Small — and big — changes you can make today.
The 2015 documentary The True Cost has largely accomplished what it set out to do: wake up Western consumers to the horrifying impact of the fashion industry on exploited workers and the environment. And more consumers watch it every day.
But there’s one criticism of the movie that rings true: After all the visual carnage, viewers are left with no next steps. If we agree that mass-produced fashion is awful, that garment workers shouldn’t die making our clothes, that rivers should not be poisoned just for a cheap T-shirt, and that 1.715 billion tons of CO2 released a year (or about 5.3 percent of the 32.1 billion tons of global carbon emissions) is way too much, what can we do to change it?
Unfortunately, there’s no equivalent in the fashion industry to Michael Pollan’s sharp, easy-to-remember instructions: “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” That’s because the fashion supply chain is so confoundingly opaque and complex, that even if you buy a purse that was handcrafted by a Peruvian artisan, the leather tannery might still have poisoned the local river, and the cows that provided the leather might have been abused. It’s exceedingly difficult as a shopper to say with any certainty that you are making the “right” choice when you buy something from a green collection or one that is purported to be fairly made.
Still, once you know all the horrible, awful, no-good things the fashion industry does to the planet (pouring carbon into the atmosphere, dumping increasingly large mounds of waste into landfills) and to (mostly female, mostly brown) workers, it feels wrong to throw up your hands and say, “Welp, everything sucks, and I’m going to do some retail therapy at Forever 21.”
As complicated as it can be, there are still things that you can do to lessen your impact on the planet and, of course, not feel like a total hypocritical dirtbag. Here they are.
According to this analysis, a full 22 percent of a garment’s climate impact comes from the process of a consumer driving to the store to try something on, driving to another store to try that thing on, then bringing their final selection home in their car. If you live in a city where you can walk or take public transportation to a store, then do that!
And don’t feel guilty about ordering items online. First, because a UPS, FedEx, or USPS truck is like public transportation for your clothing: efficient at moving a lot of stuff with minimal fuel. Second, your clothing probably comes through a distribution center, skipping the process of going to the store at all and going straight to you. And according to multiple studies, online shopping has a much lower environmental impact than brick-and-mortar shopping. It may feel wrong to get an item of clothing in a plastic bag in a box, but rest assured that if it goes to a store instead, it’s also showing up in a plastic bag — the bag’s just gone by the time you see it on the rack.
Another benefit of shopping online is the opportunity to be more thoughtful and discerning with what you buy. In a physical store, it might not be possible (or even occur to you) to research every brand you encounter then and there on your phone. But when you’re home and on the internet, you probably have more time, along with more access to resources, to do some deeper digging.
There are some excellent resources documenting the bad, good, and gray areas of shopping. The Good on You app lets you search for a brand’s environmental impact, labor policies, and even animal-friendly considerations, plus makes recommendations in different categories (dresses, hosiery, outerwear) of sustainable and ethical brands. Project JUST does about the same thing — carefully researches the impact and policies of various brands, plus puts out roundups of the most ethical and sustainable brands in categories like athletic wear and denim — but on a website.
There’s also the DoneGood browser extension, which pops up in the corner of your browser when you’re shopping and tells you whether or not the brand site you’re on is sustainable and/or ethical, and links you to alternatives if it’s not. If you’re visiting a conventional webstore, it also highlights which sustainable brands you should check out while you’re there.
Also, look through the About section or — even better — the sustainability or social responsibility section of a brand’s site to see if they say anything about how items are made. (If they don’t, it’s a bad sign. Skip ahead to step #7 and reach out to your favorite brands.) Google the brand’s name and look for recent news. And finally, check and see if it’s in the Sustainable Apparel Coalition, a trade group that requires its members to quantify their supply chains’ impact on the environment and is funding some really cool initiatives along the way. (It’s not the same as a third-party certification like the ones mentioned below, but does indicate that a company is serious about making changes.)
Of course, all of this supposed efficiency will be negated if you’re the kind of person who buys a dozen things from a dozen different stores and returns 11 of them. All of this advice really only works if you’re the type of person to use the internet to buy smarter, rather than impulsively.
Look for certifications.
There are a few gold-standard certifications that indicate that an objective deep dive into a product’s supply chain has been conducted. OEKO-TEX is an independent test and certification system for textiles, and it offers multiple levels of certification, the most basic of which indicates that the product is free of hazardous chemicals. The next level up concerns whether the textiles are made in socially and environmentally responsible conditions. GOTS (Global Organic Textile Standard) is a certification for textiles that contain “a minimum of 70% organic fibers.”
Forest Stewardship Council certification indicates that any trees involved (yup, some fabrics are made from trees — more on that later) were sustainably harvested. Fair Trade certification indicates that the factory workers are paid at least the minimum wage, and that the working conditions are safe.
Avoid these fabrics.
I’ll keep it short: Polyester is made from oil (it’s basically a plastic thread) and all synthetic fibers (excepting a few alternatives mentioned in this piece) shed microfibers into waterways. (You’ve probably ingested these fibers in your last seafood meal.) Acrylic is even more toxic to produce than polyester. Viscose rayon (this includes bamboo rayon) turns plants into a textile through a toxic, polluting process and is contributing to the disappearance of rainforests.
Conventional cotton relies on pesticides and herbicides which are improperly, excessively, and dangerously applied in underdeveloped countries, and might have led to the worldwide decline of insect populations. The typical leather tanning process is so toxic that 90 percent of the people who live in the leather-tanning neighborhoods in Bangladesh die before they reach 50.
Look for these fabrics.
It’s pretty hard to avoid polyester altogether, especially if you enjoy athleisure clothing, swimsuits, or anything with stretch. So look for polyester that’s made of recycled water bottles, fishing nets, carpet, and other post-consumer products. These products financially support the recycling industry and help to keep plastic waste from the landfill and ocean.
Tencel is a viscose rayon alternative by the Austrian company Lenzing made from sustainably-sourced eucalyptus trees in a closed-loop process that ensures no toxins are released into waterways. Silk, hemp, linen, and wool are all natural, low-impact textiles. (Just watch out if you’re vegan — the typical silk thread process kills the silkworms, and wool-producing sheep aren’t always treated the best, especially in Australia.)
Vegetable tanned leather doesn’t use heavy metals in the process (but as an FYI, that means it’ll take longer to soften up and break in). More leather alternatives are coming, but right now the best new alternative available for purchase is Piñatex, which is made from pineapple leaf waste.
Seek out brands that pay their artisans fairly.
Understanding the environmental impact of your garment’s entire supply chain is nearly impossible — all the variables (production, dying, finishing, shipping), debates (are GMOs bad or not?), and scientific reports can lead to a mental burnout on the whole idea of conscious consumption. But picturing the positive social impact of a fairly-made garment is much more inspiring — and easy.
Many fair trade brands, like Lemlem, Voz, Siizu, Brother Vellies, Par en Par, Ace & Jig, Uniform, Manos Zapotecas, and more, have photos and information on their websites of the women and men who hand-make the garments or the factories they use. Other brands, like Reformation and Saint James, give factory tours. Still others, like Naja and Nisolo, give you a report on working conditions, pay, and benefits, plus how getting paid to use their community’s traditional skills positively impacts a worker’s community.
We could argue all day about relative merits of recycled polyester versus organic cotton, or how much you’re benefiting the environment by paying more for organic cotton, but it’s hard to argue with a mother getting paid a fair wage in safe working conditions. It feels a lot more rewarding, too, which can help keep you motivated.
There is a glut of secondhand fashion in the West. Secondhand shops can only resell about 20 to 45 percent (75 percent on a really good day) of unwanted threads — the rest is downcycled into insulation, carpeting, or rags, or (if it’s still wearable) shipped to developing countries to be resold for a few dollars.
This overabundance of orphaned clothing makes secondhand the perfect solution for fashion addicts who feel guilty about their waste and wallet. It prevents production of toxic or exploitative new clothing, and it keeps textiles out of the landfill or from being shipped overseas. Secondhand stores are almost all charitable, locally, or family-owned, so you direct your dollars away from multinational corporations and to small business. And best of all, it’s a way to get fresh threads (sometimes with the tags still on!) for fast-fashion prices.
If you have something really specific in mind and find the chaos of the thrift store intimidating, you could shop online at affordable sites like ThredUp and Tradesy, or Vestiaire Collective and The RealReal for upscale and designer items.
Show your favorite brands you care.
Not ready to pass up on that so cute ruffled viscose top from J.Crew? Curious where it’s made? Email or tweet at the brand! “Consumers think their voices don’t matter, but they do,” says Jessica Radparvar, the founder of the social impact communications consultancy Reconsidered. “Tweets, emails, questions asked in retail stores — if frequent enough, these communications get laddered up. I know many Corporate Social Responsibility teams that then use these anecdotes as ‘proof points’ to show that consumers are demanding transparency,” she says. “That can in turn help them get buy-in, approvals, and funding for projects they want to push forward.”
Again, that only works if the brand has a team like that instated. If they don’t answer, and you can’t find any information anywhere about attempts to go sustainable or ethical, you might want to cross them off your shopping list.
Capsule your wardrobe.
The best thing you can do is just buy less stuff. And you can buy less stuff if you buy things that are timeless and high-quality enough to last a long time.
How you launder it, how you dispose of it, even where it’s shipped from — all these factors are a sliver of the total impact of a typical garment. But most of the impact comes from the very fact that it was produced. The longer you use a garment, and the more times you wear it, the lower the impact. This doesn’t necessarily mean you have to go out and buy exclusively locally-made, organic fashion that costs well in the hundreds of dollars. Whatever it is, if you think you will wear it 30 times or more, that’s definitely a sustainable choice.
One popular notion in the conscious fashion world is the idea of a capsule wardrobe: an extremely edited collection of versatile pieces that can be endlessly mixed and matched, so that you get maximum use out of minimal possessions. If you want some guidance in this area, try the app Cladwell, which helps you discern your style, whittle down your wardrobe, donate or sell what you don’t love anymore, and come up with interesting new combinations.
The goal is to stop getting tossed about on the expensive seas of new trends, and confidently stand in your own personal style, with a closet full of (and only of) pieces that make you feel like your best self. If you love your closet and can easily put together a great outfit, you’ll never say, “I have nothing to wear!” and run out to buy something last minute to make you feel beautiful again, nor will you be tempted by whatever fun cheap thing is in the window at Forever 21, because you already have everything you need, thank you!
If you’re keen to try out a new trend, have a special event coming up, or you’re just bored with your closet but on a budget, renting lets you feel fabulous while using fewer resources. You can try Style Lend, which lets you rent luxury fashion from real women’s closets; Le Tote, which sends you a box of everyday items to try; or the OG of renting, Rent the Runway.
Donate to NGOs and watchdogs.
Don’t stop at conscious consumption! Direct your dollars to organizations that are trying to create systemic change. You can help send a Bangladeshi garment worker to college, fund Canopy’s efforts to save the rainforest from destruction by rayon-viscose pulping mills, donate to Greenpeace or Natural Resources Defense Council, which respectively combat toxic garment factory effluent and increase the energy efficiency of factories, or become a supporter of Project JUST and their deep research on the sustainability and ethicality of large brands.
The main thing to know is that you can take or leave any of these tips and build a sustainable wardrobe that feels right for your lifestyle, your budget, and your personal style. There’s no one way to be a conscious consumer, just like there’s no one way to dress yourself. And as the sustainable fashion movement grows and evolves, dressing yourself with thought will hopefully only get easier with time.
*This story first appeared on Racked
Few topics of discussion (with the exception perhaps of the current U.S. elections) receive as much debate these days than how cotton should be farmed and harvested. The lowly gossypium plant, which is cultivated across the world, was once a remarkably hard crop to farm and harvest. The stories of African American cotton pickers’ bloody hands and endemic poverty during the early and mid-1900s became a symbol of the injustices that were equated with an industry that had at that time, neither the technology nor the means to meet the needs of growing demand.
The introduction of genetic modification to U.S. cotton farming in the 1990s further transformed the conventional cotton industry. Studies have found that genetic modification of cotton seeds not only increased cotton production, but reduced the need for insecticides and some other forms of pesticides in the field. In the U.S., technology has kept up with these changes, creating increasingly faster ways for cotton to be harvested from the field. Even though the U.S. is no longer the largest producer of conventional cotton (third, compared to China and India), it reaps tremendous benefit from the newer innovations that have become a mainstay of cotton production. According to Cotton Incorporated, the conventional U.S. cotton industry (that is, cotton not grown or produced organically), contributes to as much as $100 billion in revenues to affiliated industries.
But those advances continue to spur debate about the best – and safest – way to generate the world’s demand for this much-needed apparel product. Does GM cotton come with secondary health risks? Is GM cotton safe for the environment? Are the pesticides that end up being used with the process risky? Do the benefits of conventional cotton outweigh the concerns that are prompted by pesticide use?
TriplePundit writers have written a fair amount on organic cotton topics, from the nuts and bolts of the global organic cotton industry to the strides that the organic garment industry has made in recent years. We felt it was time, therefore, to take a deeper look at the processes that are used in conventional cotton production and the points raised by that industry about the benefits of transgenetic cotton farming.
To get the industry’s input on this question, we spoke to Cotton Inc’s Director of Agricultural Research in Entomology, Ryan Kurtz. Kurtz’s area of expertise is insect resistance management in genetically engineered corn and cotton. Formerly the global lead for traits insect resistance management at Syngenta, Kurtz specializes in North American Bt trait cotton production, a cotton engineered to fight the infamous boll weevil, among other pests. Most of the information below therefore focuses on U.S. cotton production.
Conventional cotton: Not all pesticides are created equally
To really address the debate over conventional cotton production, said Kurtz, it’s necessary to recognize that not all kinds of pesticides can be lumped together. We may think of insecticides, herbicides and fungicides as ‘pesticides’ but in truth, they are vastly different from each other in how they are applied and what they do.
“I think it is always important to be precise at any way you are describing things. Pesticides is a large bucket area. I think people do tend to think of insects more as “pests” than weeds and funguses, because they can relate more to it,” explained Kurtz.
The distinction of insecticide from other types of pesticides is critical, said Kurt, if you want to determine whether GM technology has made a difference in making cotton production safer and whether it should have a role in cotton production. According to information we received from Cotton Inc, GM production has dramatically lowered the demand for insecticide on cotton farms. And that in turn, has made cotton production safer.
But its real coup d’etat may have come in the boost it gave to production yields when it effectively made GM cotton immune to one of the South’s most destructive pests: the boll weevil.
Nicknamed in 1903 as America’s “wave of evil,” the tiny insect caused widespread destruction of the country’s cotton yields until insecticides came on the market. In the 1970s, boll weevil eradication began in earnest in a multi-state effort. The evil weevil has largely been eradicated at this point thanks to a systemic approach to strategic insecticide use. Cotton Inc points out that some 20 years after its introduction in the U.S. South, the impact of transgenic farming can be found in the number of applications of insecticide still used in the U.S. According to data supplied by the organization, “U.S. cotton growers applied insecticide an average of 1.96 times over the course of the season – less than twice.”
Kurtz said that those low numbers are due to farming methods that capitalize on of one of Nature’s more ingenious inventions: a bacteria that lives in the soil and is lethal to many insects. By figuring out how to genetically introduce the bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) gene into plants (cotton in this case), scientists were able to make the plant resistant to the bollworm and other destructive insects.
“Through a natural process called agrobacterium mediated transfer (AMT), they figured out how to get the gene from that Bt bacteria that produces the insecticidal protein to put that gene into a cotton plant. So now, instead of having to rely on the bacteria to make the protein that kills the insect, the plant makes the protein that kills the insects. ”
GM cotton: the hurdles that still remain
As effective as transgenic cotton farming has been in reducing insect infestations of cotton, however, there have still been some challenges to overcome. The first, note scientists at the Aroian Lab at the University of San Diego, is figuring out just how Bt does what it does.
“[With] 50 [years] of use, you’d think we’ve got everything figured out about Bt. But the truth is, we don’t know much. Most importantly , we don’t know how it works,” notes the lab in its blog post, bacillus thuringiensis. That question is important because recent reports of insect resistance to the Bt trait have led scientists to realize that they don’t know everything about the trait, or how to ensure that more insects don’t develop immunity. The Aroian Lab points out that this problem isn’t limited to GM farming, either, so it’s not a specific failing of GM technology. “For every single synthetic pesticide that is in use today, there are species of insects that are resistant to it.” Unlocking how Bt acts could answer why some insects are immune to its toxin.
But immunity isn’t the only problem that has surfaced regarding Bt GM farming, says Melody Meyer, who serves as the vice president to Policy and Industry Relations for United Natural Foods Incorporated and as the executive director to the UNFI Foundation. As so often happens in Nature with unintended outcomes, the dramatic reduction in insects has added consequences.
“It may have reduced insecticide use but not herbicides,” said Meyer. In fact several studies in the last decade have confirmed that the use of GM technology hasn’t reduced herbicide use. It has increased it.
And that’s where farmers have found the greatest proof to the maxim, “to every front there’s a back.” For every organism that may be reduced through scientific farming methods, there may be another that can capitalize on it. Since 2004, farmers have been finding “superweeds” that have acquired an intolerance to the herbicide Roundup (glyphosate). Reports of Roundup-intolerant weeds such as amaranth have been known to destroy thousands of acres of cotton crops.
Recent studies on glyphosate toxicity in the environment and the food chain is another issue of debate concerning the methods used to produce conventional cotton. Kurtz said that while some studies have suggested that glyphosate may be a “probable” carcinogen, “there is very little evidence, if any to support that and there has been a long, 30+ year history of safe use in the U.S. Kurtz said the fact that it is considered a “general-use pesticide” is indicative that it is safe. “Most reputable organizations highlighted early on that there is a long history of safe use of glyphosate and the concerns about cancer are unwarranted.
In fact, the debate over this issue has persisted for years, as Kurtz stated. The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization and the World Health Organization stated in May that it was “unlikely” that the chemical would pose “carcinogenic risk” from exposure through diet. The statement contradicts the International Agency for Research on Cancer, which stated in 2015 that there was a likelihood that the pesticide is carcinogenic. It has stood by its claim, even though two other agencies, the Environmental Protection Agency and the European Food Safety Authority contradict its position. More research is underway.
Cottonseed oil and questions of pesticide residue
Cotton that is manufactured in the U.S. is used not only for clothes but for food. Cottonseed oil has been manufactured from the plant’s seed at least since the early 1900s. Today it is the unsung hero of today’s conventional food manufacturing systems due to its shelf stability.
The the two questions commonly raised are how much pesticide residue is left on the fibers and seed after the harvesting? How much residue is in the final product?
“Because of the way cotton is grown and the amount of time that it is in the field, the use of pesticides in cotton [production] is well before the fiber is developed. So you actually can set the goal of using pesticides to protect the plant that produces the fiber. Once the fiber is there, most pesticides aren’t applied any more,” said Kurtz, who said the organization monitors studies on pesticide residue through its membership in Bremen Cotton Exchange, an economic organization concerned with advancing the global cotton trade. So the fibers that make their way into the apparel supply chain are unlikly to bring pesticide residue with them.
He added that because cotton oil is a food product, the Food and Drug Administration regulates what and when pesticides can be added to the growing plant. “They look at cotton just like it were a vegetable,” with a set criteria that limits the use of insecticide and other toxic substances.
Still, there are a considerable number of researchers and activists who question this data.Alliance of Women Scientists and Scholars, for example, maintains that “[conventional] cottonseed oil may be highly contaminated with pesticide residues” and that the cottonseed oil’s natural toxin, gossypol, is also a common allergen. [Gossypol] poisoning is common and may be deadly for dairy cows and other livestock.” However, the site offers limited data to back up this claim. Gossypol is generally removed during the oil refining process, so what might hurt cows in raw form should be harmless for humans who consume the oil.
While pesticide residues have been found in cottonseed oil in India, it is not clear if those pesticides were applied the same way as in the U.S., where workers must be trained and labeling is enforced by the EPA. And not all studies of pesticide use in India have found residues, either. One study found plenty of examples of residue contamination in fruits and vegetables in India, but none in cotton fibers.
But a University of Missouri newsletter offers the best explaination as to why cottonseed oil manufactured in the U.S.”rarely” show residues of pesticides in lab tests. The issue isn’t just when the insecticide is applied, but where the cotton grown.
“[Cotton] raised for oil is grown mostly in Iowa, Nebraska, and the Dakotas, not in the South. The shorter growing season there prevents maturation of the fiber-producing cotton boll,” explains the writer. (The USDA offers a more comprhensive list of states where cotton is grown). This shorter season requires precise control, as Kurtz suggests, so pesticides are applied only up until the boll is about to open. After the cotton is picked and the seed processed into oil, the oil goes through a “deodorizing” stage in which it is subjected to hot steam in a vacuum setting. The cleansing is supposed to remove any residue of insecticide or other unwanted compounds.
Meyer from UNFI suggests however, that with the broad disagreement on this issue, skeptics will continue looking for third-party data to prove that cottonseed oil is completely free of pesticide residue.
Conventional cotton and organic processes
One question we asked Kurtz was why, given the growing interest in organic cotton, conventional cotton industry didn’t consider transitioning toward an organic production model. If there was public pushback against GM foods, why not take the steps now to help farmers adopt organic processes.
“I think it is a matter of feasibility,” said Kurtz. “Organic production works quite well for certain growers on smaller acreages. The ability to scale that up would just be too expensive because of the cost of labor. Some of the organic practices just prohibit some of the more mechanized means that we are using today and there just wouldn’t be a way to produce enough fiber to meet the demand through organic means. It would just cost too much to produce.”
Given the world’s increasing dependence on cotton for clothing, food and medical products, it’s a perspective that makes sense. With 7 billion people on the planet, and a demand that exceeds that of any other fiber in existence, transitioning from GM methods may seem impractical on the surface.
Meyer agreed that “the demand for organic cotton isn’t as high as the total production of cotton worldwide,” but she argued that this was largely because “people don’t understand the long-term effects to the environment and to society and health in general that this poses down the line. There are unintended consequences that you pay for later,” she said.
Data: The final benchmark in cotton production
If there were one lesson to draw from the endless debate over how cotton should be grown and processed, it might be that it is quantifiable research results that tell the true story about pesticide use in cotton production. Is there really widespread insecticide residue in cotton products? Does glyphosate have unintended consequences? Answers to either or both of these questions may in coming years, alter our view of GM produced cotton.But what those answers won’t do, is change the impact that conventional cotton production with all of its problems and remarkable concepts, has had on the world as we know it.
*This story first appeared on The Triple Pundit