The assignment had seemed straightforward enough: “Go buy a really cute outfit, then write about the experience.” But given that the assignment was coming from the editors of onEarth—and not, say, Vogue—I figured there was probably more to it than that. And indeed there was: I was being asked, more specifically, to seek out and purchase only those clothing items that had generated the least possible damage to the environment during their manufacture. I was being sent, in other words, on a sustainable shopping spree.
Okay, I thought. How hard could that be?
I found out.
A good place to start, or so I had thought, was H&M. The big-box retailer’s sustainable Conscious collection operates as a kind of subcategory of its various clothing lines; on the company’s website, you can view items from the collection by finding the link within the drop-down menus for women’s, men’s, and children’s clothing. Since there’s an H&M not very far from onEarth’s offices in New York City, I walked over one day to see which of these pieces I could find on the racks.
The answer: none. And lest you think I was just being hard to please, let me make clear that when I say none, I don’t mean that I couldn’t find any clothes from the collection that were the right style, color, or size. I mean I couldn’t find any. Not in that H&M store, not in the next Manhattan H&M I visited, and not in the one after that.
My spree began to take on an air of desperation. I went to all kinds of stores around Manhattan, scouring tags and chatting up salespeople for any clues that might help me determine which items were really and truly the “most” sustainable. No luck.
Back at work, I got on my computer and sent more than two dozen e-mails to brand representatives, asking them if they could assist me in my quest. The ones who replied, while clearly wanting to help me, were ultimately unable to. Identifying the sustainability profile of an individual article of clothing in such a way that it can be measured, favorably or unfavorably, against the sustainability profile of another item of clothing would require access to highly detailed information: where the fabrics came from, how they were processed, how they were transported. And that information, I was told, was simply unavailable. Not just unavailable to me, but unavailable to many of the companies themselves.
This seemed pretty strange. I’ve grown accustomed, as most people probably have, to walking into just about any grocery store, be it a smaller, independent one or a big chain supermarket, and finding a variety of organic options. That one word, organic, attached to my New York State–grown Braeburn apple lets me know that the farmer who grew it has done so without the aid of certain pesticides and fungicides, and that he or she has practiced a certain degree of sustainable resource management in tending to the orchards. And even when I opt for something decidedly non-organic, I can count on a certain degree of transparency. I may not necessarily want to know what goes into a box of Kraft mac and cheese, but the FDA has made sure that such information is available to me, should I be staring at the box as the water boils and wondering how they make the cheese such an unnaturally bright shade of Day-glo orange.
So you’d think that with something as basic as, say, a classic Gap sweatshirt, I’d be able to learn exactly what it’s made from. But when I asked Melissa Fifield, the brand’s senior director of sustainable innovation, she couldn’t tell me. Not wouldn’t tell me, I should make clear; the information just wasn’t available. “The global supply chain is really complicated,” she said. “It’s difficult to trace a raw material to an end product, like a sweatshirt, given the tools we have today.”
On paper, at least, those tools for tracing what goes into our clothes would appear sufficient. The Federal Trade Commission and U.S. Customs and Border Protection require that a standard garment label disclose care instructions, materials, and the country where the item was made. When I pluck a plain cotton T-shirt out of my dresser at random, sure enough, the label informs me that it is 100 percent cotton and made in Hong Kong.
But as I learned, the word made doesn’t necessarily mean what we think. Most clothing, unlike my New York State–grown apple, isn’t produced in one place. That “Made in Wherever” tag actually tells us only where an item was assembled, not where the materials came from, where they were woven or processed into fabric, or where the fabric was dyed or distressed. My made–in–Hong Kong shirt may well have been produced with a mix of Chinese, Uzbek, and Australian cotton, which was woven and processed in Bangladesh before being flown to Hong Kong for assembly. By the time it arrived there, it may even have been, for all intents and purposes, a ready-to-wear garment. “Ultimately, it may be that [only] the label was sewn on in Hong Kong,” says Dara O’Rourke, cofounder and chief sustainability officer of GoodGuide, which rates consumer products according to their social, environmental, and health impacts. “That’s illegal, but they do that.”
As for the label’s declaration that my shirt was 100 percent cotton? Well, that may tell me that my shirt hasn’t been adulterated with polyester or some other synthetic fabric, but it doesn’t reveal anything about the cotton itself. Like many other materials that go into our clothing, cotton is a global commodity; it’s grown in several countries and typically mixed together before being sold in bulk to manufacturers. And different countries can have different—sometimes vastly different—growing methods, labor practices, and environmental standards.
Paradoxes abound. The “all organic” cotton that went into that adorable dress you spied on the rack of a fancy boutique might have been grown, picked, and processed in a country where unsafe sweatshops and brutal labor practices are the norm, then flown halfway across the globe to the next link in the supply chain. Meanwhile, another dress made with nonorganic cotton might have been produced under safe and worker-friendly conditions, then sold only a few miles from where it was manufactured. Which dress is more sustainable?
“It’s still essentially impossible for apparel companies to know exactly where their cotton comes from,” O’Rourke tells me. That’s one reason why GoodGuide—which rates all manner of specific products, from Nabisco’s whole-grain Garden Herb Triscuits to Revlon’s Colorburst lipstick—admittedly has so much trouble rating specific items of clothing from different brands. Tracing the origins and supply chains of individual items, its investigators have found, is nigh impossible; the best that GoodGuide can do is offer brand ratings.
Why is disclosure so difficult and details so murky? Whom better to ask, I thought, than Jason Kibbey, CEO of the Sustainable Apparel Coalition (SAC), a trade group whose members promote sustainability within their industry by identifying problem areas and best practices. It’s not just watchdogs like O’Rourke who are flummoxed, Kibbey says; even retailers don’t always know what’s going on within their own supply chains. For many brands, “the only relationship where they [can expect] any degree of transparency may be with the final cut-and-sew facility.”
In an attempt to codify all these variables into something like a standardized metric of sustainability, in 2012 the SAC—with input from environmental organizations, including NRDC (which publishes onEarth) —introduced the Higg Index, a set of assessment tools to help brands rate their supply chain for any specific item, from the raw-materials stage to the manufacturing, packaging, transportation, and even postconsumer phases. (After all, those organic pants aren’t very sustainable if they’re so poorly made that they end up trashed after only a few wears.) Right now, the Higg Index is sufficiently complex that it’s only used by brands internally, for self-assessment, but Kibbey says the SAC has been working on a simpler version that might soon provide a kind of sustainability lingua franca for retailers and consumers to use in evaluating clothing.
Apparently, we’re still at least a few years away from seeing a Higg score printed on the tag of our new jeans. In the meantime, we still have to get dressed. How do we make informed choices? Kibbey, for one, believes we should reward those brands that go out of their way to disclose sustainability information—even if they’re not producing what we, personally, might think of as “perfect” garments—in order to foster a new culture of transparency. “Whether they’re denoting the use of a certified material, saying how much water has been used, or talking about the reduction of harmful chemicals, those are all great things,” he says.
In the end, I was, in fact, able to complete my assignment—with an asterisk, maybe, over the word complete. After my education in the slipperiness of supply chains and the ultimate meaninglessness of labels, I was nevertheless able to purchase an outfit that I honestly believe is among the more sustainable, if not the most sustainable, that I could have put together. Following Kibbey’s suggestions and my own instincts, I based my evaluations on what I was able to glean about a brand’s transparency and general sustainability practices, combined with what I had learned about where materials were most likely to have come from and how they were most likely to have been processed. Here’s what I came up with.
1. Patagonia Reclaimed Wool Parka Raising sheep requires lots of land. Processing wool sucks up water and can release chemicals into the environment. This parka is made from shredded wool sweaters, mixed with polyester and nylon for strength. That keeps old sweaters out of landfills and gives you the warmth and durability of wool—without the guilt-inducing costs.
2. H&M Conscious Long-Sleeved Shirt To find a sustainable T-shirt, I started with material. Lyocell, a fabric made from beech, spruce, or eucalyptus trees, is biodegradable and rates a relatively high 30.2 on the Materials Sustainability Index, a tool developed by Nike and adopted by the Sustainable Apparel Coalition. H&M’s Conscious collection has this lightweight number, made entirely from Tencel lyocell, a eucalyptus product.
3. Kuyichi Jeans Denim distressing produces that oh-so-cool faded look, but the sandblasting that creates it can destroy workers’ lungs. Kuyichi doesn’t use abrasive techniques, and this pair of jeans is made with organic cotton, eliminating the synthetic pesticides and fertilizers that can contaminate water and soil. Though organic cotton takes 20 percent to 50 percent more land to grow than its conventional counterpart, 100 percent cotton jeans, with no fillers, can be easily recycled.
4. Timberland Earthkeepers Boots The latest version of Timberland’s eco-collection, Earthkeepers, features a recycling program along with some sleek products. Leather is a problematic material. Aside from the environmental costs of raising cattle, tanning leather uses a host of toxic chemicals, like certain types of chromium. Still, leather is long-lasting, and these boots are better than most. (Ninety-two percent of Timberland’s tanneries were rated silver or gold in 2013 by the Leather Working Group, which acts as a kind of oversight organization for hides.)
onEarth provides reporting and analysis about environmental science, policy, and culture. All opinions expressed are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the policies or positions of NRDC. Learn more or follow us on Facebook and Twitter.