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Ask the Conservationist

May 2012: The Search for Eco-Friendly Clothing

Organic, unbleached, soy, bamboo, fair-trade… the names on some clothing labels can be confusing. One reader wants to put his clothing budget toward the greenest choices possible. Our green living expert explains the good news, and bad news, of putting together a "green" wardrobe.

Read the answer below and then send us your questions on any conservation subject for one of the Conservancy's 550 staff scientists. (Note: We regret that we can only answer one or two questions each month and that we cannot answer the others offline.)

John Blocher of Topeka, KS, writes:

I've sometimes seen clothes advertised as eco-friendly or using "unbleached" cotton, etc. Are there colors or processes of making clothes that are more friendly to the environment and colors or processes that are less friendly to the environment? As a consumer buying clothes in a store, how would I be able to tell? I'd like to use my clothing budget supporting the best practices in this area.

Jon Fisher, data management specialist and member of the Conservancy's "green group," replies:

Finding “eco-friendly” clothing can be tough, especially trying to sort out which of the many “green” claims on labels hold up. For consumers looking to make greener clothing choices, there's some good news and bad news.

Let's start with the bad news first: there are few if any really clear “easy wins” for which types of clothes are the best. Organic cotton, hemp, bamboo all represent some positive change, but also have drawbacks to them (I'll explain further down).

On the bright side, there are things you can do. Regardless of what kinds of clothes you buy, the way you use them makes an enormous environmental difference; in some cases the way we use clothes has a bigger impact than how they're produced.

Here are some easy things you can do that have an enormous impact:

Keep using old clothes: This includes not ditching your wardrobe every year (obviously), as well as things like buying used clothes, and repairing damaged clothes rather than throwing them out. Since all clothes have a fairly hefty impact, using them longer is one of the best and easiest things you can do to make your clothing more eco-friendly.
Laundry: An analysis of the energy used in the various stages of a cotton t-shirt’s “life” (material, production, transportation, use, and disposal) found that the use phase used 50% more energy than all of the other phases combined! Here are some tips on drastically improving the environmental cost of your clothes at home:
     o Wash on cold rather than hot or warm water; modern detergents and washing machines do a great job even with cold water.
     o Hang-dry when possible (I have a collapsible metal rack I use indoors, since I live in a condo where outdoor lines are banned). Skipping tumble drying cuts out 60% of the total energy used for laundry.
     o Use phosphate-free detergent to reduce the impact on aquatic life; traditional phosphate-based detergents can cause “dead zones” in the water where nothing can live due to oxygen depletion.
     o Use a front-loading washer and/or ventless dryer; front loading washers can remove much more water than top-loading ones, which means shorter dryer times no matter what the method is. Ventless dryers directly use about the same amount of energy as comparable new vented dryers, but can offer energy savings through lower heating/cooling costs. I calculated that to dry a single load with my old vented dryer, I vented the entire volume of my condo outside, which meant that I had to re-heat or re-cool that vented air. I now have a ventless combination front-loading washer-dryer, and I use the dryer for clothes that get too wrinkly when hang-dried or when it’s too humid in my condo.
Recycle: It takes 10 times as much energy to produce a ton of textiles as it does to make a ton of glass. But, while most of us recycle glass, recycling clothes is less common. When your clothes are truly worn out, find a place that will recycle them (many thrift shops and charities that accept used clothes sell the damaged ones to be recycled) or get crafty by making new stuff out of them.

But what about how your choices of what type of clothing to buy affects the planet? Some of the environmental impacts of clothes production include:
Energy: agricultural energy for natural fibers, mining/processing for synthetic ones, production and processing of the fabric and finished product, and shipping between the various factories involved.
Toxic chemicals: pesticides whether synthetic or organic, dyes and bleaches, chemical processing for fibers like bamboo or rayon, etc.
Land/natural resources: natural fibers can require large areas for production, synthetic ones typically require petrochemicals
Water: mostly irrigation of cotton, although all fabrics require some water use during production

Ideally, any "eco-friendly" clothing would have low scores on all these environmental impacts and consumers would have easy choices. But the reality is not so simple.

Take cotton as an example. Although cotton is the most pesticide-intensive crop in the world, even switching to organic isn’t a “slam dunk.” While organic cotton does mean less use of toxic pesticides, it can also sometimes result in more water usage, generally has to be shipped farther (since most organic cotton is grown overseas), and may require more land. To complicate things further, the word organic means different things on different labels, and organic cotton may still be dyed with toxic heavy metals (as many other fabrics are).

The trick is that sometimes organic cotton is great—for instance, if it is rain-fed, locally sourced and processed. But sometimes it has a bigger impact than conventional cotton. By the same token, many emerging “green fibers” have a catch of some kind: bamboo is fast growing and needs relatively little pesticide or fertilizer, but on the other hand bamboo clothing is just a kind of rayon and the production process involves toxic chemicals.

If I had to pick a favorite in terms of overall production impact I’d probably go with hemp, but the truth is that for each fabric type there’s enough of a range of impact that it’s tough to truly rank them in their overall ecological footprint. I recommend getting in touch with your favorite clothes companies and asking them some tough questions; while I didn’t find any fabrics I’d universally recommend, some individual companies (e.g. Gaiam) do a fantastic job of minimizing the ecological footprint of their clothes. If you do want to buy organic, look for the GOTS (Global Organic Textile Standards) logo, and if you want to read more about the various textile options, I recommend this article.

I’d always prided myself on buying what I thought were “green choices” like organic cotton and bamboo. But now I plan to take more trips to my local thrift shops first, focus on buying from companies who have detailed information on their green practices for items I can’t find used, and whip out my needle and thread the next time I tear my pant leg on my bike chain!

And if the thought of sorting through all the greenwashing on labels makes your head hurt, just focus on improving your laundry practices and wearing your clothes a bit longer.

Got any tips for creating a "green" wardrobe? Share them with us!


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