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SUSTAINABILITY The world in your wardrobe

Outdoor Living
Wearing out our carbon footprint

Edel Hackett

I walked into a local clothes boutique last week, feeling my usual under-dressed and overwhelmed. I had dragged a ten-year-old jacket out of the back of the wardrobe that morning and thought it looked okay in the half light of the bedroom. Faced with the clashing combination of autumn sunshine and rails of brand new, up-to-date fashions, however, I felt just a tad  retro, to put it kindly.
But then, I had a second peek in the tell-all mirror. The jacket I had on was still in good nick – it had held its colour, shape and feel over the years.
It was a good-quality jacket when I bought it. Perhaps a bit of ‘up-cycling’ might give it a 2010 look without costing the earth, literally.
The truth is that clothing is probably the second-biggest source of CO2 emissions for most of us.
The typical European is responsible for almost a tonne of greenhouse gases from the purchase of new clothes. Many, including my good self, are probably responsible for a hell of a lot more than that.
My only salvation is that my partner, who I swear has been wearing the same things since we met, could be regarded as a clothes carbon sink.
The carbon footprint of clothing arises in a complex series of ways. For natural fibres such as cotton or wool, the crop has to be grown and harvested.
Then the raw fibre has to be turned into a usable textile.
Artificial fabrics such as polyester are made from oil in the first place.
The oil is then processed under heat and pressure to make what is known as polymer filaments before a fabric can be woven at all.
The textiles then need to be cut and sewn so that they can become clothes. This all takes energy – and that’s before it is shipped to us.  Patagonia, the outdoor and ‘environmentally conscious’ outlet, reckons that one of its jackets travels about 18,000 km before it arrives at a warehouse!
So, what can we do to cut down on the carbon we wear? Go around naked? Not likely. Mary O’Rourke telling the nation on radio that she had just got out of the shower before listening to Brian Cowen’s infamous Morning Ireland interview is about as close to naturist as I can go.
However, there are a few things we can do:

  • We can buy fewer, better-quality clothes that stand the test of time.
  • We can think about the fabrics we choose. Surprisingly, ‘natural’ fabrics can be more carbon intensive. The methane emissions from sheep, for example, make wool a climate unfriendly material. Cotton uses more energy in the later stages of making the garment than in the cultivation of the crop itself. Buying organic cottons or replacements for cotton such as hemp then may only make a marginal difference to emissions. (However, organic cotton is definitely better for the growing environment.)
  • We can try to buy clothes that are made closer to home, but transport emissions are relatively small in the scheme of things.
  • We can stop using the tumble dryer or ironing clothes (music to my ears!). In fact, this may make more of a difference to our carbon footprint than choosing the right fabric.
  • We can change buttons, take up hems or change necklines. Up-cycling, as opposed to simply recycling, is the new recession buster and good for the environment into the bargain.