Conscious Clothing

By Beth Wood

March 6, 2009 5 min read


Organic and vegan wear are on the rise

Beth Wood

Creators News Service

Whether it's organic, earth-friendly or even vegan, purchasing apparel that is kind to the environment and animals is becoming increasingly popular.

"When we started our Green Business Network back in 1983, only a handful of companies offered organic clothing," said Todd Larsen of Green America, a not-for-profit membership group based in Washington, D.C. "We now have well over 150 companies within the Green Business Network that offer green clothing."

Joy Zakarian, owner of All Vegan in San Diego, which carries vegan attire, bags and shoes, sees the ties between being earth-friendly and promoting an animal-cruelty free world.

"Animals are not being harmed when you buy vegan products and animal agriculture is one of the biggest threats to the earth," said Zakarian. "They cut down rainforests for cattle, and methane gas is a big contributor to global warming. The chemicals used in the making of leather are harmful to the environment. We feature shoes made from hemp and recycled tires."

Just as organic produce was considered an unneeded luxury a few years ago, the perception of earth-friendly and vegan apparel is changing.

"Organic food led the way," said Larsen. "Clothing is on a similar path, following the lead of food."

He pointed out that it's not just small businesses that have caught on.

"This trend has not gone unnoticed by big companies," Larsen said. "Timberland has a goal of going 100 percent organic and Patagonia is mostly organic. And then some of the largest clothing companies, like Levi Strauss and Gap, have clothing with organic fibers."

Zakarian said several big firms have also started produce vegan footwear.

"Some of the shoes we carry are made by mainstream companies," she said, explaining that while vegan microfiber is more costly than leather, polyurethane, another material used in shoe production, is less expensive. "Madden Girl products are vegan -- not necessarily because the firm is vegan, but because the products are less expensive to make. Kenneth Cole's Unlisted is vegan for the same reason."

Although there are many companies making the jump, they are few and far between.

"Most clothing out there is definitely not earth-friendly," Larsen said. "The actual growing of the fibers is bad for the earth because of the pesticides. Once grown, it's treated with toxic dyes or with chlorine. The main alternatives are organic cotton, hemp and bamboo. They don't have pesticides that harm workers and the environment. And they're treated with natural dyes, so you as a consumer are not experiencing harmful chemicals."

Much of the controversy around clothing revolves around cotton. According to the California-based Sustainable Cotton Project, cotton fibers account for almost 50 percent of the textile market worldwide. In the U.S., 25 percent of all pesticides used are applied to cotton.

In these tough economic times, can a budget-pinched consumer consider earth-friendly apparel? Zakarian said that many people assume her products are more expensive. Some are, "but many of our products are pretty darn affordable," she added. "A lot of our shoes are under $40."

"Most of our business members have sales on their sites, which can cut costs," said Larsen. "Americans buy a huge amount of clothing, more than most people in other parts of the world. So people who want to support the environment pay more but buy fewer clothes. And some buy used clothes from vintage shops. Environmentally, you have added nothing harmful, so it's a benevolent thing to do and they often are less expensive."

There are plenty of options for purchasing products, from online to brick-and-mortar ventures. For Zakarian, part of the thrill of a place like All Vegan is going into a store to find things you can purchase.

"You go into mainstream stores and ask, 'Do you have shoes that aren't leather?' The people selling the shoes don't really know. It's not much fun when 90 percent of the stuff you are interested in, you can't wear," she said. "Vegans coming into the store are excited because everything here qualifies for their lifestyle."

For those on a budget, Larsen said the staff at Green America has a tradition that is affordable and earth-friendly at the same time.

"We have clothing swaps at work," he explained. "You put clothes you are tired of out on this big table. If you like something you see, you can have it. It's free. It works quite well."

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