Thursday, January 13, 2011

Shall We Hang Onto Our Old Clothes?

After reading this article, I came to the conclusion that we can't trust any modern clothing and that perhaps it is just best to hang onto to our old clothing or shop at thift and second hand stores if we are to be sure that we are wearing healthful fabrics.

Here is the article with references:

Organic & Natural Clothing
By Jasmine Greene
The term 'organic' or 'green' has become an important marketing term that gives people the peace of mind that what they are consuming is environmentally friendly.  Many other aspects of our lives have become greener, and green clothing is slowly gaining momentum.  Although the clothing does not look or feel any different, there are many differences that affect us and the world around us.
The most notable textile that has gone organic is cotton.  Many stores, including chain stores like American Apparel, have switched their t-shirts over to organic cotton.  Organic cotton is much better for the human body than normal cotton and is better for the environment.  Regular cotton is grown using different types of pesticides and insecticides.  While 10% applied to the cotton do their job, 90% dissolve into the air or the ground.  These pesticides are unnecessary for organic cotton because organic farmers use Brown cotton.  This cotton is the wild version and is much hardier than the crossbred cotton we use today.   But it's not only the insecticides that make conventional cotton harmful to you and the environment; it's the entire process of creating the fabric.  The use of chlorine to bleach the cotton and the actual dying process that adds heavy metals and sulfurs releases harmful gases into the environment.  Organic cotton, on the other hand, uses soft peroxide for bleaching and natural dyes with low metal and sulfur content for the dying process.  Another major difference is the finishing process.  While conventional cotton may use chemicals like formaldehyde, a probable human carcinogen, organic cotton uses a combination of warm water and soda ash.  Soda ash is naturally occurring in mineral deposits in arid regions and self-regenerating, meaning we can never run out of this natural resource.  Recently, a new process called cationic fiber modification has become popular.  Rather than using harsh chemicals during the dying process, cotton is treated to make it positively charged so it attracts the negatively charged dye.  Currently dye is treated with a lot of salt and dye as the dye does not naturally stick to the clothing.  With this process, not as much dye needs to be used and the hues turn out brighter.  Not only that, but the process can also be done using standard dyeing and finishing machines, so the manufacturers do not need to buy new supplies. 
One of the largest differences between organic and conventional cotton is the strain of cotton.  As stated previously, many of the organic cotton is made of the Brown or wild variety.  Most of the conventional cotton is GMO, or a genetically modified organism.  The cotton grown around the world is a cross breed between cotton plants named Bt cotton.  Bt is otherwise known as Bacillus thuringiesis, a soil dwelling bacterium.  When the bacteria sporulates (produces spores) it forms crystals of cry toxins.  These toxins are harmful to numerous species including: Lepidoptera (moths and butterflies), Diptera (flies and mosquitoes), and Coleoptera (beetles).  The proteins of the bacterium are combined then with the proteins of the plant DNA.  In the early 1990s the first Bt cotton strand was created.  Rather than spraying the cotton with Bt toxins, this strain of cotton produced the toxin naturally.  These GMOs are said to reduce the use of pesticides by 80%.  Despite advances in science, cotton remains a pesticide-intensive crop, using approximately 25% of the world"s insecticides and 10% of the world"s pesticides.   On top of that the use of synthetic fertilizer harms the environment.  Many areas, notably Uzbekistan, have become a desert because of the continual growth of cotton on the land.  Other areas have become completely salinated because of constant cotton growth.  Organic cotton does not use any insecticides and utilizes crop rotation in order to keep the natural balance of the earth. 
One of the most 'organic' textiles out there is produced by hemp.  Before cotton became the cash crop, hemp was one of the most used materials in the USA.  The civil war uniforms were made out of it, the constitution was written on it, and the first flag was created from hemp.  One of the most notable differences between hemp and cotton is that hemp needs no pesticides.  It is a hearty plant and can grow in almost every climate.  Not only that it absorbs more carbon dioxide than trees and even absorbs nuclear toxins from the ground.  When made into clothing, hemp is also three times stronger than cotton and will last longer than cotton clothing and also biodegrades faster.  It also has anti-bacterial and anti-fungal properties, so it can be washed in cold water and line dried rather than having to use the washer or dryer.  Of course, just because it's hemp does not mean that the clothing is organic.  Most of the hemp clothing is produced in China where it is chemically treated to make it feel as soft as cotton.  Unfortunately, the chemical process makes the hemp clothing less durable than if it were made without these enzymes.  Besides the actual making of the yarn, hemp is also spun, dyed, and softened in a similar manner as cotton.  Heavy salts, caustic acids and even mercury may be used during the entire production process which inevitably strips the fiber of much of its rich character and strength and produces hazardous, environmentally-destructive waste.  Unfortunately, many people fall for the ploy that if it is hemp, it must be organic.  This is not the case, and only hemp that is labeled 'organic' is treated in a way that is not harmful to the environment.  It is an amazing plant, but it is very difficult to grow for commercial use due to the laws regarding marijuana.  As hemp is grown in small quantities, it does not benefit from economies of scale and thus tends to have a higher price.  Many people also associate hemp as clothing for hippies and don't think that the material can be created for anything fashionable.  However, there are many noted fashion designers that are now turning to hemp as a more environmentally friendly cloth such as: Versace, Behnaz Sarafpour, Ralph Lauren, Donna Karan International, Isabel Toledo and Doo.Ri.  During fashion week of 2008 these designers created all of their designs from different hemp mixes.  With the growth of more eco-friendly consumers, the clothing industry is beginning to realize again the versatility of hemp. 
Besides cotton and hemp, another textile that has emerged as 'green' is bamboo.  Bamboo clothing is growing in popularity due to its supposed green attributes.  One of the most notable attributes of bamboo is that it is inherently pest-resistant.   Besides this it's naturally regenerative and grows quickly.  Like hemp, the clothes are also anti-bacterial and do not require hot water to clean them.  However, the actual process of planting bamboo is questionable.  Because more and more people are becoming interested in bamboo clothing for its eco-friendly attributes, many plots of lands are being cleared to make way for the bamboo, and this in turn increases erosion.  The demand for this clothing also leads to a mono-crop plantation, which increases chances of pests and disease.  Not only is the growing method questioned, but also the production of the clothing.  There are two production methods for bamboo: mechanical or chemical.  The mechanical method crushes the woody parts of the bamboo and uses the natural enzymes to break down the bamboo wall into a pulpy mass so the natural fibers can be combed out and spun into yarn.  This is essentially the same method used for flax or hemp, and this product is often called Bamboo linen.  Although this is the most eco-friendly method of production, many companies do not use it because it is too labor-intensive and costly.  The most popular method of production is the chemical method and is similar to the production of rayon.  Many harsh chemicals are used, such as sodium hydroxide and carbon disulfide.  Carbon disulfide has been known to cause breathing and sleeping problems among workers. Sodium hydroxide can threaten aquatic wildlife when released into groundwater and streams.  These chemicals are used to produce the fibers that eventually make the clothes, a similar process that happens with the production of rayon.  And although dying bamboo requires less dye it still uses the heavy metals and sulfur used in the cotton dying process.   This is enough to make many people nervous about using the term organic or green when referring to bamboo.  Although there are many clothiers that claim that bamboo is eco-friendly, it is unlikely that they are truly organic.  However, there is new research occurring to make the production of bamboo clothing friendlier to the environment.  One such process is using nanotechnology.  The bamboo is made into charcoal and these nano-bamboo bits are then combined with cotton or other materials. 
Another natural product gaining popularity is soy.  Many other materials are being used as alternative textiles such as soy.  Soy clothing is created from the leftover dregs of soybean oil and tofu production.  Interestingly enough, soy clothing has been around for awhile as Henry Ford sported the first soy-wool suit.  It has been only recently that textile companies have created a way to make soy clothing a viable option.  The clothes itself are 3x stronger than wool and retain the same amount of heat, but like bamboo ends up using a chemical process for the actual production of the clothing.  Still, bamboo and soy have the potential to become the greenest materials on earth once someone finds a way to safely produce clothing from the materials. 
Of course, it's not just the materials that are used in clothing, but also how we decide to buy and take care of clothing.  Even if we buy organic clothing, the cleaning of clothing uses up a lot of water, electricity, and eventually impacts the environment.  Here are some tips on how to be greener with your clothing:
1. The greenest clothing is the clothing you already have.  If there are small rips or things that need repair, try to repair them as best you can.  Buttons can be easily sewed back on, small rips can be mended, and broken zippers can be replaced.  Don't automatically throw something out because of a small problem or because of fashion faux pas.  If anything, choose clothing that will last the test of fashion time and choose something simple.
2. The maintenance of your clothing is also very important.  No green clothing should require dry cleaning.  Dry cleaning requires the solvent 'perc' which is a probable human carcinogen.  California has already banned the use of perc: beginning in 2023 its use will be disallowed in California.  Although many dry cleaners still use perc, there are some that are using alternative chemical and methods.  One popular method is based on carbon dioxide.  In this method, CO2 is put under high pressure to convert it into a liquid. As a liquid, it acts as a carrier of biodegradable soaps just like water does in a washing machine. Once the cycle is done, it turns back into a gas and is mostly reused.  Another popular method is GreenEarth Cleaning.  This silicon-based process does not interact chemically with your clothing and acts as a carrier for detergent in a similar way to the carbon dioxide method.  Despite these new improvements, the best way to lead a green lifestyle with your clothing is to wash the garments in cold water and hang them out to dry in the sun. 
3. Buy your clothing from thrift stores.  Even if it's not 'new' you can find some great bargains on brand-name clothing.  There's a great place in Brooklyn, NY called Beacon's Closet that allows you to bring in your old clothing in exchange for store credit or other clothes.
4. Recycle your old clothes.  You can combine parts of your old shirts to make a new shirt, use the different parts to use as a cozie, or even use them as a dishrag.  There are a lot of different things that you can make out of old clothing, so see if you can find a use for them around your house.   There are some clothing stores that have combined old clothing to create a completely new style: Zachary's Smile, Gominyc, Mo Mo Falana, and Terra Plana.
5. Donate your old clothing to good will or charities instead of throwing them away.  Someone will benefit from the clothing you no longer want and you are not adding to the amount of garbage we have in the world. 
Still, if you plan on buying new clothing or textiles, look for the Oeko-Tex label.  This group was formed in the 1990s in response to consumer demand for some way to know that the materials used in clothing are not harmful.  The group does numerous tests on materials to make sure that there are no contaminants present. Tested contaminants include: antimony, arsenic, lead, cadmium, chromium, chromium (V), copper, cobalt, nickel, mercury, pesticides, phenols, colorants, and carcinogens.  To be given the Oeko-Tex label, each material is tested by various institutes to make sure that nothing harmful is present.  This vigorous testing allows for the quality assurance that the product is indeed safe.  There is growing interest in Oeko-Tex in the US market, and it is gaining ground among consumers as well as manufacturers. 
The growing number of ecological concerns has forced many textile industries as well as fashion designers to reevaluate the products they offer to the public.  Many stores are now offering organic clothing lines in their stores, while others are carrying only organic clothing, and still others are carrying recycled clothing.  One of the leading stores in recycled clothing is Patagonia, which uses recycled PET from soda bottles in their fleece.  Zuss is another store that utilizes recycled items, notably rubber, to create hats, jackets, dresses, and various types of clothing (if rubber is your thing).  For the less adventurous, American Apparel offers organic and sweatshop-free cotton t-shirts.  Kaight NYC is a boutique store in New York City that carries only eco-friendly clothing by up-and-coming designers.  The Oko Box takes the idea of green one step further by making their entire operation green.  They print letters on recycled paper, re-use packing supplies and walk most of their deliveries to the post-office.  They also donate to the National Wildlife Federation. 
There are still many companies that despite carrying organic items do not follow the green model for their business.  Although many other aspects of green living have taken off, the idea of having green clothing is only beginning to gain popularity.  This is mainly due to the high price of organic clothing and the fact that we enjoy buying new clothes rather than purchasing used ones.  It's easier to buy a bunch of 'fast' clothes, clothing that is produced normally with the pesticides and chemicals, when your old clothing wears out rather than repairing them.  There are some stores that are experimenting with leasing clothes or buying back old clothing from customers for recycling.  Unfortunately, these experiments have faltered as the main idea of the experiment is to own less 'stuff.'  In a world of consumerism where people are bombarded by ads encouraging people to own more stuff, it is difficult to spread the message that buying new clothes every season is detrimental to the planet.
Despite having great potential candidates for green clothing, problems still remain in the production of soy and bamboo (and even hemp).  Many of these production processes still use strong solvents and unfortunately while the raw product is green, the end-product is not.  Even with green production processes, the delivery of these products to retail stores, and the manner in which consumers care for these products once purchased,  remain significant environmental problems.  Green clothing still has a long way to go to gain a larger following, but even simple things that can be done at home makes even non-organic clothing more environmentally friendly. 
For more information - International Herald Tribune article on "Fast Clothes" vs. "Green Clothes" - Bamboo clothing blog post on blog run by founders of - Article concerning the greenness of bamboo clothing on The Green Guide.  The Green Guide, created by the National Geographical Society, it is one of the leading guides to green living. - Gives simple and easy to follow ways to live a greener life by providing insights, reviews, level-headed advice and recommendations for people looking to make big changes by making lots of little changes. - Provides uniform, scientifically sound evaluation standard for the human ecological safety of textiles.

1 comment:

Stranger in a Strange Land said...

From my friend Michael in Canada:

Now this one about Organic clothing is absolutely right on my friend. Excellent. I haven't bought any new clothing for some years for this very reason. My 'old' clothes are just fine and the so often 'new' shinny appearances really puts me off. Well done - Michael. [If you wish you can "Post" this] Cheers, M.