by Abbie Burgess
Conscious consumers are taking note of ways to eliminate chemical exposure in their bodies and on their skin, as evidenced by the recent growth of the organic food and naturally derived beauty product industries. But what about what we wear? Choosing organic clothing helps the health of people and the environment by reducing exposure to toxic chemicals from pesticides.
Organic cotton is the most widely used and well-known of the organic fabrics. Choosing organic cotton over conventional cotton is an important choice for consumers like Eleanor De Leon of Lakewood, Colorado, who know that conventionally grown cotton accounts for 25 percent of the world’s pesticide use. “There’s already so much we put into the environment and onto ourselves. I just want to feel good about the stuff I’m putting onto myself,” De Leon said of her decision to buy almost exclusively organic apparel made either in the United States or by Fair Trade labor.
The Organic Trade Association considers cotton to be the world’s “dirtiest” crop due to heavy insecticide use. Among the most commonly used synthetic insecticides used in cotton production are aldicarb, parathion, and methamidopho, all listed as acutely hazardous to human health by the World Health Organization. Yet chemicals from the cotton industry end up in our food supply indirectly through milk and meat, since cotton byproducts are used as animal feed.
If that’s not enough to make you run to the organic cotton, there are also fertilizers to consider. It can take almost one third of a pound of synthetic fertilizer to yield one pound of raw cotton, the amount needed to make a tee shirt. Organic cotton farming, by contrast, uses compost and manure instead of relying on nitrogen synthetic fertilizers that cause runoff into fresh water.
Other common organic fabrics are hemp and bamboo. Bamboo is a crop that regenerates itself and can be grown in damaged or overgrazed soil. It is a sustainable choice because it can yield twenty times more fiber and produces 30 percent more oxygen than other trees grown on the same square footage of land, according to Blue Canoe, an organic clothing company based in San Francisco. Hemp is a sustainable crop that makes fabric known for its strength and durability. It grows easily and is naturally resistant to pests, making all the fertilizers and insecticides used on cotton unnecessary.
Although organic apparel made from cotton, bamboo, and hemp are becoming more readily available, they can still be hard to find, especially in rural areas. And while the diversity in fashion choices is growing, the organic fashion industry is still over-represented by tee shirts and other casual attire. De Leon has found that professional garments and underwear are the most difficult organic items to find. She sews some of her clothes herself, partly because of the unavailability of organic clothing options. She also shops on Etsy, an online marketplace for handmade goods from small sellers, where she purchased an organic bridesmaid dress.
Sara George, the social media and PR coordinator for Synergy Clothing in Santa Cruz, California, says the company uses only organic cotton because it has a lower impact on the environment. They also use low-impact dyes, which have a higher absorption rate and use less water. The apparel sold by Synergy is designed in California and manufactured in Nepal. “We employ fair trade labor practices, which give these women a sense of independence. They are allowed to work from home, with their kids around, earning a living wage that they can use to support their families.”
Synergy began in 1993 when founder Kate Fisher went on an extended visit to India and Nepal at age twenty-one. She bought textiles, and clothing and upon her return home, she got her start in retail by selling them at Grateful Dead concerts. Today the company is still family owned by Fisher and her husband and has seen substantial growth. In the last two years alone, Synergy has grown by 50 percent, showing the increased interest in organic clothing. In addition to Synergy’s three retail locations and e-commerce sales, the clothing can be found at select Whole Foods and online fashion retailers ModCloth and Ruche. The company stays true to its roots by continuing to sell on the festival circuit, where the company got its start, attending 150 festivals every year. George says the company is rooted in the founders’ beliefs in going back to the basics, being aware of their choices and what’s best for the environment.
Both De Leon and George suggest researching companies to see where and how an item is manufactured. When looking for organic clothing, George recommends asking companies questions about where the clothing comes from and how it’s made. For the beginning organic apparel shopper, De Leon’s advice is to slowly build an organic wardrobe step by step. “Think about how much use you’re getting out of an item. Pick the essentials that you personally think are important.”
When buying organic apparel, shoppers may notice prices that are a little higher than non-organic clothing. “You’re paying for the awareness of how your clothing was made—the security and comfort of knowing it was made in a sustainable and ethical way,” George says. “It’s a long term purchase in the future of our planet.” She also notes the trickle-down benefits of buying organic clothing: “By spending your dollars on organic, you’ll be promoting that lifestyle. If more people bought it, it would have a snowball effect and encourage more companies to produce organic clothing.”
As a shopper, De Leon has noticed the cost of organic fabric goods coming down. “The cost of [an organic] tee shirt is leveling out with other tee shirts,” she says. As consumer knowledge about the benefits of organic clothing grows, it’s clear that shoppers can look forward to more readily available and affordable options.