Written for The Honey Combers.
Most of the time, the label we look at as consumers is the brand label – we associate a brand’s values with how we want to feel and make a purchase decision based on, mostly, aesthetics and utility. There is a second label that is much more important, however, and it isn’t so easily dissected.
If each of us took some time to understand it, there would be a paradigm shift for the fashion industry and its associated issues of waste, pollution, labour rights and massive environmental footprint, created by the estimated 80 billion pieces of clothing consumed yearly.
This is the label you should really care about. It’s the label on the inside of your garment, the one we look at mainly after we’ve bought something and before throwing it into the machine to make sure it’s not ruined in the wash. There are three things here that point to the intricate supply chain behind each garment, and are fundamental to making a more conscious choice that also suits your daily lifestyle.
The basics are knowing what a garment is made of and understanding how that fabric came to be. For example, natural materials can be plant-based, like cotton and linen, or animal-based, like wool or silk. Most of the time, these materials originate from farms, whereas synthetic materials are made in factories. Major synthetic materials you’ll find are polyester and nylon, made through extracting petroleum and converting that to fibre. If your top says 100% polyester, it means you’re basically wearing plastic.
The difference between natural and synthetic is a basic one, but complicated when you’re trying to figure out which is the most sustainable. If you think that this only matters to the environment, you’re wrong. Many of our customers exclaim over how comfortable our garments are, and it’s mainly because natural materials are often more breathable and sit better on the skin, also our body’s largest organ. Besides rejecting polyester, moving towards organic cotton is the next best thing we can do – a step we’re taking next year.
What most people don’t realise is that a huge proportion – up to 75% – of the energy used in the life-cycle of a garment lies in its aftercare. Basically, the washers and dryers we have at home use a huge amount of energy that we seldom think about. In terms of advice, this part is easy. Wash less, manually remove stains instead of washing an entire garment, wash at 30 degrees or colder when possible, and choose line drying over tumble drying.
For this part, there is no clear guidance except to investigate each brand and company’s supply chain. ‘Made in China’ often has a bad name around being the workshop of the world, but increasingly, this labelling doesn’t always mean lower quality and bad worker environments. At the same time, ‘Made in Italy’ doesn’t always mean much either, when you learn that Prato, the capital of Italy’s textile business, is significantly run and staffed by Chinese, with over 5000 workshops run by Chinese immigrants.
The globalisation of production is a tricky thing, where most of our products are made in more than one place, and where a ‘Made in Germany’ origin label can be placed even when an item is mostly assembled in North Africa, with final details placed in Germany. It makes more sense to know the integrity of a company’s supply chain and transparency around disclosure, rather than judge it by its origin label.
It might seem like there are far too many factors to consider, and with our time-strapped lives, it’s sometimes unrealistic to do a huge amount of research when buying a piece of clothing. We mainly want to look and feel good, and we don’t want shopping to become a complex past-time with minefields of ambiguous decisions to make.
If you’re baffled by the amount of information, always return to the simple foremost formula for sustainable choices: buy what you love. When you really love something, you’ll take care of it and wear it over a longer period of time, which is the greatest combatant against a cheap and fast throwaway culture. This is the magical formula of Cost per wear, which is the total cost of the item divided by the number of times you’ll wear it over its lifetime with you. So think about the kinds of things you’ll still keep 10 years down the road, or even pass on to the next generation, and invest in those.