Eco friendly clothing : a definition from ecoGear

The word ecofriendly as defined by the Oxford dictionary means being friendly to the environment. Having a net positive effect on it. This means that

you could have an ecofriendly lifestyle perhaps by planting trees in your neighbourhood or choosing to buy organically grown food products but you cannot have an eco friendly product as producing anything, will create an impact on the environment no matter how you made it.

The proper term for any products that have been processed, as opposed to an organically grown apple straight from the tree, should be an ecofriendly option or as the good folk at Terrachoice call it, environmentally preferable. An example would be in a case where you had to buy a new dress or jacket today, you opt for the ecofriendly option as opposed to the regular option.

And what makes an ecofriendly clothing? Is it organic cotton where the only redeeming factor is that it doesn’t use pesticides or agrichemicals in its cultivation? What about the fact that one single organic cotton tee uses up to 2500 litres of water just to grow? Whether organic or not, cotton is one thirsty plant and its cultivation single handedly dried up the world’s fourth largest lake, Lake Aral in Russia as all its tributaries were diverted in order to grow cotton*.

The people that made bamboo clothing jumped all over this point and made claims that bamboo not only requires zero pesticides and agrichemicals but uses less water in its cultivation. Did that make bamboo clothing ecofriendly? And what does anti bacterial features have to do with being ecofriendly? It was a good thing for the FTC to shut down all the eco claims they made**.

On top of that, no one so far has dared to open the can of worms to the public eye that involves the finishing processes in clothing.The cultivation of raw fibres may have been a more ecofriendly process but that’s a small percentage of clothing’s final impact on the environment.Unlike fruits or vegetables that are ecofriendly because they’re organically grown, when the raw clothing fibre is harvested, it goes through multiple processes all done by different factories from the raw fibre processer to the spinner to the dye house and finally the weaver or knitter. All these processes require copious amounts of energy, fresh clean water and loads of chemicals. Stripping the natural oils from the cotton ball for example usually calls for the use of heavy metals to speed up the process and bring consistency. In the case of bamboo textiles, sulphur dioxide is added to the pulp to speed up the melting process where the tough fibres are turned into a sludge before its extruded into a yarn.

The dyeing process is an even worse polluter of air and water. This report from 1999 lists all the emissions from the various dyeing and finishing processes in great detail. Even though there has been a push since for a more ecofriendly process with closed loop production systems, the fact remains that the biggest producers of clothing and textiles today are in places like India, China, Bangladesh etc where no such facilities or technology is available. Marks & Spencer, the venerable British store has led the push to go green in their textiles with solar powered factories and cotton fibre supplies from sustainably irrigated fields but does this make their clothing ecofriendly? Not according to the folks at Terrachoice, whose standards for eco clothing is that it must be from organically grown fibre and NOT dyed. According to their standards then, every clothing or textile item in the market that has been either yarn dyed( stripes,check patterns etc ) or solid dyes is not ecofriendly regardless whether its yarns were organically grown or not!

With all these issues in mind, is there such a thing as ecofriendly clothing? The products that come closest to being anywhere kind to planet earth is recycled fibres. Not so much the recycled plastic bottles or rePET as its commonly known as this product has also gone through the same dyeing and refinishing processes but recycled cotton scraps. The odds and ends from factories that are chopped back into short fibres for spinning into new yarns. The technology is not new and companies like Jimtex in the USA have been around for years. Another maker, 2ndNature yarns has a great list of eco savings for recycled cottons from chemical and energy savings to landfill diversion and land savings.

A word of caution here though, as amazing as recycled cotton sounds, you have to dig deeper into its manufacturing processes as recycled cotton yarns are almost always blended with synthetic fibres to improve the strength of the yarn. The most common one is acrylic which some makers dye unfortunately, in order to achieve color brilliance or consistency. The other synthetic fibre commonly used in recycled cotton blends is recycled PET or plastic bottles and it’s the same case here, some users of this fibre use a dyed rePET yarn for color whereas some will ask for the more ecofriendly option, the undyed version.

Last but not least, is how the up to this point, eco friendly clothing item is finished. We’ve seen products on the market covered with plastisol inks that should have been banned from this earth for all the phthalates, PVC and other noxins in them. Some people just don’t get it.

*ttp://www.huffingtonpost.com/2010/04/04/aral-sea-almost-dried-up_n_524697.html
**http://www.ftc.gov/bcp/edu/pubs/consumer/alerts/alt160.shtm

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