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?
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."
"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.
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: There's more to green clothes than organic fabric. Tomorrow, 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.