin (the SCOBY) that forms on top of Kombucha!
04. You are a card-carrying feminist.
And by card-carrying I of course mean pussy hat wearing.
Women make up 85% of the fashion industry workforce, so improving the working conditions and supports available for fashion production workers has a huge impact on the lives of women throughout the world.
What to do: buy from companies that actually support women
There was an uproar when Beyoncé released her Ivy Park clothing line, because our queen of women’s empowerment was producing her clothes in exploitative Sri Lankan sweatshops. Feminism isn’t just a message. If you want to live out your feminism (you know, walk the walk) it needs to be built into it from the earliest stages—for the most vulnerable women in the chain.
- My Sister employs survivors of sex trafficking and donates 10% of its sales to non-profits that work to prevent trafficking and provide aftercare.
- Sseko employs a team of 50 women in Uganda. The goal is to provide women with the means to go to university, or stable employment for women who have left the commercial sex industry.
- Outland Denim provides employment for girls who have been rescued from sex trafficking.
- Tribe Alive partners with female artisans across the world to employ at-risk women at living wages.
05. You minimize your carbon footprint.
You ride your bike to work, use reusable alternatives to plastic wrap, and bring your travel mug to the coffee shop. You are always looking for ways to reduce the amount of waste you produce.
What to do: buy Tencel, upcycled, or second-hand
Tencel (or lyocell) is known as the world’s most sustainable fabric. It is made from farmed eucalyptus trees; they don’t cut down old growth forests and they don’t use pesticides. The cellulose pulp used to make Tencel is treated in a 99.5% closed loop process, which means that very little waste is produced. It can be woven or knit into a wide variety of fabrics, so your professional trousers and your favourite lounging t-shirt can both be made from it.
The benefit of upcycled or second-hand clothing is pretty obvious—extending the life of clothing reduces the amount that gets made in the first place and the amount that ends up in the landfill.
P.S. Remember to check out my great big giant slow fashion directory!