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Before you buy those organic bluejeans...

Which is most ecofriendly, organic cotton or polyester? The answer may surprise you.

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“Almost all the bamboo that’s on the market is essentially viscose rayon.... Consumers are paying a lot of money for it. It’s a legitimate manufactured cellulose. But when consumers are paying half again to double [the price for another fabric], that is not a value to a consumer,” she says.

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However, both Slaven and Ms. Sarnoff point out that manually manufactured bamboo – which feels like flax – doesn’t deserve to be tarnished with the same label.

Before you give up and start weaving a hair shirt, analysts say it’s a case of consumers figuring out what they already like to wear and how to take steps to make that greener. The answer is not to throw your old clothes out or fling money at the problem, figuring that the most expensive clothes must be the greenest.

“Personally, I shop a lot less,” says Sarnoff. “I’ll go and look around and realize that there’s not many things [that] pass my test of things I want to support.” When she does buy, she says that she wants to make sure her dollars go to help companies that are genuinely concerned.

But she acknowledges it can be difficult for consumers of limited budget who want to help the environment and still look stylish at work. “I wish there were a green Gap,” she says.
If your clothing budget doesn’t stretch to paying for high-end fashion – where ecofriendly is trendy – just head for the consignment store.

Buying vintage is one of the easiest ways to go greener, says Kristi Wiedemann, of GreenerChoices.org, an environmental website run by Consumers Union. With vintage clothes, there is no additional energy use or pesticides, she explains, since the clothing has already been manufactured and there are no further transportation costs, since the garments are already local.

“The question is consumption. The greenest shirt is the one you don’t buy,” says Ms. Wiedemann.

She also cautions against trying to compare different fabrics to try and figure out which one is the greenest. Instead, she says, it makes more sense to consider the spectrum of each cloth: For cotton, for example, the greenest option would be used clothing, then recycled, organic, and finally, conventional.

Part of the challenge is that there is currently no oversight governing manufacturers’ claims, explains Jamie Bainbridge, director of textile and product development for Nau, an ecoclothier in Oregon that pledges to use no new oil in its garments and is working to set up a system whereby consumers will be able to trace the wool in its sweaters back to the source.

For example, a manufacturer can make a shirt of organic cotton, but the dye used in it doesn’t have to be organic at all. “They can say anything they want to right now, because nobody’s governing them,” says Ms. Bainbridge.

“The consumer can’t be as highly educated as they need to be,” adds Bainbridge, a member of an ecological working group that’s trying to devise ratings that are clear and consistent. They hope to come up with a way to tell consumers how green the garment they‘re buying is.

“We need to cut out the ‘greenwashing,’ and tell the consumer what they’re really getting,” she says.

“We have to build a rating system that’s strong enough – it needs to be as simple as the LEED system [for green construction],” she adds. “That way a consumer can say, that’s organic or it’s not.”

Editor’s Note: The original version of this article misspelled the name of EcoStiletto. There’s more to green clothes than organic fabric. In the next story in our series on green clothing, we’ll look at how the cleaning and care of clothing makes more of an impact on the environment than the type of fabric from which it’s made.

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