Is your wardrobe bulging at the seams, filled with spontaneous catwalk-inspired choices, in outlandish colours and styles which you’ve worn on only a few occasions, if at all? We are so easily drawn into following the ‘follies’ of the fashion industry which has mastered the art of convincing us that a new cut, neckline, colour, or fabric is just what we need. A few bad buys later, we realise that our spontaneous shopping sprees have not only seriously dented our bank balance, but have also worn out the environment.
“How so?” I hear you ask. For a start, one of the major environmental impacts of the clothing industry is the copious amounts of agricultural chemicals used to grow crops such as cotton. As one of the main culprits, cotton uses approximately 11% of the world’s pesticides, even though it is grown on only 2.4% of the world’s arable land. According to some estimates, it takes almost a third of a pound of fertilisers and pesticides to grow enough cotton for one t-shirt! The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) rates some of the chemicals used in cotton farming as toxic or carcinogenic (cancer-forming), posing a danger to both the environment and the health of farm workers.
Another area of concern to consumers is the skin irritation or textile allergies associated with synthetic fabrics in particular. Synthetic materials, like polyester, nylon and acrylic, are often the main culprits in textile allergies. The irritation is either related to the fabric itself, the dye used in the manufacturing process, the finish of the garment, or remnants of harsh chemicals after laundering. Some of the allergic effects associated with fabrics include skin rashes, itchiness and even shortness of breath.
Dermatologists recommend either 100% cotton or cotton-mix fabrics since these are softer on the skin. Baby clothing, in particular, should be 100% cotton. From this brief survey of the health and environmental impacts of the clothing industry, both on the farm and the factory, we begin to understand the need to take a closer look at the fine print on that clothing label.
Starting with your own closet
However, before you even set a foot in the shops, the first place to look when ‘greening’ your wardrobe is inside. Know what you have in your wardrobe and consider whether you really need to buy an item. Must you buy your umpteenth black scarf which you will inevitably want to match with yet another black abaya, since none of your existing twelve black abayas are quite the same shade of black? Ultimately, the greenest clothes are those that you already own.
Take a leaf from the three R’s of recycling – reduce, re-use and recycle – and apply this to the contents of your wardrobe. Give away clothes that you are not wearing (reduce), add something different to spruce up old garments, such as sewing on new buttons (re-use) and mend your garments before tossing it out at the first sign of a fraying hemline (recycle). One of our exemplars, Aa’ishah (RA) the beloved young wife of the Prophet (SAW), used to mend her clothes and also loaned one of her dresses to a lady to wear during her wedding.
Pass it on
Coming from a family of seven sisters, I grew accustomed to hand-me-downs, which usually came with some excitement. Finally, you could wear your elder sister’s baby blue top that you could only admire from afar before! Or the shiny leather coat, inherited from your mother, which is suddenly back in fashion, making you quite a trendsetter among the sisters.
How about having a hijab-swapping afternoon tea? Who knows, one of the sisters might want a pink scarf which she could select from the multitude of headscarves acquired during your ‘pink’ phase – dusty pink, tie-dyed pink, striped pink – while you might just need a yellow scarf which another sister has outgrown.
Towards greener laundry
After carefully revamping your existing wardrobe, and without even opening your wallet, you now need to look at how you care for your clothes. Apparently, the greatest eco-burden from clothes is not in their production or manufacturing or even their distribution, but specifically how we use and launder our clothes. Laundering, if done incorrectly, can damage and cause our clothes to wear out faster. We need to wash clothes according to the specifications on garments, using gentle, enviro-friendly products and sun dry rather than dry clean clothes, preferably turning them inside out as this will help prevent fading of garments.
The street beat
Now, we can finally hit the shops. If you have to buy, try to buy organic. Since these fabrics have been grown without a reliance on synthetic chemicals, no genetically modified seed has been used. Natural inputs are the norm and you can be assured that both your health and the wellbeing of the planet have been considered. Some crops which carry the organic label include cotton, wool, linen and hemp. Not only clothes, but accessories such as bags are also being manufactured from organic fabrics. Furthermore, organic textiles are being produced by small scale organic farmers, lending much needed support to this sector. The organic production process is also meticulous about manufacturing procedures.
Clothing production, in many instances, is usually poorly paid, with workers enduring appalling working conditions. Thus, Muslim support of fair trade initiatives will “ensure that producers receive a fair price that guarantees a living income and decent working conditions with longer term contracts that provide greater security and ensure more sustainable development” (Islamic Relief ). Thus, when checking out the ‘green credentials’ of a potential buy, you need to scrutinise the production, manufacturing and distribution process. Is your product made locally, or did it have to be shipped in from some faraway location, exacting a further toll on the environment by ‘squandering’ valuable energy resources.
Already, alhamdulillah, we are seeing initiatives by Muslim-owned businesses to ‘green’ their products by choosing only natural fibres, choosing manufacturers with best practices, and striving to reduce packaging and thus keep their carbon footprint down.
To become eco-fashionable, you need to be smart, savvy and green about the making, wearing and caring of your clothes.
FIVE STEPS TO CREATING AN ECO-FRIENDLY WARDROBE
1. First, consider whether you really need to buy an item, re-use what you have, liven it up and care for it to ensure that you get the longest wear out of it.
2. Now, buy only what you absolutely need and love. Try and follow the next three steps to ensure that you are not wearing out the environment, and emptying your purse unnecessarily.
3. Buy organic if possible.
4. Buy classic garments which you can wear in many different ways.
5. Shop locally and opt for products that carry the Fair Trade label to ensure that the clothes you are buying have been produced in a socially-responsible manner.
Najma Mohamed is an environmental researcher and writer based in Cape Town,South Africa. She is currently enrolled for her PhD in Islam and Environmental Education.