Do you know what your clothing tags mean? Sustainable textile resources and a chat with sustainable fashion brand Mareco.
[This was originally published in the September 2020 edition of my climate action newsletter The Green Fix]
Hello! It’s 7pm and I’ve just had another cup of coffee so let’s get rolling.
(What does that actually mean?)
For those of you who are new subscribers, a short introduction: The Green Fix rounds up concise advice and resources for people who want to do more about the climate crisis. You don’t need money, time or expertise, you just need to care.
OK, formalities over. In this email we’re talking about sustainable textiles.
Some of you have pointed out that the last email was about sustainable fashion, a similar topic. In my anxiety-riddled dreams, subscribers will message me in a rage, saying: I thought you were going to cover a wide range of topics! Not just fashion! Or was I mistaken? Into the spam mail you go!
OK. Maybe my fears are a bit exaggerated. We shall see.
This is not a sustainable fashion newsletter. But it’s impossible to summarise one sector in one email. In my long tenure as writer of one (1) newsletter email so far, I have seen that trying to separate topics in sustainability is an artificial practise. You can’t talk about sustainable fashion without also delving into the human rights abuses, the toxic chemicals in our clothes, the economic system that builds islands of clothes waste. Fashion is linked to carbon emissions, and carbon emissions are linked to social inequality, and social inequality is linked to pollution, and so on, forever.
I used to think that people who didn’t try and live in a sustainable way, that shop at Zara and H&M in plastic bags, just didn’t care or believe in the climate crisis. Then I changed my mind and decided they just weren’t willing to put the effort in.
Now I think that while I was judging random people on the street for not going out of their way to find niche zero waste shops and vegan deodorants, it was me that was misinformed: a myriad of moving factors in our economy, our politics, culture and social systems are determining the sustainability of our lifestyle choices. Sustainability doesn’t look the same on everyone.
How can we demand a more sustainable world when we’re unable to explain what that is or how to reach it?
Whew. Feeling a bit philosophical and scattered today. This intro sounded a lot more eloquent in my head on the walk home from work the other day.
The point I’m getting at is: being sustainable is complicated. Condensing climate action down into listicles will always mean something is lost and other things are repeated.
But we need to start somewhere. And today we’re starting with textiles.
This article was originally published as part of my newsletter, The Green Fix. This is a collaborative newsletter about climate action: that means, I want to talk about what you want to know! This relies on people sending in their questions, suggestions, and resources they’ve found useful.
Focus On… Sustainable Materials
Maria, founder of sustainable clothing brand Mareco, tells us how to make sense of the information on clothing labels.
My name is Maria and I’m the founder of Mareco, a sustainable and Fair Trade UK clothing company. I’m 26 years old and originally from Bulgaria.
I moved to London 4 years ago to work for a fashion supplier. During my full-time job, I got to know about the practices of high street brands and I was quite shocked.
I started being more interested in fabrics, how they are produced, and what the fabric mills are doing to improve their ethical and sustainable procedures. I have stopped buying clothes for over a year now… and I’m still alive!
I graduated in Fine Arts, and I’ve always had a passion for clothes, design, colours and anything in connection with art. I created my first T-shirt designs a long time ago.
I was looking for a fabric supplier who can produce small batches of fabric or who is holding stock fabrics. There are thousands and thousands of clothes around the world, sitting in the warehouses — clothing you won’t even see on sale. So in Mareco Design we will only buy stock which is already produced and we won’t make anything upfront. All our products are made to order, to avoid waste.
I source the fabrics and communicate with the pattern-maker and seamstress, who are my mother’s friends and have known me since I was a kid. They loved Mareco’s idea and we are currently working together on our first collection pieces.
I would love to create clothes you can wear for a long time, passing your favourite clothes down to your kids and wearing something that you love so much that it becomes part of your personality. Marriage between Art and Fashion, I called it!
Care labels: What to Look For
Care labels are not only there to guide you on how to take care of your garment. They also give you a lot more information. Here’s what it all means:
Overall, workers in European factories are paid normal wages and the factories have stricter regulations — but even in countries like the UK, human rights abuses take place. There are also clothing brands that aim to support workers in Bangladesh and around the world by paying them a fair wage, like Lucy & Yak.
So the country where the product is made doesn’t show exactly if a certain product is truly sustainable or not. The easiest way is to look up the clothing brand’s story and find out if they are open about where they produce their garments. Look for photos from the factories and information beyond stating “we are a sustainable brand” on the homepage. If you can’t find more details about the brand’s procedures and principles, I would suggest avoiding them, or asking them more questions.
Price is definitely something you need to look at to recognise a truly ethical and sustainable brand. We are always attracted by cheap prices. But when you truly understand the price breakdown, you will find that it’s much better for the environment, for the factories, for the fabric mills and for yourself if you pay an item’s true value.
If you see a 100% organic cotton T-shirt for around £5–10 I would suggest you stay away, as buying it would likely support a brand which is squeezing the factories for cheaper prices and paying lower than the average salary to their workers.
Fabrics to avoid:
- Cotton. Regular cotton farming starts with GMO or genetically modified seeds. It requires over 2700 litres of water to make one cotton T-shirt, and the chemicals involved in the process can pollute local waterways. On top of that, child slavery and forced labour has been found repeatedly in the cotton supply chain.
- Polyester. Polyester fibers are derived from coal, air, water and petroleum. It can take up to 200 years to biodegrade. Polyester is like plastic in your clothes: it’s not only harmful for the environment but for yourself as well. When you wear polyester, your body heat also releases the chemicals into the air and the chemicals are absorbed by your skin. You are basically breathing in plastic and formaldehyde.
- Acrylic. The key ingredient of acrylic fiber is a harmful chemical called acrylonitrile (also called vinyl cyanide), which is linked to cancer. Acrylic fabric manufacturing involves highly toxic substances which are dangerous to the health of factory workers. Acrylonitrile enters our bodies through skin absorption from our clothes, as well as inhalation and ingestion. You can easily spot acrylic even without looking at the label. It feels like plastic. It has a very stiff and firm hand feel.
Fabrics to look for:
- Organic cotton. Organic cotton is made from natural seeds, and there is no use of pesticides or other harmful chemicals. You can also look for BCI cotton, although organic cotton is preferable. Better Cotton Initiative (BCI) is a global not-for-profit organisation and the largest cotton sustainability programme in the world.
- Hemp. Hemp is quite similar to linen in texture and look. Clothing made of hemp fiber is lightweight and absorbent, with three times the tensile strength of cotton.
- Bamboo. Feels similar to silk, but less expensive and quite absorbent. Bamboo fabric is highly breathable, and also stretchier than cotton. Bamboo is incredibly easy to grow and it can grow in areas that are not suitable for other crops, so the environmental impact of cultivating bamboo is relatively small.
However, the modern demand for bamboo led many Chinese manufacturers to fell forests of other trees to plant bamboo, which practically eliminates the environmental benefits of this crop. I would suggest researching the clothing brands first, and ask questions about the origin of their bamboo fabric. It’s one of the more sustainable fabrics out there, but there is still work to be done in terms of transparency.
- Linen. Linen is one of the most sustainable fabrics out there. The production requires less water, no pesticides or fertilizers are used. However, fast fashion linen is treated with chemicals and usually the dyes used in the process are not natural. Whenever you see a low priced linen garment, it might not be as sustainable as you would assume. I suggest buying linen from well-known sources and OEKO-TEX certificated factories.
- EcoVero Viscose and Lenzing. The Lenzing Group is an international company with headquarters in Lenzing, Austria. They develop fibers for industry, brands and retailers — in sectors like fashion, beauty care, cleaning and hygiene. Lenzing fibers are made from natural wood. They are derived from renewable sources and processed with unique resource-conserving technologies. Under the Lenzing group there are three different brands: Ecovero, Tencel, Veocel.
The products at Mareco are 100% organic cotton, but we also plan to introduce other eco-friendly materials in future collections. Our mission is to always be open with our customers and to provide as detailed information as we can about our products.
We can’t be 100% sustainable from the beginning and we will never greenwash our customers. Being sustainable is number one priority, but we know it’s not an easy task and it’s a journey.
So Now What Do I Do?
- Learn more about what you’re actually wearing: here’s more information on cotton production; hemp; bamboo, linen and lenzing.
- Tune into the discussions on fashion sustainability at the Copenhagen Fashion Summit, taking place on the 12th and 13th October online.
- Listen in to the Slow Fashion Dialogue on the 24th September (tomorrow!) at 5pm CEST about why innovation is the key to a sustainable future in fashion.
TRY SOMETHING NEW
- Never sewed a button and now too afraid to ask how? Check out free ways to make your clothes last longer on the Love Your Clothes Campaign website launched by UK non-profit WRAP.
- Make a pledge to buy #NoNewClothes for 90 days on the Remake website.
- Follow sustainable fashion bloggers and organisations such as @ssustainbly_, @fash_rev and @fashionforgood on Instagram. For those who haven’t sold their soul to the Gram, Good On You is an ethical app with a fantastic website to subscribe to.
CHANGE THE SYSTEM
- Fashion is not sustainable if it is not fair. Sign the #PayUp campaign to make sure fashion brands keep paying their factory workers in the fallout from COVID-19.
- Push for transparency about the sustainability and ethics of the materials in our clothes & ask fashion brands #WhatsInMyClothes on social media.
- Join the global climate strike happening this Friday, 25th September. The Fridays For Future website has a tons of easy ways to get involved, online and offline. Share your action with the hashtags #FightClimateInjustice and #FridaysForFuture.
IS THAT IT?
No. As much as I wish my writing skills were so good that I can summarise sustainable textiles in a few bullet points, there’s way more than I can include in one email.
If you think a crucial resource is missing or there’s more you want to know, let me know by filling in this feedback form.