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Clothing with a Conscience

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When I first heard of organic clothing, I thought it was a crock. I may have rolled my eyes. I mean, I understand eating organic produce and drinking hormone-free milk, but now even my clothing should be organic? When does it end? I suppose when we stop using harmful chemicals to make the majority of items we use. Oh, right. That.

Why Buy Organic?

It’s probably common knowledge, but I’ll restate it anyway—synthetic fabrics like nylon and polyester are made from petroleum-based chemicals. The manufacturing of these fabrics is extremely harmful to the workers involved and to the environment. Carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide, nitrogen, and sulfur oxide are byproducts of the process. Vinyl—used frequently in raincoats and backpacks—is pretty awful, too. Its manufacture releases carcinogens that can contaminate breast milk.

But any fabric that is dyed or goes through a final press using conventional methods can be harmful, releasing chemicals into the water and air. Formaldehyde is used in pressing, and has been linked to headaches and respiratory problems in those habitually exposed.

I’ve been raised to look for the label “100% cotton” on clothing, thinking that this natural fiber must be a superior choice. Just look at those “fabric of our lives” commercials with a toddler running through a field of daisies then falling onto a pile of clean white towels (or something like that). Doesn’t it seem pure?

Boy, was I wrong. Apparently, massive quantities of insecticides and pesticides are used to grow cotton through conventional methods. According to the Environmental Justice Foundation, 16 percent of the insecticides worldwide are used in cotton production, more than for any other single crop, and up to 99 percent of all cotton production is in developing countries, where there are few, if any, restrictions on pesticide use.

(One would think, then, that it’s better to buy cotton in the U.S., which might be true for conventionally grown cotton. But, according to a report by non-profit organization Organic Exchange, Turkey grows 40 percent of the world’s organic cotton, followed by India at 25 percent, and the U.S. and China, each at around 7 percent. Growing organic cotton in countries like Turkey, China, and India makes sense as the world’s largest-scale clothing manufacturing operations are in these regions.)

No detailed studies of the effects of most of these pesticides have been done. It’s possible that the pesticides could be cancerous and are contaminating ground water in cotton-growing regions. While the Environmental Protection Agency does not concede that any of the herbicides or insecticides used on conventionally grown cotton in the U.S. are cancer-causing, it does state that they are toxic and exposure can cause health problems ranging from headaches and dizziness to respiratory failure and death.

Natural Fiber Choices.

Organic cotton is one choice, but natural fibers with minimal impact on the environment include bamboo, hemp, soy, and organic linen and wool. Hemp is naturally resistant to insects and doesn’t require pesticides. Bamboo clothing is very breathable in hot weather, retains warmth in cold weather, and is anti-static, making it ideal for athletic wear. Soy fiber—often called “soy silk” due to its soft, silky appearance and feel—is made with protein byproducts of the tofu-making process.

Au Natural and Au Courent?

This is a question that feels sort of petty. “Um, I think the Earth is, like, cool and everything, but can I, like, still look hot for my friend’s party next week?” But screw it, I want it all—to look cute and have a clear conscience. Is it too much to ask?
My fear with organic, eco-clothing was that my only options would be outdoorsy athletic-wear (good for camping, not so good for martinis) or crunchy hippie clothes. And believe me, if you’re looking for shapeless hemp drawstring pants or yoga attire, there’s tons to choose from.

But if you’re like me and pick up Lucky and Vogue in the store so often that you should just get a subscription already, your pickings are certainly slimmer, but they’ve increased by leaps and bounds in the past few years. The trend is eco-trend.

Some excellent catchall sites are Greenloop, Pangaya, Coco’s Shoppe, Hip & Zen, and BTC Elements, which sell various brands of eco-friendly fashions and have frequent sales. Sprig is a fun-to-browse online eco–fashion and lifestyle magazine that reviews clothing and accessories.

Of The Earth is a great label, for jeans especially. Take, for instance, their dark-wash pedal pushers. So cute! Their products are sold online and at outlets throughout the U.S. and Canada. Other organic jeans choices include Loomstate, Levi’s Eco collection, Kuyichi, and Howies, a UK company.

For unique non-jeans designs, some of my favorites are Stewart + Brown, Habitude, Lara Miller, Linda Loudermilk, Panda Snack (made of bamboo), Loyale, Sworn Virgins, Twice Shy, Undesigned, Edun, and Ciel, which is too pricey (and in British pounds, even!) for moi  for everyday wear, but for special occasions, perhaps.

Some of the bigger stores are using organic cotton nowadays, including Patagonia—which is 100% organic cotton—Nike, American Apparel, and Wal-Mart. Yes, Wal-Mart. They introduced a cotton clothing yoga outfit in 2006 that sold out (nearly 200,000 units) in ten weeks, and they’ve since introduced more organic cotton clothing items.

Go Vintage.

With vintage or second-hand, the damage in producing the clothing has already been done, so you might as well rescue it from the landfill. Some clothing companies go a step further, making recycled clothing out of vintage duds. Preloved, a Toronto-based store, sells its structured reconstructed garments a number of stores in the U.S.; Amour Sans Anguish makes girly, one-of-a-kind pieces; and aforementioned Del Forte Denim has a recycled denim clothing line.

Crunching the Numbers.

You generally can’t find the same basement-bargain prices in organics and sustainable clothing, especially if style counts, but if you’re used to shelling out a bit of cash for quality, you might not spend much more for organics.

At my local green-products store, Grassroots, in Toronto, a pair of organic-cotton Of The Earth jeans are $109 (I’m converting to U.S. dollars throughout) and an organic cotton t-shirt is $14. A dress from Stewart + Brown ordered online will cost upwards of $130. American Apparel’s organic tees are just $15, but only come in white, natural, and black. Some of the more unique graphic tees from companies like Edun or Loomstate cost upwards of $50.

The bottom line is that these products will be more expensive until organic-cotton and sustainable-fiber clothing is more widely available. At the moment, organic cotton, for example, accounts for less than 1 percent of the global industry. Companies like Nike and Wal-Mart can’t switch to 100% organic cotton because they would use up the world’s supply. But if lobbying for change means shopping for cute clothes, I suppose I’m up for the challenge.

Photo courtesy of Constantin Jurcut

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