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Care What You Wear

Fashion is Going Green, but How Can You Tell?

If you think too much about it, buying next season's "it" bag can seem like the equivalent of backing over a harp seal with your Hummer.

That makes the rise of green and socially conscious fashion a welcome development. But pinning down exactly what terms like "green" mean is no simple task.

While organic foodstuffs and beauty products bear the familiar U.S. Department of Agriculture label and have strict guidelines, buildings have LEED certification and appliances Energy Star ratings, when it comes to fashion, clarity evaporates.

"There's a huge proliferation of 'eco-labels,' " says Ryan Zinn, national campaign director for the Organic Consumers Association. "Companies are starting to throw up anything (and call it green), and I think that's a big challenge. ... People are getting more and more confused as their consciousness continues to grow and evolve."

Even if consumers could accurately parse terms and claims such as "conflict free," "fair trade," "carbon neutral," "upcycled" and "post-consumer waste," that's only the beginning. Denim woven with certified organic cotton and dyed with all-natural indigo can then be bleached with caustic chemicals.

Hemp is a less-energy-intensive crop than cotton, but because its cultivation is banned in the U.S., it has to be imported, which increases the amount of carbon dioxide spewed into the atmosphere. And wooden bracelets that one group certifies as coming from "sustainably harvested forests" may not pass muster with the standards set by another organization.

"There is a lot of green noise out there," says Summer Rayne Oakes, an environmental activist, model and author whose new book, "Style, Naturally," spends 344 pages (printed with vegetable inks on recycled paper, naturally) guiding consumers to "sustainable style" options. 

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