One of the worst feelings growing up was having your favorite graphic t-shirt’s screen print destroyed after being washed. You flex it a couple of times and suddenly, the print is cracking, chipping, and your swag is lost. A golden rule that I’ve learned since those days is not to put my screen prints in the dryer. But if I think about it, what more do I really know about washing clothes? A while ago, I bought a pair of Kapital smiley socks which told me to hand wash only, and to be completely honest, they’ve sat in my drawer after a couple of wears because I’m too lazy to hand wash them, but too scared to machine wash. If that tag weren’t there, then I’d be going ham on my socks in the washing machine and ultimately turning those smiles upside down 🙁 

I hope that I’m not alone in these revelations and struggles alike. How often have you actually brought your nice pieces to the dry cleaner or chosen to do a batch of your washing by hand? Probably not very often – not to make accusations or anything. But I think that as we, as a society, begin to really internalize and practice our environmental concerns throughout our clothing habits, we must really consider the afterlife of our clothing and textiles. Although the environmental problems are relatively modern, the concept of caring for your clothes and the instructions which tell you how to do so are nothing new. But before there were care tags, the tags on clothing were generally for a different purpose entirely – they were for unions. 

Ah, unions! Imagine living in an age where you can mobilize as a workforce in order to protect and empower one another *cough cough* Jeff Bezos *cough cough*. Well, beginning in 1885, the hat makers of the United States were living, breathing, and making hats in such an age. The most prolific hat makers union of the time was known as “The United Hatters of North America”, who in 1885 began to include tags on the inside of their hats, indicating that it was made by the Union. Then, in the 1930s, FDR introduced the New Deal, and the idea of supporting proper work standards, worker’s rights, and true craftsmanship began to pick up steam. The New Deal introduced many government-run workers organizations, both to help existing laborers and to provide jobs for the unemployed. One of these organizations was known as the NRA, The National Recovery Association, not the rifle association. Clothing made by manufacturers supported by the NRA began to include tags on the inside of their products, which would help consumers be aware that the products they were purchasing were made both with solid craftsmanship and fair work standards. In 1938, Congress deemed the NRA and other portions of the New Deal as unconstitutional, and established the Fair Labor Standards Act in 1938, which established minimum wage, overtime pay, record keeping, youth working standards, and more. Although the NRA was dismantled, manufacturers who abided by the Fair Labor Standards Act continued to display so on their tags. Other unions, most notably the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union (ILGWU), continued to leave their mark on garments produced under their wing.  

An original tag produced by a manufacturer under the NRA

Sadly today, it’s no longer commonplace to see Unions, work standards, or even much info outside of the nation where the garment was produced on our tags. Instead, our tags provide much different, but valuable information nonetheless: care instructions. Many standard consumers simply rip out their tags and don’t think twice about the words left in the trash. Fashion enthusiasts, on the other hand, are sure to be proud of their tags and hopefully hold the information which lies on them close to their heart when caring for and washing their precious jawnz. But for the most part, I think it’s safe to say that wherever you lie on the spectrum of fashion consumers, you should absolutely care about the information on your tags. 

In 1939, tags began their journey of becoming what we know them as today. On October 14th, 1939, the U.S. government passed the Wool Products Labelling Act. On a surface level, the act served mostly to allow consumers to know that they were buying genuine wool products and the fiber content and origin of the wool. But, on a more grand scale, the act also began to regulate the fashion and textile market in ways that had never been seen before. Most notably, it made it a crime for manufacturer’s to misbrand or mislabel their garments, whether that be making false claims concerning its fabric, or the brand identity itself, one which remains to be critical in today’s market. But once the Space Age hit America, wool branding wasn’t going to cut it. Now there were all sorts of crazy materials and plastic everywhere! We were blending and making new fabrics like it was nobody’s business. So, the FTC passed the Textile Products Identification Act, which forced clothing manufacturers to disclose the fabric’s fiber composition, the nation in which the product was made, and again reiterates that false or misleading branding or information on tags is illegal. This act in particular, is one that remains to be critical today. It sets the bare minimum standard of disclosing just the country in which a product was made and has allowed consumers to be aware of the makeup of their clothing. But, even though this act allowed Americans to be mindful of the names of new-fangled materials, they were still yet to be aware of how to properly care for them, a question which was supposedly answered by the Care Labelling Rule of 1971.

This law made it mandatory for producers to not only include information such as fiber composition and place of origin on their tags but also how to care for the garment. Similar to the intentions of union tags, the purpose of the Care Labelling Rule was to protect the common consumer and to ensure that they were getting the very most out of their products, ultimately saving them money and allowing prosperity and healthy swag for everyone! Sadly, even if care tags are still mandatory today, for some consumers care is an absolute afterthought. In our modern age of hyper-consumption, you could probably spend just $200 on some fast-fashion online and have enough clothing to not have to wash anything for a month, underwear included. I’m sure this lifestyle works for some. And even if this is the extreme end of the spectrum, I really believe that caring for the products we own is a topic that seems to be partly glossed over when discussing how we can be more ethical clothing consumers. 

A quick guide to understanding the whacky symbols on your care tags

It’s not as if this is just a small, stickler factor of environmentalism and clothing. The washing of synthetic fibers, and their consequent pollution, is commonly noted as a primary contributor to microplastic pollution in our oceans. So yes, buying a reusable straw is great and all, but your washing machine is the real enemy at home – and your seafood, I suppose, but that’s a story for another day. But wait, not really! The damage comes full circle! Yes, the process by which your fish are being farmed in the ocean is extremely detrimental, but those very same fish are swimming around with microfibers from your swishy H&M, maybe even Arc’teryx cargos! Which then, instead of being on your body, is ending up in your mouth. Do you really want to be eating microplastics that have been living on the inner thigh of some head-to-toe polyester-wearing techwear beast? I, for one, do not. 

I don’t think that it should take much for one to understand that nobody, not even salmon wants to be eating plastic. Microplastics are floating around in the ocean and being chomped up by sea creatures, which then screw up their internal organs, thus decreasing their quality of life and disrupting ocean food chains, ecosystems, and the environment at large. If I was president of the world, I’d say we stop buying and producing synthetic fibers immediately, but for the time being, that just isn’t how it’s going to go down. But don’t fret, there are some washing practices that you can put into action. First, just generally wash your synthetic fibers as gently as possible while in the machine: reduce your washing temperature, reduce the spin cycle/rotation speed, and even wash them with a fuller load, since more clothes in the washer means less banging around. Overall, while those methods are effective, the best thing you can really do is to avoid synthetics altogether. If you can, wash them gently by hand, and if not, then try finding that low-intensity washing machine sweet spot! 

Tags were originally meant to empower unions and to provide a service to the consumer. Let that spirit continue today and use them to empower yourself as an individual! Let your clothes live longer, pick who you want to support, prevent pollution, and use those union tags to find the best vintage jawns win win win win. 

It’s also not just about buying used in order to be sustainable. Care tags allow you to fulfill your responsibility as a consumer and enthusiast of fashion. Take polyester, for example. Yes, buying it used doesn’t mean that you’re perpetuating its toxic production process, but lots of the damage done by synthetic fibers occurs in their afterlife, as microplastics and fibers are being slowly released into the environment over time. Should care tags include warnings like cigarettes, maybe saying: WARNING, THIS PRODUCT PUTS PLASTIC IN YOUR BELLY!. While I say yes, I think the manufacturers would disagree. But even if we can’t get that kind of transparency out of tags these days, use what you can get to your advantage. Look for low-synthetic fiber blends, pay close attention to their respective washing instructions, and most of all, be grateful for your tags – they’ve always got your back. 

(because tags are usually on your back) 

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