Recently there has been a movement or an understanding that if you buy something second-hand, that it is inherently sustainable or ethical. It’s actually a lot more complicated than that. I’m here to shed a little more light onto this complex topic.
I think one of the most crucial things I would love everyone to understand is that we need to limit the amount of clothing and accessories that we purchase. Just because there is a sale or an opportunity to go and buy things, does not mean that we need to be buying things. We need to decrease the number of things we buy and stop chasing after trendy items. Instead, we need to invest in high-quality timeless items that will remain stylish and intact for decades to come. When it comes to shopping, it needs to be done in moderation and it needs to be well thought out. We need to stop our over-consumptive lifestyles and adhere to a more responsible and environmentally-friendly approach.
Last year I decided to make a pact with myself to never purchase another item of clothing that was composed from synthetic fibres. Included in this pact were these rules: think about the item before I choose to buy it – this includes thinking about if it goes with a lot of other things I already own, if it truly fits well, and if I would actually wear it a lot. This resulted in me being able to cut down on unnecessary purchases, and to build a wardrobe consisting mostly of natural fibres and high-quality garments. Now, in no way am I claiming to be perfect either. I still have garments that are composed from synthetic materials which I had purchased years ago – I am slowly replacing them with more sustainable options, which will be discussed later on in this post.
There is no doubt that buying items second-hand or thrifting is more sustainable than buying new. Thrifting or buying something second-hand is a better option because additional resources are not being used to produce the item, as it has already been created. Giving an item a second life is important. It is also important to know that you can shop at thrift or consignment stores, however shopping at local vintage shops or participating in local clothing swaps is also incredibly important.
However, let’s examine the meaning behind sustainability. Sustainability is the process in which the exploitation of resources, among many other things, is in harmony with and enhances the current and future potential to meet human needs and aspirations. Sustainability operates on the precept that we need to meet present demands without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their needs. The only way in which sustainability can occur, is through healthy ecosystems and environments. Healthy ecosystems and environments can only endure, develop or recover with reduced negative human impact.
Let’s break this down: if a thrifted item is truly sustainable, it must be made of natural materials, it must be high-quality and it must be able to be machine washed/hand washed.
Whenever clothing that is made from man-made materials or synthetic materials is washed, they release plastic microfibres into the waterways. These synthetic materials include polyester, nylon, elastane, lycra, polyamide, viscose, spandex and acrylic, to name a few. These plastic microfibres pass through filters and sewage treatment plants, and pollute rivers, lakes and oceans. These synthetic or plastic fibres will never decompose. Even scarier is the fact that items made from synthetic materials do not even need to be washed to shed synthetic microfibres. For example, if you are hiking and wearing shoes composed from synthetic materials, the shoes will release synthetic microfibres into the environment as you walk.
Now, plastic pollution is not just an aesthetic issue; plastic has the ability to negatively change ecosystems. Also, over 60% of plastic pollution is from plastic microfibres from clothing, and microfibres are responsible for over 85% of shoreline pollution. Plastic microfibres, alongside other plastic waste, are composed of chemicals that significantly increase concentrations of endocrine disrupting chemicals in the environment (I discussed a little about endocrine disrupting chemicals here). Plastics also have the ability to attract and absorb harmful chemicals, bacteria and persistent pollutants. When plastic pollution is smaller, the surface area increases and allows it to absorb even more chemicals and bacteria – making plastic microfibres an incredibly devastating pollutant.
Ingestion of microfibre plastic by humans and animals is now virtually unavoidable. What has to be understood about plastic microfibres is because of their size, they are able to enter into the food chain in very early stages and in every stage thereafter. Zooplankton are ingesting plastic microfibres as they mistake them for food, so plastics are continuing to maintain their presence throughout the entire food chain. Sea creatures do not even have to eat chunks of plastic to be affected, as they are continually processing ocean water containing toxic leachates through their gills, stomachs and other membranes. Higher trophic level organisms are exposed to highly enriched concentrations of contaminants due to bioaccumulation. You might be thinking “well I don’t consume sea food, so I don’t have to worry about this”, and this is problematic thinking for multiple reasons. First, you need to consume water to live. Most water that we drink is contaminated with plastic microfibres that are invisible to the naked eye – and no, drinking bottled water is not any safer. Also, more than 3.5 billion other people depend on the ocean for their primary source of food, therefore consuming toxic waste through the consumption of sea creatures. If you aren’t swayed or dismayed enough by the harmful effect on humans, plastic pollution annually kills more than 100,000 marine mammals plus millions of birds and fish.
It is time we take responsibility for our actions and accept that man-made materials are devastating and harmful. Plastic contamination does not only harm ecosystems and animals, but it also directly harms those who are responsible for it, create it and consume the products made from it.
Another thing about man-made materials or synthetic materials is that they were created through an industrial manufacturing process which uses fossil fuels (a non-renewable resource). I have been very troubled whenever I see a product that is made from recycled plastic, or manmade materials, and is labeled as a sustainable product… this is what is referred to as “greenwashing” a product. Clothing made from recycled plastic, recycled water bottles, ocean plastic, etc. releases even more synthetic microfibres than non-recycled materials. Plastic pollution is a horrific issue that needs to be dealt with, however turning that plastic pollution into clothing is the most unsustainable process that can be done.
As you read above, there is absolutely nothing sustainable about man-made fibres or materials, especially when they have to be washed. Therefore, in reflecting upon the definition of sustainability, garments composed of synthetic fibres do not even come close to passing as a sustainable purchase.
So, what are safe materials that are made from natural sources and will not release plastic microfibres? Here are a few of them. I must add that each material in this list is more sustainable than synthetics, but there is no material that is completely sustainable, either in the way it is grown or raised or in the way it is produced into a fibre. Choosing natural materials is a decision that will have less negative impacts on ourselves and on the environment both when it is being worn and when it will eventually have to be disposed of (after having being carefully cared for and donated of course). So, here are some natural plant and animal derived fibres – please note that many of the animal derived fibres listed here can be attained, either by brushing or shaving, with no harm to the animal. The leather options are sustainable if the leather is a byproduct of the food industry and is dyed using vegetable dyes instead of the traditional toxic dye process. There are also several companies that up-cycle vintage leather into new leather garments – look for these efforts when purchasing items, as this is truly a sustainable option.
One of the most important things to understand when thrifting or buying something second-hand is that if it is not high-quality, it is not worth it. Also, if you cannot repair it, restore it, or reimagine it, it probably isn’t worth it either. Focusing on the quality of the item is the most important aspect when shopping (after assuring it is composed of natural materials). This leads me to fast fashion brands or cheap big label brands. Most clothing produced as a by-product of fast fashion is cheap – both in material and make. Therefore if you purchase a fast fashion brand second hand, it will probably not last as long as a better quality garment would. This will probably lead to the garment having a shorter lifespan, requiring you to replace it relatively soon after purchasing. Therefore this second-hand purchase may end up in the trash quicker and result in even more consumption – which is quite unsustainable.
Also, some big label brands produce poor-quality garments and then slap their logo on it, and in the end you’re basically just paying to wear the logo. Always pay attention to the material the garment is made out of and the quality of the item before purchasing. Don’t let brand names sway you.
Also, another troublesome factor about buying fast fashion brands or unsustainable big label brands second-hand is if someone likes what you are wearing and sees or asks for the brand name, it no longer matters that you purchased it second hand, as you are basically advertising for the brand and giving it positive exposure. This usually leads to the person who asked, believing that you support that brand, going to the store themselves and purchasing that unsustainable brand, brand new. I think the most important thing here is to take a moment while thrifting, pull out your phone and quickly search “is this brand sustainable” and give yourself the time to find out if your second-hand clothing is sustainable & guilt-free. Just because something is being purchased second-hand, does not magically erase or revert the unsustainable or unethical practices used to make it.
Another critical factor to consider is that many of the most unsustainable and unethical practices of fast fashion brands is that they use slave labour to manufacture the items. A way around this tricky situation is to avoid fast fashion brands as they will probably not last, the quality will be poor and it will encourage the purchasing of new fast fashion garments. Also, very importantly, avoiding the purchase of these items will decrease the demand for them which will certainly decrease the need for the slave labour that is required to manufacture these items for the cheap price they are retailed for.
Machine washable / hand washable Garments
First of all, dry cleaning is expensive. You spend money on the actual garment itself, then you have to pay to have it cleaned as well. Second, dry cleaning involves chemicals which are dangerous to our health and the health of the environment. The chemicals used in dry cleaning have even been classified as carcinogenic, and severely toxic to fish, marine life and plants. Some cities may have “green” dry cleaners, but it might be best to avoid purchasing items that need to be dry cleaned, if possible.
This being said, it is actually quite possible to hand wash some garments that have “dry clean only” on their label, just ensure that you do your research on the proper technique before thrifting so you can save yourself money and the environment in the long run. Usually only wool, silk, cotton and linen can be washed at home and garments composed of suede, leather, or fur should be taken to a dry cleaner. Washing at home usually includes placing your garment into the sink or into a laundry bag (use a cotton pillow case if you do not have one), and washing with a mild natural detergent and cold water.
Proper Washing Techniques
I am sure that even if you stop purchasing all clothing that is made from synthetic fibres right now, you will still have some items in your closet made from synthetics. Until you can afford to replace those items with more high-quality & sustainable items, here are some tips and tricks about proper washing techniques.
It is actually unnecessary to wash some of your clothing after only one wear. Items like jeans, cardigans, sweaters, and more, can be worn 2-5 times before being washed. When it is finally time to wash items composed of synthetic fibres, fill up your washing machine to ensure there is less friction between clothing. Make sure to only wash them for a short duration, on a low rev cycle, on a cold water setting. Another factor that helps to cut down on unwanted friction is to make the switch to liquid laundry soap – my favourite is being able to bring a reusable container to bulk stores and fill up with liquid laundry soap (to cut that plastic pollution even more)! Also, always throw dryer lint into the trash and never down the drain. There are even new products emerging to help control the amount of microfibres being lost into the waterways like GuppyFriend! I have a GuppyFriend bag and it seriously works, I highly recommend it. Using just a normal laundry bag will not stop synthetics from getting into the waterways.
Of course, the takeaway should always be to avoid cheaply-made fast fashion clothes altogether and opt for natural fibres, as plastic fibres will never biodegrade, breakdown, or go away. Synthetics are not sustainable, are not a kind choice in regard to animals or wildlife, and should be done away with completely.
So the next time you are purchasing clothing, keep in mind that a single purchase can have a worldwide impact, and it is up to you if it is a negative or positive impact. We all need to change in order to sustain the only world we have to live in. Consumers have the greatest impact and whether we choose to spend our money on sustainable second-hand goodies, or on new brands that are working hard to be as sustainable and ethical as possible, we will be able to get the message across that we are over the age of plastic pollution and that action is needed now!