It’s Not Easy Being Green

Environmentally friendly fashion has captured the imagination of many of the most glamorous designers. But what most people know about the issue starts and stops with organic cotton.


Sourcing organic cotton is an excellent first step in “going green”; cotton is an incredibly pesticide-intensive crop, using twenty five percent of all the pesticides used in the U.S., more than twice the amount per acre as corn and four times that of soybeans! However, there is much more to know about the impact of the fashion industry and more you can do to reduce your environmental footprint.


The three heaviest impact areas of the fashion industry are: fiber growth, dyeing and printing chemicals, and consumer care of the items once they are brought home. Focus your attention in these three areas for the biggest bang for your time and effort. It is also important to know your sourcing mills, particularly those in the developing world; they are often poorly operated and have a heavy impact, even where environmentally preferred materials are used to make the goods.






1) Organic Exchange is the place for help in sourcing organic cotton. They work with brands and retailers to transition some or all of their cotton use to organic and provide a reliable tracing and verification system that ensures that the cotton you pay for is really organic.


2) If you want to move to organic cotton, start with a few items and gain experience about sourcing, production, quality, pricing, and marketing. Factor in at least a year in-advance of lead time to order the quantities you need from a reliable source.


3) Keep an eye open for future important developments in sustainable cotton; “BASIC” cotton in California and the Better Cotton Initiative abroad are promoting valuable improvements in conventional cotton farming that promise lower prices than organic but still substantially reduce the negative impacts of growing this crop. Sustainable cotton deserves your business once it is ready to roll.




Rayon is a popular natural fiber made from wood pulp. Although it starts from trees, however, conventional rayon is very heavily processed chemically, rendered into a pulp with dangerous chemical solvents and then spun into a fiber much like synthetic polyester. Thus, it is hardly “natural” and has a very heavy footprint. Tencel (Lyocell) uses an environmentally preferable manufacturing process with non-toxic solvents that are captured and recycled; it is also less energy-intensive than conventional rayon. Thus Tencil is a much better “green” choice for rayon (viscose) fiber.




Bamboo took off several years ago an eco-fiber, emerging as a super natural fiber for both clothing and bedding. It grows pesticide-free and self-regenerates when cut down, a vast improvement over cotton. However, the manufacturing process for bamboo fiber is similar to that for conventional rayon and is incredibly chemical intensive. Avoid, if you’re looking to go greener.


Dyeing and Finishing :


There is nothing crazier than spending lots of money to source organic cotton and then processing the fabric without regard to deadly toxic dyes and finishes likely to be used to color it. Yet, this is often what happens, because there is so little understanding of the choices available at the design table for this aspect of textile manufacturing.


The solution to the dye problem is not to use “natural” dyes from organic sources such as plants. These natural products are actually not a good deal for the environment; they require large acres of land, often use extensive pesticides, and deliver low color yield per acre of agriculture. In addition, replication from batch to batch with natural dyes is a problem, which often leads to re-runs at the dye houses.


Instead, environmentally preferable dyes are those that have low environmentally toxicity, no toxic metals, degrade easily in the environment, and do not substantially reduce oxygen concentrations in the receiving water body.


Thus, ironically, the environmentally preferable dye choices are synthetic chemicals.


The worst: The chemicals most important to avoid are found on various Restricted Substances Lists (RSLs) developed by several associations here in the U.S. and abroad. See for example, the list by the American Apparel and Footwear Association list for a list.


Better: Each major dye manufacturers offers lines of environmentally preferable dyes and treatment chemicals. Huntsman (formerly Ciba), for example, has its “Novacron FN” dyes and “Smart Prep” pretreatment chemicals such as “Gentle Power Bleach” that promise much reduced environmental impact. Dystar has its “Remazol Ultra RGB” dyes for cotton and other environmentally preferred lines as well. Specify that the mills dyeing your fabrics use specified dyes and avoid cheaper local substitutes that have not been scrutinized for environmental impact.


Best: Best in class for environmentally benign dyes can be found through Cradle-to-Cradle, which evaluates and certifies environmentally preferred dyes using very stringent criteria. . Similarly, a European firm named Blue Sign has developed a data base based on rigorous dye and chemical selection criteria that direct you to the most environmentally friendly chemicals for your fabric order.




Growing fibers and dyeing/finishing fabric uses a lot of energy and natural resources, but it doesn’t stop there. Consumer care of clothing also takes its toll on the environment; in fact, machine washing, drying, and ironing have been found to account for more than half of a cotton T-shirt’s lifetime energy use! Traditional dry cleaning services also have a big bad environmental impact, using a highly toxic and persistent chlorinated solvent called perchloroethylene.


Note that most of the so-called “green” drycleaners are not really green; only liquid CO2 is a relatively safe alternative, but the technology is extremely costly and not practical for the average locally owned dry cleaner.


Designers can lower the footprint of the industry by opting for fabrics and clothing designs that can be washed in cold water, reducing the use of dryers and irons where possible, and by minimizing reliance on fabrics that need to be dry cleaned. A hang-tag on the fabric that urges customers to “think climate, wash in cold water” (a label currently used by Marks and Spencer) can help with consumer awareness of the issue.




NRDC is currently working with leading apparel retailers and brands in an initiative to identify best practices for textile mills operating abroad. Stay tuned for practical advice for reducing the footprint of your mills in the near future.


In the meantime, take the first necessary steps: find the time to identify the factories that dye and finish your fabric, and ask them to report their water and energy use per square meter of fabric. This will allow you to benchmark performance and identify best and worst in class for future business orders.


Linda E Greer, Ph.D. / Natural Resources Defense Council / /