Friday, May 10, 2024

What Can A Person Wear?

I wear a lot of athleisure-wear -- because I like the way it look and fits, because it lasts forever, and because I do, in fact, engage in a lot of athletic activities. The main problem with most athleisure-wear is that it's made of plastic, and we now know that plastic clothes are causing tiny plastic fibers to pollute everything from oceans to breast milk.

A few weeks ago I had a minor freak-out about my plastic clothes and the plastic microfibers. There are so many horrible things happening, but I think my brain fastened on this one because the causal link between me and the outcome is so direct: I wear the clothes, I wash the clothes, the tiny fibers fly out into the world and ruin everything. I could stop doing that.

If you follow this issue at all, you know it is not simple. Producing cotton uses a ton of natural resources and energy; raising sheep for wool is an eco-disaster as well as often cruel to the sheep. I looked up silk and OK, how did I not know that making silk requires dissolving massive numbers of silkworms in boiling water?  

Of course, you can get around production problem by buying used items. I could go to thrift stores and consignment shops and try to find the few things with all natural fibers, and just wear those, and I could learn how to mend and patch them so they don't have to be tossed as they start to wear out, as natural fibers so easily do.

I could do that, but I have not done that. Why not? I could say I've been busy, a stock answer that is also true, but I think the real reason goes deeper. The truth is that I avoid natural fabrics because I think they won't look good on me.

Natural fibers are mostly non-stretchy. I'm not super curvy, but I am moderately curvy. My experience with natural fabric clothing is that it either hangs like a giant pillowcase over my body or it bunches and binds in the ugliest way around my breasts, hips, and stomach.

Now, I know the answer to this as well: tailoring. You read any serious piece about fashion and fit and they will tell you that to look good, you have to get your clothes tailored to fit your body by someone who knows what they are doing.

I can imagine a world in which that is a standard activity that I could engage in, but our world is not that world. Last time I wanted pants made shorter, most places I went wanted me to have pinned them up myself beforehand. I found a place that would do the fitting part, and it took weeks, a couple of follow-up nudge calls, and several trips there to get it all done. Plus, what if I gain or lose a few pounds? Am I going to get things perfectly fitted around my torso then be unable to wear them a month later? Ugh.

Put in starkest terms, where we end up with this is that I could dress more sustainably by buying and wearing used, shapeless items, and just not looking good.

If you put it that way, my choices seem ridiculous and monstrous. Am I seriously choosing to contribute to the destruction of the natural environment because I want to look cuter?

But I am obviously not alone in making these choices. Almost all clothes now have plastic in them. This morning I dug an old denim jacket out of my closet -- genius, I thought, not even requiring a purchase! And not only did it not look good -- it turned out to be part cotton and part elastane.  

In the short term, I decided to buy a couple of Guppyfriend bags -- bags you can wash your plastic clothing in. You put the clothes in the bag in the washing machine, the fibers get caught in the bag, like little pieces of lint, and then you can collect them and put them in the garbage so they won't go into the wastewater. At least, that is the idea. The bags are taking forever to ship, so I don't know how they will work.

It's a lame solution, like so many modern solutions. The plastic fibers will still be out there -- they'll just be in the marginally more appropriate place of a landfill rather than our drinking water.


Daniel said...

Oh no, I didn't know that about athleisure-wear (what a mouthful!). I wear all kinds of weird synthetic things when I exercise - they "wick" moisture away. Are all synthetic fabrics plastic? I am going to look into that washing bag you mentioned.

Anonymous said...

Well, I thoroughly enjoyed this blog! What a perfect capture of modern consumerism. Bravo!

country mouse said...

Quite the dilemma.

I understand your distress at various clothing choices. All-natural fibers have a far greater impact on the environment than people have been aware of in the past. Personally, I have no problem with silk because it's just bugs. They are biological machines without sentience or sapience. Wool is another fiber I have no problems with because the animals are shorn of their hair and are still alive afterward. A qualified sheep shearer can shave off the wool in 2 to 5 minutes. From what I know of sheep, the animals are more bothered by being caught than being shorn.

I think that's a pretty good trade-off, food, shelter, medical care exchange for five minutes of stress getting a haircut every six months and we get a wonderful warm bundle of wool.

Anonymous said...

I share your concern with this conundrum. I have opted for mostly `natural' fabrics, often bought secondhand, but respect your choices. Being male, I may have been trained to be less concerned about my appearance; age also has reduced my sensitivity to other's judgments. The elastane, often unavoidable, is often just in waistbands, and can be removed so that part of a garment is recyclable. But the area I have few solutions for is for specialized use garments, say like those for backpacking. A really good rainjacket may also have PFAS content. Maybe I will have to go back to waxed cotton, but the tradeoffs will be obvious. Anyway, I would like to complement you on what I take to be an honest take on a real problem.

Anonymous said...

@country mouse,
The problem with sheep is not just the stress for a few minutes, but the general environmental impact of creating thousands of these creatures. Just like with cows, the animals need a ton of food, water, release greenhouse gases. Humans are directly responsible for deciding to have so many sheep and there'd have been significantly fewer animals if humans didn't decide what's good for animals.

Anonymous said...

Try Community Clothing, all their athletic wear is plastic free. And Guppy Bags failed me - I just ended up tumble drying for twice as long

Lainie said...

I appreciate the dilemma, but it is seriously not difficult to hem a pair of pants. Making a well-fitting garment is more difficult but also learnable, and you can choose fabric that's flattering and environmentally more responsible.

Anonymous said...

One thing that is easy in theory but hard for many people to fathom: just washing your clothes less often. If you didn't get any stains on a piece of clothing, you can probably get away with wearing it more times than you think without throwing it in the wash. Even if it is stained, you might be able to spot treat it and go without a full wash. This also makes the clothes last longer.

Anonymous said...

"Am I seriously choosing to contribute to the destruction of the natural environment because I want to look cuter?"
Almost certainly but if we are looking to blame anyone it should most likely be aimed at the advertising business who have for many decades told us how we should be. We need a readjustment of the scale of looking good. Try some merino wool. It can be very figure hugging and comfortable!

ETA said...

It's important to remember when weighing the environmental costs of each option that "none of the above" isn't an option, we need to wear something, so just saying one material has a negative impact isn't enough - negative relative to what. This is a good analysis of the environmental costs of different materials

My broad advice would be buy less and buy quality, used marketplaces (ebay, poshmark, markkd, real real, vintage stores) are a great way to get value for your dollar and affordably bring quality (i.e., items that you'll reliably have for 10+ years) into your warddrobe. To slow down purchasing, treat clothing purchases like furniture purchases - you don't only buy a couch because it's neat, you buy it because it will fit in your place, so try to apply the same approach to clothes. Can you fit that piece into your existing warddrobe, or is it something you'd need to buy two more items to make work? Or, maybe you don't care about matching, which is fine, just try to avoid buying items that languish.

Anonymous said...

Agree to so much of this. Governments should mandate that washing machine makers should utilize microplastic filters for the drainage. The technology exists, and it shouldn’t be on every single person to figure out a solution.