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Audubon Living
How Green Is Your Garment?
How to unravel whether the clothes you’re wearing are earth-friendly.

Even for the most eco-conscious shopper, figuring out if your garment is green can be as hard as getting into your skinny jeans. Thankfully, there are some steps you can take to make sure that you’re choosing, treating, and disposing of your duds with minimal impact on the planet.

Sure, a growing number of designers are using fabrics that are more environmentally friendly, but what should you look for when you’re shopping the racks? Easily renewable fiber sources, says Gail Baugh, an apparel design and merchandising professor at San Francisco State University and the Fashion Institute of Design & Merchandising. Hemp and most of the stem fibers (e.g., flax) would qualify. Bamboo does, too--but note that currently, most bamboo used in fiber production actually serves as raw material for rayon.

When reading the label on those cute pants that caught your eye, you also want to look for a material that wasn’t chemically intensive to grow. That leaves out cotton, at least when it’s conventionally grown. In fact, 25 percent of all pesticides applied in the United States are used to grow cotton. But there’s good news: Organic cotton, grown without insecticides or herbicides, is skyrocketing in popularity—sales were up 65 percent in 2008 from the previous year.

Getting the USDA’s organic certification—originally created for food—is both expensive and time-consuming, so many producers of other fiber sources don’t even try for it. (Organic cotton is the only organically certified fiber so far.) Other designations, like “chemical-free,” on wool or silk garment tags might help those of us who want to shop green, writes Baugh in Sustainable Fashion: Why Now? In the meantime, consider purchasing clothes made of such natural fibers as wool, silk, ramie, and jute, or fibers manufactured from corn, kenaf, and soy.

Petroleum-based fabrics, including nylon, polyester, olefin, acrylic, and spandex—known as the big five—can also shrink fashion’s environmental impact if they’re made from recycled materials, such as plastic bottles or the garments collected through Patagonia’s Common Threads program, whereby customers can return certain clothes items to be recycled.

Manufacturing & Distributing
In mills all over the world, factory workers cut, print, dye, and finish our clothes before they’re shipped to stores. Unfortunately, those processes are often both wasteful and toxic. “Generally, 15 percent of fabric is wasted,” says Janet Hethorn, a clothing designer and a professor at the University of Delaware. The amount of fabric that ends up on the factory floor, and then usually in a dump, is a hot topic of conversation in the fashion world, says Hethorn.

The final steps in the clothes-making process are often dyeing and finishing (which makes clothes softer and less likely to shrink and wrinkle), both of which routinely use harsh chemicals that are harmful to workers’ health. In many parts of the world, these chemicals are also simply dumped into waterways once they’ve been used. Denim production can be especially harmful to textile workers; the blue dust from the jeans irritates their lungs.

Most of the steps taken to make our clothes ready to wear are completed overseas in countries like China, Honduras, and Bangladesh. Indeed, more than a quarter of the clothes produced globally are made in China and shipped to retailers around the world. Labor is less expensive and environmental standards more relaxed there compared with those in the United States. So buying clothes made at home is a good choice, right? Unfortunately, there are downsides to this, too. As a report published by the University of Cambridge Institute for Manufacturing, titled “Well Dressed? The Present and Future Sustainability of Clothing and Textiles in the United Kingdom,” points out, buying locally could severely affect the livelihoods of textile workers in the developing world.

The best thing to do as a consumer is to read labels while you’re in the store and ask your retailer about how the manufacturer processes its clothes. Companies can employ responsible manufacturing methods, like using less-caustic chemicals, air-drying their fabrics, or powering their buildings with renewable energy sources (for more, see “From Hippie to Hip,” November-December).

You’ve been eyeing that shirt in the window of your favorite store for what seems like forever. But before adding it to your closet, consider this: Most of the energy used in the shirt’s lifecycle happens after you take it home. For example, about 60 percent of the energy used over the course of a cotton shirt’s existence is from washing and drying, according to Well Dressed?

To cut back your energy and water use, read the care instructions for your coveted frock—before you buy it—to see if it requires hot-water washing, which is more energy-intensive than washing in cold water. “Taking a look at how something can be washed is also a green choice,” says Hethorn. Keep in mind, too, that “a garment manufacturer is often going to be very conservative with the labeling,” she says. The best tag she ever saw? One that read, “Wash when dirty.”

“Also try cutting down on dryer time, which could save you up to 20 percent on utility bills. In particular, cut your dry time in half and finish clothes on the line. We tend to over-clean based on marketing,” says Baugh. And avoid dry cleaning, a process that uses PERC (perchloroethylene). “That’s a known carcinogen, and it’s what most dry cleaners use,” says Baugh.  

You rip a hole in your jeans, outgrow your blouse, or get sick of last season’s sweater. Now what? Given that the average American throws out 55 pounds of clothes a year, according to the EPA’s Office of Solid Waste, how about giving your unwanted garment away, swapping it with a friend, making it into something else, or recycling it? About 10 pounds per person is resold at consignment or in secondhand stores, according to the Council for Textile Recycling, diverting 2.5 billion pounds of textile waste from landfills a year. Chances are you’ll see more thrift stores in your neighborhood with time; they’re growing at a rate of five percent a year, the National Association of Resale and Thrift Shops reports.

Clothing swaps are also a fun way to switch out your wardrobe for some new pieces. “Think: Somebody is going to really love this. Put it in their hands, take it out of your closet,” says Hethorn. And don’t be afraid to experiment with a pair of scissors and a sewing machine. In the spirit of do-it-yourself, try turning your pants into a skirt or your dress into baby clothes.

If you can’t find any other use for your garment, try recycling it. Patagonia recycles some petroleum-based fabrics through its Common Threads program. The company, using Japanese freighters that are heading home empty, sends the fabric to a Japanese company called Teijin. The clothes are pulverized, granulated, and bleached with chemicals that are used and reused in a closed-loop system—in other words, the chemicals are not released into the environment—and made into new polyester fiber. The process saves 84 percent of the energy required to make new polyester from petroleum.

“The quality is no downgrade compared with the regular polyester, so we can recycle any kind of polyester product, not only a plastic bottle,” says Ricky Miyatake, a marketing representative with Teijin. The company sends the waste it generates, like pulverized buttons and zippers, to a cement manufacturer. The recycling process is expensive, so “new” garments generally cost 10 percent to 20 percent more than clothes produced with raw petroleum. If more companies start to recycle, however, the cost could come down. Things are looking bright in that regard: Teijin signed up 20 more clients last year.

As the fashion industry becomes more sustainable, improved labels will make it simpler for us to identify the greenest garments. Indeed, The International Standards Organization is currently developing criteria that companies could follow to obtain such labels for their clothes, which would make it easier to know what’s hot and what’s not (in terms of environmentally friendliness). Until then, do your research to make sure you don’t make a fashion faux pas, and support sustainability as it struts down the catwalk and into your favorite shop.


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