As the world sees more and more how plastic affects us, the rise of sustainable fashion continues to skyrocket. From various social media campaigns to news coverage, it is there and there’s no denying it. And then we have the influencers who share the shifts they have made towards a more environmentally conscious lifestyle. Folks who talk about the brands they love and the things that helped shift their mindset and habits.
While this is all a good thing, one aspect that needs more addressing is the clarity on eco-friendly material, especially in fashion. Because the thing is, there’s more to eco-friendly material than organic cotton. And there’s more to sustainable clothing than using eco-friendly materials.
Common Myths about Sustainable Clothing
The brand says it’s producing eco-friendly clothing, so maybe they do?
Definitely not. At least not all the time. Perhaps Emelie Gintzburger Akerbrant said it perfectly: “There is so much noise and so much happening around sustainability. We don’t know what’s real and what’s fake,” the independent communications adviser said in a Vogue article. If you zoom out and look at the bigger picture, more and more brands and companies are sharing their big move towards sustainability.
And while it sounds great, very few of these brands actually make it clear how their clothing is sustainable. Is it because of a new and improved packing? Did they shift to organic cotton or linen? Unless a brand also advertises how their “sustainable clothing” is actually sustainable, it’s quite difficult to believe it.
Organic cotton is the best sustainable material
Organic cotton is not a bad thing. And yes, it is sustainable. However, there’s a lot to consider about cotton and there’s so many more options that are also fairly sustainable. So to say that organic cotton is the best sustainable material - that’s pretty much a false statement. There’s now a company that creates pineapple leather. And let’s not forget hemp - a material that has a fairly low environmental impact.
One thing to consider about cotton - in general - is the fact that it requires the use of lots of pesticides and most pesticides are toxic. Growing cotton is tricky but today, many cotton farmers are paying attention to growing better cotton without the use of toxic pesticides. This includes shifting to better pesticides and using organic fertilizers for healthier soil. Also, while cotton is considered xerophyte or a plant that can grow in dry climates, it’s still a thirsty crop. In fact, according to a WWF article, some experts claim that “cotton is the largest user of water among all agricultural commodities.”
Sustainable materials are always the expensive ones
Again, definitely not. They can be expensive, yes. But the price tag is not a very solid basis as to whether a raw material (as in rolls of fabric, for instance) or a garment is eco-friendly. This is also to say, luxury clothing does not guarantee organic materials. It’s noteworthy though that there are now a growing number of manufacturers and brands producing eco-friendly items at more affordable prices without compromising on the quality of the product nor its impact to the environment.
What Makes A True Eco-Friendly Garment
It is made of sustainable materials
Let’s first mention the obvious - eco-friendly garments are made of sustainable materials. Not only when a company says their product is sustainably made but when they are transparent about how this product is made and how it is sustainable. It’s not easy to make the shift from fast fashion to ethical fashion. And this applies to other products as well, not just clothing. But it is very doable, even for smaller brands. And if a brand is transparent about their journey to sustainability - as in, where they sourced out the materials and how it is going to affect the environment, especially when discarded - this makes them trustworthy.
Eco-friendly doesn’t just refer to the materials used to create the piece of clothing. It also refers to how that garment is made. Because if you purchased something and it didn’t last long, you will not only throw it away but you’ll also purchase another one. Ethical living is not just about shifting to brands that make sustainable items. It’s also adapting to that mindset of purchasing less and purchasing only what you need. This becomes easier when the items you purchased are of great quality.
If it uses natural dyes
This is tough, but it’s worth it to pay attention to how the fabric was dyed. Again, transparency from the brand itself helps a lot. See, if a fabric used in creating a piece of clothing is made from natural fiber, but ended up being dyed in not-so-natural dyes, it can be considered a little less eco-friendly. Dye involves toxic chemicals and both these chemicals and the wastewater often ends up in riverbanks and seas.
Making the shift to a fashion conscious and ethical lifestyle is not easy. It may seem fancy, especially with how social media is portraying it, but it has its challenges. Partly because we’re all so used to doing the easy and the convenient. We're hardwired to that “if I want it and I can afford it then I’m buying it” mentality.
What we must know is that it all starts with one item. Just one. If you purchased menstrual cups and slowly ditched the tampons, soon enough you will realize the difference you’re making. That you’re not throwing away X number of tampons each month. This will encourage you to learn more about sustainable living and to pay closer attention to the brands that practice it and are transparent about it.
And we must say, ethical living doesn’t mean boring clothing. You don’t have to kill your fashion sense to be sustainable. There are now so many brands producing high quality sustainable clothing that are far from plain and boring. If there’s one thing this kind of lifestyle teaches people, it is to see fashion from a different and perhaps a better perspective.
Tammy Danan is a freelance storyteller based in the Philippines. She reports on environmental and social issues. She also covers film, photography, and sustainability and how they intersect with our everyday life. Her words have appeared in Al Jazeera, VICE, Ozy, ZEKE Magazine, Audubon.org, and others.