A Brief Guide To The Ecological Clothing Movement

Based on mid-century manufacturing standards, there are a myriad of toxic chemicals which go into making your clothes. These chemicals affect you, they affect the environment, they affect the workers who made the clothes. Awareness of the complex problems 1950’s and 1960’s methods of manufacturing creates has paved the way for a new age of alternatives, including nontoxic textile manufacturing, clothing recycling, and sustainability and accountability in fashion.

Most of us don’t think about the impact of what we’re wearing on our own health, nor its impact on the environment’s health. But an awareness is increasing about the synthetic fabrics that have been used in the manufacture of clothing for over half a century, and the negative impact of their use. The Ethical Fashion Forum is an online resource for finding valuable information about ecological methods of manufacturing. First, here is a list of common fabrics and the toxic effects of their manufacture, which may surprise you—but will hopefully empower your choices in the future.

Nylon & Polyester
Acrylic fibers produced from petrochemicals. Petrochemicals are products derived from petroleum, and linked to global warming; the process of manufacturing nylon produces nitrous oxide as a by-product, a greenhouse gas. Non-biodegradable.

Synthetic fiber composed of wood pulp which is treated with sulphuric acid and caustic soda, both toxic chemicals.

Non-Organic Cotton
“Uses more pesticide per cotton plant than almost any other crop in the world. This has serious impacts, causing illness and even death amongst cotton farmers who are exposed to dangerous pesticides every day. These pesticides also affect local eco-systems, killing certain plants and animals and causing an imbalance.” —Ethical Fashion Forum

This includes wrinkle-resistant, easy-care, and permanent press cottons. These materials have been treated with formaldehyde, a toxic chemical linked to cancer.


What Is Ethical Fashion?

In light of these toxic realities, The Ethical Fashion Forum has drawn up a set of ten criteria for defining and creating ethical fashion, an alternative to the standard:

  1. Countering fast, cheap fashion and damaging patterns of fashion consumption
  2. Defending fair wages, working conditions and workers’ rights
  3. Supporting sustainable livelihoods
  4. Addressing toxic pesticide and chemical use
  5. Using and / or developing eco- friendly fabrics and components
  6. Minimizing water use
  7. Recycling and addressing energy efficiency and waste
  8. Developing or promoting sustainability standards for fashion
  9. Resources, training and/or awareness raising initiatives
  10. Animal rights

The alternative to using synthetic and toxic materials is to buy sustainable textiles, which includes organic cotton, organic wool, and natural silk. There are increasingly more designers who are dedicated to sustainable practices in the manufacture of their garments. Some of the best sustainable designers are coming out of Europe right now, such as the “Honest by” label from Belgium, started by designer Bruno Pieters. They are the world’s first 100% transparent company: their site gives a full disclosure of how each piece was manufactured; the price breakdown of how much you are paying for each aspect of a sustainable garment, and why; complete material information, from the thread used to sew the garment, to the care label’s manufacture and material, right down to the 100% recycled paper and nickel-free safety pin of the garment’s hang tag. The site also gives information for each garment’s carbon footprint. Pieters, happens to make stunning designs with incredible printed eco textiles, is touted for his smart tailoring as well. The pieces in his fully sustainable, ethical collection range from about 200 to 1,000 Euros, most of them falling somewhere in between.

Your average American cannot necessarily afford an ethically-produced designer shirt for five hundred dollars, even if they may want to support the cause. There is a hope, though, companies like Honest by. will influence change in fashion manufacturing from that higher end, allowing change to ripple down through the “fast-fashion” end of the industry: known for its cheap, synthetic materials, high turnover rate of designs during each season, and low retail prices. Some retail chains are joining the sustainable eco-clothing movement, such as H&M, which is currently working on rebranding itself to become a full eco-clothing company. Their first line of eco clothes are in their stores now.


How To Identify Ecologically Manufactured Clothing

If you are shopping for eco-clothing, The Ethical Fashion Forum lists the following Eco-labels which can be used to identify the ethical ecological manufacture of garments and fabrics. Keep an eye out for these:

    Now mandatory in several European countries, this standard assesses the chemical usage and handling, water usage and disposal, exhaust air production, dust and noise generation, energy usage, and general workplace conditions. It requires an environmental management system to be in place.
    This label assesses a limited use of substances harmful to the environment, limited substances harmful to health, reduced water and air pollution, shrink resistance and color.
    There is now a Global Organic Textile Standards (GOTS) which resulted when a number of certification and standard bodies formed a working group. For more information visit www.global-standard.org.


Recycling Textiles

Millions of pounds of cheaply produced, fast-fashion clothes clogs landfills, subsequently rotting and producing methane gas as the materials decompose. The recycle of clothing, just as we recycle bottles and plastic, is a practice to be implemented on a wide scale in America. New York City has been attacking the problem through its successful program, re-fashioNYC, where citizens can donate clothing and textiles at bins throughout the city. A press release from the Sanitation Department states about half of the donations go to Housing Works thrift stores, and the other half gets sold for recycling. The press release also states that over 1 million pounds of textiles had been donated for recycling since the program’s launch in April 2011!

Eco-textiles, ethical fashion, and sustainable manufacturing practices are incredibly complex and constantly evolving within the fashion industry. We’re really excited about eco-fashion and its designers at Stitched Tailors, and we will continue to feature more in-depth looks at the designers paving the way for a more sustainable future.


Ethical Fashion Forum
Eco Textile
Organic Clothing Blog
NYC Textile Recycling