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How to detox your wardrobe to help the planet

Many Australians, just like their counterparts in Europe and North America, are living with an addiction. They’re addicted to fast fashion: cheaply made, poor-quality clothing. Just as fast food has set the average waistline bulging, the typical wardrobe is bursting at the seams, filled with impulse purchases and bargain buys that are rarely worn. And, much like fast food, fast fashion can have a toxic impact on your body, the environment and even the spiritual self.

Even if you’re not swayed by fashion trends and limit your shopping to what you really need, it’s still almost impossible to avoid the toxic impact of fast fashion. The clothing in nearly every store in the shopping centre or on the high street has been unethically produced for below living wages in countries that turn a blind eye to the use of toxic dyes and harmful chemical processing. Many garments are made with an eye to planned obsolescence, designed to fall apart as quickly at the trends change, forcing you to purchase again and again. Addiction, built into the system.

If you need to reset your health and break an addiction to food, you might go through a detoxing process. Want to untangle yourself from the influence of fast fashion? You can try the same.

How is fast fashion toxic?

Some might say that calling fashion toxic is a bit alarmist. But the impact of the garment industry on the environment is so significant that Greenpeace has spearheaded an environmental campaign to clean up the industry. They have called this campaign Detox My Fashion.

In 2012, Greenpeace conducted an investigation into the use of harmful chemicals in global fashion brands, documented in their report Toxic Threads: The Big Fashion Stitch Up. The investigation tested the chemicals present in the garments of 20 global fashion brands, purchased from authorised retailers in 29 different countries. In almost two-thirds of the items tested, nonylphenol ethoxylates (NPEs) were present. NPEs are harmful endocrine-disrupting chemicals widely used in industrial laundry detergents for textile processing. These chemicals mess around with your hormones and chronic exposure may impact upon reproductive health.

Even if you’re not swayed by fashion trends and limit your shopping to what you really need, it’s still almost impossible to avoid the toxic impact of fast fashion.

The Greenpeace study also found toxic phthalates in 31 of the 141 garments tested and very high levels of these in four, as well as cancer-causing amines from the use of azo dyes in two other garments. The report states, “As inherently hazardous substances, any use of NPEs, phthalates or azo dyes that can release cancer-causing amines is unacceptable.”

How can such chemicals in clothing affect your health? The residue of these harmful chemical substances can be absorbed by the skin of the wearer. Have you ever purchased a new pair of jeans and worn them without washing them first? Remember the distinctive blue stains on your hands and legs? Those chemical stains were quite possibly harming your health. Perhaps most worrying is that many of the garments tested by Greenpeace were from well-known children’s clothing brands.

Once in a while these toxic garments will be picked up by the regulator. In 2009, the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission oversaw the mass recall of more than 200,000 denim products that contained carcinogenic azo dyes. Brands recalled included Cotton On, Just Jeans, Rivers and Myers, among others.

Low levels of regulation and insufficient testing of consumer imports mean that many more toxic garments may be overlooked — and Greenpeace investigations show this to be the case. At the time of the 2009 recall, there was some discussion about the need for more regulation of imports from countries with lax safety regulations but these discussions did not lead to any change to the industry.

How your wardrobe affects others

Harmful synthetic chemicals have an impact not only on the health of people who buy and wear fast-fashion garments but also on the health of workers and communities in the country of manufacture where environmental and worker protections are lacking or poorly enforced. NPEs, for example, are known to be toxic to fish and aquatic life. In the ecosystem, they degrade to a chemical substance that bioaccumulates up the food chain.

Greenpeace has documented the widespread pollution of waterways and drinking water supplies as a result of garment manufacturing in countries including China, Indonesia and Mexico. In each case, their investigations have uncovered serious aquatic pollution directly discharged from textile manufacturing factories that manufacture for well-known international brands.

Such environmental damage is not a case of out of sight, out of mind, either. As toxic garments are purchased and washed in Australia and around the world, the residual toxic dyes and chemicals are released into our waterways where they could go on to impact the aquatic ecosystems where we live. Although this impact is minor when compared with the serious pollution of waterways in the countries of manufacture, these chemicals will still remain in the ecosystem, building up over time.

Aside from the health and environmental impacts, the clothing you wear can also have a negative role in your spiritual life. Buddhism, yoga and similar spiritual traditions suggest that our actions can have an impact — either negative or positive — on the spiritual self, depending upon the choices made and how they affect others.

The manufacturing of fast fashion has significant negative impact on the workers, who are exposed to toxic chemicals and exploitative working conditions. When a consumer purchases a fast-fashion garment, in the action of creating demand for these products they become an agent in the suffering of garment workers.

In 2009, the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission oversaw the mass recall of more than 200,000 denim products which contained carcinogenic azo dyes.

In April, 2013, over 1100 garment workers in the Rana Plaza building in Bangladesh were killed and a further 2500 injured when their Dhaka factory building collapsed. Due to safety concerns, the other occupants had vacated the building in the days before the tragedy but garment workers were ordered to continue working. The factory involved in this tragedy manufactured for many well-known global brands.

More recently, in April, 2015, 72 workers were killed when a fire broke out in their shoe factory in the Philippines. Workers were prevented from escaping due to metal bars on the windows and the absence of fire safety exits. Similarly, this factory manufactured for many well-known global brands.

Tragedies such as these are just the tip of the iceberg. When it comes to the fast-fashion garment industry, the suffering of workers is significant and widespread. Health risks include cancer and other serious illness through exposure to toxic chemicals and industrial dust. As an industry primarily staffed by young women and managed by men, sexual harassment of garment workers by managerial staff is also widespread.

By choosing to purchase fast fashion over ethical alternatives, we are contributing to the harm suffered by garment workers. If you value the importance of right action and the principle of do no harm, and you believe that your actions have a role in your karma, it’s easy to see that the suffering caused by purchasing fast fashion could have an impact on your spiritual self.

How to detox your wardrobe

When you consider the harm just one pair of trainers or one tee has the potential to cause, it may feel overwhelming to consider the impact of the entire fast-fashion industry — and the role you play. But there is good news: it’s entirely possible to detox your wardrobe and avoid the toxic influence of fast fashion completely. Like any detox, it requires planning and commitment but you’ll feel better for the effort you put in. Following are some simple steps you can take.

1. Declutter your wardrobe

The last thing you should do is run out and replace your whole wardrobe with new items. When it comes to the garments you already own, the damage is already done and changing these for new items won’t mitigate this. But it’s still worth going through a decluttering process to pare back your wardrobe to only garments you actually wear and use.

It’s important to go through this process with mindfulness, considering the reasons you don’t wear a particular garment. Was it an impulse purchase? Were you influenced by the addictive qualities of a sale and finding a cheap bargain? Did you attach some emotional value to the purchase? Were you tempted to find happiness or emotional fulfilment in shopping?

If you’re mindful of your motivations for purchasing garments you didn’t get good use from, you can gain a better understanding of what led you to make that purchase in the first place. This understanding can help you to avoid making the same mistake in the future and give you a better chance of detangling yourself from fast fashion’s addictive qualities.

2. Learn to live with less

Before you go out and buy anything new, start to get a feel for how your wardrobe works with fewer items in it. As with any addictive substance, the tendency is to overconsume. You may have an abundant wardrobe but there’s a good chance you have your favourites you wear over and over again while other items are barely used. Again, if you’re mindful of this, you can begin to learn whether you were overconsuming out of habit or addiction.

You can try to test yourself to learn whether you can make do with fewer garments overall, limiting yourself to garments that are of better quality and make you feel great when you wear them. Try taking a capsule wardrobe challenge where you restrict yourself to wearing only 30 items for 30 days, including accessories and shoes. Or try to increase the versatility of your wardrobe by seeing how many new ways you can wear one dress or shirt. If you can learn to live with less, you may be able to reduce your shopping to only one or two items, once or twice a year.

3. Plan your wardrobe needs

Once you’ve decluttered and considered how many garments you actually need in your wardrobe you’ll have a better understanding of what you might need to purchase. Are some of your garments wearing out? Do you need more of a particular favourite or basic like black T-shirts, tights, a silk shirt or tailored trousers?

If you leave things to the last minute, you’ll be likely to rush to the most convenient local store, but if you plan ahead you will have time to research and find an ethical, non-toxic option for your wardrobe. If you anticipate your wardrobe needs for the next year, you’ll have the time to find the perfect garments that not only look great but are also kind to your health, the environment and the people who made them.

4. Research your ethical and non-toxic options

There are a growing number of ethical and sustainable fashion brands that pay close attention the social and environmental impacts of their manufacturing and ensure that production of their clothing does not harm their workers or the environment. When it comes to ethical and sustainable fashion, Australia punches well above its weight. Look for labels that are open and up front about the values and the principles they use to guide their manufacturing.

Non-toxic options for garments are sustainable natural textiles such as certified organic cotton plus linen, silk, wool and hemp if they’ve been dyed using low-impact or natural dyes. If you want to feel confident that the garment is both ethical and non-toxic, it’s better you look for global certifications you can trust such as Fairtrade certification or the Global Organic Textile Standard.

Unsure about where to start your hunt for kinder clothes? More and more people are writing about sustainable fashion and not-for-profit organisations are starting up with the intention of highlighting brands that are kind to workers and environment. Good On You (goodonyou.eco) is a not-for-profit organisation in Australia whose mission is to help consumers find ethical and sustainable fashion by rating brands on their impact on people, animals and planet. There’s also a growing number of boutiques — on streets and online — that focus on stocking clothing that’s good for you and the environment.

Is it possible to permanently give up fast fashion and detox yourself from its influence? Yes. But a new habit is never formed easily, especially when trying to overcome a more addictive one. If you do slip up on your detoxing journey, be kind to yourself: one mistake doesn’t mean you need to give up entirely.

As you go through this process, over time it will become second nature. Give the new habit some time to set in. It’s worth the effort — and I guarantee you’ll feel better for it.

Summer Edwards

Summer Edwards

Summer Edwards is a freelance writer, sustainable living advocate and the author of 6 Steps to a Sustainable Wardrobe, a guide and workbook teaching readers how to transition away from fast fashion. Summer believes wholeheartedly in the power of humanity to overcome climate change. She is passionate about inspiring others to live a more sustainable life through small mindful changes to daily habits

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