Updated: Apr 19
Clothing, like diet, is an area fraught with emotional conflicts among environmentalists. I've worn a merino shirt and leather boots on a hike with a vegan clad all in fibers derived from fossil fuels.
So in my usual way, I'm looking for multiple good approaches here, and selecting several that work in our particular situation, rather than trying for a best recommendation for everyone:
First, a no-brainer: we buy durable clothing that fits our style and our bodies, but doesn't follow fast fashion trends, so that we can wear it for many years. For us, durable self-expression comes in the form of sweaters, jeans, flannel shirts, and boots.
Second, we have very limited clothing for situations we aren't in often (such as working in person, and vacationing in other climates).
To maximize the lifetime of our clothing, we wash our clothes in cold water with gentle detergents, and do not use the dryer. We've also learned that we need to avoid elastane because it quickly degrades in the intense UV at our altitude. Any stretchy items like underwear need to dry indoors on a hanger.
We aren't able to buy or accept gifts of used clothing, because it is virtually impossible to remove the artificial fragrance that permeates thrifted items, and Ota is so sensitive to petrochemicals that she can't live in the same space with items that are emitting even small amounts of laundry fragrance. For those without this disability, recycling clothing is a great way to reduce impact. We can only participate in clothing recycling by donating items, and we do this regularly when an item no longer fits.
When clothing becomes torn or stained and isn't in good enough condition to donate, we wear it for gardening or tear it up to use for cleaning rags. (In the picture above, I'm wearing an old plaid shirt with iron stains from washing it in well water where we lived years ago, and jeans that shrank and are now too short. Both are still comfortable and useful items of clothing!)
We are selective about the quality of the clothing we buy. We'd rather pay a little more for fewer items that are made in an environmentally conscious way (for example, organic rather than regular cotton).
There's a lot of greenwashing out there and you can find supposedly scientific analyses that claim manmade fibers are more sustainable. Because the research is being supported by clothing manufacturers that are profiting from the high margins for clothing made of artificial fibers, we are skeptical, and we frankly prefer natural fibers to those derived from fossil fuels, so most of our clothing is made of natural fibers like cotton, wool, and alpaca, although there are categories of clothing (for example, wetsuits and ski pants) that are tough to fill with natural fiber examples, so we do have some clothing that is pretty much plastic.
Just as beef can come from a miserable feedlot cow that is making far more methane than average because of its diet and contributing to nitrogen runoff into a river or from a cow that is contentedly eating grass and helping sequester carbon on a small family farm, natural fibers can be produced by regenerative agriculture. One certification to look for is "climate beneficial." The article linked above includes a list of clothing manufacturers using regenerative practices, including Sheep Inc, which sells carbon-negative merino sweaters. They are pricey, but each garment can cost more if you're buying fewer. The additional $ spent are advocacy. We also buy from indigenous artisans, who source their fibers from animals grazing on the land.