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What Are My Clothes Made Of?

Part 2: Taking a holistic look at fashion and the environment

Larhea Pepper is an organic cotton farmer in Lubbock, Texas where just south of her, the largest continuous patch of cotton grows - 3.6 million acres to be exact. At one time, these farms used to spot-spray for weeds, but as the pesticide industry has grown, and the need to produce more at a quicker pace has become more demanding, most of them now drop pesticides and other chemicals over the whole field from a plane that flies overhead. This turn toward chemically intensive farms has not only caused a drop in employment for the farms (since less men are needed to spray the fields) but it also has led to the loss of life. Larhea lost her husband,Terry, at the age of 57, to a brain tumor. He grew up on a chemically intensive cotton farm in Texas and the exposure to all the chemicals over time likely led to the development of the tumor.

Cotton and raw material is where fashion all starts but the hidden costs of production are numerous even at the start of the supply chain. Once we started using pesticides on the crops, we have continually had to increase the amount of pesticides that get used in order to keep up with the changes it creates in the environment and the crops. But as we increase the amount of chemicals, it has led to a decrease in the quality of the soil, the crops and the health of the farmers.

In short, the more you use it, the more you need it.

There are so many levels to the clothing supply chain- starting with creating thread (including polyester, the production of which released 1.5 trillion pounds of greenhouse gases in 2015- (World Resources Institute 2017)) and moving all the way up to the treatments of garments (bleaching, softening, flame resistance, etc).  The workers who are in charge of these processes are exposed directly to the chemicals involved.  Of the 2,400 substances used in clothing manufacturing, researchers found that approximately 30% of the identified substances posed a risk to human health. (Elle MacArthur Foundation 2017).

In Laudato Si, Pope Francis reminds us that, “A true ecological approach always becomes a social approach; it must integrate questions of justice in debates on the environment, so as to hear both the cry of the earth and the cry of the poor.”

Worker walking between heaps of garbage in Slovenia, Getty Images

Not only is the mass production of the clothing harmful to the workers themselves, polluting their towns, and causing strain on their natural resources, but the unwanted and unsold clothing from western countries often ends up back in these countries, filling their landfills. Right now, the clothing that is sent to landfills could sit there for up to 200 years as it slowly decomposes - or as much as it can since synthetic fibers are plastic and cannot fully biodegrade. But for the ones that can decompose, the process emits methane into the air which is a harmful greenhouse gas. About 21 billion pounds of textile waste gets sent to landfills every year and that’s only looking at the U.S.A. But if we double the life of our clothing at least by one year then we reduce the amount of emissions by at least 24%.(Remake.World)

Last week we asked “who made my clothes?” This week we are asking the question, “what are my clothes made out of?” After looking at the facts, we see that the good of the environment and the good of the person are very closely intertwined when it comes to the fashion industry. As stewards of the environment, we will be affected by the damage that we bring to it and more often than not our clothes are made out of harmful chemicals that hurt us, and the environment.

Our clothing plays an intimate role in our lives. For the product that comes in closest contact with our skin, we need to start asking what we are putting on our bodies. Our bodies, something created good by God, deserve to be clothed with the good, natural, and clean materials that God gave us for that purpose. The bodies of others should not be harmed in the process of clothing our own. 

At Litany we want to take a holistic look at fashion from a contemplative Catholic perspective. We are dedicated to making our clothing on an order by order system so as not to fill landfills with unwanted clothing that never gets sold. We want to start reducing the amount of waste by giving customers clothing that will last and that won’t be discarded in a year. We want to help customers find ways to be creative in being part of the solution to this widespread problem. 

So what else can we do?  

  • Buy pieces that will last longer ( go thrifting and buy vintage because the quality is better! Spend more on something that will last, and buy un-distressed jeans - you can get the distressed look from wearing them enough ;) )

  • Start looking at the care label on your garments and follow the instructions on it so that your garment can get the best wear for a longer period of time.

  • Air dry when possible!  This lengthens the life of your garments because less heat is not as harsh on the fabric fibers.

  • Supplement your wardrobe with second-hand garments, whether it’s from thrift stores or a swap from your friends’ closets.  

  • Buy natural fibers when possible.  When you wash your clothes, they won’t be putting plastic back into the world.  Also, you’ll sweat less. 

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