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Newsletter Stories

Wednesday, 01 November 2017
What’s On My Skin Has Gotten Under It

On the challenges of finding ethical clothing

by Ian Hanna, FSC International

Maybe it’s because autumn has come, or because my wardrobe has gotten truly stale, or because the Environmental Protection Agency is being eviscerated, but for some reason I’ve gotten much more motivated to get real when it comes to the ethics of my clothing.

Notice I say ‘clothing’ not ‘fashion’ - no one would accuse me of being a fashionista and I admittedly hate clothes shopping. My general approach has been buy less/spend less, go for durability, and hope that I don’t look too awkward. But I have to admit, to myself and to the world, that I regularly buy clothes that have no meaningful social responsibility claims behind them.

It’s time to face that cold reality with some real effort.

Being a systems guy, the first thing I always want to do is break clothing down into broad categories. Then ask the question - Are there any quick insights to be had? Here’s the short, admittedly limited version:

First is used clothing, something my family buys a lot of, both because we’re cheapskates and because we live in a tiny town. As in most things, it just makes sense to reduce, reuse, recycle when it comes to clothing. Garage sales, Goodwill, and vintage shops are all great, authentic places to start. No shipping required and I’m continually amazed at what I find if I just try a little bit.

The next big category on my mind is agricultural fibers like cotton, linen or hemp. For these the relatively easy answer has been to look for organic and Fairtrade certification together. The big gaping hole in this dual approach is that organic certification has almost nothing to do with biodiversity, landscape, or other ecosystem considerations. Hopefully Sustainable Agriculture Network or other comprehensive certifications can make big progress on filling this gap. The good news is that there are a lot of organic+Fairtrade options already on the market, and lots of competition around other innovations.

Society has been making clothing from timber for a long time (from cedar skirts to rayon!) but cellulosic fibers like wood and bamboo are on the upswing big time. I see this as an additive solution that provides some great new options, but not a silver bullet because the life cycle impacts of various sources are very complex. In more good news, we can expect a wave of new FSC certified clothing products coming on the market in 2018.

Animal products obviously stir the most controversy, but are also timeless and proven. I personally have no fundamental issue with materials from animals per se, but I have no interest in needless suffering. Likewise the landscape impacts of grazing animals like sheep or cattle can range from beneficial to disastrous – how are we to know? There seems to be tremendous space for improvements in providing assurance in this category, especially relative to the less controversial products like wool, silk and down.

Another tough one is synthetics. They tend to be harsh on the production side, and because they last forever, harsh on the end of life side as well. I have nylon shorts from the 90s that I wear all the time, and while my wife makes fun of their ugly style and state, I’d feel guilty throwing them in the landfill. I’ll admit, I really need help understanding this category and am interested to hear what sustainability innovations are happening in this space. How should I feel about this category, and what are some good guidelines?

Probably the hardest category for me personally is shoes, most of which I find to be useless and/or horrifically ugly, but all of which suffer the dual plagues of multiple components and heavy wear. There is a lot of FSC cork and natural rubber on the market, but it hasn’t really mainstreamed yet. I know it can’t be easy for producers, but please, bring me the ethical shoe that I want to wear!

Despite creating more questions than answers, the overarching theme I find in all of this is – if you’re not receiving some degree of responsibility assurance, you’re not getting much of anything. If there’s one thing I’ve learned through 20 years in the sustainability industry, it’s that no material is ‘good’ in and of itself (though some are bad). Everything depends on context. That inevitably leads back to three possible routes to good personal decision making, whether it’s clothing or any other commodity:

  • Buying local, where you can bear witness to the whole supply chain.
  • Buying from companies that have a proven track record of relentlessly pursuing leadership in sustainability and social responsibility (think Eileen Fisher or Patagonia)
  • Assurance standards like Fairtrade, FSC, organic, etc. In many cases these have to be combined to address both ecosystem and social concerns, or to account for multiple materials being combined in complex products.

Durability also matters a great deal, but I can’t justify it as the sole reason for buying something. Unless of course it’s used!

Clothing is complex, and if you’re not using one of the three above approaches, you’re really just hoping or guessing or kidding yourself. And remember that buying stuff isn’t the only solution – actively not buying something is a statement, especially if you say why out loud to a salesperson. Choosing to not buy is also a financial gift to your future self.