Just a few years ago, dressing the eco-conscious part meant a trip to an incense-infused shop filled with dun-colored, shapeless hemp dresses and garish batik frocks. Now, walk into any mall or boutique across the country—even Target—and the choices cut from organic and sustainable cloth are not only more stylish, they’re more plentiful than ever before. Why?
“We’ve moved beyond just environmentalists creating clothes to designers using environmentally responsible materials to develop their collections,” says Aysia Wright, founder of Portland, Oregon’s eco-fashion store, Greenloop (www.thegreenloop.com). “And since it’s trendy being green right now, shoppers seem more willing than ever to shell out more money for sustainably created clothing.”
Given the way organic products have invaded the refrigerators, pantries, and medicine cabinets of even the most mainstream shoppers, the shift to more eco-friendly clothing options seems logical. After learning about the pesticides that lace our foods, it was only a matter of time before people started taking a hard look in their closets. And what’s there isn’t always pretty: Seemingly innocuous wardrobes are produced by a textile industry that relies heavily on synthetic pesticides and bad labor practices. In fact, cotton may be the most intensively sprayed crop in the world, accounting for more than 10 percent of the pesticides and almost 23 percent of the insecticides used worldwide. To grow enough conventional cotton for just one T-shirt requires about a third of a pound of agricultural chemicals.
When it comes to the health and environmental impacts of conventional cotton farming, customers need to think about organic in two ways, says Lori Wyman, communication projects coordinator at the Organic Trade Association: “Shoppers need to ask, ‘How will this purchase affect me personally?’ and ‘How will it affect the farmers and handlers along the way?’”
In answering that first question, we don’t need to worry about pesticide residues in cotton clothing. Processing from field to finished garment eliminates them. However, the EPA has found that pesticides such as cyfluthrin and norflurazon from cotton fields can contaminate ground and well water, potentially exposing us—along with birds and fish—to carcinogenic and endocrine-disrupting chemicals.
The second question has more to do with global citizenship. The Global Organic Textile Standard, a set of guidelines developed by an international group of environmentalists and textile industry insiders for organic and sustainable textile manufacturers, stipulates that field and factory workers must work in safe conditions and earn fair wages. “A lot of people don’t always connect the social responsibilities as being part of the environmental responsibilities,” says Wright. “Supporting small communities, allowing them to become economically self-sufficient, especially in developing countries, and teaching them to operate in accordance with environmental standards, all goes hand in hand.”
Despite the environmental and social commitments behind the greening of the clothing industry, some critics argue that consuming less overall needs to be at the core of a sustainable lifestyle. They call shopping for sustainable products a “light green” approach to environmentalism. “Is tossing out a perfectly good T-shirt just because it’s not organic good for the environment? No way,” says John Talberth, director of the sustainability indicators program at Redefining Progress, a nonprofit policy group that promotes sustainable living. “It’s better to wear what’s in your wardrobe until it’s worn out. Don’t purchase more just because it’s ecological, but consider all of the ramifications about a product before you need to buy it.”
Wyman agrees and also suggests thinking less about quantity and more about quality when buying new clothes—even though it might be tempting to pick up a few shirts for the price of one organic style. “When you need a shirt, consider what your dollars are supporting when you make that purchase and what you’re doing to the people who made it, and the environment,” she says.
Fortunately, this kind of ethos no longer means sacrificing style. Along with a growing number of small-name designers with big ambitions, fashion giants such as Levi Strauss & Co. now produce jeans and tops in cute cuts made from cotton grown the old-fashioned way—sans chemicals. And since the big players are rethinking sustainable style, others are finding a growing market for chic clothing lines made with organic cotton, bamboo, hemp, and recycled materials.
“Some people can’t believe there is so much great, ecofriendly stuff out there,” says Anne Bernstein, founder of New York eco-boutique Gominyc. “And actually, most still don’t even get the concept. They’re just buying these eco-friendly designs because they like them.”
Of course, building an awareness of why it’s important to buy eco-friendly goods is the ultimate goal. But if the trend sparks more shoppers to be kinder to the Earth through the purchases they make, there’s certainly no reason to complain.
Here’s what to look for on the label so you know you’re making an eco-conscious pick:
ORGANIC COTTON has all the strength and softness of its chemically grown conventional counterpart—and none of the cancer-causing pesticides. Keep an eye out for a growing rainbow of options as more vibrant eco-friendly dyes color the industry.
BAMBOO wins the versatility award. This hardy grass—almost weed-like in its ability to flourish without tending—yields food, flooring, paper, and yes, fantastically soft fabric.
HEMP may never shake its crunchy rep, but designers have given the fibers of this multitalented plant a modern and stylish new image. When blended with silk, the effect is elegant.
RECYCLED plastic bottles don’t sound like something you’d ever want to snuggle up in, but they’re now being used to make fleece-like EcoSpun fabric. And remember that flat tire you got last year? It may just have been reincarnated in the soles of your shoes.
SILK is typically produced organically by local weavers in rural villages, and its durability leads to long-lasting garments.
Good reason to hit the thrift shop
Vintage clothes bring a chic and inexpensive flair to your wardrobe—and help you put the renew-reuse-recycle principle into practice. Bonus: You won’t be caught in the same outfit as your coworker.
A greener dry cleaner
Don’t want to take your favorite organic-cotton frocks to a dry cleaner that’ll load ’em up with chemicals? Luckily, hundreds of dry cleaners across the country are swapping the traditional chemical solvents with an environmentally friendly alternative. Ask your local shop if it uses one of the following green techniques: • A silicone-based solvent (manufactured by GreenEarth) • Liquid carbon dioxide in high-pressure equipment • Professional wet cleaning, which uses water and special detergents in computer-controlled machines.
Einav Keet is a freelance writer in Philadelphia.