Fashion & Climate Change - straight-forward advice for reducing your emissions

I’m so excited to share with you the talk I gave over the weekend at the inspiring FIL Your Cup event here in Adelaide. While I hadn’t planned on it being a blog post, so many people came up to me afterwards thanking me for sharing this information with them, and so I figured why not share it a little wider. It’s a little long, but quite practical, so stick with me!

 

I’ll skip the bit where I introduced myself….

Given recent events here in our beloved Australia with our summer of fires, our own individual roles in climate change is on many of our minds. I know in my own circles of friends and acquaintances there’s a general feeling of helplessness, and one of the best antidotes to helplessness is finding our power and exercising it. Recognising and understanding the impacts of our actions, and how to change those impacts for the better, is what I’m here for!  

Before I get into the nitty gritty though, I think it is important to acknowledge that I do recognise that we, as individuals, operate in and are constrained by social, economic, cultural and environmental factors bigger than ourselves. There is big industry having BIG impacts than can make our individual actions feel futile. But if Celeste Barber has taught us anything, it’s that if each of us does just a little, together we can have achieve great things.

 

Okay, so… fashion and climate change. WHY should we worry about our clothes when we’re thinking carbon emissions?

Estimates vary, but it seems the fashion industry contributes around 8% of global carbon emissions (8%!) – more than all international flights & maritime shipping (which handles 90% of global trade) combined. And this is set to more than double at the current rate at which the fashion industry is expanding and producing clothes.

According to one (only semi-reliable) article, one white cotton t-shirt produces carbon emissions equivalent to around 56 kms of driving (not to mention the 80 baths of water it takes to grow the cotton and make that tee). So when we think about the VALUE of our clothes, even if it didn’t cost much to us financially, it did cost a lot to the planet. Whether it was $10 or $100, its emissions were likely very similar. It’s water use high. And something that costs the planet costs US our wellbeing too. We rely on nature for EVERYTHING we do and create. Let’s keep her healthy, ha?! 

So, easy tips to reduce your carbon footprint, anyone?

 

Which fabrics to choose

As much as 70% of a garment’s carbon impact comes from its fabrics. So learning and changing up the fabrics you buy and wear can be an easy way to make a positive change.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again - not all fabrics are created equal. We need to move away from the ‘natural’ vs ‘manmade’ dichotomy when it comes to fashion too. EVERTHING we create as humans came from nature, and there are all sorts of degrees of processing when it comes to fabrics. The word NATURAL is often used to convince us something is good, even if it isn’t.

Consider all of the processes involved in creating a piece of clothing, from planting, ploughing, watering and fertilising, milling, processing, dying, weaving, sewing, transport, marketing, shipping and so on. ALL of these process involve energy use. For example, fertilising fibre crops (like cotton) with synthetic fertilisers is hugely carbon intensive – the process of making the fertiliser requires A LOT of energy, and then even more is used to distribute those fertilisers on the crops. On top of this, fabrics are still primarily made in lower socio-economic countries, where systems tend to be less efficient, and often fuelled by coal power.

 

Fabrics I’d suggest avoiding are… (drumroll please)

Unfortunately the fabrics that 90% of all clothes are made of.

60% of the world’s clothes are made from synthetic fibres, and around 30% or so from cotton. It just so happens that these two fabric groups are two of the worst when it comes to carbon emissions. The process of extracting and processing fossil fuels into polymers is incredibly energy intensive and emits carbon monoxide, which is A LOT more polluting than carbon dioxide. Synthetics like polyester and nylon are the ‘bad guys’ of the fabric community (and their carbon emissions are just one part of the story). They contribute double the emissions of cotton (which isn’t great either, let’s be honest).

  

Instead, look for:

If you NEED synthetics (for swim or activewear perhaps), go recycled. It’s truly easy peasy these days – there are SO MANY brands using Econyl and other recycled nylon fabrics to make divine swimmable and workoutable creations. Get on it! (Ps. We have some epic recycled swim online in our New Arrivals section. Shameless plug.)

Rayon and Viscose sit firmly in between the ‘natural’ and ‘manmade’ camps. They are called ‘cellulosic’ fibres – made from wood that is broken down and spun into fibres. So, naturally derived but requiring a lot of processing. There are a few big issues with rayon and viscose. The wood they’re made from is often old growth forests (um, the most carbon absorbing ecosystems on the planet. Eek!). The solvents/chemicals used to dissolve the wood are also often pumped right down the drain and into waterways, with minimal processing. Also not great.Avoiding cotton has been pretty tricky for me. I grew up with cotton-everything! The obvious alternative to conventional cotton is organic cotton. Switching to organic will reduce the energy use and emissions by around 50% (aka: heaps!). While only 2% of the world’s cotton production is organic, it IS getting easier to find. If you can avoid cotton altogether, HEMP and LINEN are excellent alternatives, and have the lowest embodied energy of any fibres/fabrics.

Enter, Tencel. The Austrian Lenzing company produces a range of rayon/viscose alternatives that behave similarly (they’re lovely and flowy, for one), but are much better performers in terms of all things environmental. They’re made from plantation wood, from trees that usually don’t require any irrigation. The company uses mainly renewables to power its processing, and recycles over 99% of all solvents and water used in processing (meaning it ain’t going down the drain and poisoning things and people!). So, look out for Tencel, Ecovero, and other fabrics with the word “Lenzing” in their name

Hand-loomed fibres are another beautiful option. Sometimes organic, sometimes not, but the handloom process itself is done by – you guessed it – hand, so the emissions usually involved in the machine-weaving process are eliminated. (Supporting hand-loom artisans maintain their craft and livelihoods is also excellent.)

(Image courtesy of Carlie Ballard of hand-loom artisans in Southern India making her signature Ikat textile).

 

Beyond fabrics, what else you can do to get those emissions down?

What we do with a piece of clothing once we own it can easily double (or triple) its carbon footprint. How much and how we wash, dry and dispose of our clothes all contribute to their eco-impact (not to mention shipping or travel to buy something).

Perhaps buy a little less...

So, to begin, it’s gotta be said – BUY LESS friends, and wear what you have more. Heard of the term ‘cost per wear’? It’s essentially dividing the amount a garment costs you by the number of times you wear it to work out how much it costs you each time you wear it. Ie. A $100 dress worn 10 times costs $10 per wear.

Well, why not think about our ‘emissions per wear’ as well? The more you wear a garment, the less its initial carbon footprint will be worth. Wearing what you already own as much as you can is the best thing you can do, right now, today, to reduce your emissions (free and easy!). And when buying new, keep this in mind – buy the best quality you can afford, to make sure it goes the distance.

Avoid washing, drying & ironing (seriously)

Making some changes to how you wash, dry and press your garments is also on the agenda. A long sleeved t-shirt contributes around 7kg of carbon before it gets to you, and then another 10-12 kilos while you own it. Wash things LESS friends (and no, it’s not gross). Spot clean if you can, air those tees out, pop your jeans in the freezer for a freshen up (seriously) and get away without washing as much as you can. When you do wash, cold or gentle cycles please – just get that energy use down. Ironing is also out (hallelujah!). Well, not really, but again, it uses energy, so if you can avoid it, go for it. And dry cleaning? Well – it’s not great – pretty polluting and very energy intensive, so if you can avoid, do.

End of life

When you’re done with that beautiful piece, spend a little of your own energy thinking about how best to move it on to a new home. The vast majority of clothes donated to op-shops end up straight in landfill, so only donate to op shops if it’s really still in good condition. Otherwise, thoughtful re-gifting is great (my Aunty is LOVING my thoughtful re-gifting lately – she fits everything I used to fit into pre-baby. Win for us all, and the planet). Clothing recycling schemes and drop off points are also becoming increasingly common, so go online and find your nearest drop off point. They can recycle the clothes that aren’t good enough to be worn anymore. (Australia had announced the first ever national clothing recycling scheme last year. I’m not sure where it’s at, but keep your eyes and ears peeled for that, too!).

Last but certainly not least, STYLE girl.

I’d like you to have a quick ponder – what are the 1 or 2 pieces of clothing you wear ALL the time?

(For me, it’s definitely my baggy jeans and comfy tees… #mumlife.)

 And now, what is one thing in your wardrobe you adore but that’s only been worn once or twice?

 (That stunning white silk jacket I bought a year ago is sitting unworn. I have a 2 year old. Like, clearly I was never going to find a time to wear white silk!)

 

I’m not going to tell you to only buy what you need. Clothes have been used for self expression and as artistic works since the beginning of humanity, and I think they should be fun. But, if buying less is something you probably should work towards (meekly raises hand), focus on buying less of what you won’t wear (much). If you’re going to wear that hemp tee 100 times, go for it girl. But that beautiful new cream maxi dress your fave brand just released… well, does it really fit your *insert own daily reality here* (uni/mum life for me)? That stunning hand-embroidered jacket may well be a ridiculously gorgeous work of art, but does it go with anything in your wardrobe?

Repeat after me: Buy less of what I won’t wear A LOT. Those special occasion pieces that will only get worn once or twice can be rented, borrowed or thrifted. Look for versatility wherever you can - a garment that can be worn as a dress OR a skirt is going to get a lot more wear. That top that can be worn trans-seasonally with a heap of different outfits? It's a keeper!

 

So, truth be told, unless you’re a full time nudist…

Whether or not you’re into fashion, you are a part of the fashion industry. Whatever you spend your money on, and however you treat each item of clothing you own IS having an impact on people and on the planet.

 

Every time you shop, ask yourself a few quick questions:

  • Is it really beautiful, if a river was poisoned or someone enslaved to make it?
  • Can you get creative and create an outfit similar to the one you’re lusting over from pieces you already own?
  • Will you wear this AT LEAST 30 times? If not, what are your other options?

If you get into a habit of loving and caring for your clothes, connecting with their stories and makers, and understanding their impact, you will naturally buy less, and be able to afford more sustainable pieces when you do shop. All around wining.

 

Go forth and be fabulous (and a little less carbon-emitting) friends xx

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