Eco-Tip: Choosing Green Clothing
A while ago we had a comment suggesting £90 ($170 USD) was a significant hit to the wallet/purse for a pair of jeans. Even if they were fair-traded, and crafted from organic cotton. The perceived financial cost of going green has been a reoccurring concern we've copped since TreeHugger began. Our response has always been: we cover the modern+green lifestyle, regardless of socio-economic background. We've done stories on dumpster diving through to high-end designer furniture; from certified organic restaurants through take-away pizza onto free food gleaning. From mega-thousand dollar bicycles to those donated to African communities. So if we have been remiss in the clothing department our apologies. Let's redress that now, with a discussion on how to choose green apparel (without taking out a mortgage).1.
The greenest garments are those you already own. No more resources are required to get them to you. No more materials extraction, manufacturing, shipping, retailing, etc. Oh, and no cost to you.
Actually, strictly speaking, that's not true about the cost. To you, or to the environment. For research has shown that the greatest eco-burden from clothes is not in their construction and distribution, but in their use, specifically the laundering thereof. Washing clothing can involve large quantities of water, energy and chemicals of a garments life. Greener threads are those that can be cold washed and line dried. Avoid anything that needs to be dry-cleaned.
Assuming your gladrags allow such landering, the next best earth, and wallet friendly aspects of clothing relates to their longevity. At first glance this might appear to suggest you should only buy clothes with reinforced elbows and double knees, and while this is true in many instances, longevity also relates to fashion. Selecting apparel that you'll still be wearing in 20 years, even if made from traditional cotton is preferable, to an organic bamboo top in which you'll look like a dag just 5 months hence. Choose classic styles and colours that will not age. I have a jacket over 22 years old, that looks as good as the day I was given it.
Longevity similarly applies to the types of materials and components used in a garment. Buttons, for example, look dainty compared to snap-fasteners. but are imminently repairable. Anyone with minimal dexterity can sew on a new button, but replacing snaps is way more involved. Sewing up tears, rips or holes will give treasured wardrobe fillers an even longer life. The repaired Levis shown above are 23 years old. And have many more years still to go, assuming I keep my waistline in check!
Let's say you really do need to buy new clothes, for whatever reason. What is the best buy? Not new at all, as it turns out. Haunt opportunity shops, Oxfam or thrift stores to find gorgeous preloved clothing. You won't be alone. Very little new energy is expended in processing these garments. Reusing someone's hand-me-downs is not like having to lump your brother or sister's discards. You can choose from an amazing array of styles. There are even boutique stores selling preloved prestige 'labels' in evening and formal wear.
Thus far we have looked at the greenest of threads and as good fortune would have it they are also the cheapest too. From here on we do need to delve into the purse a smidge deeper.
Reuse can also refer to materials, not just complete garments. A growing number of ragtrade designers are collecting old apparel and salvaging the fabrics for redeployment in totally new styles.
Garments that benefit from 'organic' agriculture are probably your next port of call. Generally this means the land has not been subjected to synthetic chemicals such as pesticides, herbicides, fertilisers and the like for at least 3 years. Genetically Modified seed is not permit under organic certification. Natural inputs are instead the norm. (As opposed to traditional ag: "Fully 10 percent of all agricultural chemicals in the United States are used to produce cotton, grown on just one percent of all major agricultural land.") And most cases the manufacturing process has to be as diligent as that of the fields. Cotton, wool, linen (flax) and hemp can be grown organically.
Textile fibres such as those mentioned in the last point are easily compostable, so will return to the soil from whence they came. And this is where the decision making gets a tad hazy. 'Coz renewable, biodegradable materials would appear to have it all over live-forever petrochemical derivatives. But remember a few points ago, where durability was important. In the right application synthetics can add longevity and may be used in blends with natural fibres to extend their useful life.
There is an in-between category between natural and synthetics. Known as naturally derived man-made fibres. Wood pulp, bamboo, soy, and corn are used as feedstock for manufacturing processes that are almost identical to those used to fabricate, say polyester or nylon. These are energy intensive industries, but they have an upside in that the resulting garments can still be composted, when their prime has passed. Soy and corn for two of the world's crop most likely to be genetically modified. Commercial bamboo, wood pulp, and increasingly soy tend to be sourced from locations where forest-like animal habitat is removed for the planting of monoculture plantations.
Recycling is when ingredients, which have already been in the marketplace, are collected and chopped up, as feedstock for fresh raw materials. In most cases this infers manmade, like the now familiar plastic PET drink bottle that might become a apparel fibre for the likes of socks and sweaters. But cotton has also been recycled into new fabrics. Recycled fabric apparel from synthetics cannot be returned to the earth but they can be recycled again as an 'industrial nutrient' to feed the production of more recycled garments. Or alternatively (and less productively) used as waste to energy fuel. It is this durability (500 years plus!) that works it's favour. However the recycling systems currently in place really only support polyester, and even this is to a very limited and specialised degree.
Clothing made from virgin fibre is by its very origins high in embodied energy, be it a renewable or a fossil fuel. Extraction and production is resource hungry. While on the surface garments made of such materials may seem the cheapest. This is blind economics. We pay a high price for these goods. Not directly but we do pay. Mostly in our taxes and insurance. Government subsidies and community health costs come from the level of taxation we support. Health insurance reflects the claims made for ill health, for example, from agricultural workers exposed to the toxic overload from excessive use of ag chemicals. There is no free lunch, we pay somewhere.
And we haven't even touched on the issues of the workers who crafted your garments. If we are indifferent to seven year old children working in factories instead of attending school, or indentured twenty year olds slaving way (literally) in militarised manufacturing facilities, then it is possible for us to enjoy cheap clothing. But if we want to support the right of all peoples to enjoy freedom of movement, and a living wage, then we may need to raise our price thresholds. But you can still be green (and economically) savvy in your apparel selection up to point 6. without needing to be too involved in issues of fair traded product.
But this is a way long post, so let's leave it there (for anyone brave enough to have lasted the distance), and trust TH readers will be reflecting on these points, and adding their own wisdom to the discussion.