Creating an Eco-Friendly Wardrobe

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Shopping at thrift or vintage stores can save you an estimated 400 dollars a year on clothes.
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“We Can All Live Green” by Jennifer Noonan offers tips to bring down every day costs, while also positively contributing to the environment.

We Can All Live Green (St. Lynn’s, 2008), by Jennifer Noonan presents examples of your daily lives that puts stress on the environment, and offers green solutions to ensure that the environment and our wallets re being treated better. In this excerpt, Noonan informs her reads how knowledge in your clothing options and a switch in your shopping habits can save you hundreds of dollars each year.

Fashioning A New Look

We all need clothes. We don’t need clothes the way we need food, water, air and shelter – but for all intents and purposes, we need clothes. They keep us comfortable, they express our individuality and taste. We spend a lot of time, thought and money on our clothes. But aside from the label, the price and the trendiness of an item, few of us know the story behind the clothes we’re wearing. And you might be surprised. It’s well worth a bit of sleuthing. Three important questions to ask:

What is it made of?
Where was it made?
How much energy was used to get it to me?

What is It Made Of?

Over 97 percent of clothes items are made from the following two materials: cotton (40 percent) and synthetic fibers (57 percent). Let’s look first at cotton:

Cotton is the most common natural fiber in use today (other natural or animal fibers include wool, silk, hemp and bamboo). Total international trade of cotton is over 12 billion dollars yearly. In many developing countries hungry for economic growth, cotton is referred to as “white gold.”

Traditionally grown cotton – It seems logical to assume that cotton is nice and natural. And it is, but… Traditionally grown cotton is cultivated with a heavy use of pesticides and insecticides. In fact, cotton makes up 11 percent of total global pesticide use and 25 percent of total global insecticide use, which is an astounding number for one single agricultural group.

So we need to be aware of chemicals in the fabrics we use, just as we are with our foods. The chemicals that are used to control pests and insects on crops (including cotton) soak into the ground, water supply, into the air and into the environment as a whole – which eventually affects all living things on the planet. The flip side of this picture is that not all cotton is grown this way.

Organic cotton – Just as there are organic foods, there is organic cotton, grown without pesticides or other man-made chemicals. If you have young children or elderly family members, you might want to help lessen their exposure to these chemicals by switching them over to organic cotton – starting with sheets and night clothes, which have the most contact with their bodies. Nice to know: Wal-Mart, Target and Bed Bath & Beyond have 100 percent organic cotton twin sheet sets for under 30 dollars. And sells 100 percent organic cotton crib sheets for 10.95 dollars.

Synthetic (man-made) fibers – Synthetics are in 57 percent of our clothing, and they’re created in a number of different ways: Nylon comes entirely from petrochemicals (materials made from petroleum or hydrocarbons). Acrylic, polyester, acetate and olefin all undergo a series of chemical processes in order to be made into clothing. Rayon (not considered a true synthetic because it’s made from a cellulose material) also goes through several chemical processes before it’s finally usable as a clothing textile. I’m not saying that these are necessarily harmful, but the closer you stay to simple and natural and away from highly processed products, the better it is all around – and the smaller the environmental footprint.

Knowing the Toxins

The EPA establishes tolerance limits to pesticides or MRLs (maximum residue levels) that establish how much pesticide residue is tolerated for our food and product supply. Tolerance limits have been established for imported and domestic products. Some pesticides are exempted from a tolerance limit.

Take a good look at your closet. It may seem strange that clothing can come into contact with pesticides, insecticides or chemicals of any kind, but the following are the most common places where your clothing item may have been in contact with chemicals or harmful substances:

In the creation of the raw materials of the clothing (traditionally grown cotton and the use of pesticides/insecticides, synthetic fibers and the chemical processes used to create the fiber)

In the production of the raw materials to create the final product (synthetic fiber chemical processes, dyeing processes, chemicals added to create or alter the natural or synthetic fiber)

It is hard to know just how many chemicals we can be exposed to without harm to our bodies. We Can Live Green goes by the common sense method: Because all living things have the same operating system of DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid) that exists in different combinations based upon the organism, it makes sense to think that if a substance is harmful to one organism it just might be harmful to other organisms that come into contact with the substance as well.

Now, we realize the story is a bit more complicated than this, but we think this is an important first step in taking a bit more critical view of the substances around us and how these substances might affect our bodies. We might not have all the answers at the moment, but the answers we do have point overwhelmingly to the direction of “The fewer toxic chemicals in our bodies, the better.”

Here a phrase you’ll be hearing a lot in the coming days: “company transparency.” This means that a company reveals its positive and negative impacts on the planet through its manufacturing, distribution and production efforts to consumers. The outdoor clothing manufacturer Patagonia is a prime example of company transparency.

Where is It Made?

There are arguments on both sides about importing clothing and textiles. We won’t get into the whole importing debate – rather, we’d like you to think about a few things as you make your next clothing purchases. And yes, we know that clothing is usually cheaper when it’s made in 3rd world countries, and none of us wants to spend money unnecessarily. It’s not easy to turn away from a bargain price, especially in a tough economy. But…

The top 5 countries that exported finished clothing to the United States in 2005 (over 80 billion dollars):

• China
• Mexico
• India
• Indonesia
• Bangladesh

The top 5 countries that exported textiles to the United States in 2005 (over 22 billion dollars):

• China
• Canada
• India
• South Korea
• Mexico

If you look on the label of a clothing item and see it was made in another country, you might ask yourself, Under what conditions was this made? How was the material grown and harvested? Just who exactly made this item…a child, a forced laborer? How was this person compensated for their work? If you’d like to know the back story of your apparel, we suggest contacting your favorite clothing labels to find out more. Again, the answers might surprise you. And you might also be surprised at what companies out there are making their practices known to consumers so that consumers can make a well-informed decision on their next purchases. Banana Republic, for one. And on the more pricey end of women’s wear, the Eileen Fisher line.

How Much Energy Was Used to Get It to Me?

Few of us know much about the amount of energy used to create the clothing item and then get it to us. Company transparency on energy used to create a product (and the product’s subsequent carbon footprint) is a new and rapidly growing trend. In 2008 in England, companies began to implement a carbon footprint index on food items – allowing buyers to put an environmental impact number on items they are considering purchasing.

In the United States, maverick clothing company Patagonia has created a website, called The Footprint Chronicles, which gives consumers the inside scoop on select Patagonia products – showing the footprints these products are leaving behind.

What are My Options? (and we’re not suggesting clothing optional!)

Our organization, We Can Live Green, is a big fan of “less is more” – maybe you don’t really, really need that new shirt as badly as you think! However, if you can’t live without it, do a little investigating. What’s the story behind what you are wearing? What is it made of? Where is it made? How much energy was used to get it to you? The more people who ask these questions, the quicker we’ll see a change in the marketplace. And the more options will be made available to you.

Now, because this book promises that your new green knowledge can translate into money in your pocket, it’s time to tell you how. Let’s take it to the bank!

Take It To The Bank

8 Best Clothing Strategies & Total Apparel Dollars Saved

1. Frequent the resale, thrift and vintage shops. The selections are amazing! And you can save a lot of money. These shopping trips can be fun for the whole family – the great thing about a resale shop is you never know what you might find. It’s an adventure for everyone! Depending on your typical clothing budget, buying items at half to two-thirds below the price of a department store can add up fast. We can safely estimate a minimum savings of 400 dollars per year.

2. Embrace hand-me-downs – from friends, family members and fashionable neighbors. Participate in giving hand-me-downs too! Be creative – organize a “swap till you drop” party. There are lots of ways to save money and share your clothing with others, all while getting a few new duds of your own. An especially good option if you have children, since they often outgrow their clothing before our pocketbooks are ready for another trip to the store. Depending on your usual clothing expenses, you can save 200 – 400 dollars a year and more.

3. Look for sweatshop-free, fair trade and organic clothing options. There are tons of great-looking options out there! Get on the Internet and type in some of those key words. You’ll be delighted at what pops up.

4. Spend more on less. Sound like a contradictory statement? If you focus on purchasing ethical, high-quality products, the product will last longer due to superior construction and design and you will sleep at night worry-free, knowing you’re voting your conscience with your dollar.

5. Spend the money to resole shoes and repair tattered clothing. You can either do this yourself (maybe not the resoling your shoes part) or pay someone to do this (almost every community has a local cobbler who is gifted at springing new life into a sad pair of shoes). Doing this, you can safely save at least 100 dollars per year.

6. Focus your more expensive purchases on wardrobe basics – clothing staples in styles that transcend fads. That’s what our mothers and grandmothers always did, before we became such a fast-change, throwaway consumer culture. But we can move beyond that wasteful pattern. Today, it’s all about being smart and savvy with the basics.

7. For trendier accents in your wardrobe, go big on accessories like jewelry, scarves, shoes and bags.

8. Dust off the old sewing machine. We know you may not have the time to make your own apparel or your children’s, but the ultimate money-saver will always be in the things you create yourself. Just be sure to ask the right questions about your fabrics at the fabric shop! Nothing gets more personal style points than creating your own apparel! You can easily save 250-plus dollars per year by making some of your own clothes.

If you implemented even a small part of the clothing options that we’ve put a dollar value to here, you can anticipate saving at least 500-plus dollars a year. This is a low-end estimate, just to be sure we’re not promising more than is realistic. But it’s a no-brainer that you’ll come out way ahead!

More from: We Can All Live Green

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Reprinted with permission fromWe Can All Live Green, by Jennifer Noonan and published by St. Lynn’s, 2008.

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