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Clothes With a Conscience

by Marriaine Hak  

It’s no longer just what you put in your body that counts, but also what you

put on your body. The desire for conscientious living is leading more

and more consumers to choose eco-friendly clothes that are “made using materials and processes that harm

the environment as little as possible,” says Laurie Dunlap, founder of Blue Canoe, a Garberville, California-based organic body wear manufacturer.

The easiest way to determine if clothing is eco-friendly is to identify the materials used to make it. For example, Under the Canopy, a company based in Boca Raton, Florida, makes its apparel line for women, men and children with organic cotton, linen, wool, hemp and lyocell, a new fiber made from wood pulp and sold under the trade name Tencel. Other companies, such as Used Rubber USA, use recycled materials including old inner tubes and plastic soft-drink bottles to make wallets and backpacks.

Mindy Pennbacker, editor of the online magazine The Green Guide, says that most conventional cotton and wool fabrics are treated with chemicals that can pollute water and air. Finishing products that give fabrics a desired feel and appearance or make them mothproof, permanent press, and rain/stain resistant can give off hazardous fumes. Eco-friendly fibers are usually bleached with hydrogen peroxide instead of chlorine. Chlorine, when pumped into streams, rivers and oceans, can harm aquatic life. Traditional methods for dying fabrics also require massive amounts of water, which wastes natural resources; eco-friendly fibers, however, are colored with low-impact dyes that require 60 percent less water. These dyes are also less toxic than conventional dyes. Fortunately, today’s eco-friendly apparel lines aim for—and often achieve—style and function. 

Organic Cotton

Want to feel good—and feel good about feeling good? Wear cotton, the first fabric to meet the US Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) National Organic Program requirements. Organic cotton is grown without the use of chemical pesticides, herbicides and fertilizers on farms that rely heavily on composting to improve soil fertility. The sustainable-agriculture methods used on these farms put less stress on the land than do the chemical-heavy processes to which most agribusinesses have become addicted. And these gentler methods will safeguard farmers’ acreage for generations to come.

Organic cotton is classified into three categories, depending on the method by which it is grown. “Certified organic” means it has been grown and harvested without any chemical fertilizers or pesticides. The second category applies to farms in transition. The USDA has determined that it takes about 3 years for land to cleanse itself of agriculture chemicals, so cotton grown during the first 3 years in which a farm is making the switch from conventional to organic methods is classified as “certified transitional organic.” Cotton labeled “certified organically grown” means it includes both “certified organic” and “certified transitional organic” fibers.

Bigger companies with established brands, legions of loyal customers and large inventories are bringing organic cotton into the mainstream market. In 1996, Patagonia began manufacturing all of its cotton apparel with organic cotton. Two years later, Nike began to blend 3 percent organic cotton into its products, with a goal of integrating 5 percent into all of them by 2010. While that percentage may sound small, because of volume alone, that amount would make Nike the world’s largest user of organic cotton.

Recycled Plastics and Fibers

Some eco-conscious entrepreneurs are turning waste materials into clothing. In 1993, Patagonia began using recycled plastic soft-drink bottles in its fleece wear. And to make linings and shells for shorts and jackets, the company uses a yarn made from used bottles, tents and polyester uniforms as well as discarded fibers from yarn and polymer factories. “We have saved about 86 million soda bottles from the trash,” says a Patagonia spokesperson. Because plastic is made from petroleum and/or natural gas, Patagonia says it has saved enough oil to fill the 40-gallon tank of a Chevy Suburban 20,000 times. To make T-shirts, tote bags and hats, Clothes Made from Scrap, which is located in Palm Coast, Florida, uses cotton discarded from other companies’ factories—some 40 percent of which is tossed out as trash when it does not meet the manufacturer’s or purchaser’s specifications. San Francisco-based Used Rubber USA makes wallets, bags and backpacks out of old inner tubes. The inner tubes are cut up and sewn into new products rather than re-melted or processed, minimizing the production of chemical by-products.

Tencel, linen, wool, hemp

Eco-friendly clothing can also be made with wool, linen, hemp and the wood-based Tencel, though whether these garments can carry a USDA-approved organic label varies. For example, for wool to be labeled organic, the sheep from which it is sheared cannot be dipped in or sprayed with pesticides or injected with synthetic hormones. The sheep also must be fed organic feed and provided with ample land for grazing. Almost 29,000 pounds of wool were harvested from 2,300 organically raised sheep in the United States and Canada in 2001, the most recent year for which statistics are available, but the market “is still in its infancy,” says Katherine DiMatteo, the executive director of the Organic Trade Association based in Greenfield, Massachusetts.

Organic linen, derived from the stem of the flax plant, is grown and processed without pesticides and herbicides. So is hemp. Unfortunately, it is illegal to grow hemp in the United States, so don’t look for USDA organic labels on clothing made from its durable fibers. It is not illegal to make clothing from hemp and sell it, which manufacturers do, importing their raw materials.



This article is reprinted from the Vegetarian Times



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© - 2004 Marriaine Hak and Vegetarian Times . All World Wide Rights Reserved
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