As consumers become increasingly concerned about the environment, the marketplace responds with new technology to fit the demands of a greener lifestyle: CFLs now provide a more energy-efficient alternative than the fluorescent light bulbs of a few years ago. Hybrid cars use less gas and emit fewer fumes than their gas-only counterparts. Solar installations and wind turbines create off-the-grid energy to power homes and businesses. Even clothing is becoming more eco-friendly.
Eco-fashion, also known as green fashion, features clothes made with respect for the environment. Environmentally friendly fabrics are woven from organic fibers that were grown without pesticides or artificial herbicides. In addition, organic fabrics, such as organic cotton, hemp, bamboo, and soy silk are not treated with harmful chemical dyes or bleaches.
Green fashion and organic materials are gaining popularity. Several high-fashion clothing designers, including Stella McCartney, Marc Jacobs, Jil Sander, and Versace include designs made from earth-friendly materials in their lines.
Vogue magazine recently compiled tips on how to help save the world — and still turn heads — by wearing eco-friendly textiles. Even popular stores such as TopShop and H&M are promoting organic fashion by featuring eco-friendly clothing.
Components that determine the environmental friendliness of textiles include sustainable farming practices, transportation of both raw materials and finished clothing, fabric biodegradability and, most significantly, the growth and manufacture of fabric fibers.
IMPACT ON THE PLANET
Most consumers recognize the role of transportation in the overall carbon footprint of manufactured goods. But the role of fabric manufacturing is less well-known, though extremely important to keep in mind. Here are a few ways that the fabric production adds to pollution:
- Conventionally grown cotton uses more insecticides than any other crop. Every year, cotton growers around the world use approximately $2.6 billion worth of pesticides, equivalent to more than 10% of the world’s total pesticides. Cotton growing also uses nearly 25% of the world’s insecticides, according to Pesticide Action Network North America. The U.S. Department of Agriculture reports that, in the United States, 1.2 pounds of insecticides and 2.1 pounds of herbicides are applied to each acre of cotton. These synthetic chemicals not only endanger the environment, they also put at risk the health of people and animals living near these fields.
- Sock manufacturers treat socks with nanosilver and ionic silver in order to kill foot odor. As an ongoing study by the University of California Davis shows, once the silver is washed out of socks, it may kill beneficial microbes in soil, groundwater, or streams.
- According to a January 2008 report by Textiles Intelligence, man-made fibers, such as nylon, accounted for 58 percent of fiber demand in 2006. These fibers are made of petrochemicals, and their production requires the use of declining oil and gas reserves. Synthetic fibers are non-renewable, do not biodegrade, and are not easy to recycle. Of even more concern, if these fibers are thermally broken down by being melted in a dryer or very hot water, they may emit a complex mixture of compounds including — but not limited to — carbon monoxide, ammonia, aliphatic amines, ketones, nitriles, and hydrogen cyanide.
- Manufacturing a ton of textiles requires ten times more energy than manufacturing a ton of glass, according to Recycle for Essex.
Yet, not every fabric is harmful to the environment. Incorporating fibers made from organic cotton, hemp, bamboo, or soy into clothing will minimize the impact of cloth manufacturing on the environment.
By definition, organic farming doesn’t use pesticides or artificial fertilizers. An important benefit of growing cotton organically is that the lack of chemical pesticides promotes a healthier workplace. According to the World Health Organization, 20,000 deaths occur each year from pesticide poisoning in developing countries, many of these from traditional cotton farming.
Members of the Sustainable Cotton Project are dedicated to assisting farmers meet the demand for organic cotton by helping manufacturers become greener through The Cleaner Cotton™ Campaign. The SCP’s tactic for creating cleaner cotton focuses on replacing synthetic fertilizers, using innovative weeding strategies instead of herbicides, controlling insect pests with traps rather than pesticides, and finding alternatives to toxic defoliants in order to prepare plants for harvest.
Lynda Grose, marketing Consultant for the Cleaner Cotton™ Campaign, told this reporter that, because of high costs, growing organic cotton has had limited success in developed countries. The Cleaner Cotton Campaign has helped fund organic cotton as a micro niche for farmers in California, in order to give the market a boost in the United States.
Like its traditionally grown counterpart, organic cotton is used to make more than just clothing. Organic cotton can also be used in the manufacture of cotton puffs, ear swabs, sanitary products, make-up removal pads, towels, bathrobes, sheets, blankets, toys, diapers, and bedding. Although not yet at the level of traditionally grown cotton, demand for organic cotton is increasing. In 2008, organic cotton acreage in the United States grew from 6,786 acres to 7,669 acres, according to the Organic Trade Association.
Because hemp requires no pesticides and needs little water, this plant has high potential to create eco-friendly textiles. Hemp grows quickly and densely, eliminating the need for synthetic herbicides or artificial fertilizers. Hemp has naturally long, sturdy fibers, making it long-lasting and durable. Clothing produced from hemp is also warmer, softer, more absorbent, and extremely breathable compared to other textiles. According to Lotus Organics, hemp does not contribute to the greenhouse effect; during the growing process, the plants absorb as much CO2 as what will later be released if the stalks are burned for fuel.
Adam Eidinger, Communications Director at the Hemp Industries Association, said substituting hemp for other materials is another way to reduce potential ground water pollution, because herbicides and pesticides are not used in the growing process. Eidinger also said that hemp is beneficial to the environment because “shifting away from fossil-fuel-based products is another way to conserve [natural] resources while introducing less toxic stuff into the lives of people everywhere.”
The future of hemp in the United States is uncertain, because growing hemp has been prohibited here since the 1950s, when the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency classified all C. sativa (hemp) varieties as “marijuana.” Eidinger said hemp will remain a blended fiber with organic cotton until the U.S. certifies industrial hemp.
China, England, France, Holland, Hungary, Russia, and Canada do not have the same restrictions. Data from the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United States indicates that world production of hemp fiber grew from 50,000 tons in 2000 to almost 90,000 tons in 2005. Hemp currently accounts for less than 0.5 percent of total world production of vegetable fibers.
In Eidinger’s opinion, U.S. farmers will only grow hemp once they receive government assurance that they will not face prosecution.
Like hemp, bamboo is an extremely rapid grower that doesn’t require pesticides and herbicides. Bamboo plantations require minimal energy because the plant requires very little water and can survive both drought and flooding conditions, according to the Environmental Bamboo Foundation. Because these forests are so dense, the stands release 35% more oxygen than equivalent stands of trees. Some bamboo sequester up to 12 tons of carbon dioxide from the air per hectare.
Organic bamboo cloth is colored with natural dyes. The fabric is 100 percent biodegradable, so it is safe for municipal disposal programs. Bamboo is naturally softer than cotton, is allergy-reduced, and has a natural anti-microbial agent that prevents bacteria from forming on it.
Bamboo is unique, said Adrienne Makita, manager of the Bamboo Fabric Store, because “it’s more luxurious than cotton, more breathable than synthetics, and more delicate than hemp.”
Several different processes can be used to transform bamboo into a fabric. The most environmentally friendly is to mechanically crush the woody parts of the bamboo, then use natural enzymes to turn the bamboo walls into a pulp. The natural fibers are then combed out and spun into yarn.
Bamboo can also be turned into a fabric using chemicals. This chemical process is not as green as the mechanical process. Michael Lackman, a reporter for Organic Consumers Association, wrote “it is important to consider that these chemicals when compared to the pesticides and defoliants used in conventional cotton are much safer on both the environment and arguably, more importantly, the farmers.” Lackman advises consumers to look for the Oeko-Tek certification when buying bamboo clothing, because the certification ensures that the textiles are free of any processing chemicals.
A lesser-known, eco-friendly fiber is soy silk, which is made from tofu-manufacturing waste. Soy protein is liquefied and then extruded into long, continuous fibers that are cut and processed like any other spinning fiber. Because soy has high protein content, the fabric is much more receptive to natural dyes — eliminating the need for synthetic dyes. Soy silk is 100% biodegradable.
In 1941, automobile pioneer Henry Ford, a strong proponent of soybeans, wore the first “soy suit” made of 25 percent soy fibers and 75 percent wool fibers. Today, the South West Trading Company, Inc. (SWTC) features SOYSILK®, a soy fiber and yarn used for spinning, knitting, crotchet, and weaving. Jonelle Raffino, President of SWTC, Inc., said the fabric is “as soft as cashmere.” Soy silk also wicks away moisture and has a soft, gentle drape.
The future of our planet is heavily influenced by the decisions we make today. By insisting on clothing made from eco-friendly fabrics, consumers will drive more demand for environmentally responsible clothing. The benefits to the planet are undeniable. Besides, what could be better than looking good and protecting the environment at the same time?
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