Buttoned Up Expert: Green Your Closet (Or You Won’t Get Any Organic Dessert)

Green Your Closet (Or You Won’t Get Any Organic Dessert)

by Rachel Lincoln Sarnoff www.ecostiletto.com

You eat free range organic. You clean your house without chemicals and your face without parabens. What’s next on the green radar? Your closet.

Why? Conventional cotton manufacturing for many of those clothes accounts for 25% of the world’s insecticide and 10% of its pesticide use. And textiles account a major percentage of the content of our landfills.

Obviously, we’re all due for an eco-fashion overhaul.

But where should we look to green our closets? The most eco-friendly thing to do would be to dust off last year’s duds, but let’s be honest: Even the biggest ecoista gets the urge to shop. The question is, how to do it sustainably?

First of all, you have to think about clothing just like you think about any other product. If you buy pieces from local designers, you’re cutting out the carbon emissions factor of shipping it to you from somewhere else. Buying fair trade supports workers, many of them in third-world countries, for whom a “fair trade” certification ensures first-world wages.

And, just like any product, the biggest environmental impact comes from the materials from which it’s made. Recycling vintage materials—or simply vintage pieces themselves—are obviously the most sustainable choice: They serve to reuse something that’s already been produced and reduce consumption. Some companies take the recycling concept even further to create fabrics from reclaimed and recycled fabrics—even plastic water bottles!

But you can’t always buy vintage. And you won’t always be able to go without buying altogether. So when you’re face-to-face with the need to shop, arm yourself with this eco-fabric guide and cut your carbon losses.

Organic Cotton

Most clothing is made of cotton, which is one of the most heavily sprayed crops in the world, according to the Sustainable Cotton Project. It takes an astounding one-third of a pound of pesticide to make one t-shirt and two-thirds to make a pair of jeans. In contrast, certified organic cotton is grown without chemicals at all. Although this crop isn’t by nature sustainable—it requires a lot of water to grow, and is harvested by clear-cutting, leaving bare earth that serves as a “mirror” until it’s cultivated again—the demand for cotton is so strong that just shifting to organic farming of the stuff can make a world of difference. Plus, when you wear organic cotton, you’re not in contact with pesticide residue that some believe can be absorbed by the skin.


Cultivated from the world’s fastest-growing plant, bamboo fabric is sustainably grown, completely biodegradable and naturally pest and insect-resistant. However manufacturers may just have to figure out a way to grow bamboo closer to home, rather than importing it from China, where increasingly it’s grown as a forest-clearing mono crop. The other downside is the toxic chemicals often used to convert bamboo into fabric: The more time consuming mechanical processing of bamboo fibers, which yields a soft, linen-like textile, also makes bamboo fabric more expensive, which has been the thorn in the side of eco-friendly clothing manufacturers for a long time. But when you consider that bamboo is typically promoted as an alternative to cotton, and that it’s growth absorbs 400% more green house gases and produces 35% more oxygen than the equivalent amount of trees, this fabric is seriously green.

Tencel, Lyocell, Rayon and Viscose

Got rayon? Then you’re familiar with Tencel, Lyocell and Viscose, which are basically brand names for fabrics made from the same chemical process that brought us rayon in the 1940s. Only this time, the material used to make the fiber is wood pulp, and the chemicals used to process said pulp into fiber are captured in something called a “closed-loop” process which manufacturers claim releases zero toxins into the environment. Close the loop, add “sustainably harvested” trees for materials, and you’ve got an environmentally-conscious fabric—or have you? Critics have accused these companies of greenwashing, and of being deliberately vague when describing the “non-toxic solvent” used in the process.


Like bamboo, hemp grows with little water, is naturally insect-resistant, anti-microbial and requires no herbicides, pesticides or chemical fertilizers to produce. Also a nutrient-rich food source, hemp’s reputation has long been tainted by its more well-known cousin, marijuana: Though hemp is completely free of THC, it’s still illegal to grow the stuff in the United States, where it was a crop of the country’s original founding fathers and was used to fabricate the original American flag. Forget about potato sacks—hemp is now blended with silk and cashmere to make soft, supple and durable fabrics.


Leather requires an estimated 225 toxic chemicals in its tanning process, and is arguably a by-product of the meat industry, to which we donate 25% of our world’s land surface, one-third of our grain, and a majority of our carbon emissions (meat production accounts for 18 percent of our green house gas emissions—that’s more than cars). So maybe this should read “meat.” If you’re going to go for leather, make sure it’s tanned with vegetable oils, rather than heavy metals like chrome, which pollute the ecosystem.


Wool production typically involves pesticides, formaldehyde, polyester, foams, dioxins and other additives, which may be responsible for the reputation wool has as an allergen. Organic wool is softer, won’t make you itch, and comes from happy sheep.

Totally Random Materials

Here’s the thing about sustainable fashion designers: They’re innovative. Of course, they want to make clothing that people will love—and buy. But they also want to create pieces that raise awareness. Take the white floor-length gown that Anne Hathaway wore for an Academy Awards photo shoot last year: It was made from milk. Or American designer Linda Loudermilk, who first pioneered the use of sustainable seaweed to create fabrics. A Taiwanese company recently figured out a way to turn coffee grounds into eco-fabric. And a Chilean designer recently showed a collection of clothing made with yarn woven from the fluff of discarded cigarette butts.

Now that’s dedication.

Rachel Lincoln Sarnoff is the founder and editor of eco-fashion, beauty and lifestyle website EcoStiletto.com, where you can win $100 in sustainable swag each week!