About a year ago, I started wondering about my long term use of nylon, fleece and other synthetic materials from Mountain Equipment Coop. I started wondering if these petrochemical-based fabrics were safe for use next to my skin and for that matter if the products were environmentally safe. Ironically, MEC is all about enjoying and saving the environment. Unfortunately, their fabric choices might be convenient for a sweaty hiker but the fabrics are made from materials that are not sustainable nor environmentally friendly. Many of these synthetic fabrics are partly recycled but the question I keep asking myself is should we be making the products in the first place and how safe are the fabrics for the wearer or the greater environment? On the positive side, MEC cares about the working conditions in the factories that produce their products. MEC sells very inexpensive 100% organic cotton shirts, 100% Merino wool underwear, and some hemp blend products.
I started wondering about my personal clothing choices and what I would have to do to be more sustainable. I realized that leather, sheepskin and fur are very sustainable products and have a very long wearing life. For example, a leather or sheepskin jacket could last a lifetime. In my vegetarian days, I would have been horrified by such an observation. I guess many people feel the same way. On my Visit to the Killing Floor at Kam Lake View Meats, I learned that hides, once a valuable byproduct of the slaughtering process, are now almost a waste product. The inspector said: ?we are close to the day when the customer will have to pay extra to dispose of the hide.? The kill floor manager said: ?when I started twenty years ago, the hides were worth $50.00 each. Now they get $5.00 a hide.? This situation seems wrong to me. As a show of respect for the life given for our food we should be using every part of the animal possible. There are problems with modern leather products. Most modern tanning methods use toxic chemicals but this does not have to be the case. Leather can be produced using traditional brain tanning methods which does not negatively affect the environment. If there were enough people that cared about how a hide was tanned, we could have a resurgence of artisan tanning using traditional methods.
Wool is another wonderful material that doesn’t require the death of an animal and is completely sustainable. All you need is the sheep on pasture and the wool continues to grow year after year. Wool can be used for years, and some thick wools will have the same longevity as leather, sheepskin or fur. Again, we are seeing the loss of another traditional home industry. At one time, many sheep farms would have had a method of taking the raw wool from the sheep to a finished product. Now, this wasn’t an easy task. Women spent the winter months working at cleaning, carting, spinning, weaving and knitting. They would make many of the clothes and blankets used by the whole family. Now wool is a waste product. It isn’t even worth the cost to send it to Custom Woolen Mills located in Alberta. I talked with Susan McGillivray from Jocko Creek Ranch about her sheep’s wool. She sends enough wool to the mill for her family’s needs but the rest of the wool gets composted. Here is another missed opportunity for a revival in artisan wool production. If enough people valued high quality wool and were willing to pay for handmade knitting and weaving we could have a local cultural Renaissance.
Cotton, linen, and hemp are beautiful materials and true products of the Industrial Revolution. There may have been cottage industry of these products long ago, but few people would have the production knowledge now. Cotton’s major problem is the amount of fungicides, herbicides and pesticides used to produce the crop. Going organic with your cotton clothing would really help the environment. Linen comes from flax straw, a “waste product” of flax seed and flax oil production. Linen does not require as many chemicals for production as cotton. Hemp is a very hardy plant with its own natural pesticide. Hemp is a very strong and versatile fiber and can be used in building materials, fabrics, and rope. The official story is hemp is hard to get because the material got caught up in a silly confusion during the 1930’s drug prohibition. Some people believe this official story is a fiction to hide the true reason which is to protect the synthetic fabric industry. If we lived in a sane world we would all be wearing hemp or linen. If we bought hemp clothes we could be wearing the same clothes for a decade. We would have to give up making a fashion statement and design styles of clothing that can adjust for weight loss or gain. If we are going to continue using cotton we should use organic cotton.
I just finished reading Killer Clothes: How Seemingly Innocent Clothing Choices Endanger Your Health …And How To Protect Yourself by Anna Maria Clement. I was previously unaware of the chemical contamination prevalent in clothes manufacturing. Manufacturers are now putting some very scary chemicals on your clothes. (The way to protect yourself against these chemicals is to know your producers and make it your business to understand their manufacturing processes. Sorry, no easy answers on this website.) Manufacturers are not required to list the chemicals used on the clothing’s label. These chemicals are used to make the fabric flame, stain, shrink, static, wrinkle, bacterial, microbial, and odor resistant. For example, formaldehyde is commonly used in fabrics to resist wrinkling and shrinkage. Ugh. The author is concerned that we are all “guinea pigs” in a vast experiment without our conscious consent. She is concerned that our clothes are adding to a “total toxic load” in our bodies which can led to illness in the short or long-term. She is concerned that many of these chemicals “are persistent in the environment and bio-accumulative in humans and wildlife.” She is especially worried about what this will mean for the health of our children and grandchildren.
Finally, when we are done with our natural clothing, they can be recycled as rags or made into paper. The rags, when worn, will return to the soil which in turn will service another generation of people. I cannot say that about my petrochemical-based nylon, fleece, or polyester.