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Is Your Wardrobe Hurting The Planet?

A model presents a Spring-Summer 2016 creation by Moises Nieto for Ecoembes, at the Madrid Fashion Show, in Madrid, Spain, Monday, Feb. 8, 2016. At least 80 percent of the fabrics in this fashion show are made from recycled materials. (Daniel Ochoa de Olza/AP)MoreCloseclosemore
A model presents a Spring-Summer 2016 creation by Moises Nieto for Ecoembes, at the Madrid Fashion Show, in Madrid, Spain, Monday, Feb. 8, 2016. At least 80 percent of the fabrics in this fashion show are made from recycled materials. (Daniel Ochoa de Olza/AP)

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Dorothy Hartley observed in her book about medieval England, “Lost Country Life,” that good linen does not “wear out in a century!” A well-made shirt could be worn by generations.

People valued their clothing because producing it was difficult. Members of households labored hard to make each item, Hartley explains. To obtain a piece of linen a farmer first planted seeds to grow flax plants, and, if weather cooperated, harvested them months later. Other members of the household then took over to transform the flax into linen clothing. First, they set the stems to rot in shallow water; then they beat them to break the fiber down, teased away the coarser parts, and combed the remaining soft, silky flax into long strands that were spun and woven. Only after long effort might a garment be fashioned and carefully hand-sewn.

I returned to Hartley’s description after reading an unsettling piece a few weeks ago. The writer, Vanessa Friedman, who is the chief fashion critic for The New York Times, was seeking to clarify the role of the fashion industry in climate change and environmental pollution. (Some have said, erroneously, that the fashion industry is the second most polluting industry on the planet, behind oil.)

Little research exists and answers are elusive. But Friedman did verify three astounding facts:

Nearly three-fifths of all clothing ends up in incinerators or landfills within a year of being produced.

More than 8 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions are produced by the apparel and footwear industries.

And, around 20 to 25 percent of globally produced chemical compounds are utilized in the textile-finishing industry.

Three-fifths of all new clothing dumped or burned within a year? Nearly 10 percent of emissions from the apparel and shoe industries? I didn’t realize our planet’s future is partly held hostage by the way we dress ourselves. Some decades ago I appeared in a Boston Globe fashion story about the new trend of college women wearing blue jeans (!) but no one has ever suggested before or since that I dress fashionably. Nevertheless, I am as culpable as anyone.

Nearly three-fifths of all clothing ends up in incinerators or landfills within a year of being produced.

Recently, attempting to end a mothfest in my closet, I emptied it ... and emptied it. Then, stuff piled all over the bedroom, I vacuumed and wiped and sorted. By day’s end, I had filled two big black garbage bags with culled clothing. I felt light and virtuous. I naively believed that my no-longer-desired items would be re-used, somehow. Asking no questions, I have always dealt with old clothing by smiling and waving at the folks from Big Brother Big Sister or Viet Vets who pick up the bags.

Friedman’s story hit me like a Zen Master slap. Remembering what I’d learned from Hartley about linen, I suddenly felt deeply the insanity of exploiting land, water, air, workers, animals — and who knows what else — to produce so much clothing no one treasures.

More personally, although I wear garments I like for a very long time (some have said too long) there’s the other stuff. You know — it looked good in the store — but never felt quite right? Still, I can’t remember ever tossing anything in under a year.

Online shops like Antibad and  DoneGood, as well as brands like Patagonia and Eileen Fisher, are trying to find more responsible ways to produce, deliver and recycle clothing, which is great. But they make up a small percentage of world markets.

And figuring out what is “sustainable clothing production” is a mountain we’re only beginning to climb. There’s little consensus. The more you read, the more you discover how complex a subject it is.

Still, there's been some progress. The Sustainable Apparel Coalition has developed a suite of tools called the “Higg Index” that tries to measure the total environmental impact of garments. And McKinsey published a report outlining the enormous growth — and projected future growth — in clothing manufacturing, its dire environmental impact and the need for conservation and significantly higher environmental standards worldwide.

Seeking more practical guidance, I downloaded the “Good On You” app to my phone. This Australia-based non-profit rates clothing brands and advises you how to be an “ethical” consumer. How did brands fare? I couldn’t find Eileen Fisher. LL Bean got a single star out of five, a “We avoid” rating. Lands End and Eddie Bauer each got two stars and were deemed “Not good enough.” Gap and Athleta got three stars apiece, good enough for “It’s a start.” Even Patagonia merited only four stars out of five — a “Good.”

The best intention I can set is to slow myself down.

What to do? Think before I click? Meditate on need versus want? I sought more counsel. Elle Magazine instructed me not to buy anything I wouldn’t wear 30 times, and to buy online, because package-filled delivery trucks are relatively energy efficient.

Racked” suggested I buy secondhand clothing, and that I try to avoid polyester, Rayon and non-organic cotton since producing them harms the environment. They considered hemp, linen, wool and silk to be more sustainable choices.

The best intention I can set is to slow myself down. We live in a society that worships “commodity” and there’s intense societal pressure on us all to pursue stuff. Resisting as an individual can be wearing, while resisting as a group feels better and is more likely to succeed.

Nudging our own practices, learning about sustainable standards and supporting companies that embrace them is a first step. The longer term goal is a world in which each piece of clothing would carry an accurate (virtual and literal) price tag that reflects what it took to produce it — how it impacted the land, air, water,  animals and humans; as well as the price of fairly paying laborers.

Will we someday be smiling with pride as we parade forth in our 100-year-old linen dresses? Maybe. It’s certainly a novel thought.

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Janna Malamud Smith Cognoscenti contributor
Janna Malamud Smith is a psychotherapist and writer.

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