Organic fabrics like cotton, wool, silk and hemp must meet regulations set by the Organic Trade Association regarding fiber processing, production, dyeing and non-toxic handling. It's important to look for organic certification on labels to ensure that a product is actually organic. Sustainable fabrics are produced without federal guidelines and certification.
Organic cotton is the most popular type of organic fabric. According to the Organic Consumers Association, the demand for organic cotton clothing doubled between 2005 and 2006 [source: OCA]. Organic cotton is also used in personal care items like sanitary products, cotton swabs and baby diapers, as well as home goods like sheets, towels and even stationery.
Organic wool, silk and hemp are also popular organic materials. Hemp is a highly durable natural fiber that requires no pesticides and little water to grow. Because it's a renewable resource, farmers are able to grow hemp crops year after year. Hemp fibers can be used in clothing, skincare products and paper. To make hemp fabric less rigid, fibers are often blended with cotton or silk.
Sustainable clothing uses fabrics made from renewable materials like bamboo, soy and Tencel, a wood pulp product. Sustainable clothing materials can also be produced from new synthetic options like "POP," fabric made from recycled plastic soda bottles.
Bamboo has become a popular sustainable fabric choice for companies wishing to transition into eco-friendly fashion. Bamboo grows fast and can be farmed without pesticides or chemical additives. It's also 100 percent biodegradable. To make bamboo fibers, the plant is pulped until it separates into thin threads that can be spun and woven into cloth. Bamboo makes excellent fabric for sportswear because of its natural antibacterial and moisture-wicking properties. Bamboo fabric is also noted for its silky feel.
Organic and sustainable fabrics sometimes require special care. Always check the label for cleaning instructions on each garment. While many fabrics can be tossed into a washing machine, some fabrics require dry cleaning or hand washing. Eco-conscious cleaners may wish to use phosphate-free and biodegradable detergents and air-dry clothing to reduce energy consumption.
In the next section, we'll find out where to buy organic and sustainable clothing and learn if it's really more expensive than conventional products.