What Makes a Difference in Choosing Children’s Clothing?

Thrift store clothing

Those of us trying to green our families and homes often, understandably, start in the kitchen. As our awareness of issues spreads, we start to see more changes we can make to create and model sustainability for our families. Questions that we’ve heard from a few customers are:

  • What makes a difference in choosing children’s clothing?
  • What makes one choice more environmentally or socially sustainable than another?

I have gathered a few of the issues that I consider when I clothe my children.

Some choices are good for us personally, while other choices are good for us collectively. Sometimes, you need to choose between them.

Organic Children’s Clothing: Good for the Planet (mostly)

If all other things were equal, and I had a choice between organic and non-organic for my children, of course I would choose organic. Organic isn’t necessarily healthier for the child, since pesticide residue isn’t an issue like it is with food. Most natural fibers have been so processed by the time they are made into clothing that there is no trace of field-use residue left. To the extent that toxic chemicals used in processing may still be present, though, organic clothing would be better for your child.

Organic is (mostly) better for the field, but conventional fibers aren’t necessarily going to have a direct effect on your child’s health. Indirectly and in the big picture for us all, real organic is better.

Why do I say mostly? Because I’ve seen the erosion of organic standards with corporate organic. I think we are back to a situation before national organic standards when we need to look at each source separately, when the certification isn’t the only story to tell. Not everything allowed under organic certification fits the hardcore view of what organic should mean. I prefer to avoid synthetic materials, sludge, and GMOs. Sometimes there are small producers who don’t have certification even though they use no synthetic additives in growing or processing their fibers. Personally, I would (and do) go with the small producers over the corporate organic producers. I’m torn. I care about organic, but I think my skepticism helps me make better overall choices rather than relying too heavily on someone else’s twisted view of sustainability.

That’s just one example of how one’s own values need to shape choices about what constitutes true sustainability. Yours will vary from mine, of course.

Natural Fiber Clothing: Good for Your Child’s Health

Natural fibers breathe and absorb. Technical fibers created to replicate those functions have serious negative effects through the production process. Technical fibers are certainly better for the bottom line of the companies that develop them, but are they better for your child? Looking at the big picture of the industrial infrastructure needed to create them versus that needed to produce the simple functionality of natural (especially real organic) fibers, no. They aren’t better. Yes, there is debate, but I will win this one!

Cotton absorbs and breathes in diapers, in underwear, in T-shirts, in pajamas, and in other clothing. Sweaty children cool off better in cotton than in petrochemical fibers that trap moisture against the skin. Wool absorbs, breathes, and insulates. Natural fibers work! There is no need to waste our global resources attempting to duplicate natural fibers with petrochemicals.

Pajamas: An Important Choice for Your Child’s Health and Safety

Speaking of pajamas, this is one item of children’s clothing that I was particularly careful about when my kids were babies. There is a line in one of my favorite books, Snow Crash, that says children’s pajamas can be fireproof or non-carcinogenic, but not both. I found wool sleep suits for my children, but I couldn’t get cotton sleep suits in the U.S. that weren’t chemically treated. In the end, I bought all of my children’s 100% untreated cotton pajamas in the UK, where they didn’t have such an obsession about flammable pajamas.

Babies spend at least half of their time in pajamas. They pee on them. They sweat on them. They suck on them. Pajamas do heavy duty. If you choose pajamas that wick moisture away from a sleeping body, you are helping to improve sleep. If you choose pajamas that hold moisture in like a sealed plastic bag, you will deal with more broken sleep. Whether you choose treated fabrics or not seems like one of those personal choices, but do consider what kind of fibers you want to put next to your child for such a long period of time.

Toxic Dyes: Important for Your Child’s Health

Not all dyes react with the fibers to change molecular structure. Some dyes sit on the surface of the fibers. Chemical dyes and fixatives can remain trapped in fibers. If toxic chemicals are released in moist situations, when our pores are most open, we can absorb those toxins, and they can bioaccumulate.

I love bright, bold colors. I also think hard about what kind of dyes are used before I choose clothing. As always, it’s about balancing your priorities.

Fair Labor: An Essential Ingredient in Real Sustainability

Clothing costs so much that it is easy to default to the cheapest store and the cheapest item on the rack. Have you ever wondered who makes that super cheap clothing? How old they are? Even for domestically produced clothing, there are often shortcuts taken that make lives miserable for workers in apparel manufacturing. Fair wages for workers is an issue of global sustainability as much as organic agriculture. Don’t overlook who made the clothing you buy for your children and how well that work allows them to take care of their own children—if they aren’t children themselves.

Cost of Children’s Clothing

Most of us don’t have a lot of cash to throw around these days. Cost makes a big difference for our families. It is important to be willing to pay for quality, for organic, and for fair labor. When the costs of sustainability are internalized in the clothing, it seems very expensive. We still pay those costs when we buy cheap clothing, but we don’t see those payments nearly so directly.

But, willingness to pay the real costs of sustainability is only an issue if there is money at all. Sometimes brand new, quality children’s clothing is out of reach. Fortunately, there are other options.

Lifespan of Children’s Clothing Matters

Our first steps toward sustainability should be to reduce and reuse. Every child does not need a wardrobe full of new, expensive clothing, and clothing doesn’t have to last just the 6 months or a year that a child fits it. When we choose clothing that lasts, we share the costs of quality.

If you have a close group of friends, you can expand your child’s wardrobe far beyond what they ever even have time to wear. So many of my children’s clothes are in circulation among a group of my friends, that I often see at random times on different babies the clothes I made or bought long ago. I love that community clothing. Friends just keep boxing up the out-grown clothes and passing them along. That works if you have a close group of friends whose children are staggered in age.

Even if you don’t have a tribe to share community clothing, a consignment store or thrift store can help you put together an inexpensive wardrobe. If you keep feeding outgrown clothes back into a consignment store, that helps fund the next size.

Whether your greatest concern is cost, health, environmental sustainability, social sustainability, or other issues, taking a clear view of your own priorities will help you decide what difference you can make when choosing clothing for your children.

Image © Peter Kim | Dreamstime.com

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