Chicken feathers, hemp, recycled pop bottles, bamboo … sounds like a landfill or at least the recipe for a science project. In fact, all these eco-friendly ingredients are becoming big players on the horizon of the sustainable clothing industry.
Combined with responsible business practices and an eye for fashion, eco-clothing is weaving its way into the consciousness of the “green” customer.
Most of the clothing for sale across the globe contains petroleum-based synthetics and plastics, adding pressure to the planet's dwindling supply of non-renewable resources.
Here are several materials that support sustainability.
Organic cotton uses significantly fewer amounts of chemicals than is used in traditional cotton fields.
One of the oldest materials known to humans, hemp is less dependent on pesticides and is more durable than cotton. Because the U.S. government has banned the cultivation of hemp, clothing sold in this country is made from hemp grown elsewhere.
Scientists at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln are developing ways to turn agricultural waste products into biodegradable, affordable, renewable "agro-fabrics." Still in the concept phase, one project focuses on transforming leftover chicken feathers into a fabric that resembles wool.
Material made from recycled objects is also gaining popularity. Fortrel EcoSpun is a fleece material made by Wellman Inc. from recycled plastic bottles. About 25 two-liter plastic pop bottles can be transformed into a pullover while a vest requires about 15 bottles. Wellman estimates it has the capacity to save about 500,000 barrels of oil a year by recycling almost 3 billion plastic bottles for its product, which is sold by businesses like Patagonia.
These renewable, clean, green choices are spreading as people become more aware of the "footprint" they leave on the planet, says Marya Hecht of Nectar Eco Boutique in Ashland.
"Many of them want options that reflect that awareness," says Hecht. "On the fashion side, a lot of designers drawn to these fibers are also fashion-forward, creative individuals making great products. It is a convergence of materials and design."
“So many other products are, let’s face it, petroleum-based and that only adds to our planet’s resource problems,” says Bob Bestor, owner of Travel Essentials in Ashland, a store that sells DreamSacks, SmartWool and other eco-friendly clothing products.
Response to these lines of environmentally responsible clothing has been “incredible,” says Bestor, with consumer interest and product variety booming in just one year.
“Having eco-friendly clothing is important, because it gives people another way to choose to support our environment and the future,” says Meryl Bacon of DreamSacks Inc. in Ashland.
Started several years ago with a line of sleeping sacks made of sustainably grown and harvested silk, DreamSacks has grown to meet the demand. Recently, owner Nancy Morgan introduced Bamboo Dreams: women’s wear and baby goods made of 95 percent bamboo fiber and 5 percent spandex.
“Bamboo is a quick-growing, sustainable and rapidly renewable crop,” Bacon explains.
“Turning it into clothing can be done with minimal impact to the environment.” And yes, it’s a soft, cozy fabric to wear.
Crops of bamboo can be grown in just three years; it also naturally repels insects, decreasing the need for pesticides. Chemical-free dyes are used for color and it’s all done in factories that support employee comfort and rely on low-impact energy sources.
Much the same can be said for clothing made from organic hemp, soy and cotton.
“Conventional cotton is an extremely chemical-intensive crop,” says Marya Hecht, co-owner with Nicoya Hecht of Nectar Eco Boutique in Ashland. “When grown repeatedly on the same land, it results in depleted and poisoned soil and polluted groundwater. This leaves the land unusable for any other crops.”
Such damage harms the economies, climate and people where the crops are grown—often in Third World countries. Introducing green practices can actually reverse this trend.
“This results in not only environmental, but also social and economical benefits by supporting sustainable agriculture in developing countries,” Hecht says.
But it’s not just that sustainable clothing is a “feel good” economic choice; it also just plain feels good. Natural fibers wick moisture from the skin, allowing the body to breathe through the clothing and stay dry. They also moderate body temperature and reduce common allergies and breathing troubles associated with the “outgassing” from the tiny plastic vapors used in acrylic, nylon and polyester.
“Anytime you can get into natural clothing, you’ll feel the difference,” says Bestor. “Synthetic fibers trap moisture and odor, but these fabrics breathe well, are hypoallergenic, are odor-resistant and are incredibly soft.”
Traveling with clothing made from fabrics like bamboo is also a breeze, Bestor says. “Wrinkles fall out quickly and they dry fast.”
More good news is that eco-clothing is as easy to care for as conventional fabrics. None of it requires dry-cleaning and most can be hand or machine-washed in cool water with mild soap. Use the low setting or lay flat to dry.
Because of its relative newness on the market, eco-clothing still isn’t widely available. Other challenges include higher costs than synthetic imports, limited selection, turnover of vendors and variations in product consistency.
“There is certainly room for improvement in many arenas,” says Hecht of the growing industry. “But each one of our products reflects a commitment to quality, sustainability and equity.”
And although many consumers are still driven by looks and price, this type of commitment to a more sustainable clothing market can change the world’s wardrobe for the better.
“If you think of it in a trickle-down way,” says Bestor, “as more manufacturers move into green practices, more consumers will make better decisions, even if they don’t know they’re doing it.”
That’s reason enough to “change into something more comfortable” … for you, for the environment and for the future.