Simply put, the term “eco-fashion” refers to stylized clothing that uses environmentally sensitive fabrics and responsible production techniques.
The nonprofit Sustainable Technology Education Project (STEP) defines eco-fashion as clothes “that take into account the environment, the health of consumers and the working conditions of people in the fashion industry.”
When we start talking about eco-fashion, the first things that need to be looked at are the materials used to produce the clothing. Modern textiles come from a wide variety of sources, both natural and artificial. From a sustainability and environmental impact angle, the natural fibers are superior to the artificial ones.
Most of the synthetic fibres are ultimately derived from petrochemicals, and by that alone they are unsustainable. This includes polyester, nylon, aramids (like Kevlar), acrylic, and Spandex. Others, such as rayon, are the result of chemically-treating natural fibres. While these are somewhat more sustainable, the action of treating the cellulose fibres with chemicals like caustic soda and carbon disulfide is quite environmentally unfriendly.
While natural fibres are more sustainable by definition, it is the way the plants are grown and harvested, and the impact of these activities on the environment, that truly determines how sustainable they are.
Cotton is one of the most popular textiles in the world, and the most popular natural fibre cloth available. Cotton is planted just about everywhere it can grow, including the southern US, China, India, Brazil, and many other places. However, conventionally-grown cotton uses more insecticides than any other single crop and epitomizes the worst effects of chemically-dependent agriculture. Each year cotton producers around the world use more than 10% of the world’s pesticides and nearly 25% of the world’s insecticides. While there is an organic cotton industry, it is still relatively small, less than 0.3% of conventional cotton production.
Flax is another popular plant for fibre production, producing linen, which is as strong as cotton, though not as flexible. Though pesticides are used in the cultivation of flax, it is not nearly to the same extent as with cotton. Flax is a poor competitor with weeds, so organic cultivation is a challenge.
Hemp has long been used to make textiles, and produces strong, durable cloth. Hemp is easy to grow in a sustainable manner, with few pests, and it grows fast enough to choke out weeds. Hemp fabric is stronger than cotton, and will outlast it, but the threads are somewhat larger. The chief difficulty with hemp is the confusion between it and marijuana. While they are related plants, hemp is not psychoactive, and has been long bred for its industrial, rather than pharmaceutical, uses.
Bamboo can also be used as a textile, via a couple of methods. The first is very similar to the manufacture of rayon, using bamboo instead as the source of cellulose. At the end of the process, though, this is still basically rayon. The other method is similar to the process used for flax and hemp to turn them into fabric, and produces a silky sort of linen as the end product.
In addition to these selections of fibres, eco-fashion often makes use of recycled materials, often in part to raise awareness of the recycling issue. This wouldn’t likely be seen in clothing for retail sale, but rather for fashion shows and photo shoots.
Even just in the choice of fabrics, the desire for ecological sustainability presents a wide variety of choices. One has to sift through the literature from both sides of the issue, and determine what is the best choice.