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(Hemera Technologies/Getty Images)
(Hemera Technologies/Getty Images)

Textiles

Which is the greenest choice for your clothing? Add to ...

There was a push in the green fashion movement in the mid-2000s, with designers such as Stella McCartney, Ralph Lauren and Donna Karen supporting the movement. But since then, there has been much speculation that the green clothing movement is dying. Instead, many people are adopting a more ‘lean green’ approach, adopting local fashion, organic materials and recycled duds as their own.

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But it may not be all over yet, says Sarah Jay, fashion director for the Green Living show in Toronto.

“I think there will always be a demographic for whom green is a priority, but we’re finding that the angle that brands and consumers are wanting to come from is one that is fashion first.”

If it looks boring, feels scratchy and smells funny, consumers aren’t going to buy it.

For those wanting more ‘eco-chic’ attire, here are some of the most popular materials considered environmentally friendly.

BAMBOO

What is it?

Bamboo plants are a group of grasses that grow to tree size very quickly. Bamboo fabrics – popular among environmentally conscious shoppers for its soft, breathable and anti-static characteristics – are made using the plant’s soft leaves and fleshy insides.

How is it made?

Bamboo leaves are picked and their insides peeled, then compressed to make bamboo cellulose. Sodium hydroxide is added to the cellulose and the blend is left to soak for a couple of hours followed by further crushing. The mixture dries out for a day before several other chemicals are added. The final step is to weave it into yarn.

What makes it green?

Considered a pesky weed in parts of Latin America and Africa, bamboo is a renewable resource considered eco-friendly thanks to the plant’s ability to grow using few resources or space and can be found on every continent except Europe and Antarctica.

What’s the downside?

The chemical method of turning this plant into fabric requires high resource levels and chemicals such as sodium hydroxide (otherwise known as lye) and sulphuric acid, which, if handled poorly, could have detrimental effects on the environment. In 2010, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), an American consumer protection agency, reported some vendors were selling rayon goods disguised as bamboo because “extracting bamboo fibers is expensive and time-consuming,” according to the agency website. There is also debate over whether the chemical process strips bamboo of its anti-microbial qualities, or ability to kill potentially harmful microorganisms.

HEMP

What is it?

Available in clothing for more than 15 years, this material has had a speckled history thanks to its confused association with marijuana – not to mention its formerly rough, sometimes itchy feel. But recently consumer interest in hemp, Hemp is a variety of the Cannabis sativa plant, has grown as a result of hemp-based food products and new techniques to process the plant to make it softer and moisture wicking. It is strong, mildew-resistant, warm and blocks UV, or ultraviolet, rays better than many other fabrics.

How is it made?

Traditionally, hemp is harvested and left to dry for several days before employing a technique called retting, where water and mould are used to separate the fibres. Water retting is the most common: The plant is suspended in water to help separate the fibres. Using dew, or dew retting, is common in places with limited water resources. The moisture creates mould, which breaks down the plant over a couple of week and begins fibre separation. Industrial hemp processing uses steam, enzymes and ultrasound to separate the fibres.

What makes it green?

Hemp requires few resources to grow – approximately 10 per cent of the water needed to grow cotton – and it can survive in many global climates, such as Canada's. No herbicides or pesticides and very little fertilizer are necessary.

What’s the downside?

Hemp is illegal in the United States, though not in Canada, as its growth and production here was legalized in 1998. There has been a push throughout the U.S. to legalize the plant and to legally differentiate it from marijuana, a different variety of the Cannabis plant that has high levels of the psychoactive chemical THC. But its stigma runs deep. As well, some hemp textiles are created using chemicals. Canada is taking advantage of this plant’s growing popularity with hemp seed revenues reaching an estimated $30- to $34-million in 2011, according to the Government of Alberta. At its highest level in 2006, hemp was grown on more than 48,000 acres throughout the country.

ORGANIC COTTON

What is it?

Cotton – once known as the rich person’s commodity and the poor person’s crop – is well known for being one of the most resource intensive and unsustainable crops to grow in the world. Organic cotton tries to reverse this trend by using environmentally friendly growing processes in order to leave the smallest possible imprint on the landscape.

How is it made?

Organic cotton is made without pesticides, herbicides or non-natural fertilizer, and organic cotton farmers use techniques such as crop rotation and mixed cultivation to ensure that the environment is best served by their crop. Organic cotton farmers attempt to prevent soil erosion with green fences and other soil management techniques.

What makes it green?

Organic cotton producers use none of the pesticides, herbicides and fertilizers traditionally found in regular cotton. Organic cotton farmers, when possible, use natural processes that return nutrients to the soil, minimizing the impact of the crop while reducing their carbon footprint and contributing to biodiversity. A chief argument against regular cotton production is that it intensifies poverty because of the environmental degradation it creates, which, if added to the massive subsidies the U.S. gives its cotton producers, means that fewer farmers in the developing world can get a good price for their crop. On the flipside, a 2005 study by the Research Institute of Organic Agriculture in Switzerland, reported organic cotton can improve farmers’ lives and a farm’s soil fertility.

What’s the downside?

Despite the fact that it is organic, cotton is still a resource intensive crop to grow. Depending on where it is grown, it can take up to 2,953 litres of water to grow the equivalent of a single organic cotton T-shirt, according to the National Resources Defence Council. Growing organic cotton also requires up to 50 per cent more land to grow than regular cotton does.

RECYCLED POLYESTER

What is it?

Polyester (most commonly the polymer Polyethylene terephthalate, or PET), is made from melted plastic. But polyester is made using oil, which is not a renewable resource. One solution is to recycle the plastic into clothing and other goods.

How is it made?

Most recycled polyester is made by melting the plastic (whether clothes or bottles) and pushing it through moulds that turn the plastic into strands thin enough to be made into yarn.

What makes it green?

Recycling polyester takes 40-85 per cent less non-renewable energy and emits 25-75 per cent less greenhouse gases than making it from scratch, according to a study conducted at the University of Utrecht in the Netherlands. Recycling post-consumer polyester products such as bottles and clothing also means that thousands of items will be saved from landfills and oceans.

What’s the downside?

Despite the fact that recycled polyester saves energy compared with virgin polyester, it still emits more greenhouse gases and uses more energy than all of the other materials profiled here. Another issue comes when polyester is recycled because it often degrades, meaning that at some point the material will most likely be discarded or burned. Recycling polyester also fails to address the global problem of our dependence on non-renewable energy in manufacturing.

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