United States: Natural Fabrics "Green" the Fashion Industry
By Barney DuBois, BiobasedNews.com
We're talking trillions of dollars. The world's apparel industry is one of the three necessities of life, remember? And we humans spend more for clothing than we do for anything else but the other two - which are food and shelter.
It wasn't long ago that we depended on large department stores plus neighborhood boutiques and shops - augmented by an occasional catalog order or lay-away purchase - to keep ourselves snappily attired for anything. This was interrupted by Wal-Mart, Target and the hundreds of specialty retailers whose brands we have memorized and forgotten. And now, the Internet is taking us to yet another level of confusion - and making lots of business for FedEx and UPS!
The term "green clothing" emerged somewhere during this massive retailing shift of the past decade, and the term's definition is yet being decided in the open market. Vogue magazine's latest issue underscores the importance of this debate, featuring the hottest new "green" styles (including an eco-bikini) worn by actress Cameron Diaz. The fashion mag's cover is even printed in green ink! But inside its pages are also the kinds of things you would expect - including a bachelorette party dress that requires $11,495 of your "green" and is about as recyclable as a can of motor oil.
The Vogue layout is a big boost, though, for a number of eco-friendly newer mainstream brands like Stella McCartney, Urban Zen, Rag & Bone, Tibi, and Urban Outfitters - among others - who are actively promoting their lines to fashion-conscious shoppers who want to be "with it" - whatever "it" is! All these brands feature organic cotton, natural silk, natural linen, bamboo, hemp and recycled materials of all kinds - including a belt made from a reclaimed fire hose.
But "green" clothing is not ALL about the marketing. Some niche brands have been eco-friendly for years, most of them in the outdoor clothing category. Among these is Patagonia, which has evolved in little more than a decade from a mountain-climbing equipment maker to one of the most frequently cited "green" clothing companies. Another is prAna, a rising brand that also began as a maker of rock-climbing equipment. Dozens of other companies in this sector have sprouted, all of them featuring renewable, sustainable fabrics. A Google search will keep you busy for hours!
The debate, of course, is what constitutes "green"? And the makers of all these clothing lines are working round the clock to make that definition fit their particular brand. Unlike the food industry, which has industrial oversight from the USDA, EPA and FDA, the clothing industry has only loosely organized trade groups that provide neither inspections nor guarantees for consumers.
An example is the term "organic cotton" - which appears to be reaching an accepted standard, including here in the U.S., through the rise of third-party systems to verify that the product is grown without "uncertified" fertilizers, insecticides, and genetically altered seeds, and harvested by natural means. According to the Organic Trade Association, the leading producers are India, Syria, Turkey and China - where cheap labor helps cloud a consensus that organic cotton actually is overall more "friendly to the environment." But worldwide production increased 152% last year, according to the OTA, to 668,581 bales grown on 161,000 hectares in 22 countries.
U.S. acreage increased from 8,510 acres in 2007 to 9,279 acres in 2008 - about a 9% increase - and it is forecast that 12,000 acres may be planted here this year. The reason for this paltry output, of course, is economics - yields are much lower, producing less revenue per acre than with standard cotton. But traditional cotton uses 25% of the pesticides and 10% of the fertilizers in all agriculture, making it by far the most chemically enhanced crop - a target frequently cited by "green" clothiers!
In addition to natural fabrics, apparel makers also are turning to recycled materials - including polyester fiber from used plastic drink bottles! Some of these blends are virtually revolutionary, like a new line of men's suits and jackets just introduced by Sears that are 54% recycled polyester, 42% wool and 4% Spandex!
Big chemical companies aren't sitting idle, either. DuPont has several renewably sourced products - including a corn-based bio-polymer, Sorona, which largely replaces petroleum-based feedstock and already is being used by major brands like Izod, Timberland and Calvin Klein.
The "greenest" clothing, of course, is what you're wearing now or have hanging in your closet or slotted in your shoe rack. How else could you better say "zero" environmental impact than by wearing it until it falls apart, and then recycling it?
But that wouldn't be cool, now, would it? You'd be so "last year"!
Barney DuBois can be reached by email at bdubois at biobasednews.com.