I used to be a shopaholic and I was the worst kind—the bargain-hunting, hoarding kind.
Then I went on an epic, year-long backpacking trip and realized two things: we all have too much stuff and travel clothes are heinous. (Zip-off shorts, anyone?)
So, with zero experience in the fashion industry, I co-founded a clothing company for bad-ass female travelers who need super-versatile, minimalistic gear.
The only problem? I didn’t know anything about fashion, textiles, or manufacturing.
I’d never even worked retail.
My education began as we built our company.
I started learning about how clothes are made, who makes them, and where they come from.
I dedicated the next three years of my life to it, spending literally all of my money and most of my time learning about the environmental and social ills of the fashion industry.
I called cotton farmers, sourcing experts, textile innovators and factory owners. I went to the world’s largest sourcing trade show, visited the first fair-trade organic cotton cooperative in Nicaragua, and watched fabric knitting in the textile belt of America.
I even spent a summer in the Pacific Northwest, interviewing designers, CEO’s, professors, writers and textile artists for a mini-documentary series.
What I learned has changed the way I shop, design, and care for my clothes (and the clothes I manufacture.)
Here are the big five.
1. The most environmentally devastating effects of clothing happen after the purchase.
Laundry is the culprit of a majority of the environmental damage caused by our clothes.
Let’s just consider the United States, where the average household washes 400 loads of laundry per year.
Over 1,000 loads of laundry are started every second. That’s over 13,000 gallons of water per household, plus the energy required to heat the water and dry it all out. Not to mention that most laundry detergent contains phosphates, which deplete aquatic ecosystems.
(Quick guide to improving your laundry habits: wash full loads, use cold water only, buy phosphate-free detergent, and hang dry.)
2. Modern-day slavery is real. And it affects your clothes. Yep, yours.
In an interview with Justin Dillon of SlaveryFootprint.org, I learned that over 32 million people worldwide are involved in the fashion industry, which is anything but transparent.
Slavery typically happens at the early stages in the supply chain, in cotton production and garment factories. Even if a company knows who and where its’ factories are, work is subcontracted down an elusive chain that is rarely traced.
Bottom line? We don’t know much about where our clothes really come from, but you can be sure that a $5 t-shirt cannot exist without modern-day slavery.
3. Over 25% of the world’s pesticides are used on cotton.
That makes for huge implications on soil, waterways and human health.
4. Organic cotton isn’t the answer, and neither is bamboo.
That new pair of organic cotton yoga pants you just bought? The jury is still out on benefits vs. downsides.
New fibers and fabrics are exciting for the eco-minded shopper, but none are perfect—yet. While organic cotton reduces pesticide use, processing and dyeing it requires more water and energy than conventional cotton. The same is true for bamboo; after harvest, it’s spun with harsh chemicals to create the soft fiber.
In short, everything man makes has an impact. Our best bet for reducing ecological damage? Recycling textiles, using textile waste, and thrifting like crazy.
5. According to the EPA, the average person throws out 68 pounds of textiles per year.
I visited a landfill just outside Seattle last summer to see exactly where our waste ends up and how it’s managed.
The biggest takeaway? Don’t throw out your old clothes, even if you think they’re too dingy or old to recycle. Thrift stores collect (literally) tons of unsellable clothes and pass them on to be to be shredded for batting (think mattress filling) or sold overseas by the pound.
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Ed: Catherine Monkman