Eco-friendly fashion

written by The WellBeing Team

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Imagine wearing a stylish shirt made from a byproduct of corn? How about a luxuriously soft undergarment produced from bamboo fibres? With the shift in environmental consciousness, more and more people are opting for clothing made from natural fibres, using eco-friendly manufacturing practices. This is because some manmade textile products can have detrimental effects on the environment, such as pollutants that run off into river systems, chemical-laden toxic dyes used to colour the fabrics and unfair work practices for sweatshop workers.

Chemical clothing

Good Environmental Choice, a group that administers the Australian Certification Program for labelling, says that even cotton, one of the most common textiles, is grown and harvested with heavy use of herbicides and chemical fertilisers. Cotton accounts for more than 16 per cent of the world’s chemical pesticide use — that’s more than any other single crop.

Daron McFarlane, managing director and owner of Melbourne-based Eco Wear, says consumers should be wary of buying cotton that’s been sprayed with pesticides. “There will be residuals in the fibres when you wear them. So in the same way that people are conscious to go out and buy organic food that hasn’t been sprayed, you can argue that by wearing clothes on your skin that have chemical residuals your body is likely to be absorbing those as well.”

That’s just the tip of the iceberg. Many toxic chemicals used in the textile industry are known or suspected carcinogens, according to the experts. Good Environmental Choice Standards manager Sonya Ku says these carcinogens can be introduced to textiles at any phase of production. “This includes the processing of both natural and synthetic fibres and the treatment of textiles to achieve certain aesthetic or functional properties. Both known and suspected carcinogens can work their way into fabrics,” she says.

Organic products such as cotton, hemp and bamboo require negligible use of environmentally damaging fertilisers, insecticides, herbicides or fungicides. So going organic is good for not only your health but also the health of the planet. From organic cotton, to hemp, bamboo, soy and sorona (a corn byproduct), blends of bamboo with cotton, hemp and nettle, and much much more, it seems we really are spoilt for choice in eco-friendly clothing alternatives.

Friendly fibres

Organic cotton

Throughout its entire lifecycle, from planting to processing, organic cotton clothing incorporates environmentally sound processes. Organic cotton is non-genetically modified. It’s certified to be grown without the use of any pesticides or herbicides, so it’s meeting consumers’ demands for a clean, green product. Organic cotton was one of the first types of new “green” clothing. However, it does not offer as high a yield as non-organic cotton. Without the use of chemical fertilisers there will be some loss to insects, so levies are usually applied, meaning you pay a little bit more to go organic. But isn’t it worth it?

Soy

Soy fabrics are another eco-alternative to manmade textiles. Soy is best known for its silky-smooth feel. It’s a byproduct of tofu manufacture and has anti-bacterial properties, so it’s great for undergarments.

Bamboo

From flooring and screens to light fittings, fencing and now a diverse range of clothing, bamboo products are sprouting up all over the place. Unlike organic cotton, which can take up to eight years to be harvested, bamboo grows at a rapid rate and is ready to be harvested in just two years, says Sharon Down of Bamboo Fabric Store Australia. “It’s fast growing, has minimal use of pesticides and minimal water to process. This is where bamboo comes into its own as a great environmental choice,” she says.

“Bamboo is great for regenerating the soil — instead of degrading it, it helps to build it back up again,” adds McFarlane. Unlike other crops, it doesn’t require replanting — when bamboo culms are harvested, they simply send up more shoots, so it can be repeatedly harvested without any adverse effects on the environment. Some argue it’s the ultimate renewable energy resource.


Hemp

Hemp cloth has been discovered in the ancient tombs of Egypt and the hill tribe people in Southeast Asia still make their traditional garments with it. It’s one of the oldest plants used my mankind. Hemp fabrics are extremely soft and comfortable to wear, says Georgina Wilkinson of the Margaret River Hemp Company in Western Australia. “We’ve been in business for 10 years and, back then, the clothing was a little itchy-scratchy to wear. These days, it’s soft, silky and feels beautiful against the skin,” she says.

The types of hemp fabrics produced might have changed in the past decade, but some things haven’t. There isn’t a day goes by that Wilkinson isn’t asked the question, “So can I roll up and smoke this clothing?” The answer is no, hemp clothing is made from industrial hemp. Marijuana and industrial hemp share the name Cannabis sativa, but they are essentially different varieties of the same plant, she explains.

Natural processes

How natural fibres are processed depends on the material. To create garments made from hemp, the plant is immersed in water, says Wilkinson. “Water soaks the hemp, breaking down the fibres. Unlike other plant materials, you don’t need chemicals to break it down,” she says.

To turn the woody shoots of bamboo into fibres, the process is similar to that for producing rayon, says McFarlane. “Caustic soda is used to break down the fibres. Some might say it is a chemical but, in fact, it’s biodegradable,” he says. With some environmental concerns about the processing of the bamboo, many bamboo manufacturers use a closed-loop system, within the factory. “This means the products used to manufacture the bamboo stay within the factory and are continually recycled,” adds Down.

Fashionistas

Once considered by the fashion-conscious as eco-shabby, environmentally friendly clothing is now being touted by many designers as eco-chic. Designers all over the globe are embracing the shift towards eco garments, particularly bamboo, for many reasons. It has gained a firm foothold in the fashion world due to growing concerns about the amount of consumption and wastage within the industry, says Keshia Abeysekera, brand manager for Cylk.

“The ever-growing fast fashion model is heavily reliant on trend-driven, disposable fashion that is worn and then replaced with something else. Fashion houses are developing a conscience about the negative impact this has and are doing their bit to reduce waste,” she says.

According to Abeysekera, the collective environmental consciousness of the fashion industry has embraced several different types of eco practices. “This could be incorporating sustainable or organic materials into their collections, recycling or reclaiming used materials and reworking them into something new and innovative, or replacing existing procedures with practices that reduce the negative impact that they are having on the environment,” she says.

The skin you’re in

The cool, soft feel of organic cotton and the smooth, luxurious feel of bamboo are soothing against the skin. Not only do natural alternatives feel good, they’re good for you, according to the experts. Most clothing we wear is made from manmade materials; these are often petroleum-based synthetics, including polyester or nylon. These manmade textiles may aggravate some health issues, according to Rosemary Dunne, naturopath at Vibrance Natural Medicine in Melbourne.

Synthetic fibres don’t “breathe” as much as natural fibres — they produce more heat build-up. They can also trap moisture against the skin. For this reason, people with symptoms of Candida albicans, such as vaginal thrush and jock itch, can benefit from wearing organic natural fibres such as bamboo, which help to wick moisture away from the body, she says.

“The less chemicals we are subjected to, the better for our overall health,” she adds. “I strongly support organic natural fibre, particularly for clients with skin concerns such as acne and eczema.”

Back to Mother Earth

With the earth’s cache of natural resources depleting at an alarming rate, clothing that’s designed to last makes good environmental sense. Natural fibres such as bamboo and hemp are stronger, last longer and are more durable than their synthetic counterparts.

Take hemp, for example. Hemp clothing is extremely strong. A hemp item will last you for years because of its durability. And each time you wash it, you aren’t wearing it out; you are wearing it in, according to Wilkinson. “The hemp fabric changes and softens after each wash; it never loses that fresh, new look.”

Even the most durable of products has a lifecycle, and after organic eco-clothing has reached the end of its life it’s returned to the earth. Being 100 per cent biodegradable makes choosing eco-friendly options such as bamboo a wise move, as it can be completely decomposed without releasing harmful methane gases, a common byproduct of landfill.

Plastic bag couture

According to some estimates, between 500 billion and a trillion plastic Grocery bags are used globally each year. Plastics New Zealand shows New Zealanders use about 800,000,000 plastic bags a year. In Australia, consumers use about 4 billion plastic bags each year, according to Planet Ark. The good news is reliance on plastic bags is falling, with more eco-conscious consumers opting to use green bags. Yet there are still millions and millions of plastic bags in circulation that will take anywhere from 15 and 1000 years to break down.

You can get creative and put recycled plastic bags to good use as clothing so they don’t wind up in landfill. From dresses, tops, and raincoats to accessories such as handbags and jewellery, you are limited only by your imagination. What are you waiting for? Grab your knitting needles or crochet hook, round up some plastic bags from friends and family and do your bit to help save the planet.

Retro vintage

Have you dropped into your local Endos or Vinnies lately? If not, you could be in for quite a surprise. These new-look bargain stores, chock full of pre-loved clothing are treasure troves for the eco-savvy. If you do buy pre-loved, you are also doing your bit for the environment. Reusing clothing instead of discarding it to landfill is a sound environmental decision, says Rebecca Gilling, spokesperson for Planet Ark.

“Reusing represents a massive saving in natural resources such as energy and water. Keeping good-quality items in circulation rather than landfill is an important environmental choice we all need to make,” she says.

According to Gilling, going pre-loved allows to you make your own fashion statement. “You can express your own individuality by wearing vintage retro — and adapt them by altering hemlines, buttons and other style elements,” she says. You can also organise your own swapmeet with friends and trade clothing — you’ll add some new clothes to your wardrobe and with no cost to you or the environment. For more information on how to set up a swapmeet, visit recyclingweek.planetark.org/involvement/swap.cfm

Adding more green to your wardrobe

When adding items to your wardrobe, always choose quality over quantity. Go for classic long-lasting style over transient fashion trends. Look for great ways to give your wardrobe a new lease of life. Dye clothes that look faded (with natural vegetable dyes) and revamp items in your wardrobe with new-look belts and accessories.

Trade fair

In sweatshops across the globe thousands of workers are being exploited by the garment industry, working in excess of 100 hours each week for barely enough money to buy food to survive. If you choose products that carry the Fair Trade label, you are supporting not only the workers but the farmers who grow the crops and the communities in which they live.

Australian and New Zealand consumers are beginning to sit up and take notice, and make sound environmental choices. Retail sales of Fair Trade Certified products in Australia and New Zealand increased by more than 50 per cent between 2008 and 2009 to more than AU$50 million. In the rag trade, a fair exchange for a day’s work is not only a basic human right, it’s the cornerstone of a sustainable future, says McFarlane. “It’s all about karma. If everybody wins in the chain of production, it’s a sustainable way of doing things,” he explains.

“We pay our suppliers a fair price so they can pay their workers fair wages. Healthcare of workers is looked after; they get a good wage, so the workers are happy to do the work. We get a good-quality product; our customers are happy, so they want to buy more, so everybody wins.” McFarlane also urges consumers to be cautious when supporting some who make eco claims that he says are false. “We are seeing some designers who might have just 10 per cent of their range as organic cotton and natural fibres, but they portray themselves as eco-warriors. Most of what they do has nothing to do with eco issues,” he says.

How green is it really?

With eco clothing the new buzzword, you’ll discover many garments are laying claim to being eco-friendly — but are they? Labels might contain “earth-friendly”-looking images with a tree branch, or words like “natural” or “green”, or even graphic icons with green-looking logos. According to consumer watchdog organisation Choice, the labelling must be meaningful, verifiable and not full of hollow claims.

Choice spokesperson Aviva Lowy says Choice has taken a great interest in endorsements on food labelling and would want similar issues addressed in eco-friendly clothing certification. “These include the standards being open to broad public consultation and that the costs for manufacturers to participate allow for small companies to be included.

“The clothing industry seems to be lagging behind the food industry in adopting certification and labelling standards in relation to environmental concerns,” she says.

The Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS) was established to develop environmentally conscious and socially responsible organic farming and textile production. For a product to get the green tick of approval, it must pass stringent requirements along the entire supply chain. For more information check out www.global-standard.org/the-standard.html

The green arm of the law

The Australian Competition & Consumer Commission (ACCC) can prosecute those who try to dupe consumers about the environmental status of products. In 2008 the ACCC published a guideline, Green Marketing and The Trade Practices Act. False and misleading representations can carry a hefty fine of up to $ 1.1 million. Visit www.accc.gov.au.

Carrol Baker is a freelance journalist based in the lush tropical Sunshine Coast hinterland. She writes for lifestyle and health magazines across Australia and loves climbing mountains, trekking and exploring the great outdoors with her young family.


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The WellBeing Team