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Week Thirty-Three - Clothes

Buy 75% less or 75% recycled clothes to save 200 kilograms CO2e per person per year

· Weekly experiments


- Hurry up! We have to go or we'll be late.

My kindergartner

- Not until I find my hats! I need my green school hat and my spare red hat and my pink chicken hat, for when I'm playing chickens.

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How much is too much?

When my child was about to start school, another mother gave me some advice. She said I needed to buy twenty hats per child to ensure everyone had one hat. I laughed. She didn't. She'd already run through sixty hats for her three kids. I've started to see her point. We've acquired three in our first three terms and this morning, we couldn't find a hat. But is a neverending supply the answer?

Fashion = carbon

The textile industry is one of the five largest contributors to carbon dioxide and equivalent emissions (CO2e). Australia is the world's second-largest consumers of textiles. Fast fashion is a big problem.

How do clothes generate carbon? Picture a T-shirt. We grow the cotton or manufacture the polyester. Then we spin it, weave it into a fabric, dye it and make it into a T-shirt. After that, we package and transport it for sale. The customer buys it, uses it and (hopefully after many years of wear) discards it. Each stage generates CO2e.

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I was surprised at the high impact of the customer usage stage. According to this report, washing, drying and ironing clothes accounts for almost 40% of the life cycle emissions of clothing. You can cut this back by hand-washing or washing in cold water in an energy-efficient machine, not washing something until it's dirty (ie. not after each wear), ironing and tumble-drying infrequently and using green household energy. This cold & lazy approach to laundry suits me fine. I'm proud to say my child couldn't identify the ironing board last time I pulled it out.

How much carbon does it take to make our clothes?

I cover packaging, laundering, personal transport and disposal elsewhere in this project, so this week I'll focus on production. I buy around 8 kilograms of clothes and shoes each year, slightly less than the average Australian who buys around 12 kilograms. What's the embedded CO2e?

Based on UK government data, making these clothes generates around 178 kilograms CO2e for me and around 268 kilograms CO2e for the average Australian. That's if they're new clothes made from virgin fibre. But if you swap in secondhand clothes or new clothes made from recycled material, it drops to under two kilograms CO2e per person per year.

Wait. What? That's a 99% saving!

I understand that secondhand clothes need no energy or carbon to make because they already exist. But what about recycled fabrics? Do they really save that much?

When I checked, other sources confirmed it. Clothing made from recycled fabric generates a fraction of the carbon.

Update: Sheridan has a recycling program for old bed linen and towels, which is great as these are hard to recycle. Take your next set there.

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What about different fibres?

According to this study, wool has the highest emissions, thanks to those methane-belching sheep. Energy-intense synthetics come next. Plant-based fibres like cotton are low and linen is lowest of all. But things get complicated if you include laundering as well as production. People often iron linen for each wear which makes it high-impact. If you use a tumble-dryer, synthetics beat cotton because they dry faster. And a lightweight polar fleece beats a heavy cotton sweater because it contains less material.

What's the best fibre? It looks complicated, but it needn't. The lowest-carbon fibre is the one that's secondhand or recycled.

The Underground of Op Shops

I spoke to Humi Fleurisson, manager of clothing op shop, The Underground. The Underground is part of Canberra's Green Shed network of tip shops. It opened four years ago to help deal with the thousand tonnes of textiles they salvage each year.

What kind of clothing does The Underground sell? 'We have everything,' Humi told me. 'Whatever is available in the mall, we sell. We used to mark designer gear up in price because it was rare. It's now so common that we often sell it for $5.'

What's the coolest thing she's seen? 'I bought one of our fake Chanel bags. It's just like one my aunt had so it's pretty nostalgic for me. Hers was real but I love mine anyway, because I don't care that much about brands.'

What's the weirdest thing they get? 'Bondage clothing, not that there's anything wrong with that. It just surprises me that people want to buy it secondhand considering where it's been. But harnesses and bondage gear have become popular accessories because the K-Pop bands are wearing them.'

Are there items The Green Shed can't take? 'We can't sell used underwear, socks or dirty clothes, but people bring these in any way,' Humi said. 'We get more of everything than we need. We installed cages at the tip shops to give away free clothes. These usually clear, but last summer we ran out of cages so we got Koomarri to remove a few tonnes. Some would have been sold and some shipped overseas. Some might end up in the rag trade for insulation or batting.'

Any last tips? 'I like fashion as a form of self-expression,' Humi said. 'It's great to see someone put their own twist on a secondhand piece. But I worry that The Green Shed is a two-edged sword. Do we justify over-consumption? Do people buy more because they know they can donate the excess?'

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Fashion for sale at The Underground in Civic; free clothing cages at The Green Shed in Mitchell.

How much CO2e will I cut from clothes?

I love op-shopping, so I've decided to buy everything I can secondhand. For the few things I don't want to buy secondhand, I'll find new items made from recycled fabric. That should save me 177 kilograms CO2e each year.

The average Australian could easily cut 200 kilograms CO2e each year buying 75% less new clothing. Either shop less overall, or buy mostly secondhand and recycled fabric.

Here are some ways to make it work.

- Shop rarely and sparely. Pick items that last.

- Buy in op shops or at swap meets.

- Buy recycled fabric, like Recover Cotton, EcoFriendly Faux Leather or recycled poly.

- Swap with friends to refresh your wardrobe.

- Borrow or hire costumes and other single-wear items.

- Fix buttons and buckles instead of tossing the whole thing out.

Calculations, notes and data sources in the 'Notes' section for Week Thirty-Three.