Choosing fabrics that make the least ecological impact can save valuable energy and keep dangerous chemicals out of the earth, air, and water. And how you clean them counts, too. (See Appliances and Electronics, and Dry Cleaning for laundry tips.)
Purchase well-made clothing and textiles that will last a long time. A wide selection of cheap, trendy items is available, but these will likely fall apart after a couple of seasons. Classics will outlive fads, and favoring them over disposable options helps to conserve resources.
Try shopping at vintage and secondhand stores. Decorating with vintage linens, in particular, is a wonderful way to add character to your home. Give things that you no longer need to friends or charities. Reuse items that can't be passed along -- make T-shirts into rags or transform old sheets into children's costumes.
If you're concerned about the chemicals used to make fabrics, look for organic versions of natural fibers, such as cotton, linen, and wool (you'll find more on this below). Purchase items that are natural dyes and are open about how they make their clothing and linens.
Soft, absorbent, and comfortable, cotton is an affordable option for your favorite T-shirts, bedsheets, and bath towels. But despite its wholesome image, most cotton comes at a high cost to the environment. Conventional cotton occupies only 3 percent of the world's farmland but is sprayed with 25 percent of all insecticides, posing a particular threat to farm workers. Making fabric also involves using a great deal of chemicals, including carcinogenic dyes and textile finishing (such as wrinkle-free, flame-retardant, and stain-resistant treatments). Growing cotton, making fabric, and sewing clothes uses a lot of resources, and even the finished product is high-maintenance: A 2006 University of Cambridge Institute for Manufacturing study found that machine washing, drying, and ironing account for more than half of a cotton T-shirt's lifetime energy use.
Purchase untreated organic cotton or other organic fabrics whenever possible. To qualify as organic, the cotton plants cannot be treated with hazardous fertilizers, insecticides, or other pesticides. ("Organic" does not refer to how the fibers are processed after they're grown, unless otherwise noted. Finished garments or linens may have been treated with chemicals.)
The International Working Group on Global Organic Textile Standard, an independent coalition of organic-textile trade groups, is working to apply an international standard for textiles and has started allowing manufacturers to use its GOTS logo. The logo certifies that in addition to containing organic raw materials, the products are processed using safe labor practices and without harmful chemicals. Save energy by machine washing your cotton clothes and linens on a lower temperature setting, and line drying instead of tumbling in the dryer. Linen,
Hemp and Bamboo
Other plant-based fabrics, such as linen, hemp, and bamboo, can be more sustainable than conventional cotton. Flax, the plant used to make linen, requires less irrigation and fewer pesticides than cotton; hemp needs little irrigation and is naturally insect-resistant, eliminating the need for insecticides. Bamboo also requires little or no fertilizer or insecticides.
The hemp plant and bamboo's dense foliage are beneficial to the atmosphere, counteracting the greenhouse effect by turning carbon dioxide into oxygen. But, as with cotton, chemicals used to bleach, dye, and finish these fabrics can make their way into ecosystems via factory wastewater. And making raw bamboo into fibers that can be woven involves toxic chemicals.
Although there are some environmental costs involved with producing linen, hemp, and bamboo, generally these are all smart fabric choices. Choose clothing, towels, bedsheets, blankets, and rugs that are unbleached and undyed (or colored with natural dyes).
Wool and Silk
Although wool is a natural material that breathes easily, there are downsides to its production. Sheep emit methane, a dangerous greenhouse gas. In fact, nearly half of New Zealand's greenhouse emissions come from these animals. Sheep are also dipped in insecticide baths to control parasites, a process that contaminates soil and is harmful to anyone exposed near dip sites, particularly workers.
Overgrazing causes soil erosion and decreases the land's fertility. In addition, vast quantities of water are required to cleanse raw wool of impurities. Silk can be more eco-friendly, but it takes large amounts of water and chemicals to clean the strands and remove a natural coating from the fibers. Bleach and dyes are also used to create the finished product. People concerned about animal rights should be aware that many silkworm farms kill the pupae before the silk from their cocoons is harvested.
Choose naturally dyed wool and silk whenever possible. Sheep raised for organic wool are fed organic diets, are not given synthetic hormones, are not dipped in chemical baths, and do not overgraze the land. Ahimsa silk, also known as "peace silk," is harvested from cocoons after the moths have emerged.
Nylon, Polyester, Rayon, and Acetate
Nylon and polyester are made from petroleum, a nonrenewable resource, and are not biodegradable. Rayon and acetate are manufactured from wood pulp; processing the cellulose into fabric requires a heavy dose of toxic chemicals. That said, man-made fabrics can last longer than natural and delicate ones.
Buy good-quality synthetics that you'll wear frequently. Wash them on low temperature settings and line dry. Some polyester is now being made of recycled fabric or even plastic bottles. Patagonia sells recycled fleece items and will take back some used garments for recycling into new clothes. Or try Ingeo, a fabric made from plant sugars. It can be composted in an industrial composting setting (although not in your backyard).