The CO2 monster hiding in your wardrobe.
Your closet may not be the first place you'd think to look to reduce your CO 2 output. But clothing manufacture involves agriculture, industry, and commerce, so our fashion choices make a statement about greenhouse gasses as well as style.
Chances are that a good portion of what's hanging in your closet is made from cotton. The fiber is tough to grow, so cotton farmers use enormous amounts of energy-intensive, CO 2-emitting chemicals and fertilizers. To produce one pair of regular cotton jeans takes three-quarters of a pound of fertilizers and pesticides. Each T-shirt takes one-third of a pound. The farming of organic fibers, by contrast, releases less CO 2 into the air and uses 50 percent less energy. Cotton, hemp, bamboo, ramie, linen, and silk can all be grown organically. (And hemp and bamboo are pretty good for your CO 2 count, even when they're not organic, because they need little if any fertilizer to grow.) Organic wool, alpaca, and cashmere are also excellent choices. So is lyocell, a textile made from wood pulp. Anything in your closet made of nylon, polyester, or acrylic, on the other hand, comes drenched in CO 2-laden petroleum (not literally, but you get the idea).
Mindful of the growth of the organic-food market, manufacturers, such as Patagonia, Nike, Levi's, and even Wal-Mart are starting to buy organic textiles. In fact, demand for organic cotton far outstrips supply—only 6,577 acres of certified-organic cotton were planted in the United States last year, less than 0.05 percent of cotton acreage overall. (Even at that low rate, the United States, along with Turkey, is the world's largest producer of organic cotton.)
We're not suggesting you overhaul your entire closet in one fell retail-therapy swoop. Instead, below are a variety of incremental ideas for curbing your closet's CO2 appetite. If only the carbon pounds you shed could help you squeeze into this season's pencil-thin organic-cotton jeans …
• Aside from your refrigerator, your dryer is your household's most energy-sucking appliance. To increase its efficiency and save CO2 emissions, put it in a part of the house that's typically warm. Clean the lint filter after each load and only turn it on when it's full. If your dryer features a moisture-sensor option, use it. This ensures the machine will automatically shut off when the clothes are dry. Better yet, line-dry your clothes whenever possible so you're using no energy at all.
• If your washing machine has spin options, set it to a high or extended-spin setting. This will wring clothes out as much as possible before you put them in the dryer.
• Buy organic. Though there's no government label for organic clothing like the one for organic food, most manufacturers let you know. (Check out some of TreeHugger's favorite eco-conscious designers here.)
• Look for clothes that use recycled content. The environmental impact of recycling worn-out polyester into new polyester fiber, for instance, is significantly lower than making that same fiber anew. CO2 savings can be as high as 71 percent in the case of Patagonia's recycled Capilene base layers, and the company's Synchilla fleece is made from recycled plastic bottles.
• Donate your used, unwanted clothing and shoes instead of throwing them away. This averts the CO2 emissions that come from incinerating them or sending them to a landfill.
Meaghan O'Neill is a freelance writer and founding editor of treehugger.com, an eco-Web site and Slate's partner on the Green Challenge.
Illustration by Robert Neubecker.