Published on September 7th, 2008 | by Stephanie Evans
Sustainable Fashion’s Many Alternative Materials
The word “clothing” implies a range of uses, from the purely
utilitarian to the inarguably luxurious. Clothing keeps us warm or
cool, depending on the circumstance and fabric, and it offers a medium
In a culture where image is still everything, consumers need as many
choices as possible to achieve their desired effect and comfort level.
After all, we use clothing to communicate as well as to cover up, and
personal style delivers an immediate, visual message. So what are we saying when we choose to wear clothing made of alternative materials?
Eco-Apparel: A New Image for Fashion
The ecological burden of today’s clothing industry weighs heavy on the shoulders of consumers who prefer a more sustainable product. A quick glance at the list of chemicals and carcinogens involved in the production of a simple pair of cotton socks is terrifying: What exactly do chlorine, formaldehyde, solvents, sulfuric acid, and caustic soda have to do with comfort and affordability?
Similarly grave are the industry’s labor issues. Take a brief, imaginary glimpse into the life of a garment factory worker in Asia or Central America: How is it that a child is working for pennies an hour, in a place where corporal punishment, physical abuse, and sexual harassment are prevalent?
In the interest of promoting greener standards, socially and ecologically minded individuals are grouping together to create a sustainable clothing market. Designers, manufacturers, growers, retailers, and consumers of clothing recognize the enormous global consequences of conventional clothing industry practices and the force of change is gaining momentum. Earth-friendly fashion made from alternative materials is on its way to the “in crowd.”
The word “alternative” describes a multitude of textile choices for manufacturers, designers, purveyors, and consumers alike. It can identify:
- Recycled clothing, bought in second-hand shops for example
- Clothing made from recycled materials, like Patagonia’s Common Threads line of outerwear made from recycled plastic
- Clothes made from plant fibers not typically used in the industry—like bamboo, hemp, kenaf, soy and others—can be called “alternative”
- Organic cotton, produced in a manner thoroughly (and thankfully) unlike its conventional counterpart, is considered alternative
- Wool from the earth-friendly alpaca
- Some synthetic textiles that are produced without risk to the environment or to involved humans can bear the classification “alternative”
Clearly, alternative materials run the gamut. Simply defined, alternative materials are alternatives to conventionally-produced textiles that are at the root of environmental problems and human rights violations. It is a term that can be used freely, unlike other labels that have much more stringent definitions.
Generally speaking, anything described as “eco” should be made from natural or recycled non-toxic materials that are produced in a safe manner. The processes must protect the environmental source of the materials from harm, as well as the people who are working with the material and the people who will eventually be wearing it. Descriptors like “organic” and “sustainable” have much more specific meanings that cannot be loosely interpreted:
- Organic clothing is made from certified organic fibers and connects the wearer to the agricultural processes that brought the fibers into existence.
- Sustainable clothing is becoming more and more standardized—in order for clothing to be considered sustainable, the pieces must be returnable to the natural and industrial systems from which they came. In other words, all aspects of the clothing must be recycled, recyclable, biodegradable, or some combination of the three. All sustainable clothing is produced with processes and materials that are safe and free of toxic chemicals, exploitative work practices, and noxious byproducts.
In contrast to the safety standards governing sustainable clothing, the processes that lead to the production of conventional materials and clothing can be extraordinarily harmful. For instance, skin allergies have been traced back to chemicals and dyes used to process cotton that is used to make onesies, the one-piece garments that keep newborns and young infants warm in their first few months of life. Some of these babies develop allergies to fabrics that are lifelong, thanks to their early exposure to the harshness of the chemicals in their clothes. And this is just one example of the negative effects of, for example, conventionally-produced cotton.
Cotton Knits, Knitted Brows
Cotton, in particular, is dealing with a lot of bad press nowadays. The cotton industry’s toll on the environment, on people, and on the global economy–previously hidden by cotton’s innocuous public image–has been exposed. But is cotton being unfairly demonized? Let’s look at the fact file…
Chemical pesticides and fertilizers are at the root of cotton’s toll on the environment.
- Approximately one-third of a pound of chemicals is needed to produce one pound of cotton.
- Five out of nine pesticides used to keep cotton safe from infestations are carcinogens.
Pesticides are not discriminating—they kill beneficial insects as well as pests and as the population of beneficial insects goes down, the numbers of pests go up, requiring even more chemicals to fend them off. Chemical pesticides and fertilizers contaminate water sources and pollute natural wildlife habitats.
Workers in factories, processing plants, and sweatshops who manufacture cotton clothing must cope with conditions like chronic pesticide poisoning and militarized management. The risks to their physical health, mental health, and fiscal security are numerous, as recent scandals involving many big-name retailers have revealed. Some members of the clothing industry have become infamous for their use of sweatshops and child labor. Garment factories in Sri Lanka, China, Malaysia, Thailand, and other countries that suffer from a low employment rate (and subsequent poverty) are most capable of exploiting their workers and subjecting them to appalling work conditions.
When American cotton is sold to a global market, the effect is powerful. Thanks to government subsidies, American growers can sell cotton cheaper than other countries and this practice drives the worldwide cost of cotton down. Countries like Brazil, Mali, and others in South America and southern Africa suffer as they depend on cotton for the bulk of their export earnings.
Now What? Sewing Up the Loose Ends
Alternative materials, which include organic cotton and organic denim, are sprouting up in the eco-fashion industry. An alternative material primer will come in handy for future style decisions:
- Recycled clothing, also known as recycled materials clothing, defines two different types of clothing. The first is in the form of clothing that used to belong and adorn someone else. These items can be found in thrift stores, consignment shops, vintage stores, yard sales, clothing swaps, and even a relative’s dusty attic. The other is in the form of clothing made from textiles created by recycling plastic or plant materials like corn, rice, and beets. Some of these fabrics can claim biodegradability and most of them, if not all, can be recycled over and over to make more textiles.
Unusual plant materials and processing measures are growing in popularity as well.
- Kenaf is a fiber harvested from a species of hibiscus and it is often one type of fiber found in jute rope.
- Though jute rope and cloth often contain a combination of fibers (textile plus wood), jute is also the name of a plant that grows with little need for fertilizer or pesticides.
- Legna is made from wood pulp, as is lyocell, which is sometimes considered a kind of rayon.
- Hemp has long been a popular alternative to cotton.
One drawback of alternative materials is the expense. The high prices are understandable: organic plants costs more to grow and to harvest, facilities used to manufacture alternative materials charge more to cover their own costs, and garment workers are actually paid a living wage. So if shopping is not on the agenda, there are plenty of ways to improve on clothes already in one’s own closet:
Laundry practices are often even more harmful to the environment than the practices that led to the textile’s existence. Harsh chemicals are used and energy and water wasted in practices like dry-cleaning (which, by the way, is not exactly “dry”), running the clothes dryer, and washing small loads in a non-energy efficient washer with detergents that eventually pollute water sources. Clotheslines, green cleaning products, energy-efficient washing machines, and even a washboard and some elbow grease can make a huge difference in energy and water consumed.
The impulse to toss or donate clothing that needs a little mending leads to fuller land-fills and even more clothing that must go travel through the recycling cycle, burning energy. Skills like button-sewing take moments to learn and can keep a garment on a hanger for years to come. Using worn-out clothes for household uses saves resources as well; cut up old t-shirts and sweatshirts are useful as dishtowels, rags, even napkins and eliminates the need for paper goods, for example.
Some say that the most eco-friendly clothing items are easy to locate: they are the clothes already in one’s own closet! Who knows, maybe the high cost of alternative materials and the energy-intensive processes required to recycle or produce even the safest of textiles, will encourage many in our consumer-driven society to resist the impulse to buy.