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Fun, Fab, and Fashion Forward

High-tech fabrics and recycled rags cut your carbon footprint with style.

By Katharine Mieszkowski

From yoga mats made of natural rubber to practice togs fashioned of organic hemp, there has been an explosion of stylish, eco-friendly yoga paraphernalia in recent years. Now, more and more yogis are looking to expand the environmental consciousness of their yoga wardrobes to the rest of their closets, without having to sacrifice style for earth friendliness.

"The more that you practice yoga, the more you want to make sure that whatever you're putting on your body is going to support the health and wellness of your body and the planet," says Seane Corn. The renowned vinyasa yoga teacher's own practice inspired her to co-found Off the Mat, Into the World, which has raised $1.3 million for humanitarian aid projects around the globe. A committed vegetarian, Corn puts her money where her mouth is by seeking out designer duds that honor her views on animal rights and humane labor conditions. "I would rather consume in a way that's more mindful," she says. Corn is not alone.

Apparel makers are clearly listening. Between 2007 and 2008, sales of organic-cotton clothes and fabrics grew a whopping 63 percent to reach $3.2 billion. Yoga brands like Blue Canoe, which makes organic natural-fiber yoga wear, saw its business expand 25 percent a year from 2004 until 2008, and ALO, a maker of high-performance activewear, promotes a mantra of "reduce, reuse, recycle" to the folks who buy recycled-polyester and organic-fiber clothes made at the company's solar-powered Los Angeles headquarters.

"Consumers want to buy something made in a conscious manner, including what it's made out of," says Amy Lopatin Dobrin, the founder of Be Present, a yoga and sportswear clothing company that recently incorporated recycled plastics into its line of T-shirts and casual wear. In response to the growing demand for consciously made clothing, a new generation of eco-savvy designers is creating an exciting array of dresses, tops, sportswear, and footwear. The latest trends include not just organically grown natural fibers and recycled resources, but also high-tech fabrics that make the most of readily available resources.

Cellulose fiber derived from eucalyptus trees is being transformed into flowing tanks, trousers, and skirts. Plastic bottles, parachutes, even old clothes are finding new life as party gowns, formal suits, and fleece sweatshirts. And natural resources, like coconut shells and volcanic rocks, are becoming a key part of fabric attributes like protection from sun and microbes. Meanwhile, recycled tires are finding their way into new shoes, some of which have soles filled with microbes to hasten their breakdown when they eventually head to the landfill.

Many yogis are eager to be early adopters of these fashionable green togs. Fortunately, it's never been easier to look great while you practice a little love for Mother Earth. On these pages, we've rounded up good-looking examples of high-tech fibers you can stylishly sport today, modeled by yoga teachers who care about the planet.

Pulp Fashion

The environmental impact of clothes depends not only on what they're made of, but also on how they're made. Bamboo is often touted as a green source for clothing since it's fast growing and renewable, but turning bamboo into fabric typically involves toxic chemical pollutants.

Fortunately, an alternative has emerged: Many designers now use a blend of organic cotton and Tencel, a cellulose fiber made from the wood pulp of eucalyptus trees that has gained green cred because it's made with a nontoxic solvent in a closed-loop system. "It's a vast improvement over bamboo," explains Jill Dumain, the director of environmental analysis for Patagonia, a leading eco-sportswear maker.

Fast-growing eucalyptus trees that supply the wood pulp come from tree farms certified by the respected Forest Stewardship Council to be managed for sustainability. And the organic solvent used to make the fiber is amine oxide, which is nontoxic and readily biodegradable. The solvent is recovered during the manufacturing process, so it can be reused, and the chemicals aren't released into the environment. The outcome is a fabric that's soft, moisture wicking, and quick to dry—soft like silk, strong like polyester, and breathable like cotton.

Fantastic Plastic

Disposable water and soda bottles get a second life as stylish suits and sportswear. Americans throw away a staggering 2.5 million plastic bottles every hour. So—quick!—invite some into your closet. Plastic bottles can now be washed, melted, purified, and spun into yarn. It takes but a few to make a T-shirt, while a suit might take 30. Some fabric makers combine bottles with organic cotton, while others are creating textiles out of 100 percent post-consumer waste and recycled polyester.

Such recycling consumes less energy in the fabric manufacturing process than creating brand-new polyester does. And recycled-poly clothing can be tossed in the washing machine rather than being sent out for dry cleaning, a process that releases carcinogens into the environment. Unlike many natural fabrics, polyester doesn't take much water to create, and the finished product can itself be recycled. While the original source material is fossil fuel, buying recycled poly lessens oil dependence, diverts waste from landfills, and reduces toxic emissions.

Tread Lightly

Shoes made from recycled tires leave a small footprint on the environment. Currently, more than 7 billion tires sit in landfills worldwide. Add to that, 104 million pairs of shoes are taken to the dump every year. These long-lasting materials don't lend themselves to biodegrading (a tire takes about 80 years to decompose), but in the right hands, they become a great resource.

Today's footwear companies are turning to recycled rubber to make shoes that tread more lightly on the earth. So-called green rubber is made of a mix of granulated rubber from tires, called tire crumb, and virgin rubber.

Reusing these tires is a huge service to the planet. Here's why: Tires in landfills collect standing water to become fertile breeding grounds for disease-carrying insects and, because of their shape, often trap methane, a potent greenhouse gas that can damage the landfill liners intended to keep contaminants from infiltrating nearby surface and groundwater. Old tires also catch fire easily, the black smoke polluting our air and our earth.

Some companies are thinking beyond ways to recycle materials into shoes, looking ahead to when those new shoes reach their own end of life. By embedding an organic compound into the soles of sneakers and flip-flops, these manufacturers are preparing their products to biodegrade more easily. Microbes inserted into pellets in the soles of the shoes will make them break down faster once they get to the dump. Don't worry—they won't start breaking down on your feet. It takes the moisture and heat of the landfill to activate the microbes that cause the soles to decompose in about 20 years (rather than decades longer).

Cuckoo for Coconuts

Natural materials bring superpowers 
to performance sportswear. Coconuts and volcanic material top the growing number of substances embedded in clothing to help control sweaty odors. Nanosilver—microscopic particles of silver often embedded in athletic wear like socks to fight germs and odors—has come under fire from consumer groups because, when the items are laundered, the particles can wash down the drain, pollute water systems, and harm aquatic animals.

The search for alternatives has yielded a surprising inspiration: water filtration, which uses materials from coconuts and volcanoes to purify and soften water. Now, coconut shells (many of which would otherwise head to the landfill) are broken down into tiny activated carbon bits and embedded in polyester or nylon. The result is Cocona fabric, praised for its ability to wick sweat from skin, control odors, and offer SPF 50 sun protection. Crushed volcanic materials too small to be used in water filtration are being added to a fabric's fiber to produce similar benefits. The result is a product that won't harm the environment. And it protects your skin and the noses of nearby friends.

Katharine Mieszkowski is an environmental journalist based in the Bay Area. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, Mother Jones, and on Salon.com.

March 2010

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