Dressing your children in some greener threads this school year is possible -- but it's not easy.
That's why no one will blame you if you give up your eco-friendly urges and head to a mall outlet like Old Navy, where jeans are less than $20 and T-shirts are often less than $10.
Sure, children are prime candidates for green consumerism. Mainstream retailers, however, are barely beginning to tailor their wares around this idea.
The conundrum of green consumption is that often the greenest option is finding ways to use, repurpose and pass your stuff along to keep it out of the garbage as long as possible. But children always need new things.
They outgrow clothes constantly. They can be suspicious of hand-me-downs and pass-alongs. And as early as the preteen years their tastes are more fickle than a fashion model's.
If you have to buy new clothes and you know their lifespan in your household will be limited, it can be tempting to try to make your consumerism have less environmental impact. But you also don't want to bust the budget on clothes the kids might outgrew by New Year's.
Jeans and T-shirts are staples of back-to-school shopping these days and also the clothing categories most ripe for populist eco-fashion efforts. But can you outfit your kids in sustainably made threads at your local mall, and can you do it at prices that are reasonable?
These are surprisingly complex questions.
For starters, figuring out what you expect from environmentally friendly clothing is complicated and there's no one go-to source for buying them.
Organic standards in the U.S. govern how cotton and some other natural fibers are grown, harvested and ginned, but not how it's processed from then on. The conventional farming of cotton itself is environmentally damaging enough, making it a good place to start making clothes greener.
According to data cited on
Sustainablecotton.org, it takes a third of a pound of chemical pesticides and fertilizers to yield one pound of cotton, the amount used to make a T-shirt.
Add up all the T-shirts in just one
Abercrombie & Fitch
store and do the scary math. So taking some of these chemicals out of circulation is a step in the right direction.
But once cotton gets off the farm,
turning it into clothing is also incredibly
dirty. It involves toxic dyes and lots of water for flushing fabrics out, and in the developing countries that have become the world's clothing mills, there are often no guarantees about where that water winds up.
In today's global economy, moreover, cotton might be grown in one country, shipped to another for weaving, another for assembling pieces and yet another for sale -- that's a deep carbon footprint for one pair of jeans.
Of course, man-made fabrics, which take less of a toll on farmland, need as much or more manufacturing and shipping, and even clothes from recycled materials (like
Patagonia's well-known fleece made from soda bottles) come from factories, which is why the
discussion about the merits of natural vs. man-made fabrics is a perennial one in the green community.
Finding products that are sustainably grown and manufactured takes more legwork than you'll want to put into back-to-school shopping. There are voluntary standards that the
Oregon Tilth provide certification for in the U.S., but this movement is too nascent for there to be a standard label to look for and neither organization had a list of certified companies on its Web site.
Organic Trade Association's Web site provides a
list of its members, who all sell organically sourced products. A spokesperson says many of these companies also practice or aspire to green manufacturing standards as well. But you'll have to research each company's policies on your own.
If knowing your kids' T-shirt or jeans has organically grown cotton is enough for you, look for labeling somewhere on the clothing -- not necessarily the content label -- that says "made from organic cotton." Finding these clothes is doable but not a snap. The OTA has a
directory that lists purveyors by product category.
For younger school-age kids you're really reliant on niche businesses.
Garden Kids has T-shirts for kids beyond toddler sizes for about $19 to $27. But be warned, as is often the case with organic T's, the company gets around the dying issue by offering most of its wares in white.
Sarah Waldo offers stylish jeans for preteen girls but quite cryptically, the Web site doesn't offer pricing or information on where to buy.
For your green teen, there are more options, some quite budget friendly, but no major clothing brand has gone completely organic. And with the fashion industry much more focused on image than data, Web sites can be vague about where and how their "green" clothes were made or the portion of organic or sustainable materials those items actually contain.
began making organic jeans a couple of years ago. It's main Levi's brand offers the
Eco line for women, ranging in price from $68 to $245 and one pair of Eco jeans for men ($195). It's lower end Signature line has organic jeans for men that sell in
Target for $35.
The Gap sells organic T-shirts for men for $16.50. And hipster clothing chain
American Apparel sells organic tank tops and T-shirts for kids and teens, all well under $20. At both of these stores, you can have your organic T in any color you like as long as it's white.
Patagonia, of course, has men's and women's jeans made from
organic cotton ($110), and T-shirts that start at $29. But your child will probably need a green bent to take an interest.
Eileen P. Gunn writes about the business of life and is the author of "Your Career Is An Extreme Sport." You can learn more about her at
her Web site.