You're doing that shopper's hustle—moving clothes across the dress rack, click, click, click—when your fingers discover something soft and silky. You look at the label and discover that the shimmery cami that got your attention is made of bamboo. The texture reminds you of the finest cashmere, but the salesperson tells you that it's almost as strong and durable as polyester, it's as absorbent as cotton, and it can wick moisture away from your body. It even has antibacterial properties and is UV resistant. What's more, it's "earth friendly," she says. Knowing you've hit upon something of a miracle fabric, you pass up the cotton-polyester camis on the rack and jump on the new eco-fashion train.
Bamboo is one of a new class of "renewable" fabrics grown and produced in ways that are gentler on the planet than traditional textiles, including conventional cotton. By choosing the bamboo cami instead of one made with a cotton-poly blend, you've spared nonrenewable resources such as petroleum (used in the manufacture of polyester), saved about a third of a pound of chemical fertilizers and pesticides (the amount used to grow the cotton needed to make a simple T-shirt), and reduced pollution of the soil, air, and water.
Care What You Wear
You may not have ever considered the toxic potential of your clothing, but what you wear can make a difference: The textile industry is the second largest in the world, next to only the food industry, and it consumes vast amounts of chemicals that have a profoundly detrimental impact on the environment—and perhaps on our health as well. Take, for instance, conventionally grown cotton. It gets a lot of attention among environmentalists because it accounts for 50 percent of the world's total fiber production and one-fourth of the world's pesticide use. According to the Sustainable Cotton Project, a California-based nonprofit, many ingredients in the pesticides used on agricultural crops like cotton can cause respiratory diseases and cancer. These pesticides can harm those who come into direct contact with them—cotton farmers and textile workers, for example. They can also pollute the air, leach into the soil, and run off into the water, potentially harming all of us. And then there are the chemicals used throughout the cotton-production process for cleaning and finishing, which often end up in our water supply.
Bamboo, by contrast, grows without pesticides or chemicals and, because it's a tropical plant, doesn't require irrigation. It grows to a usable size within two to three years and regenerates quickly; it's also completely biodegradable. Bamboo, of course, has long been valued as a strong, resilient building material, but the process of turning it into fiber is new. As it turns out, bamboo, hard as it is, can be turned into a pulp that's then spun into an incredibly versatile fiber. (See Don't Be Bamboozled.)
Earth-friendly fabrics fall into three categories: fabrics produced from "recycled" materials, like fleece that's made from discarded plastic bottles; traditional "natural" or "renewable" fabrics such as cotton, wool, linen, and silk that get an organic makeover to make them less toxic to the environment; and the new "renewable" fabrics like bamboo. Renewable means a fabric's sources can be regenerated quickly. Though all fibers, natural and synthetic, are made from natural resources, not all those resources are renewable. Those made from plants are. Fabrics like polyester, nylon, and spandex, on the other hand, are made from oil and petroleum—limited resources that take millions of years to replace.
Although it may be difficult to imagine a tropical cane or an agricultural staple as a luxury fabric, innovations in textile production are making it possible to transform unusual raw materials into cloth with three-dimensional features, varying textures, and superb drape. Examples of renewable fabrics include:
Lenpur, an Italian fiber, is made from the pulp of white pine trees. Soft and absorbent, it wicks moisture well and neutralizes odors.
Sasawashi comes from the leaves of a plant that grows in Japan. This linenlike fabric is highly absorbent, and it is said to have anti-allergenic and antibacterial properties. The leaves are first made into a paper that is then cut into long strips and twisted into yarn.
Sea cell, a fabric derived from sea algae, is cool and soft, with a feel similar to that of smooth cotton.
Soya is made from soy protein, a byproduct of tofu manufacturing that would otherwise be discarded. The fabric has a sheen like that of mercerized cotton and a linenlike drape.
Tencel (generic name lyocell) comes from the pulp of Austrian red beech trees typically grown on land unsuitable for food crops or grazing. The fabric feels like cotton but is stronger and has a more fluid drape.
Unlike the days of old, when natural-fiber clothing meant a one-size-fits-all outfit that made you look like Saggy Baggy the Elephant, today you can wear your environmentalism on your sleeve without sacrificing style. Out of a growing concern for the textile industry's environmental impact, an increasing number of designers are turning to earth-friendly fabrics and calling their work eco-fashion.
"People are beginning to understand how much difference they can make just by what they choose to wear," says fashion designer Linda Loudermilk, who uses only sustainable fabrics in a high-end line she calls luxury eco. Her pieces, which range in price from $350 to $1,700, include bamboo dresses and "sherpas" that feel like sheepskin but are made from recycled plastic bottles and cotton. She designs with organic cotton, soy, sea cell, reclaimed antique lace, and sasawashi, for which she owns the U.S. patent. Loudermilk calls the women she dresses metro-naturalists. "They're women who live in the city, are very social, and go clubbing," she says. "They love fashion and style. They want to look good, but they want to do good, too."
Designer Eileen Fisher, who's a dedicated yogi, agrees with Loudermilk that what you wear is a reflection not only of who you are, but also of what you stand for. For that reason her company has adopted environmental concern as a primary focus. "We used to think that 'natural' was enough," says Fisher, whose name and company have been linked with social consciousness for the 21 years she's been in business. "But the industry is beginning to realize that we need to do more. I've always preferred using natural fibers. But the more we know about them, the more we realize we have yet to learn."
Fisher has been using organic cotton in her clothes for the past three years. "We're a large enough company that when we buy organic, we have an influence on the industry." The influence trickles down slowly through wholesalers, manufacturers, and growers. "We may be taking small steps," she says of her company and peers who are moving toward organics. "But we're on the right path."
Indeed, industry watchers are predicting that eco-fashion may launch the most revolutionary changes seen in fabrics and fashion in decades. FutureFashion, the first haute couture eco-fashion runway show, premiered at last year's New York Fashion Week and featured the eco-styles of 28 designers—including Diane von Furstenburg, Heatherette, Halston, and Oscar de la Renta.
Earth-friendly style is also the theme of "Catwalk on the Wild Side," a San Francisco runway show produced by Wildlife Works, a company based in both Sausalito, California, and Kenya that makes organic cotton contemporary fashion for women. Among the apparel featured at last June's event were Bono's Edun line of organic cotton T-shirts; outdoor fashions by Nike, Prana, and Patagonia; Ashley Paige swimwear; and jeans from Rogan Gregory. (This year, Catwalk on the Wild Side will take place June 10 at the San Francisco Design Center; for more information visit www.wildlifeworks.com.)
Designer Loudermilk, who participates in Catwalk, declares, "It is important to show people that going sustainable is not just for hikers. As fashion leaders it is our responsibility to use our influence to make the media listen and to share the information with consumers. It is also our responsibility to use materials that will not continue to harm the earth."
Molly Culbertson is a freelance writer and yogini who lives, writes, and practices in Des Moines, Iowa. She is writing a book about Vastu.