We often hear the instruction to “Buy Local” when it comes to ethical and sustainable food or gifts. But have you ever wondered if this phrase applies to clothing as well? With the fashion industry as one of the most internationally-spread sectors, locally-made clothes may be more difficult to find.
But sometimes, doing our part for the environment involves taking the time to look a little further into our choices. Clothes are an expression of our personality as much as they serve the purpose of protecting us from the elements.
Can giving our money to local clothing manufacturers increase our contribution to a more sustainable world?
What Is Sustainable Clothing?
With each American throwing away an average of over 81 lbs. of clothes each year, it’s apparent that the tens of millions of tons that end up in landfills and incinerators annually present an extreme environmental challenge. The production and transport of industrially-produced clothing also emits large amounts of carbon, which contributes to global warming. In fact, the clothing industry creates around 10% of the world’s annual carbon emissions.
Sustainable clothing is produced by manufacturers that source reusable or completely biodegradable materials. The production process must have a small carbon footprint while creating little to no pollution, waste, or toxic chemicals.
The Current Model
Big clothing manufacturers make massive profits by leveraging their purchasing power to achieve economies of scale. For example, H&M produces over 3 billion garments annually, basing its success on the company’s ability to secure cheap materials. These materials are often synthetic or environmentally taxing in their production.
Big clothing manufacturers can also impose cheap wages in developing countries and employ unethical working conditions in factories. While each item sold doesn’t make a big profit, selling billions of pieces makes the big players in the clothing industry wildly successful. This allows them to outcompete smaller brands that hope to take a more sustainable and ethical route.
Going Local – Locally-made clothes
Buying clothes from a local manufacturer starts a chain of events that makes the industry more sustainable. By purchasing from local clothing makers, you’re helping make local garment businesses more viable. This gives local manufacturers greater self-sufficiency and allows them to withstand the price wars that big chain brands wage on these smaller companies.
But why is local fashion more sustainable? Buying locally-made clothes also reduces the amount of pollution that occurs when clothes are made in conventional factories. Developing countries like Vietnam and China maintain virtually no environmental standards in their effort to attract contracts from western brands. With 63% of carbon emissions coming from the developing world, it’s safe to say that not much effort is placed on meeting testing standards in textile production.
Finally, buying locally reduces the carbon emissions created by transporting clothing halfway across the globe. These carbon emissions, sometimes referred to as “Scope 3” emissions, result not from the actual production of clothing but from all the actions the company must take to get the clothing into your closet (such as shipping).
How Sustainable Are Locally-Made Clothes?
Locally-made clothes are only sustainable if their manufacturers follow best practices. This includes sourcing raw materials, making the clothing, and distributing them.
If a local manufacturer uses synthetic, plastic-based fibres in their clothes like polyester or nylon, they are contributing to the 35% of global microplastic pollution that the clothing industry is responsible for. Microplastics are tiny pieces of plastic fibres that originate from products, including clothing, and end up in the food chain and water supply. These microfibres have cumulative negative effects on the health of animals and humans alike. The scope of damaging effects includes allergies and cell death capable of harming organs and systems in the body.
Using recyclable and biodegradable textiles goes hand-in-hand with adopting raw materials that don’t result in water waste. Polyester and acrylic are among the most unsustainable materials that clothes can be made from, as they can take up to 200 years to biodegrade. Unfortunately, your cotton t-shirt may not be as sustainable as you think, even though it’s a natural fibre; cotton needs up to 20,000 litres of water for a single pair of jeans or a t-shirt.
Is buying locally-made clothes the same as sustainable clothes?
Buying locally-made clothes isn’t synonymous with buying sustainable clothes. Why? Because the way the clothing is produced is also a major factor. Manufacturers that prefer textiles such as organic cotton, hemp, bamboo, and organic linen are doing their part to offer sustainable garments. However, local producers contribute to sustainable fashion by preferring short sea freight or rail transport or coming up with creative ways to build local markets, which reduces the carbon emissions associated with transport. In this way, many local clothing producers are more sustainable than large clothing brands that must ship their products long distances. Generally, small local clothing brands also use more sustainable methods to create their clothing, making them the eco-friendly choice.
Moving Forward with locally made-clothes
To ensure that locally-made clothes are sustainable, consumers need to push the market in a positive direction. Buying from local brands means having the ability to interact with the manufacturer and exert influence in a very direct and impactful way.
Consumers have the leverage to push local clothing manufacturers down a sustainable path by asking for clothes made from eco-friendly materials. Therefore, rewarding companies that take their role as responsible members of the community seriously.
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