There is a huge amount of finger wagging in the sustainability movement. Yet we expect consumers and influencers to be chemical engineers to decipher some of the clothing labels. I'm not here to knock influencers, but as there is no real training or guidelines, brands can be misleading.
So, my intensions are to pull together some information that might help those trying to development their knowledge and to equipment yourself to sort through the sustainability messaging in the fashion industry.
The wonderful word plays in campaigns can give us that warm fuzzy feeling that we are buying consciously. We are doing the right thing. Doing our bit.
However, unfortunately, it can be and is, clever marketing. Added to this confusion, is a constant stream of reports and documentaries. Some with very strong political leanings that alienate viewers, or skew the facts. Leaving people feeling shame for wanting a new dress, or a new pair of trainers.
Fashion should be fun and a way to express our identity. Even recently, the vegan leather movement has faced question marks over the purity of some pineapple and apple skin alternatives. With pesky polymers lurking in their structure. Where is the truth??:)
The lay persons guide
As there is no perfect solution, I wanted to cover some established facts to help you decipher and question the noise. These facts may change as more innovations happen and we get fresh research. But either way, I am keeping this light. If you want to find out more there is plenty on Google to continue your journey.
1. If it has Poly in the name, high chance it is derived from petrol. Basically, a form of plastic. There are chemical differences between the different types, but all derive from plastics such as Polyester, Spandex and Nylon. Polyamides is another term thrown in to confuse us.
2. However, you can get natural Polyamides such as silk or wool. Most manufactures will state that a natural version is being used, by stating Wool, silk etc. Otherwise, it is synthetic (man-made).
3. If a garment is composed of a mix of synthetic and natural fibres, (at the time of writing) it will go to landfill, if not fit for resale. There is on-going research but there is no way to separate the mix affordably. There are also, issues with separating cashmere and wools. Therefore, some natural clothing will end up in landfill, but it will bio-degrade.
4. To give you some idea of decomposition time for fabrics:
As you can see there is quite a range. If you don't see a certification mentioned in the description on labels or websites for a fibre, then you have an indication that there are questions about the impact of that fibre.
Though Hemp which is probably the best fabric for the environment, is struggling to get organic certification, purely because the cost is prohibitive for small farmers. Go figure.
5. The dilemma of polyester. You can feel the difference between a cheap £9.99 dress and a higher priced branded item. It is in the weight and feel. This comes from the VI level - Viscosity Index, I won't bore you with the science bit. But the higher the index, the less likely it will shed micro fibres (bad for the oceans) and the longer the item will last. Plus less likely fall apart in the wash.
So, in theory the item could be rented or sold multiple times. Also, if sent to recycling can be repurposed several times if the manufacturer keeps the integrity of the VI level. The question is do we waste tonnes of water and pesticides on Cotton, or balance with 100% polyester in a sustainable way?
Problem is, there is a lack of clarity on recycled polyester. Some brands only have to use 70% from a certified producer. Once mixed with another fibre type can render that item unrecyclable (based on current technology). Also, ethically should we give other sectors an excuse to keep producing plastic packaging becuse they can turn into clothing?
6. Supply chain. Bear in mind how economies of scale really work. There will be factories in some regions of China that have technology which will blow your mind. They have 100% transparency and some will even live stream the factory floors so that brands can do checks. Ditto in India. However, not all brands can rely on India and China. There could be specialised tailoring that means manufacture is closer to home.
Therefore, the economies of scale will be lower. Also, based on the unions and workers’ rights for that country, wages have to be higher. There are other cost mixes which play a part.
Plus, you don't put all your eggs in one basket. It makes sense for mega brands to have a variety of factories to lower the risk of supply chain delays. So, when you check the label, the country of production can have quite an impact on price.
7. Buy less. This is a tough one. What is a sustainable consumption rate? Can we buy more second hand, rent more? Be prouder to wear the same thing multiple times on Instagram? Why not swap more with friends:).
8. If it feels cheap high chance it will self distruct after 1-2 washes. Pay that £2-5 pounds more to get some longevity. You will be wasting less.
I am a great fan of starting with small changes. It takes time to build up a 'sustainable' wardrobe. We also have to stop this pressure to guilt trip people.
So, when that new drop comes from a brand, why not opt out of 1-2 items. I have pieces over 10 years old from Zara, M&S and COS, for example. I considered the fabric and paid that bit more to get longevity. Are you really going to wear in every colour? Do you really need it?.
Finally, no one should suffer for our fun. Consider using websites like https://goodonyou.eco/ to investigate a brands credentials. Brands are trying and we have to encourage all the incremental improvements.
But nothing wrong with asking for more transparency and being wise to some of the sustainable claims they make.
If you want to discuss more to enhance your knowledge, please get in touch firstname.lastname@example.org