Dear Umbra,

I’ve never appreciated human-made fabrics — polyester and its cousins invariably feel less comfortable to me than cotton or wool. Until recently, I thought this personal preference also had the happy side effect of making me a greener clothes shopper, since producing natural fibers doesn’t involve long chains of polymers. A friend recently claimed otherwise, telling me that the growth, harvesting, and shipping of cotton from around the globe (indeed, my very favorite all-cotton shirt was manufactured in Burma — yikes!) means it does more damage to the environment than the factories that produce the artificial fabrics. Is my friend right? Should I resign myself to a more Elvis-like wardrobe?

Steve

Dearest Steve,

A clothes call.

I’ve got some good news and some bad news. The bad news is that you’ll be hard-pressed to find a common textile that isn’t soberingly toxic to produce. It makes sense if you think about the raw materials — wood, cotton, sheep, oil — and what it might involve to transform them into a soft blouse. So what’s the good news? It’s not clear that one fabric is far better than another, which means you can avoid the Elvis look. The modern environmental era has introduced techniques for evaluating the life-cycle impacts of products such as textiles. Such an evaluation sometimes results in clear-cut guidelines for shoppers, but in the contest for The Environmentalist’s New Clothes, I can’t find a clear winner.

All textiles, as currently manufactured, require large volumes of water throughout the manufacturing process. Spinning, dyeing, weaving, scouring, sizing — all involve flushing the threads or fabric with water at one point or another, and often that water comes away contaminated with chemicals used earlier in the process. Common toxic substances include volatile organic compounds (VOCs) and dioxin-producing bleach. Synthetic/cotton blends are usually treated with formaldehyde, which may account for the continued sightings of a well-preserved Elvis.

Thread materials are also water-intensive and toxic-heavy. Cotton is renewable in that it can be replanted, but it is not grown sustainably. It’s said that cotton accounts for one percent of U.S. crop production but 10 percent of U.S. pesticide use. Pesticides are used not only to deter pests but to defoliate plants for harvesting convenience. Rayon is made from cellulose (wood pulp, with its own relationship to poor forestry practices) — and talk about toxic: Turns out that sulfuric acid is handy when transforming a tree into a chemise. Fabrication of petroleum-based fabrics like nylon and polyester is energy-intensive and greenhouse-gas producing. And, sheep are often bathed in organophosphates to control parasites. Thus completes our brief look at the laundry list of lamentable dilemmas for the clothed.

But you can still be thoughtful about the clothes you buy, and of course I’m full of suggestions for improving your eco-couture. To wit:

  • Buy used clothing. To the uninitiated it may seem that used clothes are dowdy, ripped, pilly, and available only in unattractive stores. To the addicted, secondhand-clothing stores are a treasure trove of budget-friendly fashion. There are shopping environments for all types, from Goodwill to the Gentleman’s Consignment Shoppe.
  • Continue to buy “natural” fabrics that need little laundry care. Avoid clothing that must be dry-cleaned, frequently bleached, or washed in hot water, and you’ll do quite a bit to cut down your impact.
  • Buy sustainably made clothing when you have the cash. Organic cotton is becoming more readily available and doesn’t leave pesticide residue on your neck. Polar fleece made from recycled plastic is labeled as such and is a good thing.
  • Buy fewer clothes. No, I did not say wear fewer clothes.

Shirtily,
Umbra