5 Things You Didn’t Know About Your Clothes.

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Photo: Jude Doyland on Flickr.

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. 

Like conscious consumerism on Facebook.

Ed: Catherine Monkman

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anonymous May 16, 2014 6:04pm

Less than 7% of the world's pesticides are used on cotton, not 25%. Even organic community disputes this myth.

anonymous Mar 25, 2014 2:12pm

Great, let's just run around naked forever that way we don't hurt the environment.

anonymous Nov 5, 2013 1:00pm

While a $5 T-shirt almost certainly has slavery in the manufacturing chain, what's to say more expensive designer shirts don't. The question a lot of people will want answering is who are the most ethical brands? Who is doing the best job of policing their supply and manufacturing chains?

anonymous Sep 28, 2013 12:39am

yes, there are probably the most important things that some people do not really know. Thanks!

anonymous Sep 17, 2013 5:02pm

How does hemp compare to cotton/bamboo in terms of processing?

anonymous Sep 2, 2013 1:33pm

This is shocking and gross. We seriously should avoid wearing clothes as much as possible.

anonymous Aug 30, 2013 7:22am

What a fun journey!
Since you are going to be continuing this push for clothes awareness, I wanted to give you some pointers for the future.

1. We aren't going to run out of water any time soon. There is over 188,000,000,000,000,000,000 gallons…in just the PACIFIC Ocean. Wouldn't focus on that.
2. if 32 million people are involved in the fashion industry, it shouldn't be that difficult to find one source to corroborate or support your slavery claim (saying you think slavery is going on is not exactly a point).
3. Cotton is used in so many more things than just clothes. We're not gonna stop using cotton, our economy would collapse. LIterally! We use cotton to make currency paper aka US DOLLAR BILLS.
4. If what you are saying regarding organic cotton is true, than it is the answer, it's just a more expensive answer. Isn't this whole article about taking the extra step and protecting our planet? We have plenty of water and renewable energy sources, spend more, use less pesticides.
5. I agree! Landfills are a huge concern to our planet! Recycling is something we all have to be more conscious of, not just with clothes but with everything. I hope that we can somehow find a way to recycle portions of landfills or convert all of that stinking mass into energy someday.
Good luck on your journey!
Even just one more environmentalist is always a good thing!

anonymous Aug 30, 2013 6:17am

Thank you for sharing your knowledge,
Only I am missing your reccomendations.., to make your article get things moving.

anonymous Aug 29, 2013 9:20am

Thrift stores are often swamped with clothing that doesn't sell. Another option is taking old clothing to Patagonia stores and they will recycle the fibers! This applies to non-Patagonia items as well.

anonymous Aug 29, 2013 8:02am

Terrific article. Solid info and advice, no fluff or delusion. Thank you for giving it to us straight.

anonymous Aug 21, 2013 1:40pm

You know, I've been wanting to write an article like this, but I simply don't have this wealth of knowledge that you possess. Great job and great topic. Thanks!

anonymous Aug 19, 2013 12:14pm

Great article! Thanks for sharing your knowledge!

anonymous Aug 15, 2013 1:44pm

Great article, something people need to know. One question, how is it possible that the average household does 400 loads of laundry every year? That is over one load per day. Also, I want to add that hemp is a very promising textile choice. Farmers can grow more of it per acre than cotton and it doesn't require pesticides. It's better all around economically and it's more sustainable.

anonymous Aug 15, 2013 10:10am

great information that straightens out a few misrepresented issues.
However, this appears to be cut off at the end?

anonymous Aug 15, 2013 9:25am

Great. So good to know this. Thank you. Will heed your advice.

Hmc Sorkin Aug 9, 2018 2:10pm

Congratulations on your company. Two films about clothes being shipped overseas and its impact are T-Shirt Travels and The Secret Life of Your Clothes. Several African countries will soon no longer allow such importation.

Hmc Sorkin Aug 9, 2018 1:55pm

When clothes are sold overseas by the pound, for example to West African countries, in massive amounts it has virtually shut down some countries textile and manufacturing operations which has put lots of people out of work creating exactly the opposite of self sustainig economic activity. There is a documentary film about this. Mattress batting here great. Ship overseas less so. It would be better to take care of our own waste.

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Kristin Glenn

Kristin Glenn is the founder of Seamly.co, a women’s clothing company in Denver, CO. She is currently Kickstarting a fully biodegradable jacket that can be worn 4+ ways. You can follow her journey in sustainable fashion here.