I am writing a 3 part series on ethical fashion and the dilemmas one can encounter when trying to purchase both earth-friendly and vegan clothing. In my first series article, I begin to explain what each of these materials are and how both of these labels can be a little misleading.
Vegan products and natural materials can both harm the environment. But there are ways to help where you can. For instance, you can buy clothing second-hand, or use items while doing your laundry to prevent microplastics from getting into natural waterways. Nobody is perfect, and the world is crazy and contradictory. But you still have to choose the option that is best for you at the time. This article will bring up plastic as a textile material.
There are items that are vegan and natural, and there are items that are vegan, but also plastic. My vote is of course to go the natural and vegan route, rather than plastic. Unfortunately, there is a reason plastic materials are so prolific in most countries around the world. It is monetarily cheap to make, but extremely costly to the environment. Plastic is flexible, lightweight, and strong enough for certain products. It is used to protect products, bind them together, and contain various substances without leaking or disintegrating. The problem is that today, almost everything is partly, or completely made out of plastic. Plastic tends to fade, crack, and start to ‘pit’ in heavy sunshine. This is frustratingly true in a sunny state like my home state of Arizona. Plastic breaks up but never breaks down. It is true to say that every piece of plastic ever made, still exists today; the only thing is that it may or may not be in the same form or condition it was in when it was first produced.
The elements of the sun, wind, sand and the salty surf degrade plastic and break it into small particles referred to as microplastics. In the ocean environment, it sinks to the bottom or floats on the surface.
I’m sure everyone has seen those sad pictures of aquatic animals with plastic wrapped around their bodies, necks and mouths, or dead albatrosses and sea turtles with stomachs full of sharp plastic pieces. The fish you consume can also contain microplastics. Marine life can’t detect what they are eating is food or plastic, so it is only fitting that plastic will be seen in the whole food chain.
So what does this have to do with your clothing? Well, if we are worried about the health and well-being of animals, we would think to buy a polyester sweater (vegan) instead of a wool one, right? But that means that you are creating microplastic fibers each time you wash that sweater. Those microfibers are so small that they get through the water filtration systems, and into the waterways, and then out to the ocean. Polyester and poly-blend fabrics can look great and can be very strong, but do not absorb sweat and can leave your skin feeling clammy. But what is it made of? Polyester (polyethylene terephthalate) pellets are synthetically made from petroleum-based products, which are melted down and squeezed through small holes to form filaments. These filaments (not fibers) solidify when cooled, and can be cut to any length and woven into textiles. If the filaments are not woven, they just look like fine fishing line. Since polyester is made from petroleum, it is not sustainable or biodegradable.
Being a vegan, or an animal-lover, you can choose items that are not made from animal products. But by choosing plastic items instead, it may not be good for anyone or anything in the long run. Don’t get me wrong, there are definite reasons to buy plastic over other vegan options depending on style and preference. I personally don’t have a sense of style and sometimes wind up stylish by accident. But I love my yoga pants, which are cotton AND spandex. They are vegan, but the spandex in them is made from polyurethane plastic. So every time I wash them, I let cotton and plastic microfibers rush into the water cycle. It is hard to choose clothing that fits every single one of your criteria, whether it be style, form, fit, material, personal value and ethics. Try to choose what is more important to you. I know that vegan options tend to be more expensive because they are made in a different process and from a different material. It is also probably more labor-intensive to make a garment that needs to be cared for instead of the cheap, fast-fashion items that are “made to be thrown away” to make room for the next “in-season” line (but let’s save ‘fast fashion’ for another post). I feel I would be remiss if I didn’t bring it back to the plastic. Companies keep producing polyester because it is (monetarily) cheap, and they mostly have it made using cheap, unfair labor in poor countries, and then sold for low prices as ‘fast fashion’ items. If producers keep pumping it out, and we keep buying it, we are part of the problem. We are creating demand based on our choices. Something as simple as a polyester shirt can be detrimental to the planet. However, if you already own a plastic garment, don’t just throw it out – because then that becomes a waste problem.
There are ways to help reduce microplastics when you wash! Ditch the plastic bottle of laundry detergent. There are plenty of alternatives! I make my own powder detergent – all three natural ingredients come in bulk, paper or cardboard packaging that I can recycle, or compost. You can find the recipe and more eco-friendly tips for everyday life on my Instagram account @ecofriendlylifeaz. If you don’t want to make your own, you can buy from a great company, Tangie. The founder is lovely and always improving her business and home to be more plastic-free. (She even is writing a book about it!) Using Guppyfriend bags, Coraball or a special washing machine filter called Filtrol are good ways to start the prevention of plastics entering the water stream every time you do laundry. Especially now, since scientists have found plastic in rain water! Do your part, do your best, and make good choices for you and the planet.