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The true cost of fast fashion – why organic cotton is better for your baby

According to UNCTAD (UN Conference on Trade and Development), approximately 93 billion cubic metres of water - enough to meet the needs of five million people - is used by the fashion industry every year, with around half a million tons of microfibre, which is the equivalent of 3 million barrels of oil, being dumped into the ocean annually.

As for carbon emissions, the fashion industry is responsible for more than all international flights and maritime shipping combined.

The dominant business model in the sector is that of “fast fashion”, whereby consumers are offered constantly changing collections at low prices, and encouraged to frequently buy and discard clothes. Many experts, including the UN, believe the trend is responsible for a plethora of negative social, economic and environmental impacts and, with clothing production having doubled between 2000 and 2014,  it is crucially important to ensure that clothes are produced as ethically and sustainably as possible.

Do you know that it takes around 7,500 litres of water to make a single pair of jeans? This is equivalent to the amount of water the average person drinks in seven years. That’s just one of the many startling facts to emerge from recent environmental research, which show that the cost of staying fashionable is a lot more than just the price tag.

This gets you thinking about whether we really need that extra pair of jeans, or those super cute kids Halloween costumes which get used once a year, doesn’t it?

According to the Soil Association, we are in a climate emergency. As the world’s second most polluting industry, textiles urgently needs to pull its socks up. Fast fashion is a big part of the problem, but as well as clothing, the fabrics we choose for our bedding, homewares and personal care products also matter.

 

What’s the problem with fast fashion?

We’re buying five times more than we did in the 1980s. That’s five times more of everything. The UN notes that if the world's population continues to grow, by 2050 we would need the natural resources of three planets to support us.

On top of this, it's estimated that a third of clothes in UK wardrobes haven't been worn in the last year. Fast fashion focuses on speed and low costs in order to frequently deliver new collections inspired by seasonal catwalk editions or celebrity styles. But it is particularly bad for the environment, as pressure to reduce cost and the time it takes to get a product from design to shop floor means that environmental corners are more likely to be cut. One answer to fast fashion is to buy less, another is to opt for sustainable, eco-friendly clothing, like organic. As more people choose organic, brands are cottoning on and starting to source more clothes which are responsibly made. Water pollution, toxic chemical use and textile waste: fast fashion comes at a huge cost to the environment.

Textile dyeing is the second largest polluter of clean water globally, after agriculture. Greenpeace’s recent Detox campaign has been instrumental in pressuring fashion brands to take action to remove toxic chemicals from their supply chains after it tested a number of brands’ products and confirmed the presence of hazardous chemicals. Many of these are banned or strictly regulated in various countries because they are toxic, bio-accumulative (meaning the substance builds up in an organism faster than the organism can excrete or metabolise it), disruptive to hormones and carcinogenic.

Polyester is the most popular fabric used for fashion. But when polyester garments are washed in domestic washing machines, they shed microfibres that add to the increasing levels of plastic in our oceans. These microfibres are minute and can easily pass through sewage and wastewater treatment plants into our waterways. However, as they are not biodegradable, they represent a serious threat to aquatic life. Small creatures such as plankton eat the microfibres, which then make their way up the food chain to fish and shellfish eaten by humans.

Patsy Perry’s article in The Independent, ‘The Environmental Costs Of Fast Fashion’, points out that its tough to love our clothes and keep wearing them for longer when we are faced with a tempting array of newness on offer in the shops and constantly bombarded with targeted advertising on social media platforms. And before you head out into the Christmas sales for those irresistible deals for new party wear, Perry wants us to spare a thought for the impact of fast fashion on the environment. Clothes that are often only worn once or twice and then forgotten about in the back of our wardrobes.

 

Photo, Reuters: Women walk past tannery wastewater that is being pumped from a factory straight into the street, in Cairo’s Ain el-Sirra district

The devastating impact of toxic chemical use in agriculture, for growing cotton, was shown in a documentary called The True Cost, including the death of a US cotton farmer from a brain tumour, and serious birth defects in Indian cotton farmers’ children. Cotton growing requires high levels of water and pesticides to prevent crop failure, which can be problematic in developing countries that may lack sufficient investment and be at risk of drought.

Perry’s article from The Independent also states that cotton grown worldwide is genetically modified to be resistant to the bollworm pest, thereby improving yield and reducing pesticide use. But this can also lead to problems further down the line, such as the emergence of “superweeds” which are resistant to standard pesticides. They often need to be treated with more toxic pesticides that are harmful to livestock and humans.

 

Why choose Organic Fashion & Textiles?

 

Thankfully, the very clever Soil Association have laid this all out for us: if you see an organic label on an item of clothing in a store, it's likely to be made from cotton, but organic textiles can also be made of other materials too, such as, linen, hemp, flax and wool. These fibres come from crops or animals that are grown or raised on organic farms. The way they are farmed makes a big difference to their environmental impact.

Organic farming works with nature and is better for animal welfare. Organic farmers use natural methods to grow their crops, which help to combat climate change. They never use hazardous synthetic pesticides or genetically modified seeds, which means farmers aren't putting their health at risk to make our clothes, and they are in control of the crops they grow.

Organic is a sustainable choice, but, confusingly, when you see the word ‘sustainable’ on a label this doesn’t mean it’s organic. To be sure what you are buying is truly organic, look for one of the organic certification logos.

What is organic certification?

Lots of fashion and textile retailers think it is important that shoppers know how their clothes are made, but sadly many brands spin yarns that hide the truth about their production and working conditions.

Unlike food, clothes and textiles can be labelled as organic without being certified. This means that retailers can label items as organic, regardless of organic content. Organic certification is proof that the claims made are backed up and verified. 

Which organic logos should I look for?

When you’re buying clothing or textiles, check the label and make sure what you’re buying is genuinely as good as it looks. If you spot an organic certification logo you'll know the garment has been certified to either the Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS) or Organic Content Standard (OCS).

Soil Association or GOTS logo
The item is made with organic fibres and has been processed to strict environmental and social standards. This means workers' rights are protected, working conditions are safe and hygienic, only low impact dyes and inks are used, wastewater is treated properly, and energy and water use is monitored.

OCS logo
The item is made with organic fibres and has been traced through the chain of custody.

 

 

Why are organic textiles important for babies and young children?

A baby’s skin is thinner, more fragile and less oily than an adult’s. It is less resistant to bacteria and harmful substances in the environment, especially if it’s irritated. Babies also sweat less efficiently than older children and adults, so it’s harder for them to maintain their core body temperature. No one can be sure that non-organic cotton baby clothes are pesticide free, and as babies are at greater risk for pesticide-related health problems than adults, it’s really important to choose their clothes very carefully.

A brand we truly believe in, The Little Green Sheep, realised that with babies spending so much time sleeping on their mattress (16 hours a day on average!), making one without chemicals was essential. In their organic baby mattress, they found a way to offer the best support without the worry of any nasty chemicals, using just four of nature’s own ingredients.

Another brand we have faith in is Sleepy Doe. All of their methods of manufacturing are sustainable and ethical, reflecting the standards of the whole brand. No harmful dyes are used in the printing method and all products are printed on GOTS certified organic cotton and are ecologically sourced. All Sleepy Doe products are also designed and manufactured in the UK, supporting independent factories and businesses. That’s a big thumbs up from Green Monkeys!

Baby brand Mori, who’s signature fabric is crafted from organic cotton and bamboo, tells us that organic clothing uses cotton that is not farmed in the conventional ways. Pesticides are not used; instead, other safer methods are used to produce the crops, such as crop rotation, physical removal of weeds instead of use of herbicides, hand hoeing, using beneficial insects to counteract the bad ones, amongst others. Therefore, workers have better working conditions, water quality is not compromised by run-off, and strong healthy soil is built. The end product is a cotton fabric that is toxin free. Now doesn’t this sound far better for your young child?

If you’re interested in finding out more, we recommend you also listen to the Fashion Fix podcast with Charli Howard, found on the BBC Sounds App.

 

Sources – Click on the sources below to find out more

The Soil Association

UN

The Independent

Sleepy Doe

The Little Green Sheep

Mori