How to Make Really Smart Fashion Choices

The clothes we wear may be killing our planet, and wearing out our waterways, forcing many of us to reassess our fashion choices.

The  situation was highlighted last week with the screening of RiverBlue at the 2017 Water Docs Film Festival. The 90-minute Canadian documentary points out that the chemicals we treat our clothes with are taking a terrible toll on our waterways, killing rivers, ecosystems and their dependent life everywhere around the world.

As experts in the film reveal: “We are committing ‘hydro-cide.’ We are deliberately murdering our rivers. . .  Every single piece of clothing you buy comes with a cost.” One major fashion brand alone uses 28 trillion gallons of freshwater a year.  

North Americans have become hooked on cheap clothes (80 billion garments are produced annually) manufactured in nations with few, if any, environmental laws and controls, and exercising exploitative and sometimes dangerous labour practices. Witness the collapse of a Bangladesh clothing factory four years ago, that was supplying Canada's own Joe Fresh brand and others, and that ended up killing and seriously injuring hundreds of workers.

So what should the serious eco-shopper, committed to social and environmental justice, do? Well, you can start  by doing your research before whipping out your bank card.

Reduce, Reuse, Recycle

The first thing you should consider before buying that new outfit is to ask yourself, "Do I really need it?" Is your wardrobe already full of clothes that you aren't regularly wearing? Are you buying just because it's a great bargain, or you need a little shopping therapy after a bad day at work?

The consumption of new clothes is going through the roof globally. If more of us showed restraint, then the planet's resources would get a corresponding break. And if you are going to clean out your closet, don't throw out old clothes, further choking our landfills, but recycle them, giving them to perhaps a thrift shop or secondhand store.

Image by the  Donkey Sanctuary .

Image by the Donkey Sanctuary.

Speaking of which, do all your clothes have to be new? There are plenty of style-forward choices from secondhand and vintage clothing stores. You can even buy clothes made from recycled material, like polyester, which requires less energy and causes less pollution than new.

Go Natural

But while we are on the topic of polyester, the fabric is an environmental disaster. According to Green Peace, it is now used in about 60% of our clothes and its CO2 emissions are nearly three times higher than cotton clothing. 

Synthetic fabrics also release "microfibers" (microscopic pieces of plastic) into your laundry wash – as many as 700,000 strands in a single load. These are proving to be a major contributor to the plastic pollution in our oceans and freshwater systems, killing creatures in unprecedented numbers.

So it is better to buy clothes made of natural fabrics, but even here you need to be careful. Cotton is often grown with toxic fertilizer and pesticides, and even organic cotton requires large amounts of water to grow.

Some greener fabrics to look out for include:

  • Linen
  • Hemp
  • Bamboo
  • Lyocell
  • Alpaca
  • Organic wool
  • Silk

Think Global, Shop Local

To stop the worldwide fashion pollution problem, we might have to start looking close to home. As a first step, you can cut down on pollution by decreasing the distance that goods need to be transported when you shop locally. Independent businesses in the area also tend to be smaller, using less land and fewer resources.

You can be reasonably sure that the workforces they are utilizing are treated much better than some of the exploited workforces in developing nations, with higher wages and safer working conditions (although it's always a good idea to check out their websites to see if they have any kind of workplace and human rights policies).

Still, you have to be careful. Some big box stores can have labels that say "Manufactured in Canada," but may have garment components that come from other, poorly regulated countries. You're more likely to get the information you want about manufacturing processes from the small, independent store than the giant retail outlet.

Yes, you may have to pay more for local goods than something mass manufactured in a poor country. But, besides feeling good about supporting local business, you have the satisfaction of knowing that money spent on a quality, durable product is a wise investment.

Look for Eco-Conscious Brands

Of course, there are fashion brands that position themselves as environmentally friendly and socially aware choices. So then it becomes a matter of double checking their claims and finding ones that have that magical intersection of acceptable price point and the the fashion statement you want to make.

For example, Miik in Toronto uses organically farmed bamboo for the rayon in its clothes. Or La Canadienne creates great leather shoes in its Montreal factory with environmentally friendly dyes and protective agents.

Of the big international brands, Patagonia, known for its rugged outdoor gear, is notable for its commitment to sustainability and minimizing the environmental impact of its goods. The company uses organic cotton in its garments and makes many from recycled polyester. Patagonia also tries to provide safe and humane conditions in all its factories and to pay a living wage to workers.  

It pledges at least 1% of sales or 10%  of pre-tax profits – whichever is more – to environmental groups, encourages customers to keep and repair their clothes rather than buy new, and has specific policies in place to reduce the adverse social and environmental impacts of its supply chain. Read all about Patagonia's environmental commitments here. 

Cut Back on Chemicals

Many dyes used traditionally to colour fabrics contain harmful chemicals and require huge amounts of water for processing. Even white fabric is often bleached with chlorine, which releases cancer-causing dioxin.

Those who aspire to greater greenness should look for clothes with natural and low-impact dyes, such as indigo and cochineal, which come from plants, animals or insects. Or they can become the neighbourhood trendsetter, wearing unbleached fabric with a natural, off-white colour. 

Beware of Green Washing

One big challenge facing the eco-conscious clothes buyer is that many claims for green practices are made and not all are true. One good way to check the veracity of environmental claims is to visit the Greenwashing siteIt allows people to post ads from companies staking out the green space and then site members weigh in on how true the claims are, giving a score accordingly (as with golf, high scores aren't good).

Check for Certifications

Finally, it always pays to be a label reader, checking for certifications. For example, that neat holiday sweater with drunk Santa Claus might be labelled as 'Organic Wool,' so you can feel good about the material, and as 'Fair Trade,' so you know the elves weren't exploited in making it.

Wear it with pride.