Green Fashion: Apparel Shopping Guide

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eco fashionThese days it’s not hard to be fashionable the eco-friendly way. Sustainable fashion has become the new “it” trend from the runways to the big brands to boutique designers. Why? Because the fashion industry is the second most polluting industry in the world, and a lot of good people are set on changing that disturbing reality. Apparel is also a $3 trillion worldwide industry, and the very best way to change dirty habits in an industry that huge is for consumers like you and me to green up our own shopping habits, growing the market for sustainable, ethical fashion. Here are some tips on finding green fashion that won’t curb your style.

1. Try Eco Couture

Forward thinking sustainable brand consultants at Eco-Age host the annual “Green Carpet Challenge“, an effort to raise awareness in the fashion world about sustainability, ethics and social welfare at high profile events around the world such as the Oscars, Golden Globes, BAFTA, and annual Met Gala. The first Green Carpet Collection, which debuted at London Fashion Week in 2013, was a complete sell out, and the Green Carpet Challenge has only grown, adding more brands, designer collaborators and celebrity endorsements each year. With more and more high-profile celebrities touting eco-couture, top fashion designers around the world have begun to dip their toes into sustainable solutions. Last December, Karl Lagerfeld debuted a gorgeous line of haute eco couture pieces made of wood, straw and paper at Chanel’s Métiers d’Art show. No, Chanel has not become a sustainable brand, but efforts like these propel sustainability into the public eye, paving the way for the more destructive mainstream, mass produced fashion brands to follow suit. If couture is your thing, check out designers and brands on the list of GCC collaborators, or try out smaller eco couture designers like Sanyukta Shrestha, Studio Tammam, Eva Zingoni, Gary Harvey Creative, Annaborgia, Sohad Acouri, Ezra Santos CoutureDaniel Silverstein, Leanne Marshall (thanks to Eluxe Magazine for this list).

2. Check out Big Name Eco-brands

In 2011, Greenpeace launched their “Detox My Fashion” campaign, releasing a shocking “Toxic Threads” report about hazardous chemical use, emissions and pollution by top retailers worldwide and challenging them to take a pledge to eliminate the discharge of these chemicals from their supply chains and products completely by 2020. Why does this matter? Because clothing from these brands contains toxic and carcinogenic chemicals that touches our skin and gets emitted into the air we inhale. Furthermore, toxic chemical use in manufacturing is polluting rivers and water sources around the manufacturing facilities and emitting greenhouse gases into the atmosphere (EcoWatch). Major offenders included the likes of Georgio Armani, Zara, GAP, Tommy Hilfiger, Calvin Klein, Esprit, Victoria’s Secret and many others. To date, Greenpeace’s efforts have collected 76 big brands who have pledged to eliminate hazardous chemical discharge from their supply chains and products by 2020. Each year, Greenpeace evaluates how these pledgees are doing to accomplish this goal, and which companies are slacking, causing their pledge to be greener look more like a “greenwashing” marketing ploy than true commitment to change. Greenpeace’s 2016 “Detox Catwalk” rated Inditex (Zara), Benetton and H&M as the only companies on target to reach their 2020 goal, though companies like Puma, Adidas, Mango, Valentino, Burberry and Levis are making progress.

On the other hand, some companies are making good progress on multiple fronts. Check out Eileen Fisher, who won an award from Riverkeeper for her efforts to reduce water use and carbon emissions, to convert to increasingly higher percentages of organic cotton and linen and to make her brand fully sustainable by 2020. Stella McCartney has been working hard to green up by switching to organic materials, renewable energy and not using PFC chemicals. Ralph Lauren has reorganized its shipping and distribution to cut down on carbon emissions and petroleum usage and has switched to using more recycled content in its products and building LEED certified stores. In addition to its commitment with Greenpeace to detox from hazardous chemical use and pollution, the world’s largest retailer, H&M, also works with World Wildlife Fund to reduce its water footprint by switching to the more water-efficient Better Cotton, has its own clothing recycling campaign to eliminate textile waste, reduced its carbon emissions by more than half and increased the amount of sustainably sourced materials in its clothing lines to 20% (Quartz). However, H&M is still faaaar from sustainable, with the inherent problem being the enormous quantity of “fast fashion” clothes the brand produces daily.

3. Shop in Eco Boutiques

As popular as eco fashion has become in luxury brands, it is rampant in the boutique world, leading to the rise of eco boutiques and boutique designers around the world. Check out this list of “10 (Eco) Boutiques to Shop Instead of Going to Fashion Week” by Brooklyn Fashion + Design Accelerator, or “The 13 Best Eco-Friendly Fashion Sites” by EcoCult, or check out the brands at EcoMall.com for online shopping. For in-store shopping, check out your local eco boutique. In NYC, check out CBS New York’s suggestions for “NYC’s 6 Best Eco-Friendly Clothing Shops“, like Kaight in Brooklyn. In Boston, try Ash & Rose. In LA, check out EcoSalon’s list of “10 Made in LA, Hot, Fresh and Eco-Friendly Fashion Labels“, such as Reformation (also in NYC). For more information on sustainable, ethical designers and brands, check out Trusted Clothes, an organization that promotes sustainable, ethical and healthy fashion, or Ethical Fashion Forum, a global platform for sustainable fashion businesses.

4. Look for Eco-Friendly Materials

Even if you don’t shop at strictly sustainable stores, try searching for more sustainable fabrics and materials in the clothing and accessories you buy.

Avoid

Nylon, acrylic and polyester, petroleum products that are highly polluting (nylon gives off nitrous oxide, a greenhouse gas 300 times more potent than carbon dioxide, and polyester is made with lubricants that can contaminate water) and use large amounts of water and energy to produce. Recycled polyester, while green in theory, depends on large quantities of recycled plastic. At today’s low recycling rates, not enough recycled plastic is available, causing companies to buy new, unused bottles and recycle them into fabrics for the “greenwashing” marketing effect of a “recycled” label only (EcoWatch). Plus, although recycled plastic uses less energy and produces less emissions than virgin polypropylene, recycling PET still uses more energy and produces more emissions than most natural fiber fabric production (O Ecotextiles).

Rayon is a synthetic material made from wood pulp from unsustainable, water-guzzling, old-forest-clearing tree plantations and requires hazardous chemicals for production. Traditional cotton is a huge water-guzzler, as well as the biggest single user of pesticides in the world (which remain in the fabric and are released over the lifetime of the garment). Wool is treated with organophosphate chemicals that also remain in the fabrics and can attack human nerve enzymes to create a variety of neural issues. Leather creates a big impact from farming practices and highly polluting tanning and dying chemicals (like chromium, sulfides and pesticides). PVC is a non-degradable petroleum-based plastic that causes intense contamination from its production and disposal. Polycotton and wrinkle-free, easy-care and crease-free cotton and wool fabrics are usually treated with formaldehyde (also used for flameproofing nylon). Washing before wearing will remove some of the formaldehyde.

Also beware of chemical dyes (which can include nonylphenols), dye fixatives (often heavy metals), bleaches (dioxin-producing chlorine compounds) and harmful glues and waterproofing solvents (like polyurethane and laminates) — all of which are harmful substances that use tons of water and leach into water sources, since treatment plants cannot remove them (Green Choices).

Better Materials

Organic cotton uses no pesticides, less water and less financial resources than traditional cotton, organic cotton yields slightly less cotton per hectare, but almost twice the profit for farmers. Organic cotton is also likely to be free from chlorine bleaches and synthetic dyes. The Pesticide Action Network in the U.K. (promoters of “Wear Organic“) and the World Wildlife Fund in the U.S. (promoters of sustainable “Better Cotton“) teach farmers how to make the switch and achieve higher success environmentally and financially.

Hemp is highly productive, naturally pest-resistant and water efficient — an ecological super fiber for fabrics and yarns. Tencel, a regenerated cellulose fiber, can be used to create a soft rayon material like bamboo, but without the toxic solvents. Tencel is made from eucalyptus wood pulp grown in groves certified as sustainable by the Forest Stewardship Council. Linen is natural fiber fabric that comes from flax, a plant requiring less energy, less water and fewer pesticides and fertilizers than cotton. Organic linen is even better, using fewer chemicals.

Some materials are better than others, but still aren’t awesome for the environment. Bamboo is also a fast-growing plant material with hypoallergenic, fast-drying and naturally anti-bacterial qualities, and in and of itself a fairly sustainable plant. But bamboo fabric production uses toxic solvents like carbon disulfide, and other chemicals like sodium hydroxide and sulfuric acid. Factories typically recover only 50% these chemicals, meaning the other half get dumped straight into the environment (ecouterre). Although organic wool is produced using sustainable farming practices and without toxic sheep dip, it still requires lots of water for washing, creates enormous amounts of pollution from the scouring, and uses more chemicals and wastewater for shrinking, descaling, pest prevention, weaving, dyeing and finishing.

What can you do today?

Make a commitment to choose greener options for your wardrobe. Switch from buying cheap, disposable “fast fashion” items to longer term wardrobe staples. Find eco-friendly apparel shops and brands that work for you, either online or in your area, and make a habit of shopping there first. If all else fails, choose the greenest fabrics you can. Beware of companies that greenwash by touting only individual sustainable products or other flashy green initiatives but still do more harm than good or that tout recycled products but recycle unused materials in order to recycle them. Tell your friends about green fashion brands. Keep reading Everyday Earthiness’ Green Fashion tips — there’s more to come!

Featured video of the day:

Maxime Bédat, co-founder of sustainable, ethical online clothing and accessories purveyor, Zady, lays out the problems and solutions of the world’s second most polluting industry in this informative TEDx talk.

Check out other Green Fashion posts by Everyday Earthiness:

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