Ethical Clothing – choices for a better future!

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Some of our ethical clothing choices, from left: hand knitted red top, pom pom hat knitted by my mum, a vest top (with pockets) knitted by my aunt, one of my amazing second hand merino cardigans, second hand red soccer shorts, a tee-shirt that supports the Genetic Rescue Foundation, my favourite  Tumbleweed Tee’s tee-shirt, and an awesome Etiko tee-shirt.

What if the person who made your shoes was a young boy who wants desperately to go to school?  How would you feel if that was your son? How would you feel if the person who made your tee-shirt was unable to afford to send their children to school? What if the manufacture of your clothing helped to destroy a habitat? These are questions that prey on my mind and are now shaping my purchasing decisions.  Our collective clothing choices have power.  Ethical clothing is not just good for the workers and the environment, it is good for your soul.

There are a lot of options to choose from when it comes to ethical clothing.  I want to give you a taste of what is actually out there because a lot of people seem surprised that there are actually reasonable options to consider.  It matters a lot to me who made my clothes. I want them to have fulfilled and happy lives and I want them to be safe and healthy and educated.  In New Zealand we have labour laws designed to protect our workers as well as laws protecting our environment, which is why I think many of us take it for granted that other countries have similar laws. Because we don’t have clothing factories with horrific conditions here in New Zealand it is a largely invisible problem. Only a small proportion of clothing is actually made here.  Most of our apparel and clothing is made overseas and is shipped here (which contributes to greenhouse gas emissions because New Zealand is so geographically isolated).  Most of our clothing comes from places like Bangladesh, India, Vietnam, Cambodia, Mexico, Turkey, China and Indonesia – all of which have big problems with sweatshops, and poor environmental protection.  Given recent world events, it is also pertinent to consider how a country treats its migrants

Another closely related issue is that of “fast fashion”. Cheap clothing that is designed to be discarded seasonally as the fashions change.  Fast fashion is not made to last and the fabrics and manufacturing are often poor quality.  Fast fashion is hurting the factory workers and the environment, and most of it ends up in landfills.  This happens because we have collectively bought into the lie that we need to look fashionable, and that buying more and more clothes will somehow make us happy and fulfilled.

Every January when we pack up for 3 weeks away from home in a caravan,  I find I really don’t need most of my clothes.  If I can manage for three weeks in the summer with just one tiny drawer of clothing, then I have far more clothes than I actually need. To be honest I feel pressured to regularly vary what I wear. I feel pressure not to re-wear the same clothes every few days.  Now that I am aware of this I try to constantly consider what I have and why I need to buy something else.  I do find it hard and I’m far from perfect, but I am making an effort.  I am trying to buy new items of clothing only if I am replacing an item that is worn out. I have begun downsizing my wardrobe, but I do still find it hard to overcome the desire to have new things.  I am lucky that I have zero desire to shop in big malls. In fact I can’t think of anything worse. I dislike the pressure to impulse buy, and I really struggle not to see things I would like but don’t need.  It makes it much easier for me to stay away from malls and clothing shops.  I prefer to source my new clothing online from places like Tumbleweed Tees that don’t have shops in malls. I guess I am trying to become a mindful shopper.  

The good news is that there are options out there and not all of them are horrifically priced.  It is now easier than it used to be to research the ethical credentials of clothing brands, and there are useful guides out there to help you make informed decisions.  For example the Tearfund Ethical Clothing Guide is a great place to start.  It is updated annually so is always current.    Fair trade and organic clothing is something that I aspire to own and  I am determined to consider the origin of my clothing choices every time I purchase.  I buy to support causes.  I buy to last.  I also buy second hand.  I repair rather than discard.  Today I want to share some of the places you can find fair trade ethical clothing. I urge you to become part of the rising tide of people who consider where their clothing comes from, who made it and what its environmental impact is. 

Here are a few ideas to get you started:

Kathmandu has good transparency, and now stocks fair trade items such as these mens and womens tee-shirts. I will be keeping my eyes open for these next time I am in a Kathmandu store.

The Paper Rain Project is a local New Zealand company producing high quality creative and sustainable products.  Their tee-shirts are 100% organic, fairly traded and locally printed using environmentally aware printing methods.  More recently they have partnered with other brands and now stock a range of sustainable, socially responsible products.  I love their tee-shirt designs and can’t wait to get one next time I need a tee-shirt. Well worth a look.

Humanity  is another New Zealand brand that is committed to sourcing and manufacturing long-lasting sustainable products as part of a circular economy.  I stumbled across their website recently and was pleased with the prices of its tee-shirts, which are not unreasonable. I share it here because I am impressed by what I see and the ethic behind the brand.  I look forward to shopping here in the future.

Freedom Kids  sells fun ethical, gender neutral clothing for kids in all colours and for everybody.  They operate out of the Wairarapa and offer ethical kids clothing. Perhaps not as affordable as I would like it to be, this company still offers options that are hard to come by elsewhere.

Tumbleweed Tees are a small New Zealand business that designs and screen prints its own tee-shirts and other items.  They donate $5 from every adult tee-shirt sold to a conservation group. Some of their designs are specifically linked with particular conservation groups/causes for example the Kea Conservation Trust.  I love the designs so much that although my shag tee-shirt (seen in the picture at the top of this blog) is now very old and worn out, I still can’t bring myself to throw it away, the design is too beautiful.  This is probably my favorite tee-shirt brand simply because they are New Zealand owned and completely unique.  I love that I am supporting conservation with every purchase, and the designs are fabulous. I urge you to check them out for yourself.

Thunderpants are a small, ethical, family owned and operated company, based in the Wairarapa. They make a range of underwear and other items that are made in New Zealand from certified fair trade organic cotton.  I have heard good things about them, and so I am thrilled to be able to trial some.  It’s early days yet, but so far they are super comfortable and seem very well made.  As a bonus they were posted out in a paper mail bag and their branded packaging is fully compostable.  

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Miss 16’s eye-catching Etiko tee-shirt.

Etiko, whose motto is wear no evil, sell a large range of mens and womens shoes, apparel and bags, all of which is certified Fairtrade, Organic, and B Corp.  My husband tried out some of their shoes with mixed results, but my 16 year old daughter has an awesome tee-shirt emblazoned with the words “This tee-shirt freed a slave”, that she grew out of before she wore it out.  They are well worth a look.

SaveMart is a large retailer of quality second hand clothing.  Our family recently visited and discovered some amazing bargains.   I paid $15 for a couple of cardigans in perfect condition.  I got new jeans ($4) and a merino thermal top ($5) for Miss 8, and new jeans ($4) and $3 soccer shorts for Mr 6.  Miss 16 got a brand new (high quality brand) raincoat for $15 and a MacPak puffer jacket for $30.  Shopping second hand is an affordable and environmentally responsible choice as it prevents clothing items from ending up in the landfill and it is easy on your wallet. Often you can find real gems like my daughter’s puffer jacket, or a pair of kids pajamas for $1.   Second hand clothing is awesome.  Try packaging up your old clothes if they are in good condition and hand them on to someone else.  This is a great option particularly when it comes to kids clothing, they grow out of it so fast!

 

Another option that is often overlooked are hand knitted clothes.  There was clothing before polar fleece people!  I know it is not so common these days to knit your own, many people don’t even know how to.  However you don’t have to look far to find someone who can knit.  An aunt, grandma, or one of the retired ladies at church or in a local craft group will often have incredible knitting skills.  There are quite a few knitters that have helped to clothe my children. My Awesome Auntie can unravel an old jersey, roll the unraveled wool into balls, and then re-knit it into an amazing kids jersey.  I am in awe of her skills, because she can knit at speed and watch TV at the same time! My Mum keeps my kids heads warm with a lovely succession of pompom hats and she makes jerseys for them too. The mother of one of my oldest school friends has also knitted lovely things for my kids.  We treasure these clothes because of the effort and love that goes into them. Perhaps there are knitters who would knit for you and your family. Maybe you could supply the wool.  If you are crafty like me try learning to knit and you might be surprised how much easier it is once you get started.  

Personally, I want my everyday comfy clothes to be as ethically sourced as possible.  But that doesn’t always have to mean finding a company or brand that is ethically certified. It can be as simple as visiting a few second hand shops or even organising a clothing swap between friends or family.  Why not be part of the change?

Look for ethical brands.

Source quality.

Buy less.

Repair.

Tread Lightly – Shoes with a small footprint

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Steps on the ethical footwear journey.  Allbirds merino shoes on the left, Po-Zu Fairtrade sneakers on the right.

How often do you think about shoes?  Shoes are often overlooked when it comes to ethical clothing choices.  Unfortunately they are not readily recycled at the end of their life and so they usually end up in the landfill.  Many shoes that are available (and affordable) are made from non-biodegradable materials that will linger for many years (perhaps even thousands or tens of thousands of years), leaching toxic chemicals into the environment as they decompose.  What’s more we’ve all heard the horror stories of the treatment of workers in shoe factories around the impoverished “developing world”.  How can we ask those workers to care about the environment when they can’t even afford to care for themselves and their families?

It turns out that ethical footwear is pretty expensive and hard to find when you are in a hurry to replace a much loved shoe that’s fallen to bits.  We humans have been making shoes a long time.  People were making sage brush sandals ~10,000 years ago in Oregon!  Leather has been used to make shoes for 5500 years.  Things have certainly changed a fair bit in the shoe department.  This is particularly true since the rise of plastics and synthetic materials.

Several years ago we began to wonder how ethical our shoes were.  At the time our eldest was heavily influenced by her peers and wanted a pair of Nikes.  We had seen articles in the news about the treatment of Nike workers.  I was reluctant to purchase Nikes because I didn’t want to support a company that didn’t value human rights.  Our daughter was horrified when we found a few age appropriate videos on YouTube for her.  She wanted nothing to do with Nike.  We opted for  Mizunos  which are a more ethical alternative, and she was happy with them instead of the ever popular Nikes. Given the time pressure, the price we could afford and what was locally available in a hurry we think it was a good compromise.  Even better, it sparked a lot of discussion around the dinner table about what brands were ethical and what ones weren’t.  That was the beginning of the shoe journey.

What is the environmental impact of the shoes you wear?  How often do you stop to consider it?  Many people I have talked to seem to think that the only environmental impact of their shoes comes at the end of their life, but in actual fact that is only part of the impact.   In general, sports shoes for example comprise dozens of mostly synthetic materials.  A single sports shoe can contain 65 discrete parts that require 360 processing steps for assembly.  Using life cycle assessment methodology the carbon footprint for a typical pair of running shoes made from synthetic materials is estimated to be approximately 14kg CO2-equivalent.  The bulk of carbon emissions for a shoe is found in processing materials, and the manufacturing process.  Unlike many other consumables they are not energy intensive to use or maintain (which is the opposite of electronics for example).

If your shoes are made in New Zealand then the electricity used to power the manufacturing process is largely renewable.  But if it comes from China then coal is the dominant source of electricity and is also likely used to produce steam for other processes in the factory as well.  China is making strides in adopting greener energy alternatives but the majority of its electricity is still from unsustainable and polluting forms of power generation. This is an important consideration when trying to purchase ethical footwear, and it is one that is not easy to assess when you are in the shoe shop!

There are practical steps you can take, like buying quality shoes that have a longer lifespan, and only buying what you actually need.  You can repair your shoes too, I wrote a blog about repairing  jandals with a soldering iron.  Ultimately however, they wear out and you are likely to be left with a bulky piece of synthetic foam, imitation leather and vinyl, or a plastic sole to bury somewhere for the next 10,000 years.

When considering leather, there is more  than meets the eye.  Obviously leather is not an option if you are particularly bothered by animal welfare.  If you are comfortable using leather products, then you might want to consider where your leather is manufactured, under what laws, and if it is tanned using chromium or vegetable tanning processes.

NZ has a large leather industry (something I never knew anything about).  Workers are covered by our labour laws and there are environmental controls in place.  Overseas it is often a very different story.  The leather industry in places such as China, Bangladesh and India for example, is hazardous to both the environment and the people who work in the factories.  Leather is often produced in areas without strong environmental protection laws.  The primary cause of environmental damages from the leather industry is from the dumping of waste products (both solid and liquid) that contain chromium and other hazardous compounds.

While I understand why some people choose to avoid leather (or any animal products) out of concern for animal welfare, I am very wary of a so called “animal friendly” shoes that are instead made from synthetic materials and plastic soles.  It is all very well to refuse to use animal products, opting instead for a product that is impossible to recycle, will be consigned to landfill to leach toxins into the environment, and cause harm to the very animals you are trying to help.  They can’t drink from contaminated waterways, and they can’t eat fragmented remains of plastic shoes as they float in the ocean.  If you are concerned about animal welfare then you need to look more widely than whether or not the product came from an animal.  Instead you also need to consider the impacts of the production of synthetic alternatives on the environment and wildlife as well.

The following list is by no means exhaustive, but hopefully it will provide a starting point for you to make a step in the direction of more sustainable and ethical footwear choices.

McKinleys

We have been buying McKinleys for our kids for years.  All three have had them and all of them have been unable to wear them out.  In fact, our eldest (long ago) hit on the bright idea to try scuffing holes in them so we would buy her a new pair.  She tried for a long time but gave up in the end because she was able to make them look worn, but not wear them out.

They come in two main styles for children (although they do a separate range of black school shoes and sandals). Style one is a pull on boot with an elastic gusset.  The second is an old style T-bar sandal.

Pros:

  • Available in a rainbow of colours, (red, blue, orange, bronze, green, pink…..etc).
  • Modest range of styles for adults.
  • Made in Dunedin NZ, under NZ labour laws protecting workers rights.
  • The leather for McKinley’s is sourced from Tasman Leather, a New Zealand owned tannery in Whanganui, using New Zealand hides, subject to NZ environmental and animal welfare protections.
  • Our kids shoes are usually $89-$99 but the last pair cost $65 because they were the last in a discontinued colour line.
  • Very durable.

Cons:

  • Soles are PVC or nitrile rubber, which is the only area of concern for me.
  • Our only issue so far has been that the buckles on a couple of shoes have not lasted. Both were able to be cheaply mended by the local shoe repairer.

Etiko

My husband decided to try these after becoming frustrated with cheap Warehouse shoes.  He is very hard on shoes, and so any shoe is in for a battering if he is wearing them.

Pros:

  • Amazingly comfortable casual shoes to wear.
  • Looked fantastic.
  • They are 100% biodegradable and sustainable
  • The sole was much better quality than equivalent Warehouse casuals.

Cons:

  • These shoes were terribly short lived. They had torn across back between sole and upper after only 3 months, of regular wear, which was very disappointing. The quality of the manufacturing seemed to let these shoes down.

Allbirds

My husband and I both have pairs of Allbirds.  We initially thought these looked like a great ethical choice but subsequent research has shown that there are issues with these shoes in terms of their soles and part of the lining of the upper. We were excited by the idea of a wool shoe.

Pros:

  • Super warm and comfy.
  • Ethical B-corp manufacturing.
  • Sustainable insole and part of upper.
  • Reasonable price.
  • They last better than you would expect a woollen shoe to last.
  • Fine for flat unchallenging surfaces.
  • They are definitely machine washable.

Cons:

  • Very slippery on some wet surfaces.
  • Undisclosed nylon in upper.
  • Soles are standard EVA and non-biodegradable.
  • My husband’s Allbirds haven’t held their shape. They now resemble booties! Mine are still fine despite a lot of wear.
  • The upper lacks enough support. Because the upper is stretchy my feet slide forward walking downhill and it’s actually downright weird on unevenly sloped surfaces and my feet slide sideways over the edge of the sole on steep terrain.
  • Not suitable as a running shoe despite advertising.

Po-Zu

My husband decided to try out this brand after seeing international reviews.  He got a semi casual pair for work.

Pros:

  • Vegan and chrome free leather options available.
  • 100% biodegradable, sustainable.
  • Fair trade.
  • Beautiful manufacturing quality.
  • After several months of regular wear they look barely used.
  • Warm and comfortable.
  • Good looking.

Cons:

  • Higher price, not available in NZ so difficult to get correct sizing.

 

Brooks

My husband decided to try these after his last running shoes wore out. This brand is the only proper sports shoe with ethical credentials that we could find.

Pros:

  • Huge commitment from company to living wages,
  • Ethical supply chain management
  • Real commitment to improving their environmental standards.
  • Biodegradable soles which make up the bulk of shoe.
  • Recycled content in upper.

Cons:

  • Shoes are still petro-chemical based and the upper is not biodegradable or recyclable.

I am choosing to make my choices count.  I support buying local NZ made where possible.  I always check the label to see where the shoes are made.  No matter how nice, if it is made in China for example I won’t buy it (unless it has exceptional accreditations to help me make an informed choice). I try to consider the end of life of the shoe too.  I don’t want something that is going to end up in landfill.  If it can be composted or recycled then that is a huge plus for me. I acknowledge how hard it can be to make these choices when you are urgently trying to replace your children’s shoes, but every choice you make has a flow on effect.  Even avoiding cheap synthetic shoes from China is a good place to start.

I believe we can transform the world with our choices.  Even making the effort to avoid a pair of shoes that is not ethically made in favour of a shoe with better ethical standards is a step in the right direction.