Would you spend £10,000 for a pair of jeans?
How about using 10,000 litres of water?
The thing that surprised me most when I started exploring impacts of clothes production on the environment was how harmful the production of natural fabrics like cotton, silk and wool can be. I had no idea, for example, that conventional cotton uses as much as 10,000-20,000 litres of water per kilo to produce. (And, this is often in the areas that suffer from water scarcity.)
After sharing an article about the topic in February, I promised to follow up with a buyer’s guide. It proved more difficult to do than I expected. I read about fabrics, certifications and brand ratings. I compared brand rating schemes, browsed through corporate sustainability reports, and reviewed how clothes’ material labels and other information given online by retailers correlates with their ratings.
My head was spinning… I wasn’t able to find all the answers I wanted to, including some questions you sent me. I’m sorry for that. However, I’ve been able to reach a few conclusions:
Cheap is usually unethical
A notably cheap price is usually a sign that corners have been cut. Producing a sustainable and otherwise ethical dress cannot be done for £4. This is common sense, but the volume of cheap clothes sales is massive, so I thought this is worth including in the list.
Company size is a better indicator than pricing
Generally, the price doesn’t correlate with the sustainability. Instead of the price, it is the company size that gives a better indication. The largest enterprises and sustainability-focused niche companies are the best. Small and middle-sized companies which account for more than the half of the industry rate the lowest.
There are huge differences between the companies
It doesn’t come as a surprise that there are big differences between the companies. For finding the most sustainable companies, there are brand ratings & certificates that are very helpful – but you still need to be careful:
Brand and retailer ratings can be deceptive
I cross-checked a number of highly-rated companies and I found that most companies that have certificates, or are rated highly in environmental assessments, have non-sustainable options in their selection. For example, a company can be found in the GOTS register (Global Organic Textile Standard), but they can also sell clothes produced with non-organic cotton. Hence, once you have identified a good retailer, you still need to check the details of the item you are considering.
For example, there is Faer that “searches the web for the latest guilt-free fashion brands and looks so you don’t have to”. They advertise garments made of organic cotton and 100% Tencel – but also dresses of 100% viscose like in the below picture. Maybe it is listed because the description says that “1% of sales go towards preserving the natural environment”. That sounds good – but it doesn’t make the dress “guilt-free” if you care about the environment.
It can be difficult to find an eco-friendly alternative
It is relatively easy to find nice T-shirts, casual wear and outdoor garments that have been produced with organic cotton or recycled polyester by companies that are following ethical practises in their operations – but much more tricky if you are looking for a festive dress or business shirts. In order to create the desired look and feel, ‘the baddies’ of the fabrics world are still an attractive option for the manufacturers. For example, conventional viscose (rayon) drapes well, is light, smooth, breathable, and it blends well with other fabrics. It is therefore still very widely used.
It can be frustrating …
What may be a bigger hurdle than acquiring the information about sustainable fabrics and brands is limiting oneself to sustainable options. That means limiting oneself to around 25% of the companies, finding sustainable options from their offering, and (usually) paying a premium. That does limit ones options considerably, and can be really frustrating when you don’t have much time, or when you’ve seen a most fabulous dress only to notice it’s made of silk by an unethical designer company…
During those moments, I think it helps to remind oneself that buying sustainable options, and giving feedback to retailers is going to make a difference.
Industry says the consumers have the biggest responsibility – if people don’t buy the more costly sustainable products, the businesses will not produce them.
Fashion industry survey says that they put the biggest responsibility to drive the industry progress on consumers, and that the biggest barrier for not doing more for the environment is “low customer willingness to pay a premium for sustainable products”.