You have it, I have it, but do we know that much about it? Sure, we deal with it every day, and it’s with you nearly all the time. I’m talking about clothing of course. So common, it often becomes the overlooked item in sustainability initiatives. Recycled content, chlorine free, certified paper? Check. Energy efficient lighting (with recycling program for spent fluorescents)? Implemented years ago. Company uniforms? Well, yes. What about them?
Clothing has a variety of impacts, depending on the type, content, and cleaning style. The material may be produced using large amounts of pesticides, chemicals, and even unsustainable forestry activities. Shoes using leather, suede, or rubber, as a start, can also be sites of concern. Even the traditional “dry cleaning” operation emits enormous concentrations of pollutants, while some of the chemicals may remain within the garment. So are there alternatives?
In fact, there are many ways to reduce the environmental and social impacts of a wardrobe.
Let’s start with cotton. A wonderful, soft material that has been the staple of many regions for over a century. Today, the vast majority of cotton in clothing comes from conventionally grown crops; these can be sprayed with any number of pesticides and fertilizers. This promotes a monoculture, or single-crop, situation. The natural properties of the land are rarely attended to, so more fertilizer and soil will constantly be required, thus entering a continuous cycle. According to the Organic Trade Association, organic cotton is “grown using methods and materials that have a low impact on the environment. Organic production systems replenish and maintain soil fertility, reduce the use of toxic and persistent pesticides and fertilizers, and build biologically diverse agriculture.” Currently, nearly 1% of global cotton production is organic, but it is growing fast. Sales in some product categories are increasing nearly 50% annually. Consider organic cotton for the next set of company clothing runs and make a difference!
Small addition: In personal experience, organic cotton is often softer than the conventional equivalent, but seems to shrink more on the first wash. Plan size orders accordingly.
It’s not just for floors! The latest trend in sustainable fashions, bamboo clothing has a lot going for it. The plant is one of the fastest growing on the planet, doesn’t require large amounts of pesticide or fertilizer, and can be grown organically. However, is it really as “green” as retailers would have customers believe?
- In the effort to climb aboard a growing fad, bamboo plantations are showing up around southeast Asia. Some of these plots were previously productive forest, home to countless species of plants and animals.
Sustainable and deforestation don’t go well together.
- The process of converting the fibers of bamboo into soft clothing requires using strong chemical solvents. These may end up in emissions, wastewater, and even in the final product (Yes, what you’re wearing). Unfortunately, don’t expect a unique approach to the process, as all bamboo clothing is produced at only one facility in China.
Sustainable and water/air pollution also are unwelcome bedfellows.
In fact, according to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), bamboo fabrics are nothing of the sort. In August 2009, they issued a Consumer Alert regarding the sale of bamboo. Here’s a small segment: “The Federal Trade Commission, the nation’s consumer protection agency, wants you to know that the soft ‘bamboo’ fabrics on the market today are rayon. They are made using toxic chemicals in a process that releases pollutants into the air. Extracting bamboo fibers is expensive and time-consuming, and textiles made just from bamboo fiber don’t feel silky smooth.
There’s also no evidence that rayon made from bamboo retains the antimicrobial properties of the bamboo plant, as some sellers and manufacturers claim. Even when bamboo is the ‘plant source’ used to create rayon, no traits of the original plant are left in the finished product.“
So, while the use of bamboo in furnishings can be a sustainable endeavor (with the use of low-VOC adhesives and varnishes), it would appear that, for now at least, bamboo just isn’t the bright green clothing item we would all love it to be. However, it is also not the worst, as the benefits on the plant growth side cannot be ignored. Examine the material options available for your needs and budget, then see, if, despite the negatives, bamboo really is your best environmental option.
Look for the second part of sustainability in clothing for information on dry cleaning, shoes, and other common clothing concerns.
Organic Trade Association – Organic Cotton Facts http://www.ota.com/organic/mt/organic_cotton.html
FTC – Have You Been Bamboozled by Bamboo Fabrics? http://www.ftc.gov/bcp/edu/pubs/consumer/alerts/alt160.shtm