In a world where stylish, affordable clothes are becoming accessible to an ever-growing range of consumers, it's more important than ever to consider the environmental impact of what we wear. Though measuring this kind of impact can be tricky, understanding even the basics will help shoppers make more informed choices when it comes to fashion.
For generations, cotton has been a popular choice. It's a natural fiber and produces fabrics that are soft and comfortable. Not only that, it is versatile, breathes well, and is easy to care for.
Admittedly, however, growing cotton requires a lot of water, and it also uses a surprising percentage of the world's pesticides.
In addition, it is important to understand that not all types of cotton are the same. The most common variety, which is also the cheapest, is short-staple cotton. Unfortunately, clothing made from short-staple cotton tends to feel coarser, breaking down more quickly under everyday wear and tear. In contrast, Pima cotton, with its much longer fibers, is not only extremely soft but also exceptionally durable, lasting longer with less pilling and fraying.
While cotton makes up approximately 25% of all textiles—including clothing—it is also often blended with synthetic fibers, such as polyester or bamboo rayon. This means that, when buying garments made from anything other than 100% cotton, consumers must factor in the environmental impacts of those other fabrics as well.
This brings us to rayon, which is made from wood pulp or bamboo. Nevertheless, rayon—including bamboo rayon—is really a man-made fiber, and its production has caused the clearing of many old-growth forests in countries such as Indonesia. During its production, bamboo rayon is also treated with toxic substances in order to break it down into useable pulp.
It's not hard to imagine how much energy it must take—and how many chemicals must be needed—to turn something as hard as wood into soft, stretchy clothing. According to Dr. Paul Blanc of the University of California, San Francisco, these chemicals have been linked to damaging effects on the health of workers, as well as posing a potential danger to the environment.
Another notorious offender when it comes to the environment is polyester, which has emerged as a widespread alternative to natural fibers. Technically a plastic, polyester is derived from petroleum, a non-renewable resource, and is itself non-biodegradable. In addition, it sheds hundreds of tiny plastic fibers every time it is washed—fibers that end up polluting our oceans and our food supply.
In the end, while every kind of fabric has both advantages and disadvantages when it comes to its impact on the environment, the surest way for consumers to make a difference is simply to buy less. One way to make that easier is by choosing only high-quality clothing made from natural, long-lasting fabrics—such as Pima cotton, mentioned above.
Ultimately, by buying—and throwing away—less, shoppers will not only make choices that are better for the environment, but also end up with better-quality clothing that will wear well and actually last.