Wildfire’s Guide to Sustainable Clothes Shopping in 2020
Author: Stephanie Ford Date Posted: 4 February 2020
Struggling to balancing your ecological footprint with the need for quality shoes and performance clothing? It's a complex issue, but we've compiled a list of considerations for choosing great gear that won't cost the earth.
There’s no doubt that we are becoming more conscious of what we’re purchasing.
Phrases like “ethical shopping” and “sustainable clothes” are garnering thousands of hits on Google each month - and those are just the Australian stats. This figure looks set to rise in 2020 as many of us resolve to think more about the impact of our consumption.
But when you dive into it, it’s difficult to know what to purchase.
Often, it seems like ethics come at the cost of sustainability and vice versa. Buying wool can reduce your plastic output, but may hurt animals. Buying synthetic means more plastic.
Finally, if you do manage to work out what the right choice is, it isn’t always financially viable to make that choice.
What to do?
This post will define some key terms before giving you the skinny on the pros and cons of natural fibres, vegan products, and synthetics. To round it out, we’ll give you a few tips to help you make your best choice.
What makes clothing ethical?
Ethics in terms of clothing, shoes and other adventure gear refers to the conditions under which the items are made. Factors considered under this header include (but definitely aren’t limited to):
- Child labour;
- Minimum/living wages;
- Worker conditions and safety;
- Treatment of animals;
- Company ownership; and
- Company policies.
Wildfire Brands With Ethical Policies
This list is by no means comprehensive, but we’ll outline and celebrate 2 of the brands sold by Wildfire that are taking a stance on ethical production.
Balega socks come complete with a badge from the South African worker who made them. The company promotes self-empowerment for their workers and works hard to give back to those in their communities who are less fortunate.
Osprey note on their site that they offer their workers fair working hours, vacation, regulated working conditions, and salaries well above the national minimum wage. They assert that they take social concerns seriously and acknowledge they have a lot of work to do, while resolving to continue taking steps forward.
Whether clothing is sustainable refers to its overall environmental impact. This means what goes into making it - and what will happen to it after it leaves your wardrobe.
Amongst other things, the following practices are considered:
- Dyes and the environmental impact of dyeing the clothing;
- Whether the fabric will biodegrade (and how quickly);
- Water consumption - from thirsty agricultural practices through to washing in your home;
- Durability of the clothing;
- Waste; and
- Inclusion of recycled materials.
Some Seriously Sustainability-Focused Brands
Wildfire is proud to stock brands that focus heavily on sustainability on their supply chain, like these 2:
Vivo strive to make shoes with zero impact on the environment. Their site states that their simple design, coupled with the durable (and oftentimes recycled) materials used, helps to minimise the environmental impact of the shoes.
These sandals are designed to last a long time. And when they finally do break down, they’re repairable. Plus, they use about 25% recycled rubber in their eco-outsoles and an innovative waterless dye process that significantly reduces their water consumption.
Other terms like ‘slow fashion’ and ‘minimalism’ fall into the broader category of thoughtful consumption.
Slow fashion refers to items purchased with the intention for them to last. Items falling into this category are essentially the opposite of ‘fast fashion’ - which refers to clothing, shoes and other fashion items designed to last only for the short term. Think $5 shirts that you’ll throw away after a few wears or $20 shoes that you’ll only wear once.
Minimalism refers to a decision made by certain consumers to drastically reduce their consumption. The definition of minimalism tends to be quite personal but might look like someone owning just one or two exercise outfits or someone choosing outdoor activities that require little to no equipment.
For a comprehensive discussion about ethics and clothing, check out the 98-page 2019 Ethical Fashion Report.
So, Which Materials Are Sustainable Clothes Made From?
These occur in nature, coming from plants, animals and geological processes. Natural fibres commonly used in clothing and shoes include wool, cotton, down, hemp, flax, silk, cashmere, and leather.
Are Natural Fibres Sustainable?
The sustainability benefits of natural fibres are:
- They are renewable;
- They tend to be longer lasting;
- They are biodegradable - so they break down relatively quickly;
- They typically require less frequent washing than synthetic apparel;
- They can often be recycled; and
- They are easier/less resource intensive to dye.
Clothing made from organic cotton or bamboo may biodegrade in 1-5 months, with wool apparel taking less than 5 years. Read more about that here.
Issues with natural fibres
There are sustainability issues associated with water consumption in growing the plants and rearing the animals natural fibres are derived from. There are also issues with regional development, deforestation, and the land being used to grow these fibres detracting from the space required to grow food crops and livestock.
Are Natural Fibres Ethical?
There are different ethical debates for the fibres sourced from animals compared to the fibres sourced from plants, so we’ll consider them separately:
Is Wool Ethical?
Put simply: it’s all about the source.
There are horrendous videos featuring mistreatment of sheep during the shearing process online. However, not all sheep are treated poorly.
Icebreaker, for instance, has created the Baacode. It’s a strict animal welfare code that even applies to sheepdogs on the farms.
It requires growers (100% of whom have been audited in the last 3 years) to ensure that the animals involved are:
- Free from hunger and thirst
- Free from discomfort
- Free from injury and disease
- Free range
- Free from distress.
Smartwool have partnered with the New Zealand Merino Company to ensure their wool is ethically sourced.
Whatever brand you choose, check their policies to be sure the wool you’re buying is ethical.
Are plant-based fibres ethical?
This comes down to the company’s supply chain and whether the workers are being paid a living wage. You can read more about ethical issues in the manufacturing supply chain here.
Are Synthetic Products Sustainable?
In principle, no. Synthetic materials take anywhere from 20 years to hundreds of years to breakdown. And they’re made from petroleum-based chemicals - which contributes to their already huge carbon footprint.
However, many companies are beginning to look into how they can increase the lifespan of the fibres - or otherwise reduce their impact on the world.
Recycling of Synthetic Fibres
Vivobarefoot shoes all contain some recycled materials, with the company often citing that their shoes are made from plastic bottles. Rumpl uses plastic bottles in their blankets.
Issues with Microfibres
Each time you wash synthetic clothing, microfibres are released into the water. These microfibres are making their way into the ocean, and the animals that call the ocean home, at an alarming rate.
Find out more in this post by the Guardian.
Are Synthetic Products Ethical?
The same supply chain considerations outlined in the natural fibres section above apply here. Otherwise, you should also consider the political climate and ethics surrounding petroleum sourcing and processing in the ethical debate for synthetic fabrics.
What About Vegan Apparel?
The vegan approach centres around commitment to the environment and animal welfare. So, we can’t blame you for assuming vegan apparel would automatically be the best choice.
But this isn’t necessarily so.
All the considerations about biodegradability and ethical supply lines still apply to vegan apparel. You should look into transparency in supply chains and think about what will happen to your synthetic vegan shoes after you’re finished with them.
Other Ethical Considerations
Beyond what your clothing is made from and what will happen to it after you no longer want it, you can look at how your clothing is getting to you to really minimize your impact on the world.
Carbon Footprint on Transport
The further your clothing (and what it’s made from) travels to get to you, the higher the carbon footprint.
Choosing Australian brands is a good start, but bear in mind that manufacturing might happen elsewhere.
There are certainly Aussie brands that bear their carbon footprint in mind though.
Wilderness Wear, for instance, are "200% Australian". Their products are made in Australia using products sourced from Australia.
The packaging your clothing arrives in also needs to be reused, recycled, or to biodegrade.
Many companies, including Wildfire, offer 100% compostable or recyclable shipping packaging, to reduce their overall impact on the planet. Keep an eye out for these initiatives and buy from stores who prioritise sustainable packaging.
How To Make Sustainable Choices You Can Be Proud Of
There are a few people with some quick tips and tricks that make choosing ethical or sustainable items a little easier.
Some advocate for only buying expensive clothes. Others (myself included) have been hitting up the second-hand market to minimise the overall impact of their consumption.
It’ll be rare that there’s a perfect choice. What you need to do is consider what your values and priorities are. Then, you need to consider whether your purchasing habits line up with those values.
For me, buying second-hand activewear, shoes, and (oftentimes) gear sounds some alarm bells. It’s not always possible to tell how they’ve been treated. Or how much wear they’ve really had.
Steps Towards Better Consumption
Whenever I go to make a purchase of gear or activewear, I ask myself the following questions:
1. How much use will I get out of this item?
This question determines whether I need to item myself or whether I rent it, borrow it from a friend, or repurpose something I already own.
If it’s something I won’t use often and can get my hands on as needed without feeling too annoying, great!
If it’s something I’ll use regularly (preferably over a long period), I’ll move onto question 2.
2. What options do I have?
I’ll take some time to work out what my options are by looking at brands that offer the product, certifications, what the product is made out of (natural/synthetic/vegan/recycled/etc), and where the product is made.
3. Do any of those options align with standards I value?
It’s not possible for me to outline all the possible ethical and environmental standards that exist here. So, you’ll need to do your own research and find standards that align with your values.
But, here are some to get you started:
- Blue Sign: A sustainability-focused standard that ensures products “were manufactured with responsible use of resources and the lowest possible impact on people and the environment.”
- Traceable Down: focuses on the treatment of the ducks in the responsible collection of down.
- The FairTrade Mark: focuses on the treatment and payment of workers in developing (and vulnerable) communities.
An easy (and reasonably lazy) way to get started with ethical shopping is by using the Good on You app. They’ve done the hard work for you by considering the treatment of people, the planet, and animals, as well as the brand’s transparency in their supply chain.
4. What will happen to the item when I’m finished with it?
Will it be sold second-hand? Will it be transferred to landfill? Will it last for my lifetime?
I tend to place a greater emphasis on natural materials that break down quickly for items that likely won’t have any resale value or that won’t last forever, just in case they end up in landfill. Though, of course, upcycling and recycling are sometimes options.
Check out this Close the Loop guide for an overview of all the options for clothing at the end of its life.
5. With all this knowledge, is this item something I want?
It’s about making a positive impact on the world via your consumer habits. And doing so by making the best choice you can in the circumstances.
It’s a lot to consider. But it’s the least we can do for our planet.