How to Wear Cotton Without Wearing out the Planet

Clothes swaps are an attractive alternative to buying, given that the average American household spends $1,725 every year on apparel.
Cotton illustration

Organic cotton production systems replenish and maintain soil fertility, reduce the use of toxic and persistent pesticides and fertilizers, and build biologically diverse agriculture. Organic cotton represents 1.2 percent of global cotton production, according to the Textile Exchange Farm and Fiber Report 2010.

1. Organic and Fair

Much of the clothing we purchase every year carries hidden environmental and social costs. Growing non-organic cotton, for example, uses copious amounts of pesticides, herbicides, and water. That’s one concern for people who want to make low-impact, ethical choices as consumers. Another issue is that clothing sold in the United States is often produced in the developing world, in factories with poor wages and working conditions. To ensure that you’re buying fair labor clothing, look for companies that are transparent about their production process. Green America’s National Green Pages is a good source of information if you’re looking to buy the most sustainable and fairly produced clothing available.­

2. Swap Some

Before you toss your old clothes into the nearest charity drop box and go shopping for new ones, consider a clothing swap. You can arrange one yourself with friends in your living room or take part in a clothing exchange with a difference. Swap-O-Rama-Rama is a community clothes-swap party that also raises funds for nonprofits.

The cost? A bag of old clothes and a donation of no more than $10. Once you pull your finds from the communal heap, volunteers at sewing and silkscreen stations help you decorate and mend your “new” clothes. Artist Wendy Tremayne founded Swap-O-Rama-Rama with a “no mirrors” rule. Swappers give each other face-to-face feedback instead.

Clothes swaps are an attractive alternative to buying, given that the average American household spends $1,725 every year on apparel. But even more attractive is the assurance that

Cotton tool belt illustration

The EPA estimates that each person in the United States throws out 10 pounds of clothing every year.

your new outfit won’t support sweatshop manufacture or farming with harmful pesticides.­

3. Recycle to Insulate

You can wear recycled cotton—or use it to insulate your home. Home insulation is available that is made from 90 percent post-consumer recycled denim and cotton fibers, uses less energy to manufacture than traditional insulation, contains no fiberglass or formaldehyde, and doesn’t off-gas.

The cotton industry’s “From Blue to Green” campaign showed that consumers are eager to recycle when it collected more than 40,000 pairs of old jeans in 2010. These were used to make insulation that was then donated to community housing projects. 

Cotton jeans illustration4. Make It With Old Jeans

Reuse your old jeans to create a tool belt or gardening apron. Cut the legs off as if you were making a pair of cutoffs. Cut along the seams of the inner legs, and cut out the front fly. Trim the back into an apron shape, leaving the pockets intact. If the waistband is too small, cut off the front button and use an old belt to hold your tool belt in place. Sew on strips of leftover denim to hold hammers, etc.

You can leave the cut edges raw, finish them on the sewing machine, or apply some leftover latex paint on the edges to prevent unraveling. ­

5. Wear Local

We’re more likely to find evidence of the “buy local” movement in our refrigerators than in our closets. A pair of organic cotton jeans leaves an 85-pound carbon footprint after its 10,000-mile journey from the field in India to the store in North America. That’s no walk to the farmers’ market.

That’s why Rebecca Burgess’ challenge—a year of wearing only clothes made from materials sourced within 150 miles of her front door—is especially innovative. Of the 20 pieces in Burgess’ wardrobe, her favorite is what she calls the “Golden Pants,” made of local, organic, color-grown, undyed cotton.

Burgess started the Fibershed Project to show what really sustainable clothing production looks like. She and other textile artists produce stylish, eco-friendly clothing from local materials.

The results shown on the Fibershed blog are so desirable that you’ll be tempted to try a sustainable clothing project yourself, like dyeing wool using homemade natural plant dyes.

Burgess is raising funds through the project to build a solar-powered fabric mill in Northern California. That would make wearing local easier—and show what can be done elsewhere. 

No Paywall. No Ads. Just Readers Like You.
You can help fund powerful stories to light the way forward.
Donate Now.