Sustainable Living

Remove the Earth Day T-Shirt From Your Digital Cart: Here’s What’s Required of Effective Sustainable Fashion

Alden Wicker

Photo: Stocksy/Branislava Živić
Inspired by the 2021 theme for Earth Day, “Restore our Earth,” Well+Good is running a monthlong series called “Planet Hope” with expert-led content focused on food, clothing, sustainable living, and everyday activism. Check back for actionable advice for how to work each focus into your life in an ongoing, meaningful way.

Writing about sustainability in the fashion industry is my passion and focus 365 days a year, and so I’m always on the lookout for innovative brands trying to do things a little better. But come early March, the emails start arriving from brands that want to tell me about their soon-to-launch collections in honor of Earth Day on April 22: branded T-shirts made of organic cotton, hoodies made from recycled plastic and cotton, and sunglasses made of bio-based polymers. These efforts are the environmentalism equivalent of phoning it in.

Buying a piece from an Earth Day-inspired capsule collection is a wholly inadequate way to address the overlapping global crises connected to fashion production. We need to think bigger, and we are overdue for a second environmental revolution grounded in the same energy and political organizing ferocity that drove the founding of Earth Day and the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

First celebrated on April 22, 1970, Earth Day was founded to “get a nationwide demonstration of concern for the environment so large that it would shake the political establishment out of its lethargy,” according to its creator, Senator Gaylord Nelson of Wisconsin, who wanted to, “force this issue permanently onto the national political agenda.” He was inspired by Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, a 1962 lyrical recounting of what we were losing to environmental degradation: Rivers were so polluted they could catch on fire, and the overuse of pesticides like DDT was endangering our national emblem, the bald eagle.

It worked. Millions of Americans marched, rallied, and learned about the myriad imminent environmental threats. By July of the same year, the EPA was created, and the hard work of cleaning up our rivers and air had begun. And it’s high time we recommit to those efforts in a real way.

While the rivers, air, and, soil in the United States may have benefitted from that initial cleanup push, it effectively just reallocated many pollution-creating habits abroad—specifically with regards to the fashion industry. Take, for example, the Clean Water Act of 1972, which forced many leather tanneries in the U.S. to close up shop (many pumped toxic effluents—or waste material released into the environment—into water sources). Leather tanning then flourished in Bangladesh, continuing the tradition of poisoning the soil and water with the heavy metal chromium (III) sulfate, sulfuric acid, surfactants, degreasers, ammonium sulfate, and other toxic chemicals.

Also consider viscose rayon, which requires a toxic chemical called carbon disulfide that can make factory workers suffer delirium and chronic long-term neurophysiological changes, among other effects. It’s no longer manufactured in the U.S., but a 2017 investigation by Changing Markets Foundation found that viscose suppliers in Indonesia, China, and India were dumping toxic effluents into rivers and poisoning their local communities. The story is the same with myriad other fashion processes, including using toxic dyes, overusing pesticides and fertilizer to grow cotton, and running factories off of dirty diesel generators and coal power.

There’s also the issue of fashion contributing to global waste: Californians sent over 1.2 billion tons of textiles to the landfill in 2014, while the average household in New York City discards an estimated 120 pounds of textiles a year. Much of what we opt to instead donate gets sent abroad to developing countries, where it spills out of markets and into landfills, gutters, and rivers. In Ghana, which has a roaring secondhand market, an estimated 40 percent of the 15 million items that arrive to its port each week end up as waste, much of it burned, releasing its toxic finishes and dyes into the air and water. And we only just recently discovered the existence of synthetic microfibers—an estimated 176,500 metric tons of them are released globally every year into the environment.

Finally, we must address the imminent threat of climate change. A 2018 report found the fashion industry to be  responsible for an estimated 2.1 billion tons of greenhouse gases a year, or 4 percent of the world’s total. (For context, the biggest offenders are transportation at 28 percent and electricity at 27 percent.) So, how can we change this and force the issue of fashion’s impact onto the international political agenda?

Governments should compel brands to stop practices of greenwashing or outright lying. This can be accomplished through two equally important types of legislation.

Tania Arrayales, a political organizer and co-founder of Fashion of Tomorrow, an advocacy organization focused on improving the fashion industry, is calling for the government to start by funding research that can quantify fashion’s impact on the environment and drive innovative solutions. This research can then form the basis for international agreements and standards for safe and clean fashion production everywhere.

Additionally, the U.S. and other governments should compel brands to stop practices of greenwashing (embellishing the eco-friendly intention or impact of an initiative or product) or outright lying. This can be accomplished through two equally important types of legislation: transparency and due diligence.

Through transparency legislation, brands would be required to list all their suppliers and share metrics on their environmental footprint. Right now, many brands are making big promises, without having to share proof of progress.

Due diligence legislation makes a brand legally responsible for what its suppliers are doing, whether they are sourcing from illegal sweatshops or allowing the use of chemicals on their clothing that are banned in Europe and the U.S. Exciting legislation is currently working its way through the German government that would make German companies liable for human rights and environmental abuses in their supply chain, and it could provide a test case or model for similar legislation elsewhere.

For all the work that needs to be done at a governmental level, though, there’s an equally pleasurable, hands-on, and nourishing way to dive into sustainability in the fashion industry, and it revolves around maintaining curiosity. When you learn about the different materials—from rigid 100-percent cotton denim found in those perfect vintage Levi’s, to sumptuous heavyweight silk in a caftan, soft merino wool for odor-resistant athleisure, and the linen in a button-down that looks like a cold drink on a hot day—you reconnect to the why of fashion. It serves a purpose in keeping us warm or cool or dry, but it can also help us feel and enjoy life that much more deeply.

Finding your favorite brands and rewarding their quality with your loyalty is one of the most sustainable things you can do.

Understanding how these fabrics drape over your body, knowing your measurements, finding your favorite brands, and rewarding their quality with your loyalty is one of the most sustainable things you can do. It breaks you out of the mindless emotional spending and waste that comes from filling your digital cart with fast fashion pieces that rarely, if ever, satisfy for very long.

When you learn about fashion’s traditions—the knitting and weaving methods from every culture, the patterns and colors and their meaning, the adornments and celebrations—you can have fun with fashion and let it speak to your identity while avoiding the degradations linked to fashion’s historical exploitation of resources and bodies.

We can’t shop our way out of the problems that pertain to fashion and its intersection with sustainability—and certainly not by buying a graphic T-shirt for Earth Day. But we can fully engage with fashion’s many facets—as a political tool, as a powerful system to be reformed, and as a means of expression, to name a few. The fashion industry connects folks to other people, places, and traditions—it’s time we use that power for good.

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