What are you wearing? No, this isn’t one of those. Clothing and textiles are the world’s second-most traded goods, making up an industry worth more than $1 trillion worldwide, but we pay hardly any attention to their sustainability. As we bleed money on fashion, we, without thought, accept inferior quality—why build something to last when your customers will replace it in a few months?—and the destruction of the environments that grow the fibers. Cotton, a “natural” fiber, may account for less than three percent of the world’s farmed land, but it is responsible for a quarter of insecticides and one-tenth of herbicides, is the fourth most heavily fertilized crop, and is roughly 70 percent irrigated rather than rain-fed. Organic cotton may make your clothing less toxic, but does nothing for all its other problems. “Made in America” may sound nice, but it can just be a cover for deeper problems. And don’t get me started on “vegan” fashion. That’s just code for mass market petroleum products sold at premium prices. Only about one-fifth of sustainability initiatives in the fashion industry target the environmental effects of the underlying supply chain, the remainder limited to toxins and pollution from the factories.
If there’s so much wrong in fashion, what’s right? New stuff, not just thrift shops. Buying used and patching old items are great, but if you’re cool with that, you’re probably already doing it. Fortunately, there are options, made of hemp, organic cotton (not bad if grown in its native climate), responsibly softened bamboo, recycled fibers, and so on. However, there is a sharp gender imbalance in the offerings. Women can easily find a wide variety of ostensibly sustainable options in the same price brackets as familiar shops such as American Eagle, Abercrombie & Fitch, and Banana Republic. I’ve found so much while trying to find something that I could wear that all I can think to recommend is Kate D’Arcy’s work, because it’s the first I remember seeing. Options are much more limited for men. Perhaps I could interest you in some plaid? No, you don’t get to choose the color. Unless you’re content with tees and box-cut polos, you get hardly any options until we approach triple digit prices.
Despite the great size of the fashion industry, we pay little attention to its environmental and social costs. Cotton, one of the most popular textile fibers, is a destructive crop when grown in the wrong locale, threatening its continued use whether we like it or not. Among the fraudulent “solutions,” we can find designers bucking the trend and offering real improvements across a range of price brackets, but the offerings for men and women are hardly equal. I believe that American men are too large a group to justify this difference in price. There’s an untapped market here, people. Get on it. In the meantime, I’ll take care of what I have and donate what I’ve outgrown.