Buying Eco-friendly Clothing

Reading Time: 4 minutes

In the 1960s and ’70s, my friends and I were part of the back-to-the-land movement. To be as natural as possible, we eschewed cotton/polyester fabric blends and polyester fabrics and adopted 100% cotton. Cotton was natural, derived from a plant, and polyester was a petroleum-based plastic. We didn’t want plastic on our bodies. We wanted to be 100% natural.

It wasn’t long after that I learned that cotton is not such a great fabric to put on your all-natural body! There were no regulations as far as pesticides being sprayed on cotton. I learned this at the food co-op when people were putting up a stink about cottonseed oil in food. Because cotton was so heavily sprayed, it should not have been used as a food source, but because it was only considered a plant for clothing, it did not fall under guidelines protecting our food. I put two and two together, and decided that the cotton on my body was toxic.

Is cotton eco-friendly?

Today, cotton uses 16-22% of all the pesticides sprayed in the world. The EPA says 7 out of 15 chemicals used on cotton are likely or known carcinogens. (This is something to keep in mind when you are reading food labels, too! No cottonseed oil!)

Cotton is a thirsty crop. It takes 500 gallons of water to produce 2 pounds of cotton, which will make one T-shirt and one pair of jeans. I am always astonished to see acres of cotton fields across the Arizona desert!

Eco-friendly fabrics: how do you know?

So, what makes a fabric eco-friendly?

  • Plant-based, not petroleum-based or of animal skin or fur
  • Renewable plants that grow quickly and don’t need to be replanted every season
  • Organically grown without pesticides
  • Grown with sustainable farming practices maintaining soil biodiversity and fertility
  • Recycled fabrics
  • Biodegradable fabrics
  • Natural color or undyed
  • Processed minimally
  • Processed in factories that have sustainable business practices (use less water, produce less waste, create less pollution, use renewable energy, environmentally responsible material sourcing)
  • Third party certification for sustainable fabrics and good working conditions
  • Fair Trade – proof that workers are paid a good wage and have healthy and ethical working conditions on farms and in factories
  • Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS) – high level social and environmental criteria along the entire supply chain
  • Oeko-Tex® Standard – materials through all phases of production, from the farm to the final product, meet strict guidelines for sustainability
  • SA8000 – humane working conditions

Even organic cotton still uses a lot of water to produce clothing. But, recycled organic cotton scraps from factories can be processed into new fabric. This is a wonderful solution – organic and recycled!

Eco-friendly clothing: popular alternative fabrics

Hemp: a robust plant that flourishes with decidedly less intervention than cotton plants. Hemp is one of the most popular alternatives for a sustainable, and stylish wardrobe.

There are plenty of sustainable fabrics, and each has their drawback. You have to decide how you want to shop.

Bamboo grows fast and needs no pesticides, fertilizer or irrigation. Chemicals are used to break the plant down to a fiber in water, so the FTC says it can never be certified organic. Neither is it biodegradable. The water to process bamboo must be treated in a closed loop system to achieve the Oeko-Tex® Standard certification.

Hemp is drought-tolerant and needs little irrigation. It is fast growing and renewable, which increases production. More hemp can come out of an acre of land.

Soy silk is a by-product of tofu production. Fabric can also be made from the hulls of the beans, another by-product. Soy fabrics are biodegradable, reducing waste.

Organic wool comes from shearing sheep, goats and camels. They must be fed organic livestock feed. No synthetic hormones or insecticides can be used on the animals, and they must not be genetically engineered. No pesticides are allowed on the pastures they graze, and farmers must practice sustainable farming.

Ingeo™ is a fabric extracted from corn starch. I, personally, do not like products made from food sources. There’s too much hunger in the world to use food for clothes, fuel or anything else.

Fortrel EcoSpun™ is a polyester fleece made from recycled plastic bottles. I had a vest of this material, and I couldn’t tell the difference between it and regular fleece made new.

There are several other fabrics, but these are the most common.

Recycled clothes: secondhand clothing

Being an avid recycler, I think the greenest clothes are used clothes. I love shopping at second hand stores, flea markets and yard sales, and I frequently pick through the free-box at our recycling center. Processing and shipping a product gives it embodied energy and reduces its eco-friendliness. No matter what green fabric you may choose from the list above, even if they came from a sustainable company, there is quite a bit of embodied energy in it by the time you get it home.

Buying second hand, getting old clothes from friends or revamping what you already own holds very little embodied energy. The energy it took to make those clothes has been offset by the use they’ve already gotten, and it will be further offset by getting a second life in your closet.

Eco-friendly clothing: reduce consumption, read the labels

The first step in buying green clothes, though, has nothing to do with fabrics or sustainable business practices. First, reduce your consumption. Go through your clothes and see what you actually need. Stop compulsive shopping. Shop logically and less often. When you do shop, though, buy secondhand or read labels on new clothes to be shopping green.

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Nan Fischer

Nan Fischer has been living and building green for over 35 years. Nan’s emphasis on the BuildDirect blog is about how to make your dollar stretch further, while also moving toward a more sustainable lifestyle, as well as upcoming and existing technology to help us live in an ecologically-friendly way. Nan also authors posts on the website of her seed business, sweetly seeds.