When shopping for clothing, choosing natural, organic and recycled materials is your best bet.
Each 100 percent organic-cotton T-shirt that you purchase saves a third of a pound of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides that are used to grow the same amount of cotton in a conventional T-shirt. Organic color-grown cotton offers an eco-friendly alternative to harsh synthetic and chemical dyes, and one company, Earth Creations, has even used clay mixed with water to dye its organic cotton, hemp and linen clothing.
Organic Wool: Organic wool producers cannot use chemical pesticides on their sheep, and farms can only carry to capacity, preventing land degradation from overgrazing. Untreated wool, moreover, is naturally fire-resistant and a good choice for children’s sleepwear, which is required by law to be flame-retardant.
Hemp: Hemp’s bark contains some of the strongest, longest soft fibers on the planet, and they provide more insulation than cotton fiber. Best of all, hemp requires few, if any, of the insecticides or herbicides that are used to ward off pests on conventional cotton. Only a small number of companies claim to manufacture organic hemp, and fewer still mention certification. It should be noted that until there is an international certification program for organic hemp, consumers should not assume that hemp has been grown entirely without the use of pesticides.
Linen: Linen is a naturally durable fabric made from the flax plant. Certified-organic linen isn’t used often in clothes from the U.S., but European clothing is available online using linen certified by Quality Assurance International (QAI) and the International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements (IFOAM).
Silk: Ahimsa Peace Silk is made from the cocoons of semi-wild and wild moths in India. By allowing the pupae to emerge from their cocoons on their own, this process produces silk without chemicals or cruelty. Additionally, wild-crafted silk helps maintain the forest habitat of moths by linking the livelihood of tribal spinners and weavers to the existence of these trees.
Bamboo: Praised for its natural softness and sheen, bamboo has been compared to silk and cashmere. Bamboo is a prolific plant that can be harvested every three to four years. Plus, bamboo will break down in landfills and can be grown without pesticides or chemicals. Unfortunately, some questions have been raised about the environmental soundness of the manufacturing process involved in turning the bamboo stalk into fiber. Because most of it takes place in China, the process is not transparent to consumers, nor is the environmental regulation stringent. This viscose process is thought to involve harsh chemicals in a process similar to the production of rayon. However, much of the bamboo, including that used by Bamboosa and Shirts of Bamboo, goes through a strict Swiss certification known as Oeko-Tex, which ensures that fabric made from bamboo fibers is chemical-free.
Soy: Soy fiber was developed in China by extracting soybean protein from the dregs of tofu production, meaning no additional soy had to be grown and no additional pesticides were used. The proteins are added to other compounds to strengthen the fibers and turn them into yarn.
Recycled Fibers: Increasingly, clothing manufacturers are creating polyester from recycled polyethylene terephthalate (PET) soda and water bottles. The process diverts billions of bottles from landfills annually, but it has been criticized for taking recyclable plastics out of the recycling stream. Nevertheless, some companies, such as Patagonia, have recycling programs in place for recycled PET clothing items to close the recycling loop.
Recycled clothing: Probably the greenest of all options, turning old clothes and fabric scraps into new garments prevents usable clothing from going to landfills, and it saves resources needed to make new raw materials.
Labels and Certifications
In the apparel world, there are a lot of facts to consider besides that certified organic label. Who made those clothes? Where did they come from? Were the laborers fairly paid and fairly treated? Here are a few labels to look for when choosing your duds:
Made in the USA: Although sweatshops do exist in the United States, clothes that are “Made in the USA” (but bear no union label) are generally more likely to have been created under better environmental and working conditions than are usually found in developing countries. It rewards companies that provide better wages and conditions to workers and minimizes environmental impacts, as First World countries have better environmental laws and more effective enforcement. However, avoid clothing labeled “Made in the Mariana Islands, USA.” Approximately 90 percent of garment workers there are young women lured in from China, the Philippines, Bangladesh, Thailand and elsewhere by false promises of well-paid work in the U.S. Because the Northern Mariana Islands are a U.S. commonwealth, garment makers there do not have to pay U.S. tariffs or abide by U.S. quota laws. There is also no U.S. minimum wage law. See www.usstuff.com for clothing and products made in the U.S.
Union-Made Garments: The Union of Needletrades, Industrial and Textile Employees (UNITE!, www.uniteunion.org) and the Union Label and Services Trade Department of the AFL-CIO (www.unionlabel.org) both provide directories of goods made in North America with union labor. The garment-trade unions in the U.S., UNITE! in particular, are working to pressure consumers and government agencies to boycott sweatshop-made products and to mandate disclosure of manufacturing circumstances, so dollars spent on union-made goods also contribute to these efforts.
Unfortunately, no reliable label yet exists to certify clothes made elsewhere. Both the Fair Labor Association (FLA) and Worldwide Responsible Apparel Production (WRAP) (www.wrapapparel.org) monitor apparel factories, although some groups concerned with labor rights have questions about their credibility. Furthermore, unless you reference individual company websites, it’s difficult to know which companies and products meet their criteria.
Fairly Traded: So far, there is no “Fair Trade” certification for clothing, although TransFair and the Fairtrade Labelling Organizations have begun the process of establishing a certification program for clothes similar to that of coffee and chocolate. Often, clothes manufactured in accordance to fair-trade standards are labeled “fairly traded,” although there’s no independent verification of the process. The membership-based Fair Trade Federation offers an online directory (www.fairtradefederation.com/mempro.html) of member producers and stores, who have agreed to certain standards such as living wages for workers and reducing environmental impact
Shopping and Usage Tips
Before you shop, there are a number of things to consider and a lot of research to do. The apparel world has a big impact on the environment, people, animals and your health (See “The Backstory”). And remember that one of the most eco-friendly things you can do is to reuse what you already have. Add a vintage belt to an old dress, mend a tear with a patch, and remember that old styles usually come back!
Buying used clothes is, in and of itself, a form of recycling, and frequenting thrift stores will help you avoid supporting exploitative corporations.
Sewing or knitting your own clothes takes a lot of patience, but if you’re a creative person, it’s a good way to guarantee that the only sweat that goes into those clothes is your own.
When it is time to shop, by carefully choosing the right companies, the right materials and the right policies, you can make a positive impact on the world and protect your own health.