How to Go Green: Wardrobe

how to go green wardrobe photo

Photo credit: Liz/Creative Commons

Here's the irony: fashion is ephemeral, while fabric and pollution are not. After all of the inspiration, image-making, and excitement pass, the clothes remain in wardrobes everywhere. Pouf skirts. Acid-washed denim. M. C. Hammer pants. They're out there still, in closets, thrift stores, and land fills.

Eco-savvy fashion choices mean not only reducing post-consumer refuse, but also pre-consumer waste and pollution. After its origins on the farm, forest, or oil field, that jacket spent some time morphing into its present form. What chemicals were used to grow it? Were the dyes safe?

As more designers and manufacturers create with eco-concerns in mind, it's easier to find satisfying answers. Through smart wardrobe management and consumer choices, you can cut down on closet clutter, support clean industry, and look fabulous. Our tips will help you navigate all of the terminology and find the best ways to green your wardrobe.

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Top Green Wardrobe Tips

  1. Shop with a plan
    When you bring an article of clothing into your life, it's kind of like adopting a dog or cat. That cute little number has to have a place in your wardrobe, and you're agreeing to provide for and give it the longest possible life with you. Abandoning the impulse buy may sound boring, but how exciting is a closet full of stuff that doesn't work? In the long run, knowing what you're looking for before you shop will save time and eliminate clutter. You'll get more use out of a piece that looks and feels great: What colors work for you? What fits work the best? How will the piece get along with everything else in the closet? If the answer to "Will I still want to wear this rhinestone-studded bustier in two years?" or "Can I eventually find a way to use it in a craft project?" is no, skip it.

  2. Love your duds
    Whatever you've chosen, take good care of it. When you get home, change out of work gear and into your famous dressing gown or leisure suit. Don't cook or check the tire pressure in clothes you want to wear in public. Learn how to sew a button back on, or how to coax a nimble friend into doing it for you. Get the name of a local tailor or seamstress for major repairs or alterations.

  3. Don't go dry
    Though the industry has improved much since 1992, there is still a high likelihood that your trusty corner cleaner uses perc (tetrachloroethylene), a known carcinogen. See if there is a local green cleaner employing "wet cleaning" or liquid CO2 techniques. Many articles whose tags ask for the dry clean treatment can actually be hand washed, especially silk, wool and linen.

  4. Buy vintage or used
    People unload clothes for all types of reasons, and you know that adage about trash and treasure. From Oscar-worthy vintage dresses to Freecycled denim, you can likely find the piece you're looking for second hand. You'll be giving a cast-off garment a second life, and possibly supporting charitable work in the process.

  5. Wash well
    Washing wreaks the most havoc of all. It requires lots of water and energy, so only do it when you absolutely need to and have a full laundry load. Turn articles inside out and use the lowest temp possible. If you know you glowed all over a piece, make a thin salt paste and soak the affected fabric for a half hour before washing. Choose phosphate-free and biodegradable detergents and line dry as much as possible. Treat stains quickly with nontoxic removers. If you're buying a new washing machine, look for one with an Energy Star label.

  6. Wear organic
    Though cotton is marketed as clean, fresh, and natural, conventional varieties are anything but. It takes a third of a pound of chemical fertilizers and pesticides to produce the cotton for one T-shirt! That means lots of direct, unhealthy exposure for farmers and nearby wildlife, and heaps of unnecessary pollution. Ick. Luckily, organic cotton is becoming easier and easier to find. As mega-stores get into the game, however, it's important to stay vigilant about what organic means, so you know you're really getting clean clothes. Also know that though the cotton may have been organic to start with, your T may be full of processing chemicals and metal-laden dyes. See below for more info on labeling and certification.

  7. Find a re-purpose
    A re-purposed garment used to be another or many other articles. Designers all over the globe have taken on this transformative challenge in recent years, with very wearable results. This means a one-of-a-kind look for you, a new life for old fabric, and a livelihood for maverick re-users.

  8. Approach new fabrics with skeptical enthusiasm
    No doubt you've heard the hype around bamboo, soy, or even corn fabric. The idea of finding alternatives to petrochemical-based and conventionally grown options makes us all perk up and we see why many eco-conscious designers are excited about them. Bamboo, for instance, sounds great: it's a fast-growing plant, not reliant on chemicals, and beautifully drapes the human form. Trouble is, bamboo plantations can displace native forests, and the harvesting and fiber processing are often polluting and unregulated. As with soy, corn, and Tencel (which comes from trees), the processing from plant to fabric is energy and resource intensive. For now, approach these as alternatives to poly, nylon, acrylic or conventional silk and await more info. As always, shop with a plan: don't fill multiple shopping bags just because the labels say "eco." Read more about fabric choices below.

  9. Choose clothes that work for you
    It's hard to feel beautiful in your raw silk dress when it's likely that children's scalded hands were part of the production chain. Conventional clothing might not say it, but clothing made under fair-wage and labor practices will usually advertise it. SweatShop Watch and Behind The Label are good sources of info. See more resources below.

  10. Don't throw it all away
    Finally, a stain, a tear, or changing fashion threaten to separate you from your favorite dress shirt. Don't just abandon your old friend to the waste-stream! If the condition is perfectly good, you can always donate or Freecycle it. Keep reading for more donation resources.

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Green Wardrobe: By the Numbers

  • 68 lbs: Amount of clothes and textiles the average American throws out each year.

  • 10 percent: Percentage of all agricultural chemicals in the US that are used to grow cotton; 25 percent of insecticides are used for this purpose as well.

  • 1/3 lb: Amount of chemicals (pesticides and fertilizers) used to grow enough cotton for just ONE T-shirt.

  • 47 percent: Percentage of chemicals used to grow cotton that are considered "possible", "likely", "probable", or "known" human carcinogens (these are acephate, dichloropropene, diuron, fluometuron, pendimethalin, tribufos, and trifluralin) according to the US Environmental Protection Agency.

  • 67 million: Annual bird deaths attributed to pesticides; pesticides are also suspected to be responsible the severe drop in honeybees and the increase in frogs with extra legs and eyes.

  • 2.5 billion lbs: Amount of post-consumer textile waste removed from the waste stream each year, by the US textile recycling industry (which actually re-purposes rather than recycles).

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Green Wardrobe: Getting Techie

What makes clothing organic?
Organic clothing comes from all-natural materials (no synthetics like polyester or rayon) and there are no pesticides, herbicides, fungicides, rodenticides, radiation, or genetically modified organisms used when growing the cotton/hemp/linen, or whatever plant we're talking about.

Organic certification is complicated. According to the Organic Trade Association, organic cotton is grown in 12 countries, with Turkey and the United States leading the pack. There are a number of certifying bodies around the globe including: Demeter (Europe), KRAV (Sweden), Naturland (Germany), SKAL (Netherlands), The Soil Association (England), The Japan Organic Cotton Association, The International Natural Textiles Association (Germany), the USDA, and more. The International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements (IFOAM) strives to create international standards, and certifies the certification schemes of individual nations.

The Institute for Market Ecology provides on-location certification on behalf of many of the organizations listed above, and according to the Organic Cotton Blog, is certifying Walmart's and Sam's Club cotton.

The Organic Trade Association has developed a certification for fiber processing. What does this mean? Clothes certified organic will arrive having been processed, dyed, transported, etc. in the most non-toxic manner possible.

What are the various meanings of "sustainable" and "organic" clothing? Check out this informative examination from the Organic Clothing Blog. The Fiber and Fabrics section in general is a great place to learn about hemp, wool, bamboo... And the associated Lotus Organics Clothing, Fiber and Fashion glossary contains most of the fiber definitions you would ever need.

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Where To Get a Green Wardrobe

While we have not personally tried out each brand, after reading through this page, you should be armed with the tools needed to know what you?re looking for in clothing and whether a certain company is up to those standards. Below is a list of sources for finding organic clothing.

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Green Wardrobes: From the Archives

Dig deeper into these articles on green wardrobes from the TreeHugger and Planet Green archives.

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Further Reading on Green Wardrobes

How to Go Green: Wardrobe
Here's the irony: fashion is ephemeral, while fabric and pollution are not. After all of the inspiration, image-making, and excitement pass, the clothes remain in wardrobes everywhere. Pouf skirts. Acid-washed denim.