Ethical clothing 101
When you have small children, choosing an outfit is less of a thing. Getting up I grab the closest clothes equivalents I can find. It’s only hours later, maybe 8 am, that I catch a glimpse of my reflection as I pass a shop window. Then I notice my already patched trousers have three holes in and discover the massive grease stain over my left boob. And I realize that under it all, my bra is a threadbare rag.
Cue a consideration on ethical clothing and the following ‘long read’ article. For some ethical underwear suppliers, skip half way down.
The cost of new clothes.
The clothing industry is basically a horrible thing.
As a teenager, I remember the excitement of being able to buy my own clothes. I remember browsing New Look for cheap dresses and being amazed that I could get a new Primark vest top for just a few pounds. Excellent value.
Or is it? Think about that T shirt. Can it really cost three pounds? Think of the cotton that grew; The water, land and fertilizers that were used. The farmers who cared for it and picked it. The transportation of the cotton and it’s transformation into fabric. The dying process. The movement of the fabric to a garment factory, the people and energy used to cut it up, sew it up, package it. The international flight it took to get to distribution warehouse. The workers there. The long lorry journey to the well heated and well lit superstore.
No, a T shirt does not cost three pounds. If it does, that is because corners are cut. Workers and the ecosystem are abused. The cost is still there, it’s just not to you. It’s passed on to other people.
Slavery is not a thing of the past . The Walk Free Foundation estimates that 24.9 million people are in forced labour. Of the products we buy in the west, it’s electronics and garments that are most at risk of having slave labour in their supply chains.
But obviously not all garment industry workers are slave. Some are paid. But are they well paid? No. They are often not paid well enough to actually live and work in horrifically unsafe conditions. Labour behind the Label is a great organisation to follow if you want to campaign on garment workers rights.
So that’s people.
If the human suffering isn’t enough to make you consider what you wear how about the environment?
It was interesting finding references for this bit. The trouble is, when trying to make ethical choices, there are just so many different things in the textile industry that harm the environment!
For me, the climate crisis is the foremost concern. Basically the carbon footprint of clothes is big. The textile industry produces 1.2 billion tonnes of CO2 equivalent per year. That’s more than international air travel or the shipping industry. 60% of these textiles are used to make clothes.
The figures for carbon footprint per item vary wildly, but in general, polyester fabric has nearly double the footprint of cotton. Organic cotton has half the footprint of normal cotton; that’s those massive footprint nitrogen fertilizers right there! (Ref)
Care about bees at all? Worth doing. They are cute and fuzzy, plus a vital part of our ecosystem. Also, there’s the human-centric fact that three quarters of our global fruit and seed crops need pollinators. Well, cotton farming uses 24% of the worlds insecticides and 11% of the worlds pesticides. Seriously sad times for pollinators (ref). More points for organic.
Then you have water footprint. The estimates vary wildly again. On the lowest end of what I could find is a suggestion that the life of one cotton T shirt uses 2, 700 litres of water. That’s enough to keep a person alive for 2.5 years. (ref )
Reading all this negative stuff about cotton, I wondered if maybe synthetic is better… but there’s the double carbon footprint thing. And if that’s not enough there’s the long term pollution issue.
Plastics just do not go away. My son uses bath toys from my childhood 30 something years ago. My partner once accidentally left a polyester T-shirt on a mountainside after a climbing trip. He returned several years later and found it lying there, exactly as it was. And this the beginning of these items lives. Their giddy youth.
With synthetic textiles, every single wash, you are releasing microplastics. These are teeny tiny little bits of plastic that get into the waterways and oceans. They’ve been found in fishes tummies, in drinking water, even up mountains. And what impact do they have? We basically don’t know yet. (more reading here)
OK, so that’s a lot of problems. What about a few solutions?
Fix: Don’t do fast fashion
This is a really easy one.
A key way to reduce your impact is to reduce your consumption. In 2014 the average consumer bought 60% more items of clothing but kept them half as long. What?! Just don’t buy single use new clothes!
Instead try to:
- Use clothes until they wear out. If you don’t like them, give them to a friend or a charity shop.
- If they get a hole, learn to fix it. Holes in T shirts and trousers are easy to fix. If you can’t sew, get an iron on patch, you can even get beautiful ones so you can pretend it was on purpose. Even darning socks is perfectly doable and once you get the hang of it can be done while vegging out watching a film. Professor pincushion has some good You Tube tutorials.
- When clothes wear out beyond repair don’t throw them in the bin. Use them as rags for cleaning, make dolls clothes or hankies. If they are beyond use or you have run out of capacity for mending send them to be recycled. Or if it’s a wooly jumper use it to mulch a plant and protect it from snails.
Fix: Think about how you wash.
This is such an easy fix: Wash at lower temperatures, with lower spin speeds and air dry rather than tumble drying.
These measures all save energy so reduce your energy bills and carbon footprint. I was interested to discover while researching this article that they also reduce microfibre shedding.
For an extra feel good factor, look into eco friendly detergents, of which there are loads these days: From home made conker soap to refillable ‘normal’ detergent.
Fix: Buy second hand
Most of my clothes are second hand. Usually from charity shops. If you have more expensive taste go to shops in the posher areas of town. My child is mainly clothed in hand me downs from friends. When we can’t get out or need something more specific facebook market place and ebay are easy ways to treat ourselves to some choice second hand outfits.
I remember the shopping trip when I was converted to charity shops. I don’t know how old I was but I had expressed an interest in buying my own clothes. My mum decided to treat me while also teaching me a lesson. She gave me a budget and set me loose to browse, first a high street shop (maybe H&M), then a charity shop. I realized I could get one pair of trousers new or several outfits, some books and change by buying second hand. I haven’t often looked back.
There are a few things that I do buy new however. Usually one off things; the occasional last minute item I’ve forgotten if I’m away: waterproof trousers, my wedding dress (it was about £20 and I dyed it green…).
Fix: Ethical Underwear Retailers
One thing not really available on the second hand market is underwear. This is the reason for this article really. I have a disintegrating bra issue.
I started looking online for ‘ethical’ suppliers and became totally overwhelmed. A post on facebook helped point me in the direction of loads of ethical underwear companies. I’ve read their ethical policies and will try to summarize . My focus here is on bras but most do various bottom coverings too.
This is a nice website and I’m seduced. They’ve been to see their bamboo forests and factories and made an impact report.
Bamboo is a low carbon footprint textile. You don’t kill the plant when harvesting so carbon is still stored away. Low water footprint too as bamboo is happy without irrigation.
While bamboo doesn’t need pesticides to grow, intensive farming is getting more common and the fabric making process can use some nasty stuff. Bam however, says its bamboo fabrics don’t use pesticides and the factories are being ‘managed responsibly’.
They are looking at how to become zero waste, in the meantime the bamboo fibre should biodegrade as should as any bamboo microfibres produced on washing.
In terms of the human cost, Bam are in the middle of tracking all their supply chains and aim to have a ‘people positive’ impact by 2021.
Bralet £29, available in S,M,L but they don’t make structured bras. They do knickers and boxers too.
I’m giving them extra moral points for having both black and white models and telling me what size the female models are (even if it’s a UK8).
Buy Me Once
This website focuses on things that are made to last. They aren’t a supplier themselves, they just gathered loads of high quality stuff in one place. You then need to look at each items supplier to learn more about it and they have a few bras and pants on offer. One bra, I looked at, from Rozenbroek , is made to order and has a 10 year repair guarantee. How cool is that.
There are organic cotton or bamboo options, so relatively low carbon footprint and should be low pesticide use. Washing bamboo makes microfibres, as I said, but they are biodegradable ones so wont last. The water footprint for cotton is high, bamboo is lower. There are a few things made of recycled fabric but it’s not the focus.
Buy me once say they track their supply chains and so do the suppliers I randomly looked at. Lots of the finished stuff is handmade. Some are made in Portugal, others in Yorkshire in a solar powered workshop, so check the individual item but overall it looks like these companies consider people.
Bra’s are £28-65, available in S,M,L but they don’t make structured bras. They do knickers and boxers too and loads of other stuff too.
Based in Scotland, Molke make loud print underwear for all sizes.
They seem to have excellent core values and are a living wage employer. The fabric is all GOTS or OEKO-TEX certified. The underwear is made from organic cotton so ok carbon footprint, low pesticides etc.
The bras are made in Scotland, the other clothing in Portugal and the swim wear in Romania and they say they check their factories.
In a nice touch, Molke do focus on their waste, passing on their scraps to local projects.
Bras £34-37 and they delight in catering for plus sizes.
This site supplies organic bamboo clothing. The organic bamboo gives it a low carbon footprint, low water footprint and lack of pesticides etc.
In terms of human cost, they rely on accreditation by a body called WRAP . This looks good but I’ve been warned by a friend who works for Labour Behind the Label that accreditation can just be a way of looking good while not having to trace stuff yourself. But I reckon its better than not being accrediated, like most major retailers.
Bras are £28-65 and available in S,M,L but they don’t make structured bras.They do sell knickers and boxers.
Patagonia have long been synonomous with ethical clothing. They use loads of recycled material, trace the down in their down jackets and use only organic cotton. Generally they have a reputation for being ethically sound.
The bras are made in Sri lanka and are fair trade so the workers should be treated well. They are part recycled polyester, made from plastic bottles, manufacturing waste and their old textiles. The carbon footprint is far lower than new polyester as you don’t need to extract the oil or process it.
Being plastic based, you will get microfibres produced on washing, so for underwear that gets washed lots and often warmer, maybe it’s not the ideal fabric. But then again, you are taking the original plastics out of the waste system so who knows!
Bras are £35-55 and available in XS, S, M and L. At the moment there is a minimum order of £50, maybe due to coronavirus. You can also get every other item of clothing, from socks to down jackets.
Ok, I’m sold on this site. I’ve directed you to the low impact website which minimises data transfer. You need to click on the cartoons to see the proper photos of the clothes.
Organic Basics use primarily organic cotton so low carbon footprint and less pesticides and fertilizers than standard cotton.
If you don’t feel like cotton, you can also get TENCEL clothes. Tencel is made of wood pulp. The carbon footprint is likely to be low but I’m struggling to find exact figures. The wood is ‘sustainably sourced’ and the solvent and water used in the textile production are reused.
Organic Basics give figures on each item of how much carbon, water and waste you save compared to a ‘normal’ version. A bit gimicky but actually quite useful.
Bras are £36-58 and they go from XS to XL. Some are PETA vegan approved. Pants, boxers, socks and other clothes also available.
Once again extra points for telling us what size the models are and using women who don’t look malnourished.
That was a bit epic wasn’t it? Well, good work, you reached the end of the article. It’s taken me a while to write and I’ve only really touched the tip of the iceberg. There are loads more considerations and options out there.
On the plus side, along with the increase in fast fashion, being ethical is very in. Hooray! So lots of new makers are springing up to provide us with ethical underwear.
You’ll also find local needlepeople on etsy – hopefully after reading this you know what fabrics to look out for to minimise your impact.
Finally, if you have time on your hands (which personally I don’t!) and fancy a project, why not make your own bra with this free sewing pattern.
I absolutely love this article! So informative- it’s made me more confident in the decisions I’ve already made and helped me with some of the holes I have in my knowledge. I’m an ex fashion designer that last year made the decision to never buy another item of clothing that wasn’t either second hand or responsibly sourced… I’ve been holding off on buying underwater because it felt like too big a mine-field of research to do alongside homeschooling and running my business- you did the research for me and I’m so grateful! Looking forward to delving into more of your articles. Thank you! Bryony
Thank you so much for this lovely comment! Really glad you found the article useful 🙂
Thanks so much for doing all this research! It’s what we all need to know. One consideration about what to do with those already owned clothes that leach microfibres: you can get bags to wash them in that claim to prevent microfibres getting into the water system. Potentially one way to mitigate the negative impact.
Thanks for your comment, sorry for my slow reply! Yes, great idea on the microfibre bags. I haven’t tried one yet, I’ve been put off by the price and negative reviews but should probably do it, thanks for the prompt!
For anyone reading that hasn’t heard of these bags, check out Guppyfriend bags