I got a question from The Good Human reader Maria about sustainable clothing materials. Even though she tries to buy used clothing, she is interested in what kinds of goods are OK to buy new.
While it is always easier just running out to the Gap or to other “regular” retailers, taking inventory of what your clothes are made of and where they were made is a very important step in the consumption process. (never mind the forced child labor) And if you do that on a regular basis, you might not find that many places to buy clothes from – believe me, it is very difficult! As I have mentioned here before, my wife and I have been on a mission for the last 6 months to only buy sustainably made clothing from reliable and trustworthy sources…it’s hard to do sometimes. Buying used, as we (and Maria) do often is difficult sometimes too because, well, you have to pick from what is at the thrift store. But for buying new, with some careful consideration of what new clothes are made out, you can at least know that the fabric you are buying is sustainable and friendly to the environment.
I guess the most commonly available eco-friendly fabric is organic cotton. The Cotton Industry likes to run ads telling us how great cotton is, but the fact remains that regular old cotton is one of the heaviest sprayed crops in the world. Cotton uses approximately 25% of the world’s insecticides and more than 10% of the pesticides, and the EPA considers seven of the top 15 pesticides used on cotton in 2000 in the United States as “possible,” “likely,” “probable,” or “known” human carcinogens (acephate, dichloropropene, diuron, fluometuron, pendimethalin, tribufos, and trifluralin). Yummy, huh? No thanks, I will stick to cotton that has been grown without the use of dangerous chemicals, and I will gladly pay a little more for it in process. And it’s not just the clothing that gets the chemical bath – everything from the soil it is grown in to the groundwater beneath the fields gets loaded with chemicals, so it could end up in your kitchen and bath at some point as well, depending on where you live and how your city filters your water. So at a bare minimum you should look for clothing made from 100% organic cotton, even if it is not fair-trade certified and from a responsible company. That way at least you know that the clothes, the earth, and the cotton pickers were not affected by the chemicals.
Hemp, while unfortunately banned from industrial growth in the United States, has been around for thousands of years and used for everything from clothing to bags to rope to shelter. It is an incredibly durable material, can be used in body products and foodstuff, and really should be legalized; whether anyone believes marijuana should be legalized or not has nothing to do with the growth and use of hemp in this country. However, all the hemp products you see on any store shelves is made from hemp grown in other countries and the United States is losing ground on the creation of goods from this plant. Hemp is very sustainable and very strong, so you can continue to make products out of it that last a very long time. I have a messenger bag made from hemp that has done me very well, but you can also buy shirts, socks, underwear, hats, etc that are made out of hemp. China, Eastern Europe, and Canada are the major growers of hemp, and it can be grown without the use of pesticides. And no, you cannot smoke it. 😉
Many people say that bamboo is not sustainable because of the great distances that most of it has to travel to get to the United States (from Asia, mainly), I kind of have to agree and disagree with them. I agree that bringing bamboo on boats all the way from Asia is not exactly “sustainable”, but neither is bringing all the cars, toys, electronics, etc. that also come by boat to the United States. On the other hand, bamboo grows incredibly fast, sometimes up to 12 inches in a single day, meaning it can quickly replace itself, depending on what version of the plant is being used. Bamboo is also more antibacterial than cotton or wool and it whisks moisture away from your body, making it a great fabric for exercise gear. I own a bamboo t-shirt that is one of my favorites!
On top of looking at the material that is used to make ecologically friendly and sustainable clothing, you might also want to pay attention to a few other things. Namely, that the clothes are from organic sources, that fair labor laws are being enforced by the company you are buying from, and that the inks and dyes used in the material are plant or vegetable based (soy ink, anyone?). Keeping at least one of your eyes open when buying new clothing can really make a difference for both the people making your clothes and the people wearing the clothes you are buying. Of course, as Marie said she does, buying used is the best way to go. But sometimes you need new clothes and/or you have to pick up a gift or two, and paying attention to what the goods are made from is very important!
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