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Glorious Jabberwocky

by Archives January 31, 2007

Fashion is a form of ugliness so intolerable that we have to alter it every six months

–Oscar Wilde

It seems that being fashionable is becoming an increasingly ugly endeavour, ethically at least.

Most of us know well enough to consider the labour practices of a given clothing manufacturer in order to avoid contributing to the scourge of morally reprehensible sweat-shop labour. But how many of us consider the environmental impact of that $10 cotton t-shirt or that $30 sweater?

Researchers at the University of Cambridge Institute for Manufacturing in England recently came out with a report titled ‘Well Dressed? The present and future sustainability of clothing and textiles in the United Kingdom’ which analyzes the ethical implications of a rapidly growing and changing fashion economy.

According to the report seven per cent of worldwide exports come from clothing and textiles.

More than (US) $1 trillion is spent every year on textiles and clothing worldwide.

The report concludes that these numbers in real terms mean that we’re not merely spending more, we’re also getting more for our buck; current trends at throwaway prices.

It’s called fast fashion, and it’s a problem.

Stores like Wal-Mart, Old Navy and H&M carry the business model to the extreme. With trends changing at lightning speed, the stores bring in as much stock as they can, and price it as low as they can to move it as quickly and in as much quantity as is humanly – or rather, corporately – possible.

In the developed world it is the end of the hand-me down age.

More, and cheaper, clothes means more waste and more environmental impact.

Thus the report urges clothing manufacturers to become more “eco-conscious,” by selling less clothes made from more eco-friendly and durable materials for a higher price and in turn encouraging less rabid consumerism of disposable clothing.

Since these recommendations are unlikely to take hold in any substantial way in the near future, the report also makes some recommendations aimed at the individual.

Because it is garment care that contributes the lion’s share of negative environmental impact, this is the most important facet of the report.

One recommendation the report makes is that we all start wearing more synthetic materials.

The thinking being that natural fibres, like cotton, have a higher environmental impact in the long term first in the fuel used to run agricultural machinery, and second in the electricity used in production.

Another important issue with cotton is the wide use of pesticides and herbicides in agriculture.

But the report asserts more importantly that cotton requires significantly more energy to wash and dry.

To demonstrate this, the study measured the energy in kilowatt hours required to produce and maintain a garment over its life.

They compared a cotton t-shirt with a polyester blouse and found that even though the polyester blouse had a bigger impact in the production phase, it took less energy to care for it long term.

For a polyester blouse roughly 14 per cent of the energy used goes to cleaning, whereas with the cotton shirt, about 60 per cent is used in cleaning.

According to the report, when you buy that $10 250 g cotton shirt, you are not only expending 1,7 kg of fossil fuels, you’re also sending 450g of waste to a garbage dump and creating 4 kilos of CO2 emissions.

The fact is, the real problem is not with the fibres themselves, but with the increasing tendency to buy cheap, and dispose of clothing relatively quickly after purchase.

At the end of the day, if we want to reduce the environmental impact of what we wear, we need to each do our part, and there are some simple ways to do that.

Buy second hand clothing, and when that is not fashionably feasible, buy clothes that are classic and durable.

When buying new, choose garments made with organic cotton or low impact fibres. Wash clothes less often, and when you wash, use a lower temperature setting, with eco-friendly detergent. Hang clothes to dry, and don’t iron.

Repair clothes when possible and finally, when you can no longer stand to have those rags in your closet, recycle them. There are scores of charitable organizations that will take them off your hands to re-sell to raise funds or extract and recycle the fibres to make new clothes.

All it takes is a little awareness and a change of habits to keep the planet from falling victim to fast fashion.

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