Skip to main content

Sustainable Fashion: A Six-Tip Primer (and watch out for bamboo)

  • Author:
  • Updated:
Style, Naturally

"See your cotton t-shirt? That's a quarter pound of pesticides." Converting people to eco-friendly fashion choices is as easy as that, said consumer specialist Ellen Karp at a recent panel discussion organized by education resource group Fashion Takes Action and co-sponsored by EcoCert.

But if you think sustainable fashion is about choosing organic cotton and garments made from bamboo, whoo boy are you in for a big brain bend. As we've discovered in other going-greener industries, sustainability in fashion world is a hugely complex concept that encompasses ecological as well as human-impact issues, and cries out for total transparency at each stage of the sourcing, manufacturing, distribution and disposal process.

"We'd like it to be as simple as 'cotton is good -- use it,'" says sustainability consultant Lorraine Smith. But, as most of us know, standard cotton production involves massive amounts of pesticides. And according to Smith, Karp and other sustainability experts, there's much more to think about, such as growing and harvesting practices; processing and manufacturing details, i.e. energy consumption and chemical treatments; labour; distribution; care; and product lifecycle. Without a thorough schooling, clear informed choices seem nearly impossible.

With Smith's help, however, I've come up with with a short list of tips for sustainable-fashion neophytes (including me):

1) "Decide what matters to you and make sure your choices meet your criteria," suggests Smith, who advises textile, retail and green-business corporate clients, and is herself a textile artisan. Are you about garments being chemical-free? Synthetics-free? Cruelty-free? Vegan? Recycled or recyclable? Biodegradeable? Locally sewn? Manufactured using fair trade and labour practices? Produced using wind power or water-reduced processes? "Define the impact of your greenness, how it actually impacts the earth," says Smith. Just be aware that few (if any) choices will meet all criteria at once. Make a hit list of priorities you can live with, or you might drive yourself into knitting your own hair shirts.

2) Hit the cold-water wash cycle, shun the dryer whenever possible, and try to avoid anything that needs drycleaning, a chemical process. "If you must go the drycleaner route, look for establishments who are or have switched to more eco-friendly solutions," suggests Smith.

3) Choose materials made of organic cotton, wool or silk. Smith says these are natural sources of "spinnable" fibre which, without chemical processing, can immediately be woven or knit into fabric.

4) If chemical-free fabric is important to you, be careful if you're thinking about rayon, Modal®, Tencel®, Seacel® (Tencel® + algae), Soysilk® and bamboo.They have natural origins, but undergo chemically-intensive processing in order to become spinnable fibres.

If you did a double-take at bamboo, newsflash: "The vast majority of bamboo textile on the market is made of rayon," explains Smith. In fact, this past March, Canada's Competition Bureau announced impending labelling regulations for bamboo fabrics. According to the bureau's website, unless the bamboo fibre content is "mechanically processed from natural bamboo fibre," it will be identified as rayon, rayon from bamboo, viscose from bamboo, or other terms depending on the chemical process used to create it.

And in the US just this month, four companies have been charged by the Federal Trade Commission for making falsely green claims regarding bamboo-fabric products. According to the FTC news release, "bamboo-based textiles, actually made of rayon, are not antimicrobial, made in an environmentally friendly manner, nor biodegradable."

5) Look for fair-trade sensitivity indicated by official labels, such as EcoCert Fair Trade, or Fair Trade Certified by Fairtrade Labelling Organizations International (FLO) -- in Canada it's TransFair.

6) Read Style, Naturally: the Savvy Shopping Guide to Sustainable Fashion and Beauty (Chronicle Books, January 2009) by Summer Rayne Oakes, an environmental scientist, activist and successful model. Oakes highlights her favourite eco-friendly designers and brands in the book, which makes it a good starting place for the sustainable-fashion newbie. (Confession: I haven't read it yet -- hope she's not all pro-bamboo across the board!)

In an ideal, eco-healthy world, making sustainable choices would be as easy as reading the labels, visiting supplier websites for honest answers and explanations about their decisions, and of course easy access to much more consumer education.

Smith offers a reminder that sustainable fashion is an emerging area and that things are already happening. "At least in Canada we can trust that our government has relatively good standards in regards to regulating labelling and potentially harmful substances, and the standards continue to improve. We're all just really removed from the supply chain so we don't know much about it; it's no-one's fault," she says. "It's just the way things are. Be patient, don't panic. We have systems in place and people working on the issues."