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Sanjida O'Connell

Dr Sanjida O'Connell is a writer and a TV presenter. Sanjida writes about science and green issues. Her latest novel, The Naked Name of Love, was published by John Murray in March. Her latest TV series was on BBC 2: Nature's Top 40, and was a guide to our top British wildlife spectacles. Find more details about Sanjida's work at her website, sanjida.co.uk

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Eco Chic: Calculate your fashion footprint

Posted by Sanjida O'Connell
  • Monday, 15 June 2009 at 08:55 am


Recently Phil Patterson came to have a look at my clothes. I was a little anxious – not because he’s a McQueen-esque fashionista (oh no, he wears anti-microbial socks for three days running) – but because he’s invented a tool for assessing how environmentally-friendly your wardrobe is. As someone who generally scours all the ethical clothing websites but can rarely find anything that suits, fits or is of fantastic quality, I sometimes end up in Gap and Nike. I wondered whether to hide my tops and track-suits under the bed and just show Phil my hemp dress from eco-chic store, Enamore.


Phil is refreshingly down-to-earth and makes me feel a lot better about some of my choices. He says, “All too often the focus is on the fabric, so if people buy a T-shirt made of organic cotton they think they’ve saved the world, but if it’s dyed in the same way as a normal T-shirt, it can be just as bad as using non-organic cotton.” His Eco-metrics tool is web-based and allows you to input how many clothes you buy in a year, what they’re made of, how you dispose of them as well as your washing and tumble-drying habits, before showing you how many Environment Damage Units you’ve accrued.



For instance, a non-organic T-shirt might have a score of 34; using organic cotton but keeping the dye process the same only reduces the score to 28. The reason is because cotton is bad for the environment as it uses huge amounts of chemicals – pesticides and fertilisers - as well as vast amounts of water (over 30,000l to create 1 kg of cotton) and this impact is only marginally reduced by making the cotton organic. The dye process is also highly wasteful: in the worst instance up to 600l of water can be required to dye 1 kg of fabric. The more water that is used the more harmful chemicals that are released and the more energy is required to heat the dye. Surprisingly, a polyester T-shirt, which uses a small amount of oil to produce the fabric, has less of an environmental impact and would bring the EDUs down to 25; changing the dye technique to a less wasteful process further reduces the score to 19.


You might think Lycra leggings and day-glo earrings were the biggest fashion faux-pas you’ve faced, but no, tumble-drying and ironing are the worst culprits. Phil says, “You’d be surprised at how much impact your personal or family clothing preferences have on the environment. Doing one fewer tumble drying cycle per week saves 170 EDU’s, which is enough to make the fabric for 50 pairs of underpants.” Ironing is even worse. Basically you’re heating a block of steel up to 200 degrees and keeping it there.


Surprisingly my total score is 309, which is in the Fashionably Underweight category. A score of 500-1000 is Average, over 1500 is Fashionably Obese. Even though last year I bought more clothes than I normally do, I off-set my score by recycling. Clearly the less you buy and the more you recycle, the better. As the programme highlights, the main problem is not just the fabric or even how it is dyed, but our behaviour. There is no such thing as completely environmentally-friendly textiles. What we need to do is to buy fewer clothes.


Try your fashion footprint for size here.


Photos by Adrian Sherratt


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