Just how 'green' is that shirt?
An 'organic cotton' label doesn't make it 'carbon free.' But a new factory in Sri Lanka moves a step closer to that claim.
Thurulie, Sri Lanka
Prove it! That's how consumers ought to respond when presented with "guilt-free, socially responsible" products.Skip to next paragraph
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Spurred by consumer interest (and "green" profits), retailers now fill their stores with everything from No Sweatshop garments to sustainable timber. You can feel good about buying a T-shirt made without using child labor, or in purchasing ecofriendly detergent, fair-trade coffee, even "responsible" jewelry.
But judging competing social and environmental claims isn't so easy, and the task is getting more complex now that companies like Britain's Marks & Spencer are taking on climate change directly with a "carbon free" lingerie factory in Sri Lanka promising a garment produced entirely with renewable energy.
Yes, "green lingerie" is here, but should the retailer emblazon the item with a "carbon free" label and expect consumers to fully understand and accurately evaluate – let alone be receptive to – purchasing such a product?
Just how "green" is that shirt, dress, or blouse?
True sustainability requires independent certification, extensive consumer-education campaigns, and a desire and ability to review entire supply chains, say environmental authorities such as Linda Greer, a Natural Resources Defense Council senior scientist who specializes in toxic chemical pollution in textiles production.
"How do I know if a garment is 'green'?" asks Ms. Greer. "The answer is, there's no way to know that. Even if you buy a T-shirt that's organic, you don't know the factories and the chemicals that went into dyeing it, or how much carbon they emitted into the air."
An article of clothing may be made with organically grown cotton, but it's at the processing stage – often involving coal-fired boilers and poor treatment of waste- water – where garment producers create the biggest carbon footprint.
By this measure, the Sri Lankan lingerie factory – strictly a cut-and-sew operation – is a relatively manageable undertaking on the front end of a supply chain that has yet to be fully vetted.
Progressive retail players like Marks & Spencer, Adidas, and Nike are well on their way to improving raw materials cultivation, with organic fibers and recycled plastic waste for polyester and fleece products a few of the sustainable practices now being mandated.
But there isn't a mass retail company that has developed a full sustainability standard that accounts for the garment across every step of production.
"No one has done that," says Mike Barry, head of corporate responsibility for Marks & Spencer. The retailer will not be slapping a "carbon free" label on its new lingerie line, confirms Mr. Barry.