Environmentally friendly jackets are made from natural, renewable, sustainably-produced materials like organic cotton, wool, bamboo and help. And they avoid the use of pesticides, as well as potentially toxic chemicals sometimes used to treat fabrics to make them more durable or moisture-resistant.
Cotton farming uses only about 3 percent of the farmland around the world, but consumes 25 percent of all chemical pesticides and fertilizers. Conventional cotton production relies on vast amounts of hazardous synthetic chemicals, including pesticides, fertilizers, fixers, and dyes.
Insects are quickly becoming resistant to recommended rates of pesticide application, and ever increasing amounts are needed be effective. Billions of pounds of nitrogen synthetic fertilizers are also used, resulting in runoff that can create aquatic "dead zones" in waterways.
And due to cotton's natural resistance to dyes, roughly half the chemicals used as dyes or fixers end up as waste in rivers and soil. Chlorine bleaching, which is used before color is applied to cotton, releases carcinogenic dioxins.
"Convenience" finishes are also eco-harmful. Permanent-press and stain- and water-repellant finishes can offgas formaldehyde, and their manufacture releases perfluorochemicals (PFCs) into the environment.
Many athletic clothing manufacturers add chemical treatments such as GORE-TEX and Teflon to fabrics in order to help repel insects, water, and odors. According to the Environmental Working Group (EWG), clothing treated with such chemicals can break down in the environment or in the human body. Scientific studies have identified 15 PFCs in human blood, and one 2001 industry study of six PFCs in human blood identified four PFCs at higher levels in children than in adults.
One PFC—sometimes known as “C8”—has been found at low levels both in the blood of the general US population and in the environment. Perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) is used to make fluoropolymers, substances used in breathable, all-weather clothing. Although the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) does not currently believe there is any reason for consumers to stop using products containing PFOA, it has called on companies to reduce facility emissions and product content of PFOA and related chemicals by 95 percent by 2010, and to work toward eliminating emissions and product content by 2015.
Fur clothing, haven fallen out of vogue with consumers and fashion houses in the 1990s due to concerns over animal cruelty, has seen a rise in popularity in recent years. According to the British Fur Trade Association (BFTA), global sales of fur increased from a little over $9 million in 1999/2000 to nearly $13 million in 2003/2004. Alongside the “real fur” resurgence, imitation fur products have emerged as a cheaper, cruelty-free alternative.
The key environmental issue with fur clothing is also an ethical one: acts of animal cruelty have been long associated with fur farming. These charges range from overcrowded, filthy living conditions (primarily in cages) to death by genital or anal electrocution (resulting in heart failure), neck breaking, suffocation, and being skinned alive. The fur industry claims that fur farming is well regulated and that the animals—85 percent of which are farmed, not wild—are subject to humane living conditions—and deaths.
The fur industry also touts natural fur to be a sustainable, eco-sensible clothing choice. For example, New Zealand’s nascent possum fur industry combats a possum overpopulation crisis that has threatened trees and other animal species. Proponents also point to astrakhan, a fur popular with high-end designers. Astrakhan comes strictly from still-born lambs that, in turn, gives struggling Central Asian farmers whose land has suffered soil erosion a chance to make a living.
There are other environmental issues attached to fur farming aside from animal welfare. Some fur companies have come under fire from the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) for practicing improper waste disposal, leading to contaminated ground water.
Animals not farmed for their fur are caught in the wild via traditional trapping. The “target” species aren’t always the only animals to wander into a trap—domestic animals such as cats and dogs, birds, and even endangered species are all inadvertently killed or maimed as a result of fur trapping.
Proponents of wool—both conventional and organic—believe it's an inherently sustainable fiber given that the sheep it comes from are simply shorn, not killed. Many individuals and organizations, such as People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), take issue with how wool-producing sheep are treated—even those subject to a pesticide-free, environmentally sound production process.
A particular act of sheep mutilation that has caught the attention of animal rights supporters is the “mulesing” of Australian Merino sheep. Merinos are bred to have wrinkly skin that, in turn, results in higher yields of wool. These characteristic wrinkles attract flies that lay eggs in the folds of skin, resulting in fatal maggot infestations. To prevent this, ranchers perform mulesing—the sheep are restrained without painkillers and chunks of flesh are removed from the area around the tail, resulting in smooth skin that discourages fly egg-laying.
Mutilation and organic certification aside, an environmental danger of the wool industry is enteric fermentation—or livestock belching and flatulence—a major contributor to global climate change. In New Zealand, for example, 90 percent of the nation’s greenhouse gas emissions (methane, in particular) result from enteric fermentation, primarily from sheep.
Although desired by many, leather—the byproduct of animal skins—comes equipped with numerous ecological issues. For one, raising livestock expressly for leather production requires a great deal of feed, land, water, and fossil fuels. Factory farms generate 130 times the amount of excrement as the entire human population; the EPA has noted that livestock pollution is the most damaging threat to American waterways.
The process used to tan leather has long been noxious and polluting. Pollution from tanneries includes mineral salts, such as aluminum, iron, and zirconium, as well as formaldehyde and coal-tar derivatives. Certain oils and dyes used in the tanning process are cyanide-based. Similar to the rest of the world, more than 95 percent of American-made leather is chrome-tanned. The production of chrome-tanned leather contributes waste to the environment, including chromium, which is classified as a hazardous material by the EPA. Chromium released from tanneries can contaminate drinking water and is dangerous to ecosystems as well as humans. Tanneries also produce other pollutants, including protein, salt, hair, lime sludge, sulfides, and acids.
Cleaning and disposal
All dry cleaners utilize chemicals, but certain alternatives are more environmentally friendly than others. The chemicals used in the dry cleaning process are harmful not only to the earth, but also to the employees operating the equipment. And they may contaminate indoor air, too.
Each year an average American purchases 48 pieces of new clothing and the US generates some 8 million tons of waste from clothing and footwear. Donating your old jacket to a thrift store or aid organization helps cuts down on the amount of discarded clothing and textiles that ends up in landfills each year.
- Organic Clothing: A blog about organic, natural and sustainable clothing and eco-fashion
- Organic Trade Association
- EcoBedroom - Cotton: Conventional versus Organic
- The Green Guide - Product Report: Mattresses and Box Springs
- The Green Guide - The Eco-nomical Bedroom
- Environmental Working Group - PFCs: Global Contaminants - PFOA is a pervasive pollutant in human blood, as are other PFCs
- US Environmental Protection Agency - Perfluorooctanoic Acid (PFOA) and Fluorinated Telomers: Perfluorooctanoic Acid (PFOA)
- British Fur Trade Association - Key Facts
- Save the Sheep! - The Environment
- Cows are Cool - Leather: No Friend of the Earth
- Worldwatch Institute - The Good Stuff?