Green apparel

March 22, 2017


Green apparel

Natural Standard Monograph, Copyright © 2013 (www.naturalstandard.com). Commercial distribution prohibited. This monograph is intended for informational purposes only, and should not be interpreted as specific medical advice. You should consult with a qualified healthcare provider before making decisions about therapies and/or health conditions.

Related Terms

  • Bamboo, biocomposites, color-grown cotton, cotton, eco-fleece, eco-wool, flax, hemp, multiple chemical sensitivities, natural clothing, organic apparel, organic linen, prevention, shoes, silk, vegan products.


  • Green apparel refers to clothing that is produced in a sustainable way that minimizes the environmental impact of its production. It is often made with natural fibers, such as cotton, hemp, silk, eco-wool, and bamboo, but it may also include other materials, such as recycled plastic.

  • Natural fibers may be classified as plant fibers or protein fibers of animal origin, such as hair or silk from worms. These fibers may then be used alone or as part of a blend to make apparel like scarves, coats, hats, suits, and shirts. These items may be both functional and attractive.

  • In general, pesticides and hormones are not used to produce natural fibers. In contrast, the production of traditional cotton often requires the use of numerous pesticides during cultivation; hormones might also be given to the animals providing fiber to make clothing, as with sheep in the production of wool.

  • Awareness of the environmental impact of the textile industry has been documented since the 1970s. The green apparel movement began in the 1980s as a response to the increased awareness of the excesses of materialism. The green apparel movement is the result of the textile and fashion industries making efforts to lessen their environmental impact throughout the design and production process.

  • Some apparel manufacturers have made efforts to minimize their environmental impact by changing the way natural fibers, such as cotton, are grown. The cultivation of conventional cotton involves the use of pesticides, chemical fertilizers, and herbicides. It has been estimated that 150 million kilograms of pesticides are needed to cultivate conventional cotton in developing countries. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), about 20,000 deaths occur in developing countries due to pesticide exposure. Many of those affected are involved in cotton farming.

  • Green apparel manufacturers have produced organic cotton in response to this need, so that the use of these harmful chemicals may be eliminated. For example, traditional chemical fertilizers are replaced with compost; in addition, pesticides are replaced by the planting of different crops alongside the cotton crop, to help divert insects away from the cotton. The hand-picking of crops eliminates the use of machines that would otherwise consume fuel. Other goals include the adoption of fair trade practices, support for the rights of foreign factory workers, and the enforcement of child labor laws. A major benefit of these changes is less pollution, due to the elimination of herbicides, chemical fertilizers, and pesticides.

  • To be certified as organic in the United States, clothing must adhere to the same standards set by the USDA as are certified organic meats, dairy foods, and other animal products. According to these standards, no chemical additions are allowed at any stage of production. Chemical additives used in garment finishes include such products as stainfighters, flame-retardants, antifungals, antibacterials, additives that make clothes "wrinkle-free," and coatings used to make textiles water-repellent.

  • An example of one of these chemical additives is perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA), a type of perfluorinated chemical (PFC) that is used to make water-repellent materials like GORE-TEX®. Health effects linked to PFCs include cancer, fertility problems, allergies, and organ system toxicity. PFCs, unlike other persistent toxins that bioaccumulate, are known to bind to blood proteins instead of building up in fatty tissue.

  • Another group of chemicals that was until recently used as flame retardants in furniture upholstery, mattresses, and television casings are the polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs). One form of PBDE, Deca, is still in use because few labs are able to reliably test for the presence of this chemical. Tests done by the Environmental Working Group in 2008 have shown PDBEs to be present in highly measurable levels in children. The levels detected in children from 1-4 years of age were, on average, 3.2 times higher than the amounts detected in their mothers. Like PFCs, PDBEs accumulate in the blood, and they have been shown to cause problems in the nervous and reproductive systems of laboratory animals. These flame retardant chemicals may drift from furniture and accumulate in house dust.

  • Current efforts to make labeling standards uniform worldwide are being undertaken by the International Working Group on Global Organic Textile Standard. Under these standards, for instance, any clothing that contains a percentage of fibers made organically must be labeled as "made with x% organic materials."

  • Organic cotton is the most established and widely used natural fiber. According to a report by the Organic Exchange, this market exceeded $1 billion worldwide in 2006. Sales are projected to grow to nearly $7 billion by 2010. With more companies looking to leave less of a carbon footprint, many see organic cotton as a means to eliminate our dependence on pesticides, herbicides, and chemical fertilizers. Conventionally-grown cotton, in contrast to organic cotton, requires more resources, such as pesticides and fertilizer. In 1996, farmers in the United States used more than 1.6 billion pounds of synthetic fertilizers and 53.4 billion pounds of pesticides to produce conventional cotton. By using a combination of organic farming methods, crop rotation, hand labor, and other sustainable soil building practices, not only are toxic chemicals eliminated from the process, but water use is also reduced.

  • Growing consumer demand has fueled the expansion of this sector. The green apparel industry is projected to continue its growth, as major brands like Nike and Wal-Mart join the ranks of companies producing organic textiles.


  • General: During the production of green apparel, design choices are aimed at longevity, reduced energy use in production, the elimination of chemicals in cultivation and production, and the reduction of packaging to minimize its environmental impact. All of these changes are coupled with better trade practices.

  • Eliminating pesticides and herbicides: Crops, such as organic cotton, may be produced without the use of pesticides and herbicides. The use of herbicides to control weeds may be eliminated by the use of human labor, machinery, and flame devices.

  • Eliminating chemical fertilizers: Crop rotations and the use of compost may replace the application of chemical fertilizers. As a result, workers are spared exposure to toxic chemicals through breathing, skin contact, or ingestion during the cultivation and production of organic fibers. The possible contamination of nearby water supplies is also eliminated.

  • Eliminating chemical coatings: In green apparel, coatings (such as flame retardants and wrinkle-free and stain-free additives) are not used on the clothing. This eliminates human exposure and the possible associated health problems, such as skin rashes, headaches, musculoskeletal pain, fatigue, and seizures. Flame retardants, such as polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PDBEs), are currently used in furniture upholstery and mattresses and have been shown to migrate out and accumulate in house dust. These chemicals accumulate in the blood and tissues of exposed people and have been shown to cause problems in the nervous and reproductive systems of laboratory animals. Chemical coatings have also been shown to accumulate at higher levels in children than in their parents; this result is especially disconcerting, because children are more vulnerable than adults to toxic effects from chemical exposure.

  • Natural fibers: Natural fibers, such as organic cotton, hemp, bamboo, and silk, are used to make green apparel. Organic cotton, unlike conventional cotton, is grown without the use of pesticides, herbicides, or chemical fertilizers. Hemp and bamboo fibers are natural fibers obtained from the hemp plant and the bamboo tree. Silk is a protein fiber produced by silkworms, which use these fibers for weaving cocoons. Highly renewable fibers such as soy and bamboo are also employed in production.

  • Natural dyes: Dyes used in conventional clothing may cause problems for those with allergies and chemical sensitivities. In addition to the dyes used in conventional clothing, dye fixatives (which are used to bond dye colors to fibers) may also cause health issues: Some of these problems include skin rashes, headaches, breathing difficulties, and fatigue.

  • Dyes used for organic clothing are considered natural or low-impact. Dyes do not have to be used at all, as with undyed color-grown cottons and natural color wools and alpaca. Color-grown cottons are naturally-colored cottons which need no dyes. Examples of natural dyes include dirt dyes, which use minerals to color fabric, and plant dyes, such as bilberry, marigold, turmeric, onion, and oregano.

  • Many natural dyes, however, need toxic mordant chemicals in order to bind them to fiber. For most organic clothing, the dyes of choice are low-impact, fiber-reactive dyes. Although these are synthetic chemicals, unlike conventional dyes, low-impact, fiber-reactive dyes are free of heavy metal contaminants and other known toxic chemicals. Because of their high absorption level in the fibers, they create less waste water run-off and have a lower impact on the environment.

  • Fair trade: The use of fair trade, ethical practices, and the elimination of child labor are standards considered pivotal in the production of green apparel. These standards also include minimum health and safety requirements, freedom of association, collective bargaining rights, minimum wages and benefits, hours of work laws, and mandatory overtime compensation. In contrast to the fair trade practice standards developed for the food sector, clothing market standards are still being developed. Some clothing companies, such as Bono's Edun, have made great strides in monitoring their factories to make sure that all practices are fair and beneficial.


  • General: Green apparel is designed to minimize its negative impact on the environment. During the production process, pesticides, herbicides, and chemical fertilizers are not used. Benefits also extend to the workers involved in green apparel production, as well as the general economic conditions needed for fair trade practices. Consumers benefit because they are not exposed to environmental toxins, such as heavy metals, pesticides, and other chemicals that are embedded in the fibers of conventionally produced textiles. This avoidance of toxins may be especially important for those with allergies and chemical sensitivities.

  • With increasing awareness of the chemical burdens sustained by the U.S. population, minimizing chemical exposure is becoming increasingly important for many consumers. For example, the market for organic cotton exceeded $1 billion worldwide in 2006. This market is expected to continue to grow and is projected to reach $7 billion by 2010. Growth is also fueled by the participation of large corporations, such as Nike and Wal-Mart, as these companies attempt to satisfy consumer demand.

  • Chemical exposure: Chemical exposure through clothing includes such compounds as perfluorinated chemicals (PFCs) like perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) and Teflon, which are used as water repellents in sportswear and to make clothing wrinkle-free. Other PFCs used to treat carpeting, upholstery, and textiles break down into such chemicals as perfluorooctanesulfonate (PFOS), perfluorohexanesulfonate (PFHxS), and perfluorooctanesulfonamide (PFOSA), which have all been detected in human blood samples in the United States. PFOS is known to be a persistent metabolite that accumulates in humans as well as in wildlife. Other PFC breakdown products have been detected in populations outside of the United States. For example, petrochemical dyes are used to color fabrics, but their use also results in more environmental pollution; caustic soda and sulfuric acid are used in the production of rayon; heavy metals are associated with dye fixatives used in fabrics; and dry cleaners use perchloroethylene, which has been shown to cause cancer in animals.

  • Concern over these chemicals has been mounting since PFCs were found in measurable concentrations across the United States in a series of studies done by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC); the CDC was surveying the presence of industrial chemicals in U.S. residents. These studies (also known as biomonitoring surveys) were initiated in 1999-2000, using blood and urine samples to test for the presence of 116 different chemicals. Concentrations of this class of chemicals have been found to be on the decline, however.

  • During the 2003-2004 National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, researchers found that triclosan (an antimicrobial used extensively in consumer products such as textiles) was present in about 75% of over 2,000 analyzed urine samples.

Health Impact/Safety

  • General: Green apparel helps to minimize the environmental impact of traditional clothing production. The production of traditional clothing typically involves the use of pesticides, herbicides, and chemical fertilizers, while green apparel does not. It is estimated that 10% of all agricultural chemicals and 25 percent of insecticides are used in the manufacture of cotton on 3% of our arable land.

  • According to the World Health Organization (WHO), 20,000 deaths occur each year from pesticide poisoning in developing countries, and many of these deaths are linked to cotton processing. Textile plants, especially those in developing countries where environmental regulations are lax, are notorious for polluting waterways and nearby rivers. Much of the waste water from these plants, which contains chemicals, such as dyes, dye fixatives (mordants) and solvents used to process fibers, is dumped in nearby rivers with no concern for its impact on the surrounding environment. This waste may impact nearby water supplies as well as water used on crops that are grown in the area. Polluted river water that connects to the ocean will also impact marine life. The processing of organic clothing minimizes or eliminates the use of toxic chemicals, such as solvents and dye fixatives.

  • By using organic farming techniques and human labor, green apparel manufacturers may reduce the use of many chemicals that have negative environmental effects.

  • Chemical hazards: Chemicals used to process traditional clothing pose many adverse health effects. Some synthetic dyes are made with cancer-causing chemicals, such as benzidine and o-dianisidine. These dyes have been linked to an increased risk of various cancers, including bladder cancer, among workers who process fibers using these dyes. Heavy metals have been known to contaminate dyes used to color clothing. The chemicals used to bind dyes to fibers have also been shown to cause health problems. Chemicals such as pesticides, herbicides, caustic soda, and sulfuric acid that are used to process fibers may cause problems for the environment and for people who are processing the fibers.

Future Research or Applications

  • With consumer interest in green products on the rise, it is expected that more research will be done, and more technology will likely be devoted to the expansion of this industry. Current eco-labeling standards are still being developed, with some manufacturers promoting recycling schemes; labeling schemes in Europe (such as the European Union Ecolabel Scheme), however, have adopted a different, full-life-cycle approach for their products. Other green clothing manufacturers focus on a single positive aspect of their apparel when creating clothing labels, such as the company's overall environmental impact.

  • One organization working on research to improve the performance and attributes of natural fibers such as hemp is the Alberta Research Council. Current research not only focuses on improving hemp fiber for use in apparel but also considers the potential of using hemp fiber in other applications; one of these applications is biocomposites, where fibers are incorporated into building materials and other consumer goods. Other organizations, such as Organic Exchange, are working to replace the conventional cotton used in the healthcare industry with organic cotton. Increased participation by large, high profile companies such as Nike and Wal-Mart will further push others to join the movement, as the projected sales of natural fibers like organic cotton continue to rise.

Author Information

  • This information has been edited and peer-reviewed by contributors to the Natural Standard Research Collaboration (www.naturalstandard.com).


Natural Standard developed the above evidence-based information based on a thorough systematic review of the available scientific articles. For comprehensive information about alternative and complementary therapies on the professional level, go to www.naturalstandard.com. Selected references are listed below.

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  2. Calafat AM, Ye X, Wong LY, et al. Urinary Concentrations of Triclosan in the U.S. Population: 2003-2004. Environ Health Perspect 2008 Mar;116(3):303-7. View Abstract

  3. Caress S, Steinemann A. Prevalence of multiple chemical sensitivities: a population-based study in the southeastern United States. Am J of Pub Health May 2004, vol 94, no.5. View Abstract

  4. Global Organic Textile Standard www.global-standard.org

  5. Grifoni D, Bacci L, Zipoli G, et al. Laboratory and Outdoor Assessment of UV Protection Offered by Flax and Hemp Fabrics Dyed with Natural Dyes. Photochem Photobiol. 2008 Sep 22. View Abstract

  6. Kannan K, Corsolini S, Falandysz J, et al. Perfluorooctanesulfonate and related fluorochemicals in human blood from several countries. Environ Sci Technol 2004 Sep 1;38(17):4489-95. View Abstract

  7. Lunder S, Jacob A. Fire retardants in toddlers and their mothers: Levels three times higher in toddlers than moms. Environmental Working Group Report.

  8. Natural Standard: The Authority on Integrative Medicine. www.naturalstandard.com

  9. Organic Exchange www.organicexchange.org

  10. Sarkar AK An evaluation of UV protection imparted by cotton fabrics dyed with natural colorants. BMC Dermatol. 2004 Oct 27;4(1):15. View Abstract

  11. The Environmental Working Group. www.ewg.org

  12. U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). www.cdc.gov

Copyright © 2013 Natural Standard (www.naturalstandard.com)

The information in this monograph is intended for informational purposes only, and is meant to help users better understand health concerns. Information is based on review of scientific research data, historical practice patterns, and clinical experience. This information should not be interpreted as specific medical advice. Users should consult with a qualified healthcare provider for specific questions regarding therapies, diagnosis and/or health conditions, prior to making therapeutic decisions.


March 22, 2017