Here’s a quiz for environmentally conscious holiday shoppers: Which of the following materials is most environmentally friendly – wool, silk, cotton, linen, ramie, or polypropylene? (Hint: Polypropylene is fabric made from the same plastic as water bottles.)
You may have guessed this is a trick question. But would you really have guessed polypropylene?
It’s true. In declining order, the most environmentally friendly common materials for apparel are natural latex rubber; down; grass-fed leather; polypropylene; silk; corn-fed leather; cotton; hemp fabric; linen; polyester; ramie; acrylic fabric; jute; wool fabric; viscose rayon fabric from bamboo; nylon; and spandex.
New sustainability rating system
These are the eye-opening facts from a new index prepared by the Sustainable Apparel Coalition (or SAC). The group is a consortium of more than 60 apparel and footwear manufacturers, suppliers, universities and nonprofit and non-governmental organizations who came together in 2011 to reduce the environmental harm caused by the industry. Together they represent more than a third of the revenue for all the apparel and footwear sold on the entire planet. Members include such brands as Nike, Patagonia, Coca-Cola, Puma, Levi’s, New Balance, Hanes, H&M, VF, Columbia, Esprit and Adidas. Retailer members include Wal-Mart, J.C. Penney, LL Bean, Kohl’s, Nordstrom, REI and Target. Suppliers include DuPont, Li & Fung, and WL Gore & Associates.
In August of this year SAC introduced Sustainable Apparel Index, or Higg Index, a survey tool that helps organizations standardize the way they measure the environmental performance of apparel products across the supply chain. Multiple factors to consider in addition to fabric type to use the index, organizations enter data into two big spreadsheets. The spreadsheets include data about materials, packaging, transportation, repair and end-of-life. The spreadsheets then generate dashboards that rate specific brands, products and facilities for their relative sustainability.
The Higg Index considers the effects of water and energy use, local pollution, carbon emissions, and dozens of other factors involved in the production of individual articles of clothing. One goal, still a few years off, is to create a hangtag for clothes that tells buyers the relative sustainability of individual pieces. “Within a few years, the customer will be able to walk in and zap their iPhone or whatever electronic gadget on a pair of jeans and see how responsibly that pair of jeans was made,” says Yvon Chouinard, founder of Patagonia, a founding member of SAC. Better design decisions from the start
Another goal is to help designers understand the environmental impact of their decisions. For example, in designing uniforms for soccer players at the Euro Cup, Nike chose recycled polyester over other materials because of its better ranking on the Higg Index. “Ninety percent of a product’s environmental impact is determined at the design stage; it is the designer in Los Angeles who determines most of the harm to be done in Guangdong,” Chouinard has written. 
For the current holiday season, it will still be hard to choose your apparel products for their environmental sustainability. It’s possible that a linen garment made in environmentally clean manufacturing plants, for example, could have a better Higgs Index than a cotton garment made in plants that use more energy or pollute more heavily. Packaging materials and transportation also complicate the evaluation. But in a few years, both shoppers and retail apparel buyers should have much better information for making conscientious environmental decisions. In the meantime, you can at least favor the brands you believe are trying to do the right thing.
1. Chouinard, Yvon. Stanley, Vincent. The Responsible Company: What We’ve Learned from Patagonia’s First 40 Years, as quoted in Women’s Wear Daily.
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