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 I use almost every day. It’ll only be a matter of time before the one I wear everyday becomes threadbare. And The other is comically large on me. So I usually only wear it around the house. So in search of a new sweatshirt, I went to the website of a company I’ve bought from in the past, Mexicalli Blues, and was looking through their products in search of a new, sustainable sweatshirt.

Reading The Clothing Labels

I like the the companies clothing. The style as well as the simplicity of them. 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. This made me wonder what the ramifications are of using plastic in clothing. 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 plastics are 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.

Being More Mindful of Clothing Materials & the Environment

As far as my clothing goes, I’d like to lean towards more natural fibers. 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 some time, breaking down further into smaller pieces. This causes all sorts of environmental hazards.

Consequences for Our Oceans

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 consume them, as the waste makes its way into our waters and 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. No bueno.

This is concerning to say the least. According to Greenpeace, 30% of plastic pollution could be caused from microfibers. In this article by Green Peace, “what are microfibers and why are our clothes polluting the oceans?“, they explain that, “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.

Priorities, Standards & the Companies Embodying Them

With all this new information swimming around in my mind, I was left with my new plan, to buy more sustainable clothing. Though unfortunately I also was left without much direction. The brand I was originally looking to for my new sweatshirt had a bullet point under the specs that said 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 about.

bluesign

From what I was able to gather, the Swiss Company is an independent resource. Their focus is on 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 that was bluesign approved 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. Also, this made me think that maybe my standards are too lofty. bluesign also focuses on working with companies to reduce the amounts and toxicity of the chemicals the company uses. As well as focusing on the human element of the industry. Such as fair wages and safe working conditions for employees. All important aspects to investigate and consider when purchasing from a company.

Certified B Corp.

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 companies produces.

This reminds me of a business I go to who solely 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 the tasks we take for granted in keeping a job! From finding clean clothes and a place to shower, to printing out a resume. Also, 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. But as far as clothing and B Corps. goes, they 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. Win, win.

The one area that wasn’t clear however, 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, they explained that these evaluations were taken by the corporations themselves. Self-evaluations.

Does this mean that a company is giving itself an assessment of how they perform in each category? 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 who’s doing the evaluating.

B Lab

B Lab is another company that evaluates corporations on a spectrum of concerns. A Wikipedia article explains that B Lab is a 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 that they grade these companies with is not totally clear.

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 not doing anything. And it’s comforting to know that there are corporations out there that are willing to take a look at their practices and to make a change for the better. I only wish that B Lab was more transparent with their evaluation methods.

Green Stars Project

There are few places that I could find that gave ethical reviews on companies in general. Reviews of clothing companies were few and far between. 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 criteria that covers topics from fair working wages to the environmental impact. It takes into consideration the company’s use of our resources, to the ethical treatment of animals, to how the company impacts the 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. This is good 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.

Better World Shopper

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 listed is Better World Shopper. Here you are able to search companies by category and grade. I found some clothing companies that are listed by grade and 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. Also that we have a place to at least start our search for better buying choices.

Fairtrade Certification

The Fairtrade certification means that the business is working to sustain the safe working conditions of the employee. Also that the company is protecting the environment. Also, 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.

Pact

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 and sustainable clothing. They are environmentally conscious of the production of their clothing by using sustainable materials as well as organic fabrics, while focusing on the well-being of their employees. They also work closely with the Fairtrade certified organization.

Positive Resources From the Community

And finally, in this article published by The Good Trade, they cover 35 different companies that have ethical and sustainable practices! This was 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, it feels like there is less of a burden knowing we are helping to lessen our impact in purchasing clothing.

Minding Your Budget & Longevity

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.

Start a Sinking Fund

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 expensive.

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 you contribute a set amount of money each week, pay period or month to the fund. This way you have what you need, when you need it. And you 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 my basics when I need them.

Establishing & Standing by My Values When Buying Clothing

So in the end, some companies that use microfibers that are polluting our oceans may still be leading the way in other areas of sustainability. It may come down to what your personal preferences are 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. Something like a raincoat or winter boots.

Also, 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 helps me to rest a little easier. And with communities like The Green Star Project, it’s exciting to think that there could be an independent source and knowledge base coming together to create a more ethical way to purchase clothing.

It’s also nice knowing that companies such as B Certified Corporations, bluesign and Fairtrade are out there, putting the work in to help lead the way in helping companies produce their goods in a more sustainable way. While also letting consumers know which companies are doing the work. 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.

Priorities & Personal Standards

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

Whole Body Diary brings up a good point and one that I am struggling with. 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. from Whole Body Diary explains, 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. Companies such as Bombas, who I’ve mentioned above.

The Take away? 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, we’re supporting the larger whole of the mission. To buy from and support more sustainable businesses. This is where I leave you good reader, and as always, peace & thanks for reading : )

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

Updated: 9/14/2022

Author: nolabelsliving

Social worker by day, blogger by night. I have a lot of lived experience which is why I started my blog. I was not given any direction when I started out on my journey, but have been blessed with some amazing support and guidance along the way. Just want to give back a little of what I've received : )

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