The Evolution of Fabric and its impact on our Clothing Choices
Date Published: 11.05.2022
How clothing evolved from a high-value asset to a disposable item
Clothing used to be something you inherited. In the 1800´s, clothing fabrics were so valuable and the craftsmanship so sophisticated, that they were included in a will next to a house or land while the average college aged woman only owned three skirts.
Today, globally, we buy over 80 billion tonnes of clothing a year and, on average, every person owns more than 150 pieces - a large part of which ends up in the landfill after first use. So, what changed?
It wasn't until the introduction of synthetic fibers in the late 1930´s and early 1940's that clothing went from being regarded as an investment to a disposal item. The cost of fabric suddenly dropped to less than 1/50th of the price.Furthermore, the fabric quality was so poor that it even came with a warning from the producer to the manufacturer that said the fabric wouldn't last more than a few washes. So, the price of a piece of clothing became a blinder to anything else and the birthplace for disposable clothing.
1. What is all this clothing made from and what is its environmental impact?
62% of all fibers are essentially plastic as they are made from crude oil. To bring this number down, we all can start checking the labels and filtering clothing options by material. By choosing natural, plastic free pieces, you can ensure clothing lasts longer, breathes better and washes cleaner. Synthetic fibers are not only hard to reuse/recycle at their end of life, but are also a thread for the environment during usage. When you wash polyester and other plastic based materials, they leak tiny microplastics into the water system that end up in the ocean, the rivers, in fish we eat and in the water we drink.
It is important to be cautious that every material has an associated impact; cotton production is heavily water intensive, wool and cashmere sheep leave their mark on the fields they graze, (and over gaze if not cared for correctly), but the negative ripple effects are less. There are no harsh chemicals in the air workers breathe or toxins flooding the water people drink. These natural materials will break down and disappear, an oil based item will not and can be as much as 200 years continuously leaking plastic bits into its surroundings.
Some synthetic material is actually quite useful for the outdoors, it keeps us dry when it's raining or while we are hiking, makes our workout clothes stretchy and allows materials to dry faster. So, while we are not able to completely avoid the usage of oil-based materials in the short term, there are some easy steps we can take to minimize their environmental impact:
What you can do to make more conscious shopping decisions:
- Always wash clothes with cold water (max. 30). This is not only friendly to the environment, and your energy bill, but it actually helps your clothes last longer
- Avoid putting clothes in the dryer. The heat from the drier melts the little bits of plastic material and causes them to break down, fall apart and put even more microplastics into the water.
- When washing synthetic fibers, put them in a Guppy bag. A scientifically proven way to stop microplastic pollution, it reduces the shredding of the fibers and protects your clothes from dissolving during a wash.
Shopping by material helps us to filter through an endless supply of clothing choices and confusing information.
We promote circular economy principles because there has been enough clothing already made. Extending the life cycle on an item reduces all the resources required to make any new piece of clothing, regardless of what it is made from.
Some of our favorite brands to shop for clothes, shoes and warm accessories:
10 Eco-innovators that solve the climate crisis through technology
B Coming B Corp™
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