What is sustainable clothing?

As the co-founder of Truly Wild (along with my wife Cristina) I thought it would be a good idea to share my opinions about sustainable fashion and clothing.

sustainable clothing by Truly Wild

What is sustainable clothing?

1) The only truly sustainable clothing is to keep wearing the clothing you already own. Period.

Buying anything else, no matter what it is or how it was made or where it came from, is less sustainable than keeping what you already have.

2) The next best option is to buy second-hand clothing from a thrift shop or a clothes swap. But even those clothes had to be transported to end up there, creating an additional carbon footprint.

3) If you choose to buy new clothing, the best you can do is try to understand the impacts of each choice and always ask yourself, is there a better option? Because there is no such thing as perfection (except maybe to go naked) the goal has to be to try to improve.

sustainable fashion

What does sustainable mean?

There is no fixed definition of the word "sustainable". Like "green" and "eco-friendly" it is a trendy, catch-all word that gets tossed around in marketing campaigns by companies like ours. It will always be a matter of opinion, and here is mine.

In simplest terms, sustainable means that you could keep doing it forever. But our planet is a closed system with a finite amount of resources. We have an expanding human population (currently nearing 8 billion) that is likely to continue growing for the next century. And every single action or choice multiplied by 8 billion is going to have a massive impact. As long as we have a continually-expanding human population, there simply isn't anything we can do that is truly sustainable.

A more realistic definition for sustainable, until our global human population stabilizes, would be doing the least amount of harm to life on this planet. I include all life in my definition, all 8 million or so species with which we share the Earth. Another way to say this would be "preserving biodiversity"and preserving human health and happiness along with it.

What are the most sustainable clothing options?

Again, the answer to this question will always be a matter of opinion, based on what you value the most. Do you consider climate change the single greatest threat to biodiversity and human health? Pollution? PesticidesHabitat loss? Water consumptionHuman rights abuses and unfair wages? All of these and many more side effects of the colossal global clothing industry do harm to life on earth. And coming up with a simple equation to balance them all is impossible.

Making clothing is a global affair with many steps; farming or extracting raw materials, processing fibers, weaving fabrics, dyeing, assembling, decorating, distributing, and all the transportation in between.

So we always start with the accepted model, like conventional cotton or polyester, and then ask, "is there a better option available"? 

One example: Cotton

Here's an example. Conventionally-grown cotton accounts for about one quarter of all the insecticide use in the world, more than any other single crop. The cascade of harm caused by pesticides and chemical fertilizers has been well-documented for many decades. Is there a better option? Yes! Organic cotton uses no chemical fertilizers or pesticides.

spraying pesticides on cotton

Does organic cotton have other problems? Sure. It still requires huge amounts of water. There is still very little of it grown in the United States so most of the world's organic cotton comes from India and has to be shipped across the ocean. Lots of natural habitat has to be displaced to grow it. And so on.

An even better option is recycled cotton. No land is required to create the raw material (generally pre-consumer cotton scraps left over from manufacturing) No pesticides are needed to create the raw material. Of course it still requires shipping to get the raw material to production, and energy and water to process it to a usable state. But it essentially eliminates the farming impact of growing cotton.

What would be the ideal way to use cotton? Besides continually repairing the cotton clothes you already have, it would be creating a closed-loop system that turns discarded clothing into new clothing. Of course there will still be CO2 produced from shipping the materials around and from processing it back to a usable fiber. Water will be used, pollution will be created, and human rights abuses may occur along the way. And still we have all the same old problems associated with dyeing and weaving cloth, assembling clothing, decorating, and distributing it. 

So then we carry on asking, is there a better way to reduce the harm caused by each of these steps?

Finding the better options

commercial hemp cropAs consumers, we can help move this industry in a better direction by supporting the options that do less harm to life on this planet and still preserve human health and happiness.

The more we support these options, the more affordable and more sustainable they become. A good example of this is hemp.

Hemp is a great eco-friendly crop that can be made into super-comfortable clothing. But the USA had banned commercial production of hemp for nearly a century until just a few years ago. If we show there is a demand for it, we can increase production here in the US. This would make it more affordable to buy and would eliminate the carbon footprint of shipping it from China where most of the world's hemp fabric is currently produced.

Please join us in trying to pull this industry into a more sustainable future and protecting life on Earth!


1 comment

  • Rebecca L Goodstein

    Well this is terrific! Thank you for articulating this. And for running a business and sustainably as you can.

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