Thursday, January 17, 2008

Let the (green) buyer beware.

I've been asked a variation on this question twice in as many days: What do I look for if I want to buy environmentally-friendly clothing?

First, a reminder: The existing permanent labels (fiber content, care and country of
origin) are required by law. Other labels should be considered sales
tools by the manufacturer.

A consumer who wants to "green" her consumption needs to be able to use
those labels to inform purchases, which is not easy. A label can tell
you a shirt is polyester, but many consumers don't know polyester is
made from oil. A label can tell you the shirt is 100% USDA organic
cotton, but that claim doesn't tell the whole story (what about the
dyes and finishes used in the shirt?). Bamboo and other new fibers are
appearing on the scene without much consumer information available,
only what's on the hang-tag (which is a sales pitch). For example, the
Wikipedia entry for Ingeo (a proprietary form of PLA, usually made from
corn), has been flagged as "written like an advertisement", which it most certainly is! (For more on this, see

Since clothing labeling -- beyond the basics -- is mostly
advertising and unregulated, consumers need to read those labels with a
grain of salt. It may get worse before it gets better; manufacturers eager to cash in on environmentalism won't be above a
little greenwashing. I bought a pair of Ingeo socks at REI that had a
label clearly identifying PLA as a renewable, sustainable fiber that
was environmentally friendly, but did not indicate that corn was the
source of the fiber. Some green consumers might be put off by that
knowledge, since PLA can be made from genetically-modified corn, is not
necessarily organically grown and carries the same social justice
issues as ethanol.

Unfortunately, much of what the consumer wants to know won't be found
on the hang tag, which means the consumer needs to do his or her
homework. Savvy manufacturers and retailers will provide as much
information as possible to appeal to skeptical green consumers, but
it's naive to expect them to reveal the disadvantages or shortcomings
of their wares.

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