Clean Clothes

What you wear, and how you wash it, says plenty about your eco-friendly ways.

By Jodi Helmer

April 2011

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Ask Laura Huffman about her clothes and she’ll tell you about flip-flops made from recycled materials, organic cotton t-shirts and accessories from local boutiques. For the 43-year-old executive director of the Nature Conservancy of Texas, clothes are as much an environmental statement as a fashion one.

To reduce their carbon footprints, eco-conscious consumers such as Huffman are always looking for ways to green their wardrobes. “I know that I can lessen my impact by making different choices, including choices about the clothes I wear,” she says.

Sass Brown, resident director for the Fashion Institute of Technology and author of Eco Fashion (Laurence King Publishers), says consumers have more choices than ever when it comes to finding clothing that is as stylish as it is environmentally responsible.

“The days of the scratchy drawstring pajama pants made from hemp and bought from the local head shop are well out of date,” she says. “There is a full range of brands and labels producing eco-clothing for different markets and price points.”

Nature-Friendly Fabrics

Stores from Nordstrom to Wal-Mart sell clothes that have been designed with the natural world in mind. The most common sustainable fabrics include organic cotton, hemp, soy and bamboo. And it’s not just their lighter environmental impact that makes these fabrics popular. Brown says that natural fibers tend to provide greater comfort because they are more breathable and absorbent than their synthetic counterparts.

Before you buy an organic cotton t-shirt, however, be aware that the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) organic standards don’t apply to clothing.

“Organic certification for fabrics is complex,” explains Alexis Baden-Mayer, campaign director for the Organic Consumers Association. “The cotton used to make a t-shirt might be certified organic but the finishing of the fabric or the fibers it was blended with might have been processed with chemicals.” This complexity is making it difficult to pursue a federal standard.

A more stringent set of regulations for organic textile certification, called Global Organic Textile Standards (GOTS), covers all of the steps involved in getting sustainable fabrics from field to finished product.

It’s more common overseas but some domestic retailers, including Econscious and Gaiam, offer clothing that conforms to GOTS.

Despite labeling concerns, advocates say, there is no reason to shun fabrics that make green claims.

“We simply cannot wait for there to be a regulated federal standard to take action and make purchasing decisions based on our values,” says Baden-Mayer. “We need to push for a unified federal standard but until that happens, we need to make the choices that we believe are best for the environment.”

Buying clothing and accessories from companies that are trying to lessen the carbon footprint of their manufaturing and shipping operations is just as important as shopping for articles made from sustainable fabrics. “When it’s clear that environmental stewardship is part of their business model, those are the companies I support,” says Huffman.

For example, American Apparel makes all of its garments on-site in California and has committed to recycling all fiber scraps. Timberland has achieved carbon-neutral status at its 240 global retail stores and generates the bulk of the energy used in its California-based distribution center from solar power.

If you’re unsure about the track record of your favorite brands, do some homework before reaching the cash register. Most companies that are committed to environmental stewardship have the appropriate statements on their websites and marketing materials.

Cleaning Cleanly

Going fashionably green doesn’t stop when you leave the store—you also need to consider the environmental impact of caring for your clothes. To reduce energy consumption, use the cold cycle on your washing machine. Dryers use a lot of power; if you can, hang your clothes to dry. When it comes to delicates, hand-wash items made from silk or wool.

For items that require dry cleaning, choose a shop carefully. The traditional process uses perchloroethylene (PERC), a chemical that has devastating effects on human health and the environment. Be wary of dry cleaners that bill themselves as being organic; some cleaning methods that have a seemingly earth-friendly name may be deceptively mislabeled and use noxious chemicals.

The best bet is to go with a shop that employs one of two technologies. In the wet cleaning process, clothing is either machine-washed in specially designed machines, steam-cleaned or hand-washed, and then either machine- or air-dried and pressed. Carbon dioxide cleaning uses CO2—a benign, inexhaustible resource—that has been liquefied in a high-pressure machine where the clothes are washed. Other than the use of water, which is a non-renewable resource, both methods pose no threat to the environment.

Advocates of eco-friendly dry cleaning caution consumers to think twice about initiatives such as the International Fabricare Institute’s “Certified Environmental Dry Cleaner” program; dry cleaners may hold certifications that indicate the operators know eco-friendly methods but they say nothing about the cleaning methods actually in use.

Practice the 3 Rs

Rebecca Ragain takes the environmental mantra of “reduce, reuse, recycle” to heart by scouring secondhand stores for jeans, sweaters, belts and bags. She spends far less than she would if she bought these items new and feels good about reducing her impact on the planet.

“I shop at thrift and consignment stores to keep my clothing budget under control,” says the 32-year-old marketing consultant, who lives near Bozeman, Montana. “Even if I was willing to spend more, I’d probably still buy used clothes and shoes—at least sometimes—because I like knowing that I’m keeping stuff out of the landfill.”

Shopping at secondhand stores, as thrifty as it is, is not the only way to reuse and recycle. Companies such as Patagonia, R.E.I. and Nike have managed to minimize the environmental impact of their products by fashioning fleece jackets and other outerwear from recycled materials, including discarded water bottles. In addition to keeping items out of the waste stream, making clothing from recycled materials requires less energy than processing virgin fabrics.

Your shopping habits can bring about a greener world. “If we express our values as a part of our consumer choices, the [products that are manufactured] will reflect those values,” says Huffman.

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