Ethical Considerations in Clothing

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Originally Published in October 2012 Issue of La Montanita’s Co-op Connection.

ADDED 3/3/16: Watch Us Explain Why your $8 Shirt is a Huge Problem. Another take on clothing.

Where and how are those jeans made?
Where and how are those jeans made?
The idea that what we choose to eat impacts our own health and the health of the environment is catching on. In fact, it’s pretty much assumed in many circles.  What about other goods we consume regularly, like clothing? We’ve heard about the Slow Food Movement, but what about slow fashion?  Why not consider the materials and processes that go into what you wear?  With the now worldwide abundance of conventional cotton and cheap labor, 98% of what is worn here in the US is made abroad.  It’s easy to find inexpensive clothing, rack after rack of it.  But these cheaply made items have become a part of our disposable mentality.  The EPA estimated that the average American threw away 83 pounds of textiles in 2009, four times as much as in 1980.

Unfortunately it’s not very easy to decide what clothing purchases may or may not be ethical.  What seems like a simple decision is filled with so many factors, not to mention cost.

Let’s start with the environmental mantra of “Reduce, Reuse, Recycle.”

Reducing what you buy may seem simple enough. But if you buy cheaply made items, you ultimately end up buying more to replace what didn’t last.  So that does mean a larger up front investment for better quality.  If you wear the same items regularly or have a lifestyle that might be harder on clothing for whatever reason, this is especially important.  Making a conscious decision to spend your dollars ethically will usually lead to a reduction in quantity.  You will most likely choose pieces very carefully since your budget will allow for fewer.
Reusing. Well, we all reuse our clothing and clothing lifespan can be extended with careful laundering, but we can also purchase previously owned items.  Still, quality is a big factor here if you want to abide by the reduce tenet.  With children, this is how we primarily dress.  Hand-me-downs are a life and budget saver! And thrifting is a common practice for many of us.
Recycle. If you have any sewing skills (I am sadly lacking in this area) you can take older pieces and make them new again – recycle, repurpose, upcycle.  Even if you can’t do this yourself, you can look to purchase these types of items.  Basic sewing skills can also help you reuse your items longer by fixing, stitching, mending and re-attaching pieces that need care.


What if you have advanced sewing skills and can make your own clothes? I’m jealous!  Still there are factors to consider.  Making your own clothing does eliminate one element of question in buying ethically:  manufacturing labor practices.  We’ll return to this in a minute.  It does not eliminate the questions about where the material came from.  You still need to purchase a few yards of material to sew that outfit.  First, it probably won’t be as cheap as buying the complete outfit, which is why many people have abandoned the idea of sewing for themselves.  But say you’ve decided to make something (or like me, just buy something with a little insight into how it’s made).  First, the material must be created or grown.  Cotton is popular, being natural, durable and comfortable.  Growing cotton used to be labor intensive.  With machinery and chemicals, it became less so. Even with advances in biotechnology, allowing insecticides to work as part of the plant instead of being sprayed, cotton uses approximately 25% of the world’s insecticides and more than 10% of the pesticides.  This is a large number considering cotton covers just 2.5% of the world’s cultivated land!  Since it takes 5 years of organic farming before a farmer an be certified as organic, it’s not easy to make the switch. The market must be there.


So we have our cotton.  What happens now?  Textile manufacturing is chemical-intensive, with dyeing/coloring typically being one of the most environmentally destructive part of the process.  The North American Organic Fiber Processing Standards prohibit the use of hazardous materials in the conversion of cotton into clothing.  As you know, most of the clothing we wear is NOT made in North America so not overseen by these standards.  If you want more depressing details on the problem of chemicals and pollution from clothing manufacturing, visit Greenpeace International’s website and search for the reports called “Dirty Laundry” and “Dirty Laundry 2.”  These discuss not just the chemicals dumped into waterways (mostly in China), but the chemicals (formaldahyde) applied to clothing for shipment and then worn by the consumer before washing (not just china).  Greenpeace tested 15 major, worldwide brands and its first key conclusion:  “The problem of toxic pollution from textile manufacturing is pervasive and extensive across producer countries. The textile industry is responsible for unknown but potentially significant quantities of hazardous chemicals such as nonylphenol accumulating in the aquatic environment.”  If you do not want to contribute to this, you will need to actively seek out natural or safely dyed clothing, or clothing made under the stricter regulations of North America.


Now we have our material ready to become an article of clothing.  Who is making and sewing your clothing?  The answer is usually the Chinese.  Whether or not this is really problem is up for debate.  A worker at the Chinese sock factory makes just $14 a day, or $270 in month. In America, a clothing worker makes $88 a day, or $1,760 a month. SHOULD the US even try to be involved in clothing manufacturing?  You can see why US made clothing costs more just by looking at the figures above.  US manufacturing companies WANT to pay their employees a living wage. And I know I personally want to support that.  While US made does not absolutely guarantee fair and safe working conditions, you are more likely to see that than in far away countries.  Out of sight, out of mind.    BUT, many companies do work with cooperatives in other countries and oversee excellent working conditions at lower prices, bringing an economic boost to a very poor area while allowing US consumers to purchase fairly made goods at a lower price.  Many people feel US ingenuity and drive should be invested in design and technology, allowing everyone to benefit from cheaper production elsewhere.  This is a call you get to make as a consumer.  In general (and this is certainly not absolute), the less you pay for an item new, the more corners are cut in labor and production.


Finally, how far did the clothing take to get to you?  I did find Kiwi Industries right in Albuquerque. They make quality children’s clothing.  But it will be very difficult to buy everything you need locally.  So if you start with USA made, you most likely cover yourself on labor and production standards.  Then, look for North American made, for both decreasing miles to the consumer, as well as for some environmental and ethical oversight that NAFTA provides.


So, what are the basics?
1.  Reduce, reuse, recycle.  Check out your favorite thrift store and consider higher end thrift stores for quality that will last.  This will cover you on the Reduce end, as well.  You can also find clothing made from recycled plastics.
2.  Buy organic clothing to reduce the vast pollution from growing conventional cotton and textile production.  Consider other materials that are renewable and sustainably made.  Wool, hemp and possibly bamboo, though the chemical processing of bamboo may outweigh how easy it is to grow.
3.  To increase your chances of safer dyes and production, as well as decrease the miles from producer to consumer, buy North American made or fair trade clothing. As with your food and body products, look for transparency from the company.  And read labels!  You might see some companies’ products are “cut and sewn in the USA” so you’ll need to ask where the material comes from. Others might send materials from the USA to other places to finish production.
I know it’s not realistic for every family to consider spending $25 on a pair of tights or $100 on a dress.  But if those items will last you a decade, your cost per wear is low compared to a cheaper item from which you can only get one year of wear.  But many of these companies do have sales, so watch for those. And consider all of the above points in your decisions when you do find yourself able to shop your values.


Fair Trade:
Revive Fair Trade
Maggie’s Organics – does the co-op carry this line?


abby+anna’s boutique (esp. the girls’ tops) – very affordable
Kiwi Industries (NM)
Tuff Kookooshka


Soft Star Shoes (OR)
LL Bean
Darn Tough – they really are!


NYDJ (Cords and other items might not be USA made)
True Religion
Longhorn Jean co (AZ)


Bill’s Khakis
Todd Shelton
BGreen Apparel


abby+anna’s boutique (esp. the dresses) – very affordable, but do read for USA-made status
Body Bark (CO)
BGreen Apparel
Ice Breaker (New Zealand wool, made in China)


I like Sierra Trading Post catalog, as they list country of origin for every product and they carry many popular brands.


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