The blog formerly known as   Fake Plastic Fish
October 20, 2009

When 100% Cotton Doesn’t Mean 100% Cotton

TargetSo I found myself in Target last night shopping for a jacket.  Don’t bother to ask how that happened.  It would require an in-depth analysis of my addled brain, which would probably bore you to sleep.  Suffice it to say, I was in Target (which as far as I’m concerned is on par with Wal-Mart) in the Women’s Wear section, obsessively checking the label on every single top, sweater, and jacket to find something that was not made out of plastic.

Plastic clothing?  That’s right.  Labels like “40% wool, 60%  Acrylic,”  “90% cotton, 10% Spandex,”  “50% cotton, 50% polyester,” or “100% cotton shell with 100% polyester liner” all mean clothing partially made out of plastic.  Plastic that comes from oil.  Synthetic fibers produced by the petrochemical industry.

Okay, I realize that I was in Target and that even the cotton there is probably loaded with pesticides and flame retardants and all comes from Asia.  But still, I really just wanted to find something… anything… that wasn’t plastic.  Specifically something to complement my “perfect hourglass figure,” as Tim Gunn called it this summer.

And finally I did!  This cute 100% cotton jacket with a belt (Tim also told me I should wear belts) that will be perfect for me while I’m in L.A. this weekend.  I bought it, and even got a nickel discount from Target for bringing my own bag!

cotton jacket from Target

I was psyched, until riding home on BART, I realized that my 100% cotton jacket is not 100% cotton.


And that’s when it hit me that most of my clothing is full of some kind of plastic or another. Okay, I’m not really so worried about a few plastic buttons, although wooden ones would have been cuter and metal snaps would have worked too.  What I started realizing was that I own all these 100% cotton tops that are covered with plastic beads.  Beads that are just like any other broken down plastic particle that gets loose into the environment and eventually the food chain.  Oh, great.

beaded clothing

The labels says “100% cotton.”  But it’s not, is it?

beaded clothing

The plastic beads are fine as long as they stay attached to my shirt.  But some are missing already and a few more are loose.

beaded clothing

So I went a little nutty and spent a few hours removing plastic beads from 100% cotton tops by hand.  Me and my seam ripper, having a little freak-out anti-plastic party.  Is that extreme or what?

beaded clothing

And what am I going to do with these beads now that I’ve collected them?  I don’t know.  They are so minor in the bigger plastic picture.  I mean, after my antics in the clothing department, I spent some time last night wandering up and down the aisles of Target just mesmerized by all the plastic.  Plastic electronics.  Plastic toys.  Plastic food packaging.  Plastic personal care packaging.  Plastic purses and wallets and watch bands.  It’s overwhelming!  How can our small efforts make any difference at all?

Well, all I know is we just have to keep trying.  I’m recommitted to purchasing only clothing made from 100% natural fibers without any little plastic doo-dads that could fall off.   And I’m going to be less careless with loose buttons from now on and fix them before they get lost.

Have you thought about the plastic in the clothes you buy?  Does it make a difference if your clothes contain synthetic fibers?  Back when I was running regularly, I was convinced by magazines like Runners World that one simply couldn’t perform well without the special new technical fibers, aka plastic clothing.  But you know what?  Athletes were doing their thing long before Nike Dry Fit and all its 100% polyester cousins.  That’s a topic for more research and a future post, after I quit obsessing about minutia and get my butt out to start running again.

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53 Comments on "When 100% Cotton Doesn’t Mean 100% Cotton"

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4 months 9 days ago

I would love to have real cotton towels that can be bleached as in years gone by so when something is stained you can get the stain out. You cannot stain most of the so-called cotton washcloths anymore as they are called algon cotton, whatever the hell that is!!!

7 months 13 days ago

I know exactly how you feel Beth. I have OCD and I am obsessed with
clothing and removing synthetic materials, I’m so glad I’ve found this
Let’s remove as much harmful materials (to the environment and potentially us) as we possibly can in our lifetimes. 

Au naturel is the way to go ahaa

5 years 8 months ago

for those who said the beads look like glass. a good test for whether something is glass or plastic is to bite it– lightly, like you would gold (but don’t bite your gold jewelry, it might leave a dent). it will feel hard on your teeth and make a sound, you can compare it to biting plastic to see the difference. also, glass is colder to the touch than plastic is. I’m sure beth is well adept at sighting plastic by now, but if it’s ever in question, biting it will give you the right answer.
about… Read more »

6 years 26 days ago

and what of the thread??

6 years 1 month ago

They used to make buttons out of shell – the mississippi is littered with shells from 80 years ago full of neatly punched button-sized holes. I wonder if there isn’t a manufacturer making those somewhere – when we were in the Hebrides, in Scotland, we found a giant mountain of shells (uh…clams?) near a seafood-processing plant.

I wonder if there’s a way to harvest Zebra Mussels or one of the other invasive species without harming the native shellfish, various places – there’s enough Zebra Mussels around here to button up millions of jackets.

6 years 1 month ago

Having had cancer….. And an estimated 60%+ will have cancer. The best thought is how can we find ways to not tax our immune systems. I guess the discussions are really about life and health, and cancer ridden deaths by a large number of our population versus “real health reform”. When it comes to toxic additions to our biochemical mechanisms “Less is more”.

[…] Tyler over at Frugally Green discusses the power of the consumer in creating change and forcing corporations to be increasingly environmentally responsible.  Money talks!  A good example of this is Beth at Fake Plastic Fish, who obsessively refuses to where anything made with plastic. […]

6 years 1 month ago

We use coconut buttons on our reusable gift sacks (which are 100% cotton).

Your post got me wondering whether natural buttons are easy to find on retail clothing. A little bit of online searching has me thinking maybe not. I did find Hawaiian shirts with coconut buttons, but you might not want to wear those everyday in your line of work.

6 years 1 month ago

Beth, have you heard about the rashes being caused by tagless labels on baby clothing? Seems these labels are plastic and it’s likely that pthalates are the cause of some heartbreaking reactions on babies.
.-= Martin´s last blog ..Christmas Gift Idea: Locally Made Wooden Toy Truck =-.

6 years 1 month ago

I’ve just recently started paying attention to clothing labels after realizing how hypocritical it was to avoid plastic packaging and yet be buying *new* clothing that was made of 100% polyester! I must admit though that one of my favorite dresses is made of 100% polyester and one of the reasons I love it so much is that it never wrinkles… However, I am trying to be more ardent about paying attention to clothing labels as shopping for clothes is one of my downfalls.

I did however find some “ecco” athletic wear at Sports Basement in the Presidio.… Read more »

6 years 1 month ago

@Pavlina, thanks for pointing out “Exclusive of Decoration.” Sometimes I think I’m blind or just see what I expect to see. I didn’t even notice that! And thanks for pointing out the info about the thread. It’s not that I’m going to avoid sewn clothing! It’s just good to be aware.

Regarding Patagonia’s recycled plastic clothing: I’m sceptical. Why? Because in the film “Addicted to Plastic,” a Patagonia rep said that they put all kinds of plastic in their clothing — including old shower curtains. Um… that’s PVC. Very toxic. I… Read more »

Indoor Kitty
6 years 1 month ago

Smartwool. Can’t say enough nice things about their socks. I have super sweaty, cold feet. (Mom has stories about changing my socks as often as my diapers.) Hanukkah Harry (aka my wonderful husband) gets me a few new pairs every year. I just bought a Smartwool base layer at TJ Maxx for $26. Awesome deal that I can’t wait to try out. That said, I’m a sucker for microfiber underthings. It gets hot in the South, and the wicking makes a world of difference.

6 years 1 month ago

You make a very good point. If you notice on the tag, it does say “exclusive of decoration”. I have more very bad news for you. That 100% cotton coat (minus the trim (buttons)) was sewn with 100% polyester thread. It is very rare to have a garment sewn with anything else. As a matter of fact, and this is something that those who routinely dye their own clothing know, you must go out of your way to find clothes made with cotton thread (that will dye evenly with the rest of the garment). best case scenario, you’ll have a… Read more »

6 years 1 month ago

EcoYogini – Patagonia does have a recycling program for items like their recycled plastic fleece at the end of it’s life. Honestly though, I have one of their recycled fleece items that I’ve been using very regularly (I rotate between it and a couple of other ‘over’ shirts, every day) for over 4 years now.

Beth – Although I know most of the clothing at Ross is somewhat questionable, the first time I tried on a pair of Simple brand shoes was at Ross and I bought them on the spot (for $15!) They are part of their green toe… Read more »

6 years 1 month ago

What bothers me most with plastic clothing is the fact that when the clothing degrades over time, it releases dust like particles of plastic in the environment, and then you breathe it all in, especially in the winter when windows are closed. It is especially important that curtains be 100% natural. But they are so hard to find in mainstream stores. I have to make them from scratch.

6 years 1 month ago

Wool is good – but alas, I am highly allergic to it. I break out in a hideous itchy rash all over my body. I have tried every form of wool available but no luck. Some of us just can’t wear wool; wish I could. I guess I could wear caribou hide or beaver pelts………… my ancestors..!!?? Would that be better – although, as a vegan, that would be problematic . . . .

6 years 1 month ago

yep Beth- Patagonia creates some fantastic ‘eco’ friendly non-plastic options for performance clothing. However- about the recycled plastic fleece- not so sure how I feel about that. I’m pretty positive the process of turning plastic into fabric is similar to the toxic process that (most) bamboo fibres are made. Also- what do you do with the fleece at the end of it’s life? Is it recyclable? cuz it’s not like I’m going to wear the jacket forever….

6 years 1 month ago

Hi everyone. Just some quick comments here for clarification.

I should have mentioned in the first paragraph that I generally ALWAYS buy my clothes second-hand, which is why it was so odd for me to be shopping at Target. Goodwill is my Macy’s. But at the time that I got a bug up by butt to buy an appropriate jacket for L.A., (where it’s not as chilly as it is in the Bay Area) it was already getting late and Target was the only clothing store open and near BART. It was stupid, I know. But… Read more »

6 years 1 month ago

I do think those beads in the above photo are probably glass. I did a lot of bead work when I was younger and had glass beads similar to that. I think the rule of thumb for stuff like this is that when you know better you do better, and you don’t dwell on what’s already been done. Although, that’s easier said, isn’t it. . .

6 years 1 month ago

How about if you buy your clothes second hand? I try to buy second hand because no new resources are being used. And it is cheaper too!!!! I just bought a pair of Speedo bike pants and Old Navy trackpants for $2. I have even started buying Xmas and birthday presents for the kids at the thrift store. Sure… made of plastic but again… no new resources.
.-= Billie´s last blog ..I have what????!!?!!? =-.

6 years 1 month ago

How well I know that feeling of being overwhelmed by plastic. Sadly, the first person who posted (ZoeV) is correct. Trying to convince people is next to impossible. A family member who had breast cancer still eats food stored in plastic containers (including those with fats and oils) and ignores my pleas to stop using products from containers with BPA. It’s all around us, and it will take more than education: what we need is a group of brilliant researchers to come up with a product made from weeds and grass combined with glass to surpass plastic as a… Read more »

6 years 1 month ago

String the beads together and make a necklace to add to the Plastic Monster. PM Needs a necklace
.-= Rob´s last blog ..I am Over the TOP! =-.

6 years 1 month ago

The beads are probably glass but the sequins are very likely plastic.

Buttons are made from plastic so that you don’t have to cut them off and re-sew them with every washing as you would with costly wood, horn, glass, and shell buttons. I do this with homemade sweaters but there’s no way I could do that with clothes for a family of 5. I buy 95% of my family’s shoes and clothing used and try not to worry too much.

Funny fact: I was in Target the other day buying socks (because I can’t knit fast… Read more »

6 years 1 month ago

There are people like me that pick up and random buttons we see on the streets, tucking them into our pockets and adding them to our button stash for future button replacements or projects. (Oddly enough, a similar thing has happened with the reflectors on my bicycle pedals. They have a tendency to migrate out of the petal structure and there is nothing to hold them in place. When I tried to find a replacement and visited the shop where I bought the bike, they didn’t have any replacements! In the meantime I started paying attention and I have managed… Read more »

6 years 1 month ago

I’m surprised you’d get gotten. It’s the most pesticide laden crop imaginable. You can’t find a hemp jacket in Oakland?

Tameson O'Brien
6 years 1 month ago

Good thing you live where it’s warm. Cotton Jacket? Brrrr

6 years 1 month ago

I’m fairly new to Fakeplasticfish. Love it! And I love this post because details like little this and thats and beads, do count. Plastic is usually made with chlorine (unless it’s one of the newer plastics that are nonchlorinated plastics). So many things usually require chlorine to be made….plastics, pesticides, paper, dry cleaning solvents, many fabrics, etc. etc. These are all in the organochlorine class and as such, can create toxic byproducts at various stages in their product life–most commonly at the manufacturing and disposal stages. We are using a lot of plastic. Has anyone or any… Read more »

6 years 1 month ago

I always recycle buttons and beads as I use them for crafts etc. My problem is running out of them :) It would be nice to be able to afford the wooden/metal/ceramic types but they are just too expensive.

I’m of the opinion that if you can use something for long term – and by that I mean generations – plastic is acceptable. I still use the plastic cups my grandma used for example. What I object to is the short term wastefulness with not even a recycle thought of.

viv in nz

6 years 1 month ago

I’m going to ‘fess up, after reading this, and you’re going to hate me now, I swear.

I just did the shopping (no I brought my own bags), and then, when I got home, spend five minutes emptying bulk pasta (half kilo bags – about 1.1 pounds) from plastic bags into our bulk plastic Tupperware storage containers.

As I did it, I couldn’t help thinking how stupid it is that even when we try to buy bulk, we’re surrounded by plastic. But our local bulk food shop doesn’t sell readymade pasta, and with two preschoolers, I don’t have time to make it… Read more »

6 years 1 month ago

“Me and my seam ripper, having a little freak-out anti-plastic party. Is that extreme or what?” Yes and no. Yes, it’s extreme in that most people wouldn’t care that much and so they wouldn’t do it. No. It’s you walking your talk.

“I think you have a little too much time on your hands”, is what Bart wrote. From what I see of your life, I don’t think you have any extra time on your hands. Bart doesn’t realize that if you don’t want plastic on your clothes and you can… Read more »

6 years 1 month ago

Clif – re your crutches and leg braces: you could try ICROSS (Google it) – they accept medical supplies to help the poorest of the poor in Africa and are totally non-profit. Barring that – how about Goodwill or the Salvation Army? Do you have them in the US? Or try Freecycle.

Re plastic buttons: I too have a “button box” that I inherited from my mother and she probably inherited it from someone else – there are loads and loads of buttons in it – probably a lot of plastic ones – but I have never had to buy a… Read more »

6 years 1 month ago

@Beany and Zoe V. I’m not sure about other parts of the country, but here in Chicago there is plastic bag recycling at many other places besides Whole Foods, including Jewel (grocery) and Target plus bunches of other places I’ve been in.

I’m not sure what happens to them at other places, but I know at Target, they turn it into new Target bags.

6 years 1 month ago

I agree you should donate your old beads to someone who will use them because your used beads will allow them to buy fewer new plastic beads. Freecycle is great for this.

As far as plastic in clothing, I have lots of synthetic clothing because I like snowboarding, sailing, hinking, camping, and other outdoor activities that I think I need them for. You could do these activities in natural fibers, but I like that polyester and other synthetic fibers dry quickly when wet so if it’s cold out you won’t get too cold from rain, sweat, etc. You… Read more »

6 years 1 month ago

Honestly, I haven’t really considered the plastic in clothing, beyond the cheap plastic hangers and tagging that often accompany it. Kid’s clothing, in particular, often comes with these weird plastic hangers that aren’t really re-usable in any way.

I do opt for natural fibers when I can. I especially love bamboo. And I’m not really into embellishments. But I don’t sweat buttons. When the clothes wear out I keep the buttons and use them in crafting. I have 50-year-old plastic buttons, and they’re still good. On the one hand, that’s sort of alarming. But on the other hand, they’re not ending… Read more »

6 years 1 month ago

Beth, as you know I think Twitter is nutty. I’d never want to be following Tom Cruise or Lindsay Lohan. But YOU just might be interesting enough to follow!

Those little plastic bits are probably the most dangerous in being most likely to be eaten. As long as the plastic is going to a landfill where it will be buried for eons at least it stays out of animal tummies.

An aside on re-usability. I have a brand new pair of aluminum crutches and two brand new leg braces (strap on with Velcro, holds knee immobile). We all hear about how expensive… Read more »

Surviving and thriving on pennies
6 years 1 month ago

Beany-You just cannot fix stupid.
Beth-I think its great you are doing this. Its crazy how plastic can literally leach into your home without even noticing. I have a hard time with plastic because of my vintage Tupperware habbit I have. I have many vintage counter top containers that are plastic as well. I just cannot part with them. Why? Because I do not heat any of them up. Its a love hate relationship I have with plastic.
Kudo’s for you Beth!
.-= Surviving and thriving on pennies´s last blog ..House Party =-.

6 years 1 month ago

@Beany ~ you can take your unwanted plastic bags to Whole Foods store near you. They are the only ones I am aware of recycling plastic bags. I take with me all of my plastic bags and wrapping when I go for my weekly grocery shopping.
.-= Zoe V.´s last blog ..Wait! Don’t cut that credit card! =-.

6 years 1 month ago

I agree with Kathy G. Either reuse the bead to make something for yourself or offer them to a crafter/jewelery maker.

Honestly I usually only hone in on the plastic button problem when I sew and need buttons, especially if it’s a historical piece. It’s getting harder to find metal buttons which are usually what I need in a traditional fabric store. However it may be changing. I saw a line of ceramic buttons and the same company makes buttons from recycled plastic and recycled paper. I emailed the company for details and hope to blog about it soon.
.-= Condo… Read more »

6 years 1 month ago

When I think about all the plastic I’m still trying to not use (ahem, take-out styrofoam), I’m kind of meh on things like plastic buttons.

But, plastic is plastic. And since not many of us are going to pass down our plastic buttons (much less our plastic clothes) to future generations, that means those plastic buttons could become part of the NPG. And in the stomachs of fish. And in our own stomachs…

I don’t think concern over the smallest amounts of plastic is silly anymore, especially when such an easy alternative exists.
.-= underbelly´s last blog ..Waste, or The Mark… Read more »

6 years 1 month ago

I remember back in my university days buying many items from Value Village. One of the best things about it was you could find some really great natural fabrics and they were so cheap. One of my friends actually found a beautiful, cream coloured wool coat with wood buttons and silk/satin lining for three dollars. The same friend also made a lovely old-fashioned cape out of an old wool blanket. I think finding these things in conventional stores is close to impossible, but sometimes you have to do what you have to do. I am thinking back on it… Read more »

6 years 1 month ago

you saved me from going to target today for a jacket.
my old one is cotton and will last for many more years,
but i keep thinking i need something more rain friendly.
what is not plastic yet repels rain? anything?

oh dear, i am sure even my seam ripper is plastic. yours
look like glass.

6 years 1 month ago

You can donate your beads and LOADS of other stuff to S.C.R.A.P. – Scroungers Center for Reusable Art Parts. They are an NPO who accepts donations and even will pick up for free by appt [in certain areas, I’m sure]. You could just put that in an envelope and mail it.

Here is a link of things that are in demand to them and a wish list – you’ll see beads on that list!

You know those file folders I was trying to get you to take a while back? Well, we donated to them.

6 years 1 month ago

I think those buttons are glass – usually that is what those kind of little buttons are made of…
.-= jennconspiracy´s last blog ..Quince – the Final Chapter for 2009 =-.

6 years 1 month ago

Last night I cleaned the area under the kitchen sink. I’ve really been trying to reduce our plastic consumption and I had about 50 baggies (grocery bags, produce bags, random other bags) stashed in there in this past year alone. Many were bags we pick up when we’re walking or biking around town. I folded all of them neatly and then placed them back under the sink.

I don’t know what I’m going to do with it all. I’ll probably just be found dead one day in a plastic avalanche.

Unrelated, when biking back from the beach last weekend, we saw… Read more »

6 years 1 month ago

I hear your pain.
I boycott all new things – well, mostly.
I go to Canadian Tire with my free $ from my master card and buy things that aren’t plastic like glass bowls, crock pot, coconut door mat, mostly metal solar lights… you know.
But clothing? 100% reused, recycled or freecycled.
Okay, every few years I buy new underwear or socks at my local Dollar Joint.
I tell myself it’s surplus or defective, so it’s a lesser evil.
The recycled fleeces have new zippers and trim, just to be clear.
But now even Thrift Villa is owned by Walmart.
So one still has to be careful.

Blessings, Tracey

6 years 1 month ago

Beth, here’s some inspiration to steel your resolve, courtesy of Planet Green. S

6 years 1 month ago

Save up your plastic beads and decorations till you have enough, then offer them to a crafter or on Freecycle….a good way to recycle them.
.-= Kathy G´s last blog ..Totally Random =-.

6 years 1 month ago

Quite right you are. I, too, check the label for fiber content every time I’m looking to buy clothing. I find it interesting that you’re reacting to the “plastic” fibers which are wearing a different name today. Acrylic, polyester are so trashy, now they are called “stretch”, Goretex (TM) elashtanne, and Spandex of course! They all can be found in really cool clothing but as far as I’m concerned I never trusted the “stretch” trend though I used to buy almost all my clothing at Gap and Banana Republic.

But they lost me the day they started putting 5% “stretch” in… Read more »

6 years 1 month ago

GREAT post, something that I really hadn’t considered yet! WHY is it so hard to find organic, cotton, crap free clothing? Maybe we should all write letters to Target asking them to consider selling organic, ALL cotton clothing, vegan shoes, etc!
Now, to tackle how to avert tons of plastic buying Christmas gifts for three kids!
When I do have to go to Target (soccer balls, clothes, socks for kids) I ALWAYS use my own bags, and appreciate that they give you the nickel :). Thanks Beth, this was wonderful and really got me thinking.

6 years 1 month ago

I think you have a little too much time on your hands.

6 years 1 month ago

What do you think of fabrics that are made of 100% recycled plastic (like Patagonia’s fleece:

6 years 1 month ago

Beth, I have thought about all the plastic around us and feel just as overwhelmed. It will take decades or maybe even a century before we go back to the basics especially with clothing. In the demand for cheaper clothes, plastic was the answer. To change that, you have to re-program people’s brains to demand all-natural clothing. However, that would cost more money, and the women who love to shop for bargains won’t like the idea of increased price tags. Then there are the faithful Wal-mart shoppers who would care less if they wear organic cotton or polyester. Try… Read more »