Thursday, January 15, 2009

Why Does Some Eco Fashion (literally) Stink?

I have alot of customers at The Oko Box who have varying degrees of chemical sensitivities. One of the main reasons I got into selling organic & eco minded fashion was because I wanted to not only contribute to lightening the chem load of consumerism but also for reasons of health. I personally could not tolerate mall clothes anymore because of the chemical fabrics, chemical dyes, and then more chemical finishings used to keep the colors bright like formaldehyde- then the use of child labor and unfair labor activities in other countries. The whole fashion industry had spoiled it's creative flare with me, by allowing their ethics to be flushed down the toilet with tons of chems poisoning water and soil. It has gotten to be a giant footprint with bad health implications.
So, I can't help but be a little disappointed when I have purchased organic fashion that smells of chemicals, perfumed soaps, incense or some other not so organic smell. I have had this experience numerous times when ordering eco clothing online, and found many dropship items are especially prone.

The following will be a guide for those trying to navigate your wardrobe towards the healthiest (least stinky) options:

1. No Dye - Of course we all super de duper love colors, but no dye will always be the healthiest option when paired with organic cotton. Hemp, bamboo, soy and tencel all go through a chem processing of some sort therefore making more impact on the environment, and possibly not a good choice for the extra sensitive.

2. Natural Dyes - These are the second best option and will include colors made with clay, indigo, bilberries, black walnut hulls or some other naturally occurring substance. These don't carry a chem smell and are not to be confused with low impact dyes (which I will explain next) - although their impact is very low!

3. Low Impact Dyes - As much as I love the idea of low impact or fiber reactive dyes they are still chemical based. Low Impact dyes have less of an environmental effect because they are made to react with the clothing fibers in such as way that the fabric holds more dye making less run off into the environment. So where they may be less toxic to soil and water and even less nasty to your skin, they still contain chems and heavy metals that are needed to create color and have a smell that can reflect that. For those with chem sensitivities low impact dyes may or may not work - they tend to be OK after a few washings but some people can not tolerate this type of dye especially when paired with the fabrics which require more processing such as the hemp or tencel.

4. Fabrics - Organic cotton remains to be one the purest fabrics besides the very expensive peace silk. While bamboo, hemp, tencel and soy are more eco minded then chem fabrics such as polyester blends , nylon & spandex - they still go through some heavy duty chemical processing. Hemp in particular is one which can either be heavily processed with harsh noxious liquids in order to spin it in a fiber faster, or a slower less toxic process can be used such as the processing stages at Ecolution. Bamboo is so silky soft, fast growing, and easily cultivated but uses some nasty chems to spin it into a fiber - same with soy and tencel, except tencel claims to use less toxic and 99% recyclable liquids.

5. The Smell Of Storage - This is an issue which is most difficult to navigate because each warehouse or storing facility is handled differently. I have purchased organic clothing that was discounted at Bluefly and Tobi which are online stores that carry mostly regular fashion and some eco fashion on the side... the organic items will be stored with the piles of out gassing chem dipped clothing and usually will come smelling like it. (My experience with Bluefly was far better then the eco item at Tobi). This is to be expected... but what I don't like is to buy organic clothing from an organic designer only to have it come stinking like cheap perfume or incense. I was recently disappointed to find that some of the dropship items sent out by designers through The Oko Box had been returned and smelled horrendously perfumed. My advice for those looking for organic clothing to come scent free is to call the store first and check with the owner about which items are dropship and which are stored as inventory, and the condition in which they are stored. Each designer literally carries it's own scent and own quality of how pure and organic it really is. There is alot of diversity to this and takes quite a bit of trial and error.

If you are chemically sensitive or have sensitive skin and need to discuss a particular eco designer's stink rating with me , please feel free to contact me through e-mail (found under my profile), comment on this blog or find further contact info at The Oko Box - and ask me any question you have!


Liberty said...

I was curious as to why Modal was not mentioned in fibres? It's kind of like a rayon made from beechwood fibres. I don't actually know how 'green' it is but I personally tolerate it better than almost any other fabric. I'm okay with bamboo rayon too. I haven't tried Tencel yet. Modal takes way less 'detox washes' before I can wear it than anything else. Far less than organic, undyed cotton even. And for some reason, when I get cotton/Modal blends(non-organic), I don't seem to react to the cotton as much as usual.
Bonus: it's super soft :-)

The Oko Box said...

Hey Liberty!
Thanks so much for bringing that up, i didnt mention it because i have not had much experience with it- and i am so glad you have and could share your ideas!!!
I am actually ok with bamboo, organic cotton, and quality hemp too... but i cant do tencel at all.

I will have to try some modal... there are some great undies companies that use it!

Odorous Nick said...

I'm glad you made this blog. This is usually a question that is posed about me and it's a relief to have it directed elsewhere. Thank you Leslie for another compassionate blog!

Anonymous said...

This is really great information! Thanks much for explaining.

The Oko Box said...

Nick - ew.

Susie - Your Welcome!! These questions baffled me till I started my store and learned more about each kind of fabric and dye.

Anonymous said...

Yes, most people aren't aware of the chemical processing bamboo, modal, tencel and the like go through! To me, it can be consierded a form of "green washing" and I'm happy the word is getting out there.

Starting with a natural source is better than synthetic fabrics, but it still requires quite an amount of chemical processing, which doesn't make it healthy or sustainable in my book.

Liberty said...

with MCS, it can be really hard to decide what is the more eco-conscious choice. I can buy modal which takes only a few washes to detox or I can buy organic cotton which can take over 10 washes to detox.
For example modal may be less green at the manufacturing level than organic cotton but how do I calculate the balance of that in comparison to the 13 washes (water use, gas use for hot water for some of the washes, electricity) and the products I have to use to get the cotton safe for me (vinegar, baking soda, sometimes evil TSP)? I know there are no clear answers. Just thinking out loud - it's something that sort of boggles me. For years I just did whatever didn't make me sick and didn't think too much about how green it was since I didn't have many choices. But now that I'm improving, these things are on my mind :-)

The Oko Box said...

Liberty, that is a really good point. While i agree some of the promoted "green" fabrics turn out to be alot of green washing do to the chem processing... how green is it for you to be washing 10 times? Or getting sick?
This is why I believe we do still need the variety of eco minded fabrics that are available, because there are so many degrees of sensitivities and people can tolerate only certain ones. Something really important though is for the information about how all these fabrics and dyes are made to be out there- so people are not just buying "green' cause they think it's completely pure- in reality any type of manufacturing of fabrics is going to burden the environment in some way. Even the organic cotton used tons of land and water resources.
So it's an individual choice from the group of 'best' choices out there.