This past weekend my wife Emma and I visited the historic Brinegar’s Cabin along the Blue Ridge Parkway in Doughton Park, the Parkway’s largest recreation area. We bought a property nearby, and we’d elected to take a more scenic route home to take a hike and get more familiar with our new surroundings. While there, the park ranger, a tall, lanky lad in his twenties, was standing outside a rather cleverly built food storage building and doing a demonstration. He was performing an early step in making linsey woolsey, a great fibre for making ethical clothing.
Linsey woolsey—a term new to us—is a combination fabric: part linen and part wool. The ranger was working on the linen half of things, produced from the stems of flax flowers. The act seemed time-consuming but somewhat meditative as well. He would take a handful of flower stems, crimp them to break the outer coating, scrape that coating away, then run the flaxen strands through two different nail contraptions. In between tasks, he explained to us that homesteaders in the area had liked the wool for the warmth and linen for the strength, and he kept commenting on what a nice set he was getting from this particular bundle of stems.
He eventually handed it over to me with the suggestion that I try to break it. It was strong, I didn’t pull it apart, and I suspect he was aware of this outcome. I asked how long a shirt would last. He estimated about three years, noting that seamstresses would often put the date on clothing so that the replacement garment could begin production about a year prior to it being needed. He suggested we check out the coat in the cabin which the ranger crew had made a few years ago. It had taken 3200 yards (just under 3000 meters) of linen, not to mention the same amount of wool, to create.
I’m not sure if that information voided any hopes Emma and I had of one day growing and producing our own ethical clothing, but it has sent me down a familiar spiral of discontentedness. It has made me want to share some thoughts on how we might ethically dress ourselves and why we need to think about doing so.
The Cost of Clothing Convenience
Like many aspects of modern life, the convenience of contemporary clothing has clouded our vision of what actually happens to make a novelty t-shirt, or a pair of trousers, available to us. Clothes, even the bargains, come at a high price. The way we grow and manufacture the material, much of which is now petroleum-based, is horrible for the environment. The way we stitch shirts together is exploitative of less advantaged people. The way we dispose of clothing is clogging landfills and creating huge problems.
Whether our clothes are cotton or polyester (or often a mix), the material is usually highly destructive. Cotton, unless otherwise noted, has been produced with a heavy use of biocides and synthetic fertilisers. It also requires serious irrigation, often sourced from finite supplies such as aquifers. On the other side of that coin, plastic microfibers now dominate the clothing industry, particular adventure wear, but they are polluting the oceans and lakes and infiltrating the food supply available there. Plus, we mustn’t negate that they derive from petroleum, a problem that needs no further explanation.
Then, when we consider how our clothes are manufactured, when we actually try to get items that haven’t come from a sweatshop, the human injustice is sickening and nearly inescapable. A disturbing number of major clothing brands use them. While acknowledged slavery may have been removed from the cotton fields of the American south (and elsewhere), that’s not to say that there is no dirt on the clothing industry’s hands with regards to labor. Employees work in unsafe conditions, receive (below) minimal pay for it, include children in the workforce, and regularly impart numerous other offenses. That’s more or less a manufacturing standard for all industries now. It’s just done out of sight these days.
Ultimately, the bulk of us are throwing our clothing into the bin, and often long before they’ve fulfilled their life. According to Planet Aid, the US throws away roughly 11 million tons of clothing a year. Clothing takes decades, even centuries in the case of shoes, to decompose, all the while releasing toxins into the air, water, and soil because they have been constructed with dyes and chemicals that further their overall destructiveness. The extended tragedy here is that most clothing—up to 95%—can at least be recycled, donated, or repurposed, but it’s not happening. Throwing out a perfectly good pair of jeans is just the final insult.
That’s before we ever get into the fashions that change season to season and year to year. In industrialised society, we’ve moved a long way from linen for strength and wool for warmth. Fashion has taken over from functionality, and contemporary capitalism continually calls for replacement versus reliability. The impact of “Fast Fashion” on the environment really is a great cause for concern.
Consciously Changing Clothes
The difficult part of doing anything about this is that any attempt to find ethical clothing, be it organically grown or fair-trade manufactured, let alone both of these qualities, disqualifies more or less all major clothing companies. Forget going to the mall or a bargain bin. Those companies that do offer organic, fair trade, ethical clothing have much higher prices than the less ethical competition because—Who’d have guessed it!—making clothing ethically costs more. Then, of course, the problem of clothing miles, similar to food miles, adds impact to even the most ethical of clothing.
For the time being and over the last five years or more, Emma and I have settled on purchasing our clothing from secondhand and charity shops, with the occasional eBay item for hard to find and need-it-now kind of stuff like work boots in the depths of winter. We opt for 100% cotton materials (Wool and linen might be other viable options here). It obviously wasn’t produced organically but can at least be composted. Shoe materials have varied, but we do buy them secondhand. Emma is a patch master, and we generally get lots of compliments on our patches, which are admittedly a little more fashionable for gardeners than they would be for business execs. As our clothing wears out, we locate a local bin for recycling clothes, which often become stuffing and fibrefill.
While secondhand clothing isn’t the long-term, sustainable solution we hope for, after all we should be encouraging everyone to go in for ethical clothing rather than throwing stuff out prematurely, it is something we can do right now. Used clothing is readily available and often goes to waste otherwise. Charity shops and thrift stores have plenty of choices for any style of clothing a person needs, from rough work to business casual to full-on suits. Not only do these not require more natural or petroleum-based resources or unethical production, but also secondhand clothing calls for no additional (likely international) shipping while keeping useable clothing out of the recycling bin or landfill. Not to mention the satisfaction that the money you spend is going towards helping a good cause.
Plus, it’s a lot less expensive than buying stuff new, which means that, when it’s time to get organic, fair trade underpants, we’ve earned the splurge of not going secondhand (or commando).
For others who have been delving into and dwelling over the problem of ethical clothing, we’d love to hear more about the solutions you have come up with. Either improvements we can make for what we are doing or suitable options we may not be considering. Please share in the comment section below.