May I repeat again: There is no such thing as perfect.
I usually say that with regard to items of clothing, as in, “there’s no one perfect pair of jeans,” or “the perfect black dress”; perfect is subjective, and also time-sensitive, I think. What might be “perfect” for me now, may not be in a couple of years. And what is perfect for you, will not be perfect for me.
Now though, I want to use it in terms of creating a more sustainable, conscious wardrobe. I’ve said before, that better is better than nothing, and small steps in the direction you want to go DO make a difference. There is no such thing as a perfectly sustainable wardrobe, or perhaps even a perfectly sustainable dress, or other item of clothing.
Some would argue that most of what we do as consumers doesn’t work, or even lends itself towards promoting sustainability or changing the fashion industry at all. Depressing, no? Instead of get mired in the idea that if you can’t be “perfect” or do EVERYTHING YOU POSSIBLY CAN to be THE MOST SUSTAINABLE you can, you may as well give up, I prefer to take it one step at a time, using my brain to figure out the best, most reasonable & realistic course of action at a given moment.
Often, that means choosing better rather than best (assuming we even KNOW what best is..). And I’m okay with that.
In my Sustainable Fabrics post, I mentioned that I thought that aside from secondhand fabrics, hemp or linen, organic cotton is the most “readily available” sustainable fabric right now. I still agree that organic cotton might be the most readily available “eco-friendlier” fabric right now, but I wonder if it is actually “sustainable” – meaning does organic cotton farming have longevity? Can it “sustain” itself and compete economically? Because that is at the heart of sustainability; it’s not just about being environmentally friendly RIGHT NOW, it’s about long-term efforts to change the fashion industry.
It’s a very complicated issue, and requires a lot more digging and research, but a reader sent me a link to this article recently at the Genetic Literacy Project and it sparked my interest. It clearly comes from a pro-GMO point of view, and that is disclosed, as are the publication’s relationships with companies and organizations, but I am never one to shy away from reading and trying to understand points of view that may be different from my own. And I’m not even entirely sure I’m 100% anti-GMO yet, I just haven’t learned enough about it to have a FIRM opinion one way or another. It feels not right to me, but I do also believe in science, modernization, and advancement for the benefit of the world’s population. So…but I digress.
Back to organic cotton. Is it sustainable? A couple of points from the article:
Since organic cotton growers do not use synthetic herbicides, weed control is a huge issue. Each row must be cultivated every time there is any type of moisture or light rain. Sometimes farmers need to be out in the dark with a flashlight just to monitor their crops, almost like farming back in the 1950’s. These methods are heavily dependent on tillage, tractor passes and rotary hoes. Sometimes tillage and cultivation needs to be done two to three times per week! This means much more fuel emissions, wear and tear on equipment, with a higher carbon footprint.
Insects can have devastating effects on cotton farms but organic farmers are limited on what insecticides they can use. There’s not much they can do if insects invade their fields. This can lead to 50 percent or greater loss in yields and a lower quality fiber. The crops may also need more irrigation, thus requiring more resources. Since they don’t use synthetic fertilizer, they can’t compete with plant growth and quality of modern production methods. There are some insecticides approved for organic such as neem oil or Bacillus thuringiensis, also known as Bt.
While organic farmers spray their crops with Bt, farmers who use genetically modified cotton seeds have the natural Bt built in, reducing their spraying to almost nothing.
Ninety percent of the organic cotton grown in the U.S. comes from this small region in Texas* because it is fortunate enough to have the ideal growing conditions: 15 inches of annual rainfall, higher elevation, light soil and wind. These conditions conditions do not occur in a majority of the cotton belt, however.
I don’t think, after reading this article multiple times, that all of these points mean that organic cotton is NOT sustainable, only that it isn’t the “perfect” natural fiber as many would have us believe. Organic cotton isn’t the savior of the fashion industry, nor is it even as eco-friendly as we thought it was (water usage is a HUGE problem for cotton, organic or not). NOTHING is ever as “perfect” as we think it is…to get back to my main point 😉
A lot to digest there, and think about, but I still believe that I’m doing the right thing by trying to reduce my consumption of conventional cotton and synthetic fabrics, replacing it with recycled fabrics, hemp, linen and/or organic cotton as much as I can. Even being “eco-friendly” right now is better than nothing, and perhaps with more of us consuming organic cotton, creating more of a demand for it, we will at least keep the organic cotton farmers in business, helping them to create a more sustainable enterprise, and making it more economical for others to do the same.
I wrote this and posted a “contrarian” article to start a conversation and make a point that there is no simple way to change the fashion industry to be more sustainable. It’s great that Emma Watson is trying to draw attention to the issue/industry by wearing modern, appealing, more sustainable clothing, but often what that does is just create attention around the buzzword “sustainable.” Then, as we saw in the late 2000’s all sorts of marketing pops up and greenwashing abounds – back then it was all about bamboo, now it’s “sustainability.”
I was writing about eco-fashion back then, and while bamboo was all the rage, I posted my share of articles and caveats about bamboo, it was never as eco-friendly as it was made out to be. And now, I try to do the same with sustainability – as I re-think using it as often as I do.
In conclusion – there is no conclusion. Sustainability and more environmental & people-friendliness in the fashion industry is something we should all strive for, I think. As it is now, with fast fashion still a major driver of fashion consumption, it is absolutely not sustainable and is only a matter of time before another Rana Plaza tragedy or worse. But there is no one way to accomplish that, nor is there an easy fix; it will take time, and a shift in overall consumption patterns from today’s unsustainable levels: we are simply consuming & then discarding too much for our earth, and the people and animals in it to take.
What do you think?
*Zady’s t-shirts use organic cotton from a farm in Texas:
Sporting the USDA organic certification means that their non-genetically modified cotton is grown without the use of chemical pesticides, defoliants, or fertilizers. In place of which, natural fertilizers in the form of compost, naturally-derived mineral fertilizers, and rotational crop practices enhances biological cycles. This is how our organic cotton keeps chemical pollutants out of our air, our waters, and our t-shirt.
Lee B says
I love your writing, your thoughtful concern for the earth, and your aesthetic choices, but your column today is so frustrating for me.
Sustainable fashion will not be widely adopted until there is economy of scale. That won’t happen until companies offer options for women larger than a size 10. I would love to purchase some of the clothing I see on your blog and others, but I am “sized out” as are more than 50 percent of American women. There are only so many pieces by Eileen Fisher and the few companies who offer sustainable choices in larger larger sizes that I can afford; even on eBay they are pricey, if you are looking for anything more than a tee shirt.
Whether organic cotton is sustainable or a even good choice is not a decision most of us have the freedom to make until we have access clothing in our size at at a reasonable price point. When I was young models wore a size 8-now that s a size Large. Insane.
Grechen Reiter says
Excellent points Lee. Frustrating indeed. I have more to say, but this deserves its own post….
Lee B says
Thank you. Apologies for the typos!
Grechen Reiter says
in the meantime, here’s a good article to read: http://ecocult.com/2016/sustainable-ethical-plus-sized-fashion/ – and here is a post i did on some very good “minimalist” made in the US plus-size brands: http://grechenscloset.com/plussize-madeinus-modern-clothing/
Lee B says
Thanks again. I remember your minimalist post. I bought the Karen Kane maxi you featured and love it. Will check it the links.
Excellent food for thought, Grechen. Whatever ones belief system, or non-belief system, as the case may be…I think the point of being human is that we try to DO better. We try to live a kinder, more respectful life. And for me, that means living consciously about the environment and also being torn about organic/Made in the USA purchases vs. things that the people that need jobs have made (Yes…even in unreformed “sweatshops”). It’s living a grace-filled life toward others, and struggling to do the best I am able to with the issues that remain very gray and fuzzy for me.
Yes, Lee B! There are so many times I’ve felt this way as a size 12-14. “You need not shop here!” is what I feel is the message being clearly communicated.
Sure they can’t use pesticides, but, beneficial insects to consume the pests?
The costs will fall when the methods become widespread. Economics tells us that economies of scale really work.
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I hear you guys. And I think it’s getting worse, not better. I am normally a 6 (from time to time a 4 or 8) but in some of these high end “ethical” brands I am a large, if I fit at all. When I inquired of one such company as to their sizing, they emailed me that their sizing is “youthful.” And they were not talking about teenagers. What can that mean except please don“t even think of shopping here. They showed a pictures of their printers and sewers, and while I didn’t find any of them particularly big, I don’t think any of them could have fit into their “youthful`sizes. either.
Where I live in dry central California, (cotton is also grown here), excessive tillage would be a major source of particulate pollution. We are starting to be regulated for this, which is pain, but the honest amongst us admit its necessity. Also, to be truly sustainable, a farming method needs to be something the farmer can consistently employ every year and usually turn a profit, so consistently low yields would be a major problem. I’m a farmer (walnuts/almonds), and I am sort of amazed that in discussions of this kind that our livelihoods are so infrequently mentioned. Land/ water/ labor/ materials cost money which has to be spent whether or not we manage to bring in a decent crop in the end; if a method isn’t working, we can’t keep on doing it and stay in business.
Thank-you Kristina, for raising these important issues in such a thoughtful and personal way.
Grechen Reiter says
yes, absolutely economies of scale work, but i think the problem here is that there seems to be only a select few locations that are ideal for growing organic cotton. and you would think beneficial insects would work wonderfully…but not a word on those. will dig a little deeper on why their use isn’t widespread?
Grechen Reiter says
yes. thank you so much for your input kristina – i absolutely agree that we have to take into consideration whether farmers/farms can actually even sustain THEMSELVES growing organic cotton, etc.
I see red flags all over the idea of “beneficial pests”! That’s been tried and ended up disastrous with invasive species of bugs, plants, etc. Proceed with great caution!
For an excellent very short article on the issue of conscious (fashion and beauty) consumerism, may I recommend the following: http://matterprints.com/blogs/journal/179207111-an-interview-with-kate-black. I haven’t read the book referenced therein, but it looks both interesting and helpful.