Sustainable Clothing: Is it Better to Buy Cotton, or Recycled Polyester?

I was looking for a new hooded sweatshirt a few days ago when I realized I only have two that aren’t exercise clothing. One being two sizes too large for me and the other getting used almost every day. It’ll only be a matter of time before the one I wear everyday becomes threadbare while the other is comically large on me and only wear it around the house. So I went to the website of a company I’ve bought from in the past and was shuffling through their products in search of a new sweatshirt.

I liked some of their clothing, the style and simplicity, so the next step was to look at the materials label. The company prides itself on being sustainable, so I figured I’d have nothing to worry about. But when I checked the labels, it said that they were made with recycled materials. I knew this meant polyester to some degree and I was wondering what the ramifications are of using plastic, even if it’s from recycled sources, as the main material component.

My instinct is that using plastics to any degree, including clothing, perpetuates the cycle and need to rely on petrochemical materials. The idea of having more plastic floating around in one form or another is unsettling to me. I’m not saying that all plastic use is inherently bad. I appreciate that plastics have been used to change many people’s lives for the better. But it seems to me that we first need to get our collective plastic consumption under control before we think about expanding its use into more aspects of our day to day lives.

As far as my clothing goes, I’d like to lean towards more natural fibers, such as cotton and wool. I know that at least with cotton, the material will eventually decompose, and more than likely in my lifetime. And a quick Google search tells me that wool will decompose in six months under ideal conditions. But plastic however will stay around for quite some time and breakdown further into smaller pieces, causing all sorts of environmental hazards.

Both small and large aquatic animals mistake plastics for food. Certain whales for instance have been found with many pounds of plastic waste in their stomach. But one of the reasons that plastic clothing in particular is such an environmental threat is that when washed, the fabric degrades, releasing hundreds of thousands of microfibers into the aquatic environment. There they are consumed by marine life, fresh and saltwater animals alike, as it makes its way up the food chain. As Lisa Messinger from The Guardian put it in her article, “How your clothes are poisoning our oceans and food supply“, when a professor cut open a fish from the great lakes, they found thousands of microfibers weaving their way in and around the gastrointestinal tract of the freshwater dweller.

This is concerning to say the least. According to Greenpeace, 30% of plastic pollution could be caused from microfibers. In their article, “what are microfibers and why are our clothes polluting the oceans?“, “Europe and Central Asia alone dump the equivalent of 54 plastic bags worth of microplastics per person per week into the oceans.” More disheartening news. And the older the garment is, the more fibers it releases, according to a study paid for by Patagonia.

The more I continued to read about the effects of microfibers on the environment, the more I realized that there wasn’t really an option. If I want to live a more sustainable life style, I need to stop buying clothing made from synthetic materials and switch to a natural option.

With all this new information swimming around in my mind, I was left with my new plan, to buy more sustainable clothing, but without much direction. The brand I was originally looking to for my new sweatshirt purchase, had a bullet point under the specs of their hoodie that it was made from, “bluesign approved materials”. This caught my eye, and could possibly be some of the direction I was looking for. So I headed over to their website to see what they are all about.

From what I was able to gather, the Swiss company is an independent resource, with the focus of advocating for better working conditions for employees and a more sustainable way of producing goods during every aspect of their production. A noble cause indeed, but this doesn’t necessarily mean that a product is 100% sustainable. After all, the sweatshirt I was looking at was made with 60% recycled polyester.

That’s not to say that the company isn’t doing important work. Just because I’ve set my standard at wanting to purchase natural materials for clothing, doesn’t mean it’s the most important one by any means. They also focus on working with companies to reduce the amounts and toxicity of the chemicals they use. As well as focusing on the human element of the industry with fair wages and safe working conditions for employees. All important aspects to investigate and consider when purchasing from a company.

The next group of businesses I stumbled across in my search for sustainable clothing was Certified B Corporations. Another company focused on the ethical production of goods and their effects on workers rights, consumers rights and the environmental impact of the products each company produces.

At first glance, the company looks good. Some of the companies that are certified provide services such as opening jobs to people who have been incarcerated in the past. I used to work at a local bakery with a friend of mine. She was looking for help, and we had worked together at a bakery previously so she asked if I wanted to come help out. I agreed, and while I was working there I meet a bunch of great and interesting new friends. One of them happened to be just in the position I mentioned above. He was recently released from prison and was looking for work.

From what I could gather, when you are released from jail, your hireability gets reduced to zero. He told me how difficult it was for him to find a job in his previous industry and that most people wouldn’t even give his application a second glance. This was sad because he was one of the most endearing people I’ve met. He made some bad decisions for sure, but we all do at some point. That shouldn’t mean that the person’s life should be scrutinized from then on, blocking opportunities for the rest of their life.

This reminds me of another business that I used to go to who soly employed homeless persons. I’ve often heard in the past that all the homeless really need to do is to get a job. Though I imagine it would be difficult for a number of reasons for a homeless person to complete an interview successfully, let alone maintain a job! From finding clean clothes and a place to shower, to printing out a resume and not having a stable mailing address or reliable transportation, the homeless person has a mountain of obstacles to overcome!

So from the perspective of protecting employee rights, I can understand and appreciate the work that is being done from B certified corporations who fit this bill. They also have a blog where in one post they explore a few companies in the fashion industry, and how they are making a difference. One of the companies, Bombas, is mentioned as donating a pair of socks to homeless shelters for every pair sold. This is a stellar way to give back to the community. One of the most requested items at homeless shelters are socks, so they’re definitely helping a lot of people.

The one area that wasn’t clear was the research they did, and the numbers they used to score each company. There was general information about what the practices they are evaluating were, but they did not go into detail on the information they used to evaluate the practices. Upon further reading, the information explained that these evaluations were taken by the corporations themselves.

Does this mean that a company is giving itself a self assessment of how they perform in these categories, or is there a disinterested third party that is evaluating the company and its results? I’d like to believe that these companies are honest and accountable for their actions, but with so much ambiguity, it would be nice to know for sure they are being held accountable.

A Wikipedia article explains that B Lab is the company that gives out certifications to companies that meet a certain standard of “transparency, accountability, sustainability and performance”. But again, how B Lab comes up with the standards by which they grade these companies is not totally clear from my research.

From what I understand of the B certification, it is something that a willing company takes as a self assessment, evaluating their performance using B Lab’s standards, and creates a plan around where they find weaknesses in their company. This is definitely better than nothing, and it’s at least comforting knowing that there are corporations out there that are willing to take a look at their practices and willing to make a change for the better. I only wish that B Lab was more transparent with their evaluation methods.

There are few places that I could find that gave ethical reviews on companies, let alone clothing companies. There was however one website that showed some promise. The Green Stars Project. This is a project that empowers people to write reviews of and rate different companies using a system based on a series of criteria that covers topics from fair working wages to the environmental impact the company has on our resources, to the ethical treatment of animals to how a company impacts a community. The list is only limited to the knowledge that individuals feel is important to their ethical standards.

The only downside to this is that it relies on individuals to write these reviews in the review section of a particular item. It’s decentralized, which is nice because it’s coming directly from the consumer and their knowledge base, but from what I understand of the system, there is no way to search for products by their Green Star rating. So if I was looking for an ethically sourced piece of clothing, I would have to do the research to find the company and product, then write a review or hope that there was one already written. There is no database of products that have Green Star ratings available to browse that I’m aware of.

The Green Stars Project does however have a resources page where they list a few sites that do have lists of companies that have done some research on ethical businesses. One of the sites is Better World Shopper, where you are able to search companies by category and grade. Here I found some clothing companies that are listed by grade. So I could easily tell which companies are more ethically focused than others.

Even with the grading system, if you are looking to replace synthetics with natural fibers as I am, you still need to read the labels. But it’s nice knowing that there are people out there doing the work and looking for ethically and socially responsible companies. And that we have a place to at least start our search for better buying choices.

Some of the companies that I’ve come across in my search for ethically sound businesses are very specific in what they offer. For example there are many companies that focus on socks and underwear. So when I stumbled across this post by Whole Body Diary, on sustainable clothing lines, I was excited that there are more people out there searching for more ethical ways to purchase different types of clothing.

Kezia from Whole Body Diary brings up a good point, and one that I am struggling with a little. Many of the companies she lists on her blog are not 100% sustainable. This brings me back to my original question, is it better to buy cotton or recycled plastic. But as Kezia says, not every company is going to hit every sustainable mark. Some may focus on organic cotton, like Nudies Jean company. While others help the larger community, such as Bombas, who I’ve mentioned above as donating a pair of socks for every pair sold.

So our search for sustainable isn’t going to be a perfect one. But if we choose to search for companies that are trying to make a difference on some level, at least we’re supporting the larger whole of the mission, to buy from and support more sustainable businesses.

And there are some companies that do hit a lot of the marks as far as making sustainable clothing goes. One company, and the one I’m probably going to buy my sweatshirt from, is Pact. This company provides a wide variety of organic cotton, sustainable clothing. They are environmentally conscious of the production of their clothing by using sustainable materials as well as organic fabrics, as well as focusing on the well-being of their employees and work closely with the Fairtrade certified organization.

The Fairtrade certification means that the business is working to sustain the safe working conditions of the employee, that the company is protecting the environment, helping to pay sustainable wages for workers, as well as community development funding, according to their website. This is a huge step forward in helping to reduce not only the environmental impact of a company, but also the fair treatment of the employees and workers rights, while building healthier communities.

With this knowledge, finding clothing companies with a focus on reducing the overall harm they could be causing became much easier. I also had to accept that all companies aren’t going to reach the unachievable standard of being 100% sustainable. So the search for companies that are causing the least amount of harm became my new goal.

In this article published by The Good Trade, they cover 35 different companies that have ethical and sustainable practices! This is an exciting find. To think that there are so many companies that are willing to put the effort into making sustainable products and work towards the betterment of workers and the environment. Knowing there are more options when looking for sustainable ways to fill your wardrobe, feels like there is less of a burden knowing we are helping to lessen our impact on workers well-fare and the environmental costs.

I will add that some of these clothing lines can get pretty pricey. One of the clothing companies I mentioned above, Nudies Jean Co, has jeans that range from $185 to $400. That’s a lot of money for a pair of jeans no matter how you look at it. But according to The Food Diary, they last longer than other brands of jeans. Kezia said that her husband’s pair of jeans have lasted four years now and they are still going strong. The website also has a repair service. So if there’s been some damage done to your jeans, you can fix them up instead of throwing them away. So the lifespan of the garment is something to consider when looking at the price tag as well as the production methods.

Something that has helped me along the way, with purchasing clothing on a budget, is to establish a sinking fund for new clothing purchases. I don’t buy clothing often, so when I need something it’s usually small, like a package of socks or underwear. But if you need to replace a winter coat, or a pair of boots, this can get pricey.

A sinking fund is a good way to have a certain amount of cash on hand in case you need to replace items in your wardrobe. If you’re not familiar with the term, a sinking fund is where you set up a savings for a specific item, in this case it would be clothing, and contribute a set amount of money each week or pay period. This way you have what you need, when you need it and don’t have to scramble to find $300 dollars to purchase a new winter jacket that you may have lost on the slopes.

I contribute $25 dollars a pay period to mine, and I’ve decided to cap my fund at $400. This way I won’t look at my fund one day and realize I’ve amassed thousands of dollars into something that doesn’t require that much money! This way I can replace the most expensive article of clothing in my wardrobe while still feeling confident that I can take care of the basics when I need them.

So in the end, some companies that use microfibers that are polluting our oceans, are still leading the way in other areas of sustainability. It may come down to what your personal preference is for buying and supporting sustainable clothing. For me it’s buying organic cotton or wool when I have a choice, and recycled fibers if it’s something that requires them, like a raincoat or winter boots.

And for me, knowing that I’m supporting workers rights, and lessening the environmental impact my clothes are having is something that I can feel good about supporting. Knowing that I’m not just pushing off the problems of today onto the next generation is something that helps me to rest a little easier. And with projects like The Green Star Project, it’s exciting to think that there could be an independent source of a knowledge base, coming together to create a more ethical way to purchase clothing.

And it nice knowing that companies such as B Certified Corporations, Bluesign and Fairtrade out there, putting the work in to help lead the way in helping companies produce their goods in a more sustainable way. And while helping consumers know which companies are doing the work, is also comforting to know. I’ll be linking some of these companies in my community page for those who are looking to make their wardrobe a little greener. And I’d love to hear about the companies you’ve found that are doing good work as well. This is where I leave you good reader, and as always, peace and thanks for reading : )

Image Credits: “Nature’s Coatrack” by m01229 is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0

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