Even environmentalists like to look good. "I love clothes," says Juliet B. Schor of the Center for a New American Dream, which promotes responsible consumption. Just telling people to buy less doesn’t work, she says, because it ignores clothing’s role in "human culture, relationships, aesthetic desires, and identity." Instead, she envisions a world in which we can be well-clad and conscientious. But getting there takes smart shopping.
However romantic the notion, the mantra "natural good, synthetic bad" can be misleading. Cotton, for example, trails only corn as the most pesticide-laden crop in the United States; cotton-growing uses 25 percent of all insecticides produced annually, including human carcinogens like acephate and diuron. Workers at each stage of production also risk contracting chronic bronchitis and emphysema from exposure to cotton dust.
Another "natural" fabric, wool, often relies on chemicals at every stage: The sheep are dunked in pesticides to kill external parasites; the fleece is scoured with petroleum-based detergents; the yarn is colored with heavy-metal-based dyes; and the wastewater runoff pollutes streams. Workers exposed to the chemical sheep-dips may suffer neurological damage.
The "miracle fabrics" of the mid-20th century, like polyester, are no better for the environment: They’re made from polluting petrochemicals. Since they’re hard to recycle and won’t biodegrade, most synthetics sold in the United States end up buried in landfills or burned, a process that releases toxics into the land, air, and water.
Change is not easy in this industry. Organic cotton, for example, costs textile manufacturers twice as much as its conventional cousin because it requires more labor to produce and has less-consistent (and usually lower) yields.
Consumers willing to pay a bit more for a cleaner product could make the difference. Several large clothing companies, including Patagonia, Nike, and Timberland, have begun to use and promote organic and alternative fabrics; a Sierra Club–licensed clothing line is made by manufacturers who also work to minimize environmental impacts. Patagonia, for its part, sees reducing pesticides as adding "another dimension of quality" to its clothes. And indeed, the cleaner air and water that result from such measures are always in fashion.
OPT FOR ORGANIC COTTON AND WOOL Once you realize that your cotton T-shirt was produced with at least a third of a pound of pesticides and synthetic fertilizers, you can’t help but view this seemingly "natural" fabric as anything but. Organic cotton represents only .03 percent of total annual worldwide production, but it’s slowly gaining in appeal. Sales of clothing made from organic fibers increased by an average of 11 percent each year between 1996 and 2000.seek out silk A natural fabric harvested from the cocoons of silkworms, silk wins high marks for sustainability. The cultivation of mulberry trees, the worms’ primary food source, can even benefit soil conservation. The biggest problems are labor exploitation and the adverse health effects for workers involved in the dyeing process.
GIVE HEMP A CHANCE Hemp is the solar power of fabrics: We know how to make it, and it’s environmentally sound. Yet, Woody Harrelson’s efforts notwithstanding, it’s still illegal to produce hemp in the United States. (If you’ve ever tried to smoke your Latvian-made hemp shorts, you’ll surely be puzzled by the law.) But foreign growers, mainly in China, Eastern Europe, and Russia, have found hemp to be a reliable crop that is much less vulnerable to insects than cotton, virtually eliminating the need for pesticides. Hemp’s deep root system also helps prevent erosion. For now, you will have to buy imports.
TRY TECHNO FABRICS Some eco-clothing designers are turning recycled plastics (such as soda bottles) into fabric; unfortunately, their processing still produces toxic waste that must be disposed of properly. Newcomer lyocell (sold under the trade name Tencel) is a cellulose fiber made from wood pulp, and most of the chemicals used in its production are recyclable. The fabric is biodegradable, too. Because it’s not as prone to wrinkling as cotton, rayon, or linen, lyocell works well for dressier clothing.
BE THRIFTY While many discarded duds end up in landfills, some find their way to vintage, thrift, and consignment shops. With retro all the rage, shopping secondhand for its environmental benefits makes a fashion statement, too.
Chris Borris is a freelance writer and editor based in Brooklyn, New York.