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Fashion x Toxicity

Team Zady

Have you ever thought about the relationship between food and fashion? We’re not talking here about the fact that they can both be dictated by trends (hello, cronut!). Nor are we referring to the artistic renderings of fruit that populate our fashion-related social media feeds, however enjoyable those may be. The fact is, substantively, food and fashion share a lot in common, and we think it’s high time we established the link between these two daily touch points of our lives.

A shared origin

With the polished images and runway shows that we associate with the fashion industry, it can be easy to forget that the natural materials in our clothes come from a decidedly less glamorous place—a farm. Cotton, the most common natural fiber in our clothing, and the second most commonly used fiber after polyester, is found in 40% of our clothes. [1],[2] Wool and linen are both found in roughly 1% of our clothing. [3],[4] So less than half of all our clothing, like our food, originates on a farm.

Judging by our consumption patterns and beliefs, it seems in the last few years, the link between food and fashion has almost completely escaped us. As our generation has smartened up to the importance of healthy eating, we drink less soda, eat less fast food, [5] and go to more farmers markets [6] than we have in the past few decades. Organic food is one of the fastest growing consumer trends in modern history, with one industry report suggesting the market for organic foods has grown by 3,400% over the last two decades. [7]

Over the same period in time, while our diets have become more wholesome, we’ve built perhaps the unhealthiest relationship with our clothes that we have ever had. Fueled by the growth of fast fashion, we consume and dispose of a greater volume of clothing than ever before. [8],[9] Whereas the trend in food is to spend more for quality, [10] when it comes to fashion, we spend less on our clothes today (in relative terms) than we ever have at any point in the last century. [11] We crave a connection with the farmer who grew our food, and yet we know very little about the hands that grow our fibers or sew our clothing. More than ever, we buy clothes manufactured in far away countries, in factories we may never consider, in the context of an industry we only vaguely seem to understand. We read nutritional labels, yet we don’t look at the tag to see the materials our clothing is made of.

What explains this divergence? Well, it may have to do with the aspirational nature of fashion, with the fact that fashion helps us project an image, communicate to the world who we wish to be, and express a personal sense of style. A study on consumption behaviors in fast fashion concluded that although we value the environment, it seems we value the aspirational and image-related benefits we get from fast fashion more. The authors write, “while concerned about the environmental and social impact of their non-fashion purchasing decisions, [people] did not apply such principles to their consumption of fashion.” [12] It would seem that fast fashion has, at least for the time being, pit us against our values, and won. Yet, if fast food is any indication of what’s to come, the fast fashion trend will be short lived. Here at Zady, we firmly believe that the fashion of the future will bring with it a return to quality, to origin, and to process. And much of that involves re-establishing a connection to the materials our clothing is made of and to the shared origin that links our food and our fashion.

The skin we’re in

Let’s move now to another key way in which food and fashion are related: they interact with our body. Clothing is worn directly on our skin, the largest organ in our body. Our skin serves three primary functions that are vital to our overall health: it protects us, regulates our body temperature, fluid balance, and Vitamin D content, and senses changes in our external environment. [13] To serve these functions, our skin must both perspire (i.e. sweating to regulate our body temperature) and absorb (for example, taking in Vitamin D from the sun or lotion applied to the skin). It is through absorption that clothing impacts our skin. How?

Our clothing is made using a lot of chemicals: 25% of all chemicals produced worldwide are used by the textile and clothing industry. [14] For every pound of textiles produced, roughly 1 pound of chemicals is required. [15] Not all of these chemicals are hazardous to human health, and not all of them remain in clothes residually. But many of these chemicals are in fact dangerous to human health, and traces of these chemicals have been widely documented in our clothing. Research conducted by Greenpeace as part of the Detox Campaign concluded that 11 hazardous chemicals frequently used by the fashion industry are dangerous enough to human health that they should be completely eliminated from our clothes. [16] A further examination by Greenpeace into the chemicals in children’s clothing found evidence that clothes contain a broad range of hazardous chemicals, including toxins, carcinogens, and hormone disruptors. [17]

Textile processing standards, including the Global Organic Textile Standard and Oeko-Tex Standard 100, test the safety of hazardous substances and set strict limits around the type and amount of chemicals that can be used in clothing that is certified. Importantly, Oeko-Tex classifies textiles in one of four categories—according to the degree of contact it will have with our skin. According to Oeko-Tex, “The more intensive the skin contact of a product, the stricter the human ecological requirements to be met.” [18] So, as our food impacts our health, our clothing also impacts our health through our skin.

Re-establishing a connection The future of fashion requires us to consider clothing and the way it interacts with our world from a richer, more multidimensional perspective. The re-established connection between our food, our health, and our land has helped us to turn around years of unhealthy eating trends in America. It’s time we extended these principles to fashion and re-establish a connection with our clothes. Here are a few tips for doing just that next time you shop:

  • Start to treat your fashion like food.

If you buy organic fruits and vegetables, or if you drink organic milk, organic natural fibers are the next frontier. If you avoid eating foods dyed with artificial colors, think about the chemicals that go into coloring your clothes. If you feel strongly about minimizing food waste, apply that same thinking the next time you are getting rid of a piece of clothing.

  • Choose certified organic natural fibers, especially cotton.

We’ve talked a lot about the environmental benefits of certified organic fibers, particularly organic cotton. So forgive us for mentioning them again! But we can’t have a discussion about re-connecting our fashion to our farms without explicitly mentioning the role that organic fibers play in helping to foster that connection. Organic farming does not use synthetic pesticides, insecticides, and fertilizers. Instead, organic agriculture relies on a set of practices like crop rotation, cover crops, no till or conservation tillage that nurture the health of the soil and increase the fertility of the land over time.

  • Look for certifications that limit chemicals in your clothing.

While organic certification is the best way to ensure your clothes are gentle on the land, when it comes to your skin, choosing organic fibers alone isn’t enough. Organic certifications like USDA, for example, only extend to the period in time when the fiber, say cotton, leaves the farm. If an organic cotton t-shirt is exposed to toxic chemicals used in the dyeing and finishing process, it can still be called a certified organic t-shirt. So as consumers, this requires us to dig a bit deeper. To certify that our clothing, dyes and all, are really non-toxic, we must rely on certifications that test the fibers well beyond the farm, after they have left the factory. We’ll mention two standards here, but there are numerous standards out there. For organic clothing, look for the Global Organic Textile Standard, which certifies that organic fibers are also free of hazardous chemicals. For all fibers, synthetic and natural (including both organic and non-organic) look for Oeko-Tex Standard 100.

References:

  1. The Water Footprint of Cotton Consumption pg. 10
  2. If your clothes aren’t already made out of plastic, they will be
  3. The Global Fiber Market in 2014
  4. Masters of Linen: Linen Assets
  5. Americans are Finally Eating Less
  6. Local Food Systems: What Do We Know About National Trends? - See more at: http://blogs.usda.gov/2015/02/03/local-food-systems-what-do-we-know-about-national-trends/#sthash.v4o1lmbe.dpuf
  7. Organic Marketing Report
  8. Fast fashion, “value” fashion
  9. The Neurological Pleasures of Fast Fashion
  10. Consumers Want Healthy Foods–And Will Pay More For Them
  11. Cline, E. L. (2012). Overdressed: The shockingly high cost of cheap fashion. Penguin. p. 22
  12. Joy, A., Sherry Jr, J. F., Venkatesh, A., Wang, J., & Chan, R. (2012). Fast fashion, sustainability, and the ethical appeal of luxury brands. Fashion Theory,16(3), 273-295. Available at: https://www3.nd.edu/~jsherry/pdf/2012/FastFashionSustainability.pdf
  13. Structure and Function of the Skin
  14. Muthu, S. S. (2015). Handbook of Sustainable Apparel Production. CRC Press. p. 272
  15. Muthu, S. S. (2014). Assessing the environmental impact of textiles and the clothing supply chain. Elsevier. p. 21
  16. Eleven hazardous chemicals which should be eliminated
  17. A little story about the monsters in your closet
  18. Oeko-Tex Standard 100
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