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Why punk-rock is the most environmentally sustainable subculture…
by Philly Hunt, posted on July, 2016

I love punk rock and I idolise punk rockers all day long. I'm a punk rock fantasist.

Punk rock is activist by its most basic nature. Punk rock is a bad-ass global machine made of localised cogs that step out on their own and shout about important things and support the voicing of issues we all encounter throughout life. Punk rockers wanna challenge the status quo and make changes in the world and society. They disrupt supply chains of information, subverting mass media and taking responsibility for forming their own opinions based on lived and observed experience. Now there are a few misguided punks who riot and disrupt peaceful society for the sake of being noticed, but we shall ignore those ones - that's unsustainable punk. Also, i'll give serious credit where it's due to folk, blues, rock'n'roll, rap and basically all other music scenes that were born, directly or by evolution, out of the Mississippi mud back in the slavery days.

These music and culture scenes are all badass and activist, but punk-rock has a very definitive visual style which I would like to applaud for being environmentally sustainable for various reasons, but before I do so I must share one or doubts about this too, as I recently discovered a few bits of information which pointed out that punk-rock style and conservation of the planet do not often go hand in hand.

I was going to introduce you to some of my punk rock fashion icons... but maybe I'll mention just one or two because we'd be here forever if I told you about all of them.

Patti Smith (Punk-poet extraordinaire: the Godmother of punk, but she's got serious rock blood too).
Brian Fallon (former punk-rocker, current mellowed out rocker).

These two behemoths of style, attitude and vision just look good all the damn time. Serious style. Jeans, T-shirts and poetry. Both Patti and Fallon are almost always in jeans.

Jeans are staples. Good wardrobe staples have longevity (made well and forever look awesome) and thus override throwaway fashion trends and instead enhance the slow fashion movement that environmental sustainability demands.

Any fashion sense that is based on staples, or includes only stapes, is already more eco-friendly simply because if you're going to buy a staple you'll want a really good quality one that lasts forever, and that in itself is a sustainable habit. Punks are good at that, especially the ones who like to wear their jeans and t-shirt into a well-loved former shell of a garment embellished proudly with rips and patches that lay testament to a solid lifetime of punking and rocking.

Jeans are culturally so punk rock it hurts, but the cotton denim industry has dabbled in some rather less than punk rock behaviour, environmentally speaking. Here's the story. I will start with Brian Fallon because he's got a newer record to promote and because he does reference denim far far more than Patti! All denim I really ought to stress, is punk rock, not just the jeans. The jean jackets, the dresses, even these reclaimed denim sunglasses!

Fallon's main band, The Gaslight Anthem (on hiatus) have a discography jam-packed with references to folk, pop, punk, rock and blues culture. They pay homage to The Clash, Bob Dylan, Warren Zevon, Springsteen, Charles Dickens, Tom Petty, Miles Davis, Tom Waits, Marvin Gaye, Breakfast at Tiffany's, Casablanca and many more... some so subliminal I probably haven't worked them out yet. Fallon's new solo album also includes references to The Beatles (dissing them a little which I like because I think The Beatles are overrated) and Marianne Faithful. But some of the most memorable references which have gained cult status among Fallon and Gaslight fans are to (directly or indirectly) the post WWII youth culture of rebellion, freedom and independence that is represented by denim, tattoos and white t-shirts and of course punk-rock itself!

Denim has a very interesting history. It started off life as work-wear textile at the end of the 1800s, accelerating into youth culture in the 1950s, entering pop culture while gathering some incredibly harmful production trends along the way (such as sandblasting - that achieves that faded effect - which is carried out in a province in China by shooting sand at high speed from a jet gun at the denim, causing fatal respiratory problems for the workers operating the sandblasters), and out the other side into niche raw denim production favoured by Hackney hipsters - who probably don't even know the environmental benefits of their choice to hardly ever wash their denim! Denim is American but over time production shifted abroad in order to cater to demand. The last American denim factory moved from Texas to Costa Rica in 1992, the final nail in the coffin of the American garment industry. Denim is hardcore and serious and rebellious and bold. It's durable too. The marketing of denim, whether by intention or by natural style and taste evolution, is quite possibly the most successful and long-lasting marketing campaign ever. We're all in love with denim and what it means and we'll never get over it!

So – being a fan of the music, culture, work ethic and attitude of The Gaslight Anthem, Brian Fallon and punk rock means I am also a big fan of denim.

But it needs to be sustainable denim produced ethically.

When considering a sustainable and ethical clothing purchase you need to consider three steps of a garment's life:

1. Production

– This includes the farming of the crop for the fibres - is it ecologically sustainable?
– Were fertilisers or pesticides used?
– Is the crop GMO or not?
– How much irrigation is needed for the crop?
– Is it a synthetic fabric and therefore made of oil derivatives (toxic in production, the washing of the garment and the eventual decomposition of the garment).

– Additionally is the crop being grown and harvested by workers who are being treated well - paid appropriately, operating in safe conditions, and enjoying a life of freedom?

In regards to denim, consider the under-publicised environmental and health issues within the cotton production industry.

2. Processing

This is the turning of the crop into fibres and then textiles, and then garments.

Is a lot of energy and water needed for this?

Are a lot of emissions produced?

Is dye with chemicals being used and thus creating toxic waste in water used during the dyeing process, as well as plastering the garment with a layer of chemical colour which will release toxins?

Is the garment printed?

Again – who is carrying out this process? Are they being paid and treated well? Is their place of work safe?

3. Life of garment

Once it belongs to you a garment still can have environmental implications.

– How often are you washing it? Synthetic textiles release microfibres into the waterways each time they are washed, which are essentially plastic particles which pollute the oceans and waterways and make up 85% of shoreline waste deposits. These release toxins, some carginogenic, into the water. They do the same in soil when taken to landfill.

So denim production can be harmful but we now have options.

It is also so endlessly appeals in laden with such attitude and culture that when we buy a pair of jeans we will mean it - they never go out of fashion and that's sustainable!

Upcycling, mending and patching

You can also buy second-hand denim or upcycle your denim... Upcycling is another punk-rock style feature....

.... Punk-rockers are famous for the DIY element of their style. Admittedly Brian Fallon and Patti Smith don't display this habit so much but it's an important thing to have a DIY attitude towards your clothes: Mend, patch, upcycle and adjust your clothes. They will last longer and keep you interested longer.

I did find this picture of Patti though with a groovy looking satchel which appears to made of hemp (a more sustainable fibre) and shows how some savvy punks could make their own bags from discarded coffee sacks and old leather.

White T-shirts

Admired by rebels for years from the days of James Dean onwards, white t-shirts are immortalised as the uniform for individuals out chasing their aspirations and making things happen in the song Blue Jeans and White T-shirts by The Gaslight Anthem. White t-shirts, however simple in inoffensive a garment the may seem, are not. Every plain white t-shirt uses 700 gallons of water in its production.

In addition, cotton is not naturally white but needs to be bleached, leaving behind it a wake of toxic chemical run-off in water systems and soil.

So what are the alternatives?

This company, The White T-shirt, are committed to ethical and environmental t-shirt production and transparency, which means you as the customer knows the truth about who and what made your t-shirt.

Or... Just buy second-hand guys – we have to keep all synthetic garments out of landfill so that they do not release harmful and carcinogenic toxins such as alimony as they break down. Plastic will NEVER break down fully but still releases toxins in heat.


Ok it looks cool I know and it is punk-rock, and there's no point saying it's bad for your health because who doesn't know that! But every time you drop one cigarette filter it will release 1,200 toxic microfibres into the air and ground, and of course directly into you when you smoke it.

But if smoking is your chosen poison then there's hope for your environmental credentials yet... you can separate your cigarette waste into bio-degradable and non-biodegradable waste, so the ash and paper can be composted and the filter can be recycled and turned into plastic powder and pellets and to made into new things. A New Jersey company called TerraCycle are doing this and this reducing the need for virgin plastics.


Big fan! Love them! Nothing wrong with them. If I wasn't a human i'd be a tattoo on someone, it'd be rad – although you ought to know nowadays tattoo technology uses an animal product in the ink which sets the pigment into the skin more securely which prevents it from seeping and blurring. The after-care products and the transfer papers used in commercial tattooing also often contain animal products.

Vegan tattoos are available however, so if you're an animal enthusiast as well as punk-rock saint then choose vegan tattoos.


Yes leather can be useful by-product from meat production, but large-scale meat farming is SUCH an environmentally damaging process anyway and so we should not be encouraging it. Generally i'm not in favour of any leather, unless it's buying second-hand leather from a charity of vintage shop. Fish Leather is a by-product which would otherwise be discarded that is growing in popularity for fashion designers.

Emotional longevity of garments

I read once that Fallon has some hat he loves because the chick who made the hat included a little embroidered Tom Waits lyric into the hat band. That hat surely ain’t never going in the bin – there's a way to eliminate throwaway fashion – have garments that you are emotionally attached to and mean something special to you and you alone. In Patti's latest book ‘M Train’ she also speaks of a coat which she was gifted by a friend and so desperately loved but lost one day. It's wonderful thought to know that people can form such unbreakable attachments to clothing and that not only does this offer some comfort and encouragement to them when they are around that item of clothing, but their life-long relationship with that garments will make sure they never need to buy another one of those items.

So... although there are some obstacles to overcome with punk-rock style and/or uniform, the brazen attitude of independence that is punk-rock can be found as part of the environmental and social strategy of conscious fashion producers as they move away from unsustainable resources, methods and materials in their garments. Punk rock has staying power, in its attitude and visual style. It celebrates those basics we all need and love to wear; denim jeans & plain t-shirts, and getting hold of sustainable basics will set you up for life. There's no better investments for both your own ethical wardrobe and personal style, and for the promotion of slow and lasting fashion in service of the conservation of the planet.

Tattoos last forever so you better get a kind one.

Leather is gnarly so buy it with serious care.

Punk rock = caring.

And one more thing – punk-rock has always scrabbled together whatever resources and ideas were available to it and made it into something raw, uncontrived and fresh – which is how sustainable fashion methodology should work. People make changes. That's punk and that's the future.

This attitude is professed in Patti's song 'People have The Power'...