The Problem With Getting Dressed

We’ve all got to wear clothes, darn it. And clearly, we LOVE clothes made with plastic.

Name a popular clothing item today— yoga pants, fleece pullovers, stretchy denim— and odds are that item is made softer, more durable, more shrink- stain- and wrinkle-resistant through the use of synthetics. Which is to say, plastic.

Would you like some plastic with your plastic?

Have you ever tried to wade through the vocabulary of synthetics on your clothing tags? It’s worse than chemistry class. Here’s a super simplified guide:

  • polyester
  • nylon
  • acrylic
  • polypropylene
  • elastane
  • spandex
  • lycra

The above materials are all forms of plastic.

Here are some other mysterious terms you’ll encounter:

  • rayon/viscose (two names for the same thing)
  • acetate
  • triacetate

These materials are also considered “synthetic,” although they are not made with plastic. Rather, they are the results of chemically manipulating and extruding cellulose or wood pulp. Still bad, but perhaps not quite as bad.

Approximately half the clothes on the market today are made from plastic, (see charts below: 65% of our clothing materials in 2016 were synthetics, and at least 87% of those were plastics.) These plastics come from fossil fuels, whose production is a source of greenhouse gases.


Graphics from:

But it’s worse than that.

We all heard not so long ago about the startling study proving that we’re all ingesting “a credit card’s worth of plastic a week.” So, where do these tiny plastics come from? In part, it is likely that we are breathing them in, from our clothes. As we are just starting to learn, plastic clothes regularly shed micro-plastics thinner than a human hair. The longer we own them, and the more times they are washed, the more these clothes shed: into the water of our washing machine and into the air around us.

I’ll admit it. I own all the plastic-filled clothes I listed above and more. In fact, I just realized that everything I am wearing right now as I type this is made with plastic: from the polyester in my t-shirt and jeans to the nylon and spandex in my bra and underwear… down to the plastic soles of the slippers on my feet.

All this is very bad indeed, but how does it figure in to a Year of No Garbage?

Beyond the concerns about climate change and micro-plastics, plastic clothes have much the same downside as plastic packaging does: each has a short useful life followed by an eternal afterlife. Unlike natural clothing materials from throughout history, plastic is permanent.

Thanks to “fast fashion,” that short useful life seems to get shorter all the time. Most of us are aware that today’s ever-cheaper clothes require poor conditions for workers around the world who are exploited, endangered, and underpaid. But it also means those clothes are usually made to a very low standard; much of “fast fashion” is intended to be worn only a few times before it starts to fall apart.

When these clothes do fall apart, they are much harder to fix than those made with materials like wool or cotton. When yoga pants develop a rip, hiding the stitching to fix the hole? Is virtually impossible.

I suppose it’s no coincidence, then, that the longest-lived items in my closet are not made with synthetic materials but natural materials such as cotton and wool. The cream-colored cardigan my mother bought for me on a trip in 1988, back when most Irish fisherman sweaters were actually knit in Ireland, is still going strong. After three decades of use it is only now starting to sprout the occasional hole or pulled stitch that needs darning, which is easily done.

Now that’s a sweater.

Was it expensive when my mom bought it? I’m sure it was‑ and for the knitter’s sake I hope it was. On the other hand, you don’t have to invest a fortune to wear real clothing like this, clothing that is made to last from natural materials. You’d be amazed what turns up at the consignment shop or thrift store for a fraction of the cost of buying new. On the right day you can get a gorgeous hand-knit sweater that will outlive you- and I mean in its usefulness, not at the landfill. I know this because my daughter Greta, who is twenty, has been dragging her family to vintage and secondhand clothing stores since she was fourteen. While I wait for her to try on a fabulous bead-encrusted 1940s-era something she’s dug out of the clothing racks, I’ll inevitably find a stack of Dale of Norway sweaters being sold for $20 or $40 (new they cost hundreds), or a gorgeous hand-knit pullover someone’s grandmother made, for $5. (Many of them still have the “Handknit especially for you…” tags sewn inside.)

Someday this sweater will be in the Smithsonian.

When good quality wool sweaters like these have lived a long life, passed from person to person, some day they will inevitably be beyond repair. When that happens, there are still lots of options. If you’re a crafty person they could be unraveled and reknit into other things, or cut up and sewn into pillows. Plus, there are innovative companies such as Smartwool instituting programs to reuse reclaimed wool fibers in new products, which is awesome.

But if worst comes to worst? Wool fibers are biodegradable, unlike plastic.

Yes, companies such as Patagonia are making fleece out of recycled plastic bottles, which is well-intentioned. But: that means you still have the problem that every time you wear and wash that fleece, micro-plastics are shedding into your wash water and maybe your breakfast cereal. Ew.

So I’m pledging to buy no more clothes containing plastic, old, or new. If I’ve learned anything watching my daughter Greta collect vintage clothing it’s that there are a lot of lovely clothes already in the world, made with natural materials. Wearing them doesn’t have to be about what’s “in” today and “out” tomorrow.

Instead it could be about what’s fun, beautiful, natural and well-made. We could spend less and get more. Better for both the environment and our bodies we could make better use of the tremendous abundance we already have.

It won’t always be easy. Greta’s favorite vintage clothing period is the 1940s, but have I mentioned what mine is? That’s right! The seventies. So if you find a crazy-patterned maxi-dress out there not made from 100% polyester, you will let me know, won’t you?



6 thoughts on “The Problem With Getting Dressed

  1. Eve – Your mother had a 1970s vintage “tent dress” which she referred to as a “shift” I think. She liked it because it was shapeless which meant it was super comfortable. It was from designer Geofffrey Beene — it was marketed as a “Beene Bag. Wouldn’t it be cool if she had kept it? –Dad

  2. As a new mom (at 40), I bought most of our son’s clothes at consignment or thrift stores, but it took a few more years before I began doing the same for my own wardrobe. I’ve never looked back. There are so many natural fibers for the taking at local thrift shops. Sometimes the label is gone or unreadable, but cotton, linen and wool are fairly easy to discern by touch. If I’m really not sure, I’ll pass. But it feels good giving these garments new life while helping my dear Mother Earth.
    Thank you as always, Eve, for the great insight.

  3. Thanks, Eve. I try for the most part to limit the amount of new items that I buy, and to look for primarily wool, organic cotton, and recently bamboo. However, I don’t always follow my intentions.
    A few comments: clothes made with recycled synthetics at least are re-using, and so mean less overall in the landfill compared with non-recycled synthetics.
    I found a reference to a nylon made from castor oil: (“It’s also possible to make nylon from renewable materials; Zytel®, a type of nylon produced by DuPont, comes from castor oil—so, essentially, vegetables.”) I don’t remember which website I found this on, and will give you the reference when I do.
    I understand that cotton farming is one of the most pesticide/herbicide-laden crops, and so most cotton makes use of fossil fuels. I promised myself that any new cotton items that I buy will be of organic cotton.
    I usually buy SmartWool socks, but these usually have some nylon content, which does seem to help extend their lives. I wonder if they would consider using an alternative. Any suggestions?
    Thanks, again, for your always thoughtful and well researched blog. I’m still inspired by your “year of no clutter,” but have a long way to go.

    1. Hi Carolyn! I’m curious about the castor-oil nylon- interesting. Your point about organic cotton is a really good one- I agree entirely. As for socks- I love Smartwool! As a knitter I can tell you from experience that my handmade socks made without any synthetic materials to reinforce areas like heels and the ball of the foot definitely wear more quickly. As a result I’ve gotten to be pretty good at darning, which believe it or not is kind of fun. Thanks for writing and good luck uncluttering- I know I STILL need improvement in that department!

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