Check Your Labels: Tips for Ethical Clothing Choices

By Natalie Camrud ‘17 & Diva Gattani ‘17
Fashion Columnists

Alpaca wool is a sustainable alternative to cashmere. Photo courtesy of The Alpaca Group

Alpaca wool is a sustainable alternative to cashmere. Photo courtesy of The Alpaca Group

Chances are that when you’re out shopping, you don’t check labels on clothes to see what they are made out of, and if you do, chances are you are completely baffled. What even IS nylon, rayon and polyester? Which is better, cotton or linen? Very few people know what their clothes are made out of, or the stories behind those materials. Well, knowledge is power, so keep reading!

Let’s start with polyester and other petroleum-based fibers. If you’re anything like me, you despise plastic water bottles. I made my whole family convert to Brita filters and reusable glass bottles. Imagine my horror when I discovered that I was basically wearing plastic bottles! Synthetic fibers such as polyester, acrylic, nylon, and others, are made from petroleum (think fracking, BP oil spill, sad oil-covered pelicans, etc). In 2007, polyester became the most commonly used fiber, found in 52% of our clothing. It’s so popular mainly because it’s user friendly; it stretches, doesn’t wrinkle, dries quickly, and doesn’t shrink. It’s also cheaper to produce, so fast fashion companies prefer polyester to other materials like cotton.

Unfortunately, while that polyester shirt is great because you can crumple it on your floor without it wrinkling, it is very harmful to the environment. When you wash a polyester garment, it sheds microplastic fibers, which then get washed into the water supply, and then out into the ocean. It takes between 20-200 years for a polyester shirt to decompose under the right conditions, and, when it does decompose, it releases harmful chemicals. However, polyester uses less water to produce than cotton, and it doesn’t require any agricultural land to produce as well. So, if you’re going to buy a polyester garment, make sure you love it and intend to wear it for years to come.

Next, we’ll look at plant-based fibers, like cotton and linen. Cotton is the second most common material used in clothes behind polyester because of its softness and durability. However, cotton is a very water intensive plant. Cotton alone is the biggest water consumer in the entire apparel supply chain. Additionally, 99.3% of cotton is grown using synthetic fertilizers, pesticides and genetically modified seeds. These kinds of production methods harm the health of the workers who grow and harvest the cotton as well as the environment. (Once again, I recommend watching “The True Cost” since it explores this issue in greater depth). Another plant-based fiber is linen, which comes from the flax plant. It is one of the world’s oldest textiles; the ancient Egyptians and Romans used to harvest flax for clothing, and it was once the most popular clothing material. Today, however, linen only accounts for 1% of textile consumption in the world. Linen requires less water, fertilizers, and pesticides than cotton does, and flax absorbs carbon at a high rate. Linen productions requires only 8% of the energy needed to produce polyester, and 18% of the energy needed to produce cotton. What’s not to love? When purchasing plant-based fibers, try to opt for organic or vintage cotton, or linen.

Last, but certainly not least, are animal-based fibers. Wool is a natural animal-based fiber that is produced from a population of over one billion sheep. The two biggest environmental issues associated with sheep are overgrazing and methane emissions. Another animal-based fiber that is currently gaining fame in the fashion world is alpaca. Alpaca feels just as soft as cashmere and is significantly cheaper. Also, unlike cashmere, alpaca is sustainable. Cashmere is harvested from goats that are typically located in Mongolia. The issue with goats is that, unlike sheep and alpaca, goats pull the grass from the root when they eat. This prevents the grass from growing back, which leads to desertification, meaning that the soil can no longer host vegetation or wildlife and loses its ability to retain water. Choosing wool or alpaca over cashmere, or buying vintage cashmere, is a good way to still wear animal based clothing and support sustainable practices at the same time.

Next time you’re out shopping, make sure to check the label so that you can make an informed decision about the clothes you’re going to buy. Every time you purchase an item of clothing, you’re voting, whether it be for sustainable practices, organic cotton or recycled polyester, so make sure you know what you’re voting for and what your clothes are made of.