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Wearing Green: Nitty-gritty

By Maika Nicholson

Q: There are lots of options out there for eco-friendly clothing, but it's hard to decide on good products, both at the mall and online. Do you have suggestions for product lines or stores that provide eco-friendly options?

Asked by Lisa Dore, Athens, Ga.

I have a confession to make. While researching the innovative eco-brands listed in the Essential Answer, I got a little caught up in eco-consumerism— and yes, multiple purchases were made. While supporting eco-friendly brands is a step in the right direction, a sustainable closet doesn't stem from green purchasing alone. To see what else we can do, let's take a deeper look into our closets, and examine how we can make smart green choices at every stage of the clothing lifecycle.

Materials and Textiles

Cotton is the most common natural fiber used to produce textiles. When I think of this fluffy white plant, the word ‘natural' immediately comes to mind and the ubiquitous marketing jingle—"The touch, the feel of Cotton: the fabric of our lives"—plays on repeat in my head.

I'm not alone in this natural association: 83 percent of consumers associate sustainability with clothing made from natural fibers, according to a Cotton Incorporated Study. And while it's true that energy- and resource-intensive synthetic textiles such as polyester and nylon are no environmental angels, consumers should be aware of cotton's dark side.

Cotton, both resource-intensive and widely considered one of the world's "dirtiest" crops, can have devastating impacts on environmental and human health. While the crop covers only about 2.5 percent of the world's cultivated land, the industry uses a whopping 16 percent of the world's insecticides, the impacts of which are widespread. The Environmental Justice Fund (EJF) reports that between 25 and 75 million agricultural workers worldwide suffer from acute pesticide poisoning each year.

What can we do?

  • We can . . . buy alternative natural fibers.
    Bamboo, an increasingly popular sustainable cotton alternative, can yield up to ten times more fabric per acre, and requires little to no pesticide or herbicide use. A word of caution: A large portion of bamboo textiles are made using the "viscose process," which can have harmful human reproductive impacts. Look for organic and sustainable textile certification, as discussed below.

    Hemp plants require fewer pesticides and much less water than cotton. Hemp fabric is extremely durable and resistant to abrasion, fading, and shrinking. Though traditionally thought of as a "rough" textile, processes have evolved to soften the fibers, making hemp fabric more versatile and popular.

    Organic Cotton is produced without pesticides or other chemicals. The Sustainable Cotton Project, based out of California, promotes this cleaner crop.
  • We can . . . check tags for organic certification.
    The Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS) is an internationally recognized certification for sustainable textiles, and is based on organic content, chemical usage and toxic impacts in all stages of textile production. Additional social equity criteria must also be met in order for a product to make it into the GOTS public database.

    OEKOtex100 certification ensures chemical-free textiles and is framed on four principles of textile ecology: production, human, performance and disposal. Their searchable database makes it easy to find certified brands.

GOTS and Oeko-Tex are two examples of common textile certification labels.
  • We can . . . read up on cutting-edge eco-textiles.
    Textile scientists are always racing to invent the snazziest new eco-textile. The sustainable fashion blog Ecouterre reports on the latest technological advances in eco-textiles—such as cloth made from pollution-absorbing activated carbon.

    Corn can be converted into poly lactic acid (PLA) polymer and extruded into textile fibers, a process that uses 20 to 50 percent less energy than traditional synthetics. Ingeo (by Nature Works LLC) and Sorona are examples of commonly available PLA eco-fabrics.

    Lyocell fiber products are made from wood pulp and have shown promise as less energy-intensive, environmentally friendly fabrics. The popular brand Tencel is manufactured using non-toxic solvents and has been certified by Oeko Tex 100 for its manufacturing chemical and byproduct levels.
Manufacturing and Garment Production

It's easy to verbally disparage sweatshops and child labor, but it is unfortunately a common reality in the apparel industry. By purchasing cheap, unsustainably manufactured clothing, most of us have unintentionally chosen to support the unethical practices that we abhor.

What can we do?

  • We can . . . research labels and brands for fair trade practices and certification.
    The following certifiers promote the principles of fair trade, including: fair living wages, eliminating child labor and workplace discrimination, and reducing occupational health hazards such as hazardous chemicals, noise, poor air quality and fiber dust.
fairtrade logos
Examples of fair trade certification labels. A list of additional fair trade certifications compiled by the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development is an additional helpful resource.
  • Transfair, a well-known fair-trade certification of food products, recently released the first U.S.-based certification for apparel.
  • Europe's SA8000 is an international certification standard based on the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, and International Labor Organization (ILO) Standards.
  • B Corp certifies sustainable businesses with their B impact rating system, a method analogous to the LEED green building certification standards.
  • MADE by, an independent consumer labeling organization, is on a mission to "make sustainable fashion common practice." Their three key strategies center around providing the support that suppliers need in order to achieve social, environmental and consumer sustainability.
  • Netherlands-based Fairwear certifies their brands using a "process approach," in which each company, in a step-by-step process, is advised in how to achieve full fair labor compliance throughout their supply chain.

Wearing and Washing Clothing

The "use" phase of the apparel lifecycle is often overlooked but exceedingly important. In the case of cotton garments, the washing and drying cycle is by far the most energy-intensive part of the garment's lifecycle.

What can we do?

  • We can . . . wash cold and hang dry.
    The simple action of reducing water temperature from 60 to 40 degrees Celsius, and hang-drying our wash can reduce energy associated with a cotton garment's entire lifecycle by as much as 50 percent, as illustrated below by the University of Cambridge report Well Dressed. Investing in EnergyStar appliances can further reduce our washing impact.
  • We can . . . buy Eco-friendly laundry detergent.
    Phosphates, commonly present in standard laundry detergents, can end up in natural water bodies and harm aquatic creatures. Phosphate free, "eco-detergents"—neither more expensive nor less effective—are an easy switch.

Did you notice that the first entry of each list in the Essential Answer was used, reused or recycled clothing? According to the EPA Office of Solid Waste, Americans discarded 12.4 million tons of textiles in 2008, or 10 pounds for every person in the United States. It's important to remember that the three "Rs"—Reduce, Reuse, Recycle—apply to clothing, too.

What can we do?

  • We can . . . . . . avoid "fast fashion."
    As discussed in the Essential Answer, opt for a slimmer, more versatile closet made up of well-made and classic styles.

  • We can . . . stock up on reused and recycled and "upcycled" clothing.
    Hunting for a deal at your local vintage and used clothing shops is both fun and environmentally friendly way to spruce up your wardrobe. Or you can scrounge the web: Ebay and Goodwill offer online bargain hunting from the comfort of your home, while Isabella's adds a vintage flair.

    Clothes swaps between friends or communities can also bring fresh fashion to your wardrobe. Thredup, whose motto accurately bemoans, "clothes don't grow, kids do," is one means by which you can trade threads.

    Innovative designer Kim White "up-cycles" discarded textiles and materials to construct her one-of-a-kind handbags. Portland based LooptWorks creates garments with discarded textiles from consumers and factories.

    The trillion-dollar clothing industry has a huge impact on environmental and social sustainability worldwide—and a notoriously poor record on both counts. The trend to make clothing faster, cheaper and more globally accessible comes at the high price of sweatshops and environmental degradation.

    According to a 2009 Study by Cotton Incorporated, only 16 percent of consumers are "very likely" to seek environmentally friendly apparel. Our challenge, therefore, is to spread our knowledge and initiative to search out sustainable, ethical clothing. As more and more consumers demand eco-friendly apparel, manufacturers and corporations—who'd like to keep that $1 trillion in their pockets—will have a very compelling reason to make sustainability their main priority.

MAIKA NICHOLSON is a graduate student in civil and environmental engineering.

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