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Shopping for Clothes the Green Way

written by: Kantha Wijeratne•edited by: Donna Cosmato•updated: 2/7/2011

Many of us enjoy shopping for clothes. Quality, durability, color, style and price affect our buying decisions. As our concern for the environment grows, we also tend to check on the “green content" of the clothes we buy. We can help in this effort by adopting a green way to shop for clothes.

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    The concept of green living calls for eco-conscious decisions in how we buy and use things. This is certainly so when shopping for clothes. Nowadays, we look for more than quality, durability, and style in the price we pay for clothes. The clothing industry is responding with a range of “green" clothing sourced from natural fibers such as cotton, silk, and hemp. What we fail to realize is there are negative environmental consequences in producing such green clothing just as with synthetic clothing.

    There is an alternative. Rather than look for “green" clothing, we can choose our clothes in a more eco-conscious manner. A green way of shopping makes us look to reducing two components, pre-consumer and post-consumer waste, in the clothes we buy.

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    Pre-consumer Waste

    Pre-consumer waste relates to all the processes that convert a raw material such as cotton to the clothing item we buy from the shop. Planting of cotton or hemp for clothing requires land. This means clearing land or taking away areas on which other food crops are grown. The crops, especially cotton, are highly dependent on chemical fertilizer. It is reported that one-third of a pound of fertilizer is required to make just one cotton T-shirt. Most of the processes involved in breaking down natural fibers require water and energy. Additional chemicals are added during the conversion of the fabric to a finished garment. As is apparent, the green clothing we proudly wear do have some environmental flaws.

    Alternatively, fabrics produced from organically grown crops use no chemical fertilizer or pesticides or do not use genetically modified material during growing. Clothing made from such fabric will carry certification from the Organic Trade Association that it was processed, transported, and packaged in the most non-toxic manner possible. This is why organic clothing is expensive.

    As opposed to organic clothing derived from natural sources, there are also clothes produced from sustainable fabrics. The Institute for Market Transformation to Sustainability (MTS) has developed the Sustainable Textile Standard against which such textiles can be graded. A sustainable textile can be petrochemical or bio based. It must be produced using environmentally friendly processes throughout the supply chain and be capable of returning safely either to a natural or industrial system. Sustainable clothing, though not natural, can lend itself to green living on account of these factors.

    In between organic and sustainable textiles are man-made fibers, which are based on crops such as wood pulp, soy, corn, and flax. These crops require energy intensive processing to convert them to fabrics suitable for clothing. The plus factor here is since they are plant based, they are bio-degradable.

    Processes involved in the clothing industry such as harvesting, processing, stitching, and finishing are labor intensive. Some producers use labor practices that infringe on the rights and dignity of workers. We can help stop such abuse by buying clothes that are advertised as produced under fair trade conditions.

    Continue reading on page two for more information on eco-friendly shopping.

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    Page two continues the discussion of the best eco-friendly shopping methods.
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    Reducing post-consumer waste

    What happens to our clothes after we are done with them? They continue to take up closet space, unless we re-use, donate or throw them out. We can contribute directly to reduce this post-consumer wastage.

    Planning out what we want to buy can prevent post-purchase blues. What is currently in fashion may be out of style in a few months. The better way is to buy classical styles and colors that can give good service for ten years or more. Clothes that will team with existing items are also a good choice.

    The care and maintenance of our clothes take up a major chunk of energy. Clothes that do not require dry cleaning and can be cold washed and line dried help save energy. They are kinder on our wallets and the environment. Most dry cleaning methods use harmful chemicals. Clothes that require warm washing or pressing, use up more energy. Attending to stains, rips, and lost buttons immediately can also help preserve the quality of our clothes.

    Buying used clothing lends itself to green shopping. By re-using we prevent clothes ending up in landfills. Most times, we also indirectly help charities that collect used clothing to raise funds for their projects.

    Industries devoted to producing re-purposed clothes are also springing up. Fashion designers are creating clothes made from items like used soda bottles to old umbrellas. Not only are materials being re-used but these new ventures also help to create employment for others.

    Another valuable green living idea we can apply to shopping is not to buy at all. How badly do we want that dress or shirt? Can’t we make do with what we have? Less stuff means neater closets, fewer things to throw out, less time deciding what to wear, and more funds saved for other purposes. It is also the best way to help our environment.

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    Technology and the consumer choices they provide have spoilt our environment. Fortunately, there is room for hope. As consumers, we are becoming more aware of how the choices we make can help reverse this trend. Industry is taking note. The standards and certification schemes that are evolving will ultimately lead to more eco-conscious and economical ways of production that benefit us as consumers. We can contribute to this effort by shopping for clothes in a greener way.