Keeping Green: How sustainable is your wardrobe?

Bamboo is one of many eco-friendly, sustainable materials that can be used instead of cotton for clothing. (Henry Burrows/Flickr Creative Commons)

A healthy relationship with plants has been the greatest benefit to humans for as far back as we can look into our collective history. They are responsible for our food, our energy, our shelters and our protection from harsh conditions. One of the plant-based goods that often goes unassociated and unnoticed by the average college student, as part of our agricultural system, is that of fiber production. More specifically, our clothing.

Yes, most people know that cotton is a plant that we get our favorite graphic, colligate T-shirts from. But with the cotton industry having a long, industrialized history in this country, and the rise of synthetic fiber, it is easy for the lines to be blurred in garment composition. To the average consumer, it can be very difficult to identify the difference and the environmental impacts of the materials we choose to purchase. So first we must understand the biggest problem: cotton.

Cotton is a major cash crop in the United States and has been since the institution of plantations in the southeast. On a global scale, cotton accounts for over half of all clothing produced. Because of the established market and obvious value to all cultures of the world, cotton has been subject to many industrial agricultural techniques such as genetic modification, which leads to the increased use of synthetic pesticides and other harmful practices. Recent studies have also shown that the cotton husks, possessing pesticide residue that are left after harvest, are often fed to livestock being raised for human consumption. Not to mention the harmful practices involved in the bleaching and processing of cotton.

What can you do to avoid supporting harmful cotton production? Look for organic cotton. Most producers that sell organic cotton will mark their products accordingly. Although this is not the best alternative, it is a step in the right direction to minimize the environmental impact of cotton production. However, organic cotton also tends to be more expensive than GMO cotton.

The best alternatives for clothing fiber in current production are hemp and bamboo. Hemp is a much more resilient plant compared to cotton so it requires less human intervention in order for it to thrive. It requires less water than cotton and has fewer natural predators. The root system is much deeper allowing the plant to extract a wider range of groundwater from the soil than cotton and its broad leaves keep weeds from developing in the undergrowth. The other parts of the plant have economic and human benefit as well. The seeds of hemp produce high quality oil that can be used for industrial as well as domestic/culinary uses. The buds of the female plants have also shown to have positive medicinal uses. The strength of hemp fiber has also been tested show to be roughly eight times the tensile strength of cotton and has a much longer durability.

Similar to hemp is bamboo. It can grow up to one-to-four inches in a single day and requires very little water. Bamboo is also naturally pest resistant. Aside from an alternative fiber for clothing, bamboo is also a great commercial product due to its natural strength and durability of the lignified parts of the plant. Bamboo might seem to many as a less obvious choice for a clothing fiber, but on a very basic level, it is much softer than most commercial shirt materials. You might find that you prefer it to cotton products.

You can find high quality, stylish, organic, fair trade bamboo women’s clothing products from Yala, a company committed to keeping fashion sustainable. They are a bit expensive but you can look good and feel even better when wearing these products, in more ways than one.

As for the men,  Hempest has a wide selection of hemp and hemp/organic cotton blends. Again these products are more expensive but that is because they are not abusing human labor, or the land to create products that look good and potentially last a lifetime if maintained properly. This sounds like a much better way to pay it forward and keep green for the future of fashion, rather than the treadmill of western cultures of buying new clothes constantly and accumulating and donating gross amounts of hardly used garments.


Dan Wood is a staff writer for The Daily Campus. He can be reached via email at daniel.wood@uconn.edu