In apparel there are two considerations to apply to what we might call “green” clothing. The first is that it is made from natural, organically grown plants (without pesticides or herbicides). This makes a garment “organic”. But if organic cotton was made into fabric and clothing using with harmful bleaches, dyes or screen inks, it is only half green. It’s like ordering an organic egg salad sandwich which uses artificial mayonnaise and bleached process bread.
Clothing is one of the major industries in the world, being such a basic human need. Unlike green energy, housing, and food, green textiles are not on the public radar. Indeed, most people do not really know how to define “green clothing”. Most people I ask say it has to do with natural materials, re-cycled materials, fair trade, or uses part or all organic cotton. Clearly just the size of the industry makes it an integral part of environment issues. The harmful effects of chemical spraying of plants on the water system, and the effects of textile processing needs to be simply presented and should be basically as understood as other important green concerns. After all, a lot of clothing is made for all of humanity, and we need to define “green clothing”.
Starting with the “organic” aspect, it has been often stated that 1/3 lbs of pesticides is used to make every t-shirt in the US. Since the publication of “Silent Spring” in 1962, very little has changed concerning the massive spraying of the cotton plant. DDT has been replaced with “less toxic” agents, but over half of the chemicals used today are either moderately or strongly carcinogenic to humans. These agents enter our water system, and our bodies. Science has been working on GM Cotton, a genetically modified plant, with new defenses against insects. They have not yet eliminated spraying against both weeds and the pests that continue to adapt.
For thousands of years man has been cross breeding plants and growing cotton without chemical sprays. So I am not against the idea of making cotton that has resistance to natural enemies built into its genetic make-up. Until the science works, we should use other alternatives. Traditionally, fields of cotton are rotated with other plants which kept the harvest ahead of the pests. It’s easier and cheaper to have huge cotton fields, but they require spraying as the insects have no alternative plants luring them away from the cotton. To be certified today by GOTS (Global Organic Textile Standard) a contaminated field requires 3 years to cleanse before its crop can be called organic. So we continue to poison the planet with 60 million gallons a year of pesticides used in the USA on the cotton plant. Organic cotton comes mostly from Asia, where the fields have never been sprayed, and only represents 5% of the global harvest.
To process any cotton into apparel requires several steps. Currently there is very little public awareness of the environmental effects of modern fabric making. Simply stated for this article, it is not very difficult to process in low impact and eco-friendly ways for most of the industry. For example, natural cotton does not need to be treated with chlorine for whitening; peroxides are easier on the environment and work just fine, and should be standardized. Textile dyeing is thousands of years old, and a vast subject. Much of our clothes are dyed fashion colors using either dyes mixed with heavy metals to bind the color to the fabric, (“mordents”) or use pigments which are literally glued on to the fiber with an acrylic resin. Cold water cationic dyes are universally accepted as the choice for the industry by most studies. Finally there is the large screen printing industry which prints billions of t-shirts every year using plastic or resin based inks. The plastic feels rubbery and cracks, the water resin pigment system is scratchy and fades, and both have environmental impacts. It’s easy to print with inks and the public has accepted t-shirts which feels rubbery. The alternative is to screen print with dyes, which are super soft, permanent, and green, and is now being offered as an alternative.
Processing sometimes can create problems. Bamboo grows easily without chemical spraying, (it’s a type of grass), but to turn that tough husk into a soft fiber requires a lot of solvents and energy. There is a lot of debate whether bamboo, sold as an organic product and thought of as green, is indeed green. There are questions about re-cycled clothing. To actually re-cycle polyester does more harm to the environment than making new. Polyester, being basically just plastic clothes, is not green in the first place.
Free-trade also should not be part of the definition of “green clothing”, but part of the vocabulary of all textile manufacturing. We have made some progress in the world from child labor and outrageous policies thanks to an effort by all. All major stores and manufacturers are scrutinized by the media concerning fair-trade because the American public wants to know, and often condemns harsh labor practices at the cash register.
In truth, do we really need another agency to certify a garment “green”, as we have GOTS to certify a global standard for “organic”? I hope not. But we do need a basic public awareness of the global impact of spraying cotton and of green ways to process clothing. Let each manufacturer who makes a claim of making “green clothing” be accountable. There is a lot of grey in the debate without official stamps of approval, and we need to avoid creating a “certification” industry with all the politics that will follow. This is no easy task.
Clearly The farmers in the US and world respond to the needs of the market. If the demand increases the farmers would grow more cotton and grow it green, (co-incidentally the color of money) especially if it creates a stable market. This is going to be role of culture. We need to start asking for organic clothing and support it when possible, like food; public demand has brought about big changes in the organic food market. Today organic eggs and bananas sell side by side at most markets, with small price differentials. Why not clothes?
There is only one way to create a strong “green clothing” industry that makes a difference by truly changing farming and processing to be “green”: Through good fashion. Fashion is like poetry, it’s something very hard to define. We need to make great clothing that happens to be organic and eco-processed, but is admired and purchased because the fashion is right. We need an explosion of “green clothing” which becomes the “thing” to wear, like new electric cars are now hip. Let the designing begin!
We also need to just adopt “green” to the basics, like socks or jeans. In many ways “green clothes” is not different than “green foods”; organic cotton is still just cotton, an organic banana is just a banana. In the end, “green clothing” just means you can basically be wearing pretty much the same fashion you always wear, but that is made from organic natural material and processed ecologically. It just feels good to wear and is good for the future of the planet.
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