Greening Your Wardrobe
By Sarah “Steve”
What typically comes to mind when contemplating our
personal environmental footprint is the energy efficiency of the car we
drive, how religiously we recycle, and maybe whether or not we have a water
thirsty lawn. However, everything we do and own has impacts on the
environment, and that includes the choices we make in dressing ourselves.
This point was driven home in a smart little book
published in 1997 entitled
Stuff: The Secret Lives of Everyday Things, which
describes the planetary impacts of everyday material goods One chapter
details what goes into producing a wardrobe basic – the cotton/polyester
A few highlights include the overseas extraction of
the crude oil from which polyester is synthesized, the energy and pesticide
intensive process of growing and harvesting cotton, and transporting milled
fabrics abroad and back again so they can be sewn into T-shirts by cheap
From this T-shirt saga emerges a simple truth: The
T-shirts with the least environmental impact are the ones you already own,
or maybe ones purchased at a secondhand shop.
Nonetheless, clothes do wear out and wardrobe
adjustments become necessary when we take on new jobs or sports, change
weight or treat ourselves to the latest fashion. So the question remains how
to make apparel selections which better protect both the environment and the
people involved in the production process. The good news is that there are
already more sustainable clothing options on the market, plus there is
game-changing movement within the apparel industry to provide consumers with
a point of purchase “index” conveying the environmental footprint of items
Organic Cotton and Bamboo
Conventionally grown cotton is considered by some the
world’s dirtiest crop. It relies heavily on synthetic chemicals –
fertilizers, herbicides, insecticides and defoliants – which can be toxic to
farm workers and wildlife, pollute local water supplies and contribute to
climate change because they are energy intensive to manufacture.
Conventional cotton is also grown as monoculture, which degrades soil
Like organically produced foods,
organic cotton must meet the strict federal
guidelines of the National Organic Program. GMO seeds are prohibited (about
90 percent of cotton planted in the U.S. in 2016 is GMO), and the cotton must be grown
without synthetic chemicals. Instead, natural techniques are used to
preserve biodiversity and healthy soil.
Consumer demand for organic cotton clothing is on the
rise, although organic cotton still accounts for only a tiny fraction of
cotton acreage worldwide. India is the top producer, and the U.S. is the
number one consumer. The USDA Organic seal is only permitted on clothing
made from 95 or 100 percent organic fibers. Textiles containing lesser
percentages of organic fibers may, however, be labeled “made with organic
Clothing made of
bamboo is growing in popularity too
and offers distinct environmental advantages, even over organic cotton.
Growing bamboo for textiles naturally requires neither pesticides nor
fertilizers. Whereas cotton production requires extensive irrigation, bamboo
is typically watered by rainfall alone. Bamboo can grow a foot per day and
produces over ten times more fiber per acre than cotton. Furthermore, cotton
needs to be completely replanted annually, releasing CO2 from the tilled
soil, whereas bamboo automatically grows back after harvesting, thus leaving
CO2 sequestered in the soil.
Polyester has long been the
go-to material for weather-resistant outerwear, but the fact that it is a
plastic polymer synthesized from petroleum lends it a dark underbelly at all
stages in its lifecycle. For starters, petroleum is a non-renewable
resource. However, because polyester fibers are spun from the same plastic
as used in plastic drink bottles (PET), some clothing manufacturers have improved the environmental footprint
of their product line by offering fabrics made from used PET bottles and/or
industrial polyester waste scrap.
Compared to virgin polyester, manufacturing recycled
polyester requires less energy and produces less air, water and soil
pollution. In theory, it can be recycled again and again (closing the loop).
In fact, several clothing manufacturers are offering recycled polyester
lines, and some have take-back programs to recycle used polyester back into
new garments or other products.
However, one type of polyester textile, fleece, has been singled out as
causing widespread ocean pollution and threatening the ocean food web during
its useful lifetime. The tiny fibers (less than five mm) that lend fleece
its softness and warmth are sloughed off during laundering and end up in the
ocean and other bodies of water when they pass through water treatment
plants. Between 8,500 and 250,000 microfibers are shed when a single fleece
jacket is laundered, according to a joint
study by clothing manufacturer Patagonia and U.C. Santa Barbara’s Bren School.
In the ocean, plastic microfibers become vehicles for transferring contaminants
in seawater into the ocean food web. That’s because petroleum-based plastics
in general soak up oily pollutants common in seawater (like DDT, PCBs and
flame retardants), concentrating them up to a
million times their level in the surrounding water. The tiny size of the microfibers
actually adds to their toxic potential because of the greater relative
surface area to which pollutants can adhere.
Moreover, studies have shown ingestion of microplastics by even tiny
zooplankton – with the potential for transfer of adhered chemicals up the
ocean food chain – as well as filter feeders like
mussels and oysters that humans consume directly.
Another end-of-life downside of polyester is that,
like petroleum-based polymers in general, it does not biodegrade. Because
fabrics made from plant materials like cotton and bamboo are biodegradable,
they can, in theory, be composted. The reality, however, is that most all
discarded clothing still ends up in landfills.
Fair trade is a social movement aiming to promote
sustainable livelihoods for farmers and workers in developing countries,
while also protecting the environment. As an alternative to conventional
trade, producers profit from better wages and working conditions while
consumers profit from knowing their purchases help reduce poverty and harm
to the environment.
There are a number of fair trade federations around
the globe which certify and label products that meet set standards which
cover livable wages, safe working conditions, worker empowerment,
prohibition of child labor, and protection/conservation of the environment.
Fair Trade USA is the leading certifier of fair trade products sold in the
U.S., and Fairtrade International is the largest fair trade system globally.
Products selected for fair trade are typically those
produced for export to developing countries. Textiles are among them, and
others include coffee, tea, chocolates, flowers, and other agricultural
products. Cotton is the dominant fair traded textile, coming from such
diverse regions as India, Pakistan, Nepal, West Africa, Hong Kong, Thailand,
Malaysia, and Indonesia.
The entire cotton production process is overseen in fair trade certified
clothing, from cultivation through dying and stitching. Fair Trade USA has
three levels of
apparel certification depending on the content of certified cotton and whether the facility in
which the garment was sewn is also certified. From an environmental
standpoint, the emphasis is on elimination of
over 200 chemicals deemed hazardous to humans or the environment by a task force of the
American Apparel and Footwear Association: includes asbestos, flame
retardants, pesticides, phthalates and toxic metals, among many others.
Fairtrade International’s Textile Standard also
stresses prohibitions on toxic chemicals specific to the textile industry,
along with wastewater treatment strategies to protects groundwater, air
emission controls and waste reduction measures.
Although fair trade clothing is more often than not
made of organic cotton, neither Fair Trade USA nor Fairtrade International
standards require organic certification. Both do, however, disallow cotton
grown from GMO seeds.
Organic cotton, bamboo, recycled polyester and fair
trade all represent palpable movement within the apparel industry to appeal
to and heighten consumer consciousness about environmental protection and
social justice. However, the garment and footwear industry is also
mobilizing to make a giant, industry-wide leap forward in improving the
environmental and social impacts of apparel through development of a
standardized global means for consumers to judge an item’s footprints right
from the product label. It’s being called the Higg Index, drawing
inspiration from the dedicated search by particle physicists for the Higgs
The story of the Higg Index began when two unlikely
bedfellows, Patagonia’s founder Yvon Chouinard and Walmart’s chief
merchandising officer John Fleming, together penned an appeal in 2009 to
chief executives of the world’s biggest apparel companies to unite in
developing a uniform index to reflect the sustainability of their products.
Chouinard and Fleming pitched the Higg Index as a win for everyone:
industry, laborers, consumers and the environment. Uniform standards would
avoid wasteful industry competition and consumer confusion that would ensue
if individual companies developed their own sustainability measures; it
would also preempt inevitable government imposition of sustainability
standards. The result was the formation of the non-profit Sustainable
Apparel Coalition (SAC), which now boasts over 180 members from across the globe – made up of
familiar name brands, retailers, manufacturers, the U.S. Environmental
Protection Agency, non-profits and others – who, by jointly building the
Higg Index, have been working to assess and improve the environmental,
social and labor impacts of the entire supply chains of products and
The first version of the Higg Index was released in 2012 as a self-assessment
tool for internal industry application, with separate modules for gaging
environmental and social/labor impacts. The composite environmental scores
reflect the full lifecycle attributes of products, including raw materials,
energy, water, transport and packaging, plus emissions and waste generation
from cradle to grave. SAC announced in
June of 2016 that the previously confidential Higg scores of certain industry participants will be
available to the public starting in 2018, and by 2020 some version of the
Higg Index should start appearing on product labels.
Clothing Purchases Really Do Matter
Some may question whether all this fuss over the environmental impact of
garments and footwear is really called for. The answer is a resounding yes.
As example, two-thirds of a typical American’s greenhouse gas emissions
come, not from personal transport and home energy use, but from consumer
purchases, according to a recent
analysis by the Center for Global Development, a non-profit policy research
The apparel industry is thought by some to be among the
most polluting of industries, right up there with oil, because of the global size of the industry, the
vast inputs of water, energy and chemicals during manufacture, and the
discharge of dye-containing wastewater into bodies of water. Though real
data may be lacking to back up such a claim, the fact that Americans alone
dispose of nearly
13 million tons of textiles a year (roughly 80 pounds for each man, woman and child) is one
very tangible measure of the magnitude of the industry’s environmental
footprint. This particular reality has spurred a number of well-known
companies – like H&M, Levi-Strauss, The North Face, American Eagle
Outfitters, Eileen Fisher, Nike, Patagonia, and Zara – to take back used
clothing (not just polyester) at their stores in hopes of finding ways to
close the loop and recycle old clothing made of any textile into new. Though
a truly closed loop, circular economy is their ultimate goal, thus far any
collected used clothing that is not sent overseas or incinerated for energy
production is still undergoing downcycling into items like carpet padding
and stuffing for toys.
Though the environmentally conscious consumer might
be pleased to know there are already several options on the market which
allow greener choices when shopping for apparel, minimizing new purchases
and wearing garments until they are truly worn out probably remains the best
Mosko is a freelance writer in southern California who endeavors to educate the
public about the myriad environmental problems created by human activities. Read
more of her published articles at