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Before you buy those organic bluejeans...

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

By Yvonne ZippCorrespondent of The Christian Science Monitor / September 29, 2008

OLD IS NEW AGAIN: Helene Kuhn, in mirror, shops for vintage clothes at an outdoor market in New York City. Buying vintage clothes is an easy way to go green, experts say.

Ann Hermes/The Christian Science Monitor

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Here's an ecoriddle for a concerned shopper: A store has two business suits for sale. One is made of renewable bamboo, the other of recycled polyester. Which is greener?

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Before you start wrinkling your nose at petroleum-based products, wait a second. Despite the plant origins of the bamboo, the polyester wins hands down, says Pat Slaven, a textile expert at Consumers Union in Yonkers, N.Y., which produces Consumer Reports magazine. "Don't get me wrong," she says. "I love cotton, I love natural fibers, but polyester's going to clothe the planet."

As with organic produce, environmentally friendly garments are becoming easier to find and are coming down in price – although a buyer can still pay $290 for a pair of organic jeans.

The good news is there are many more ecofriendly options available – with everyone from Levi's to Target and Wal-Mart offering organic or recycled options. The bad news is that a consumer could be forgiven for thinking they need a degree in textile chemistry to sort out the shades of green.

Shoppers now face a wealth of questions that go far beyond "Does this make me look fat?" How many pesticides went into growing the material? (Approximately one-third of a pound for a conventional cotton T-shirt.) Does it have to be dry-cleaned? How were the sheep that produced the wool treated? If it's made of organic cotton, what kind of dye was used? How far did it have to be shipped before reaching store shelves?

Then there are a variety of new materials – from bamboo to soy, sasawashi to Tencel – claiming to be green and charging a premium accordingly.

"It's a huge shift in consciousness," says Rachel Sarnoff, founder of Ecostilleto, an online magazine for the environmentally concerned. "Even the fact that we have so many alternatives – two years ago, none of it was here. Now it's in Nordstrom."

Organic clothes hit the mainstream

One illustration of growth in ecofriendly clothes can be found in the fact that Wal-Mart purchased 10 million pounds of organic cotton last year. This has caused some concerns from environmentalists who say it may result in a diluting of what it means to be organic. But Todd Copeland of Patagonia, the Ventura, Calif., company that's long been recognized as an industry leader in ecofriendly clothes, would ask the naysayers to hang on a moment.

"We're pretty happy that Wal-Mart is now the biggest purchaser of organic cotton [in the US], because Patagonia was for years and years, and we're not that big a company," says Mr. Copeland.

Old material with a new name

This is not to say that "greenwashing" (making a misleading or unsubstantiated environmental claim about a product) isn't rampant. In some cases, experts say, the garments should come with a pair of the emerald spectacles they used in Oz. Ms. Slaven points out that some of the "new" fabrics actually have old names: Chemically processed bamboo, for instance, is virtually identical to viscose rayon. And the process used to manufacture it – involving acid, disulfides ("pretty nasty stuff," she says), and strong caustic – isn't her idea of environmentally friendly. "It's pretty outrageous at this point," says Slaven, who recently testified before the Federal Trade Commission on "Bamboozled by Bamboo."