It was not long ago that clothing made with eco-friendly fabrics brought up images of treehuggers in burlap. But with ever-growing demand for clothing made from sustainable fabrics, more top designers are embracing the environmental trend. So which fabrics are truly eco-friendly? So many manufacturers are jumping on the bandwagon, we've asked a panel of fashion school experts to guide us through the choices. The fact is, even if a garment is marked as eco-friendly, the label does not need to tell you everything about what makes the fabric good – or bad – for the environment.
Organic cotton . Organically-grown cotton is produced without pesticides or artificial fertilizers. This sustainable farming practice not only results in cotton that is free of chemical pesticides, it creates a healthier workplace for farm workers. But just because a garment is made from organic cotton does not mean it's completely eco-friendly. If it's been dyed, see if it was done with low-impact dyes that are better for the environment. Better yet, look for organic cotton in shades that it's naturally grown in, like cream and light brown.
Bamboo . Bamboo is currently the superstar of eco-friendly fabrics, and on the surface, it appears to have everything going for it. More like a grass than a tree, bamboo grows quickly, and after it's cut, regenerates itself. And bamboo fabric feels as soft as cashmere. But the way it gets that soft is primarily through intensive chemical processing; in fact, the chemicals have been linked to health problems like headaches and nerve damage. And the news gets worse. As bamboo becomes more popular, environmentalists expect over-harvesting that will impact wildlife, as well as the clearing of forests to grow additional bamboo.
Wool . While some clothing manufacturers consider wool sustainable because it's a renewable resource, it's not a pretty picture for the sheep. They are subjected to toxic pesticides and handled roughly by handlers who, during the shearing process, slice off more than just wool. Wool that has been certified organic, however, comes from sheep that have been treated ethically and humanely.
Silk . Silk is a natural fabric that is renewable and biodegradable, so that's a few check marks in the sustainability column. But silk is usually produced in China, India, or other Far East countries where where US fair labor practices are not in place, and then transported across oceans to reach us – not great for fuel consumption. And then there's the little matter of the moths that are boiled alive after they've finished spinning the silk. For a more humane choice, look for vegan, or "peace" silk, in which the moths are allowed to live.
Linen . True linen is considered eco-friendly because it's made from flax, which is not usually farmed with pesticides. But as organic cotton, linen is better for you and the environment when it's in a natural shade, or dried with low impact tints. Our fashion school experts also caution us to be wary of "faux linen," which is actually just conventional cotton that's textured to look like linen.
Hemp . Hemp is considered one of the good guys because it requires no pesticides or herbicides and requires no irrigation. It even improves the soil where it's grown. It also has strong, typically long fibers that can be spun with minimal processing. However, hemp is not well regulated, so there is little monitoring of chemicals that growers may or may not have used. You just have to take their word for it.
Recycled polyester . An increasingly popular textile marketed as eco-friendly is polyester that is recycled to make new polyester. Basically, it's used clothing that's been shredded and processed to produce new fabric. How eco-friendly it really is depends on one's perspective. On one hand, it's polyester, which is not a natural fiber, so that's a minus. But it's saving old clothing from being dumped in landfills, so that's a plus. But it's processed with chemicals, so that's a minus again. Yet it takes less processing than if the fabric was made from scratch, so that's another plus.
PET recycled fabric . It sounds like a miracle: polyester fabric made from recycled water bottles. What a great use for all those millions of plastic water bottles we throw away every day. Just be aware again of the toxic chemicals and processing necessary to turn that bottle into a fleece jacket.
Tencel . Another man-made fiber, Tencel is made from wood pulp from managed forests. Because it's made from wood, Tencel is biodegradable. It's produced using less energy and water than conventional fabrics, and processed with a non-toxic chemical that is continuously recycled. The resulting fabric is breathable, with a hand that can feel like suede or silk. Just be sure to check the label to make sure that the Tencel was made from sustainable wood.
As you can see, sifting through all the organic and eco-friendly claims can be confusing. But while there is probably no one "perfect" sustainable fabric, at least environmental efforts in the textile and fashion design industries are heading in the right direction. We just need to be educated, and learn to distinguish truth from hype.