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Fashion fashion Other

How sustainable are your clothes in your wardrobe?

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by: Hans van der Broek
how sustainable are your clothes in your wardrobe

Sustainable fashion, we had it all so well organized in the past

Clothes are something humanity need as long as we are around. Probably it started with plant-based materials and animal skins to protect us against the elements. Later it evolved in textiles which was not only used for protection but also to show the social status, gender and occupational status.
In the very past clothes were made from grass, bark, fur and leather which were wrapped or tied around the body. Knowledge about the cloth keeps referential because the material deteriorated quickly compared to stone, bone, shell and metal artifacts. Sewing needles of bone and ivory date from about 30.000 years BC.

What body lice can tell us

Scientists are still debating about when people started to wear clothes. Some anthropologists have conducted a genetic analysis of human body lice that suggests clothing originated quite recently, around 170,000 years ago. Body lice is an indicator of clothes-wearing, since most humans have sparse body hair, and lice thus require human clothing to survive.  Research suggests the invention of clothing may have coincided with the northward migration of modern Homo Sapiens. Away from the warm climate of Africa, which is thought to have begun between 50,000 and 100,000 years ago. However, a second group of researchers using similar genetic methods estimate that clothing originated around 540,000 years ago. So fashion has made a long journey. Today it is the world’s second largest industrial polluter after oil.
Body-lice on human skin with hear

A lice on human skin told the story of human clothing

The trillion dollar industry

The $2.5 trillion fashion industry supports over 60 million workers throughout the global value chain. The number of urban consumers will double to 2 billion people by 2025, according to estimates by McKinsey management firm. Related pressures on the environment and the need to achieve the anti-poverty Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) by 2030 makes a transformation within the fashion industry critical.

So where did it all go so horrible go wrong?

I still can remember. Almost 60 years ago when I got new clothes, it was for a special occasion. The clothes I normally wore were really worn out. Often, I got clothes from older brothers which were repaired so many times untill it was not possible anymore. Socks were adjusted, if holes started to appear. The part of a sweater around the elbow, was sometimes provided with extra strong patches from leather. The same with the knee parts from a trouser.
Hans van der Broek playing with toys at the table, old radio
Hans van der Broek in the early sixties in the 'Sunday room', Wildervank, the Netherlands. Photo by: M. van der Broek

This all got done by my mother in the evening after dinner when sitting at the kitchen table. My father would read the newspaper or was preparing some office work for the next day. One light would be on above the kitchen table and maybe a reading light for my father. I was probably playing with some wooden building blocks and the few Dinky Toys I had on the floor. A coal stove provided some heat and the old cracking radio spitted some music out and the last news about the ‘Cuban Crisis’.
On Sunday I wore my Sunday cloth which I did not like at all. I wanted to play outside, make fun with my friends and not sit tied in the ‘visitors’ room which only was used on this ‘special’ day.
The girls at school got lessons in knitting, repairing, patching clothes and ironing. Later on, they worked on their trousseau, a small or larger supply of linen and clothes, with which they could use for a while in the beginning of their marriage. Clothes and linen were valuable items which needed to be repaired and taking care of.
ladies ironing in the sixtees
Learning how to knit and iron was part of the education system in the 'early days'

Fashion and supply starts to change

In the sixties and seventies things started to change. Clothes made in other countries started to appear in the shops. Till then a lot of fashion – clothes and shoes – were made in the country I lived in. It were sturdy not always comfortable products. Shoes had to be worn for a while before you could say; “yes, they fit”. Trousers and shirts often felt stiff the first few times I wore them. Only after washing them a few times they started to feel like a second skin around my body. The clothes and shoes which started to take over our market were more colorful, better and made from different material. They were often made in ‘far away countries’ which I hardly knew they existed and I can’t remember any moment that I thought about how these cloths could be so different, cheap and how they were made. T-shirts and jeans were introduced. The new jeans you could wear without washing them a few times before you get your legs in it. Afghan coats and accessories like the ‘Pukkel’ - a military style bag - became popular.
couple at street wearing a Afghan coat

Couple wearing an Afghan coat.

Following trends

A time of abundance in choice started and got celebrated with monthly shopping. ‘Following trends’ started to be ‘normal’ for the common man and at the end of seasons, ‘sales’ invited us to buy clothes and shoes at an even lower price.
Just recently I started to be aware how our ‘cheap clothes and shoes’ are produced and in which countries they come from. Articles about sweatshops - where people have to work under horrible circumstances, child labor and working days of 12 hours – start to emerge.
Although many countries recognize treaties like the International Labor Organization, which attempt to set standards for worker safety and rights, many countries have made exceptions to certain parts of the treaties or failed to thoroughly enforce them. India for example has not ratified sections 87 and 92 of the treaty.
Boy with a sewing machine in a sweatshop in Bangladesh
Sweatshop in Bangladesh

Who doesn’t remember the fire in the Tazreen Fashions factory in 2012 in Bangladesh which killed 112 workers. A year later the Rana plaza building collapsed, an eighth story garment factory where more than 1000 people got killed.
Despite the strong reactions that ‘sweatshops’ evoked among critics of globalization, the production of textiles has functioned as a consistent industry for developing nations providing work and wages, whether construed as exploitative or not, to many thousands of people.
Also, the pressure on water resources especially in the cotton industry and dying practices start people around the world to be more aware that our Western ‘consumption drive’ comes at a cost for others and the environment.
Man standing in green water

Manufacturing textiles is extremely water intensive. After the water is used in the manufacturing process, this often-polluted water is then sent back to our rivers, lakes and oceans. The World Bank estimates almost 20% of global industrial water pollution is caused by textile production and dyeing.

Environmental friendly materials

So slowly our awareness changes in a different approach towards the fashion industry. On a very small-scale things start to change. Some companies start to recycle clothes and approach the circular economy principle. Other want that in the production and consumption process a part is included which slowly ‘gives back’ something to people and nature. Some people in the garment industry embrace the idea to make cloth stronger so they last longer.
Some ‘new’ companies start to use more environmental friendly materials like coconut, alpaca and bamboo. There are companies who start to make shoes from collected plastic bottles in canals and the seas. I know one company who start to make dresses from mushrooms.
White dress made from mushrooms
Mushroom textile

What about me?

So ‘I’ slowly start to change my buying habits if it is about clothes. I always wore and still wear clothes a long time. I hardly buy things if I don’t need them. My shelves in my wardrobe are pretty empty, almost minimalistic.
A few month ago, I bought my first garments from alternative material. I bought towels made from bamboo and environmental friendly produced cotton. Stuff I can’t use anymore I gave to organizations which recycle clothes and shoes. Some items end up as dust towel or I cut shirts in pieces so I can use them to clean my bicycle. I even started to repair trousers myself that were damaged while cycling. One of the trouser legs had ended up between the chain and front gear which caused a hole in it. I’m pretty satisfied about the result.
In the area where I live people have set up a X-Change group where people can deposit and collect children’s clothes.

So small steps are made and consciousness is growing. Still we are at the beginning of an era which has to change our Western consumption behavior, my behavior and has to result in good wages and circumstances for the people who make your and my clothes.

We have to be more precious about our environment, our people, our planet. We only have one place to live.

The internet is a great tool to inform and get information how certain companies - where you and I buy our clothes - cope with working standards for the people who provide us with our garments. I as an individual can make small steps. Hopefully the industry starts making the big ones.

By: Hans van der Broek

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Hans van der Broek , founder Founder and CEO of WhatsOrb, world traveller, entrepreneur and environmental activist. Hans has countless ideas and has set up several businesses in the Netherlands and abroad. He also has an opinion on everything and unlimited thoughts about how to create a better world. He likes hiking and has climbed numerous five-thousanders (mountain summits of at least 5000m or 16,404 feet in elevation)  
Hans van der Broek , founder Founder and CEO of WhatsOrb, world traveller, entrepreneur and environmental activist. Hans has countless ideas and has set up several businesses in the Netherlands and abroad. He also has an opinion on everything and unlimited thoughts about how to create a better world. He likes hiking and has climbed numerous five-thousanders (mountain summits of at least 5000m or 16,404 feet in elevation)  
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