Organic Consumers Association

Eco-friendly clothes for back to school

Of Classrooms and Closets

Eco-friendly supplies and clothes for back to school and beyond

by Diane di Costanzo for the Green Guide

15 Sep 2003
The beginning of the school year -- already a stressful time for kids and
parents -- is often made even more difficult by all the purchasing pressure,
from long lists of school supplies sent home by teachers to ads promoting
fashionable new wardrobes for children. In 2003, Americans will spend $14.1
billion on back-to-school items, with $6.5 billion of that going towards

Make sure the contents of that backpack are as green as its outside.

In addition to the dent in parents' wallets, there are environmental and social
costs to all this school-related spending. Long before little Chloe or Carson
proudly marches into school in that brand-new T-shirt, its manufacturing
processes may have dumped toxic pesticides and other chemicals into the
environment and into the bodies of exploited workers and their families. That
backpack full of supplies might be good for one set of Three Rs -- reading,
writing, and arithmetic -- but bad for another set -- reduce, reuse, and
recycle. And don't forget that children have to get to school every day, which
often involves burning fossil fuels and exposing kids to diesel fumes while
they wait for buses.

This back-to-school report card is designed to help you avoid all the bad
stuff, while presenting you and your kids with healthier, fairer choices.

Bad Grades: PVC Shoes, Bags, & Clothes

The most environmentally hazardous plastic, PVC -- polyvinyl chloride, better
known as vinyl -- can be found in shoes, boots, backpacks, and countless other
products. "The production of PVC results in dioxins, chlorinated chemicals that
are the most toxic and persistent made by humans," says Lisa Finaldi,
coordinator of the toxics campaign of Greenpeace USA. Dioxins, identified as
cancer-causing by the U.S. EPA, drift so far and so easily, Finaldi says,
that "when these compounds are produced in Minnesota, they will end up in the
Arctic Circle." The chemicals are known to lodge in the fatty tissue of animals
and humans, contaminating blood and breast milk. In addition to cancer, they
can cause such health problems as organ damage and immune suppression.

As if that weren't bad enough, soft vinyl contains plasticizers called
phthalates, many of which affect reproductive health and sexual development,
according to animal experiments. And di-2-ethylhexyl phthalate, which is widely
added to soft vinyl products, is considered a probable carcinogen by the U.S.
National Toxicology Program. In some studies, phthalates have been shown to
migrate out of soft PVC products, so they can be inhaled or ingested. Tests by
Greenpeace have also found the toxic heavy metals lead and cadmium in vinyl
backpacks and raincoats. Clearly, PVC deserves not only a failing grade but
expulsion from the planet.

Good Grades: PVC-Free Products

Shoes: Greenpeace has surveyed athletic-shoe manufacturers to identify those
that adhere to a no-PVC policy (e.g. Nike, which is now virtually PVC-free) and
those with PVC-phaseout plans (Adidas, Asics, Puma). Check out Greenpeace's
complete list.

Rubber backpacks from Green Earth Office Supply.

Backpacks: Vinyl backpacks are so-o-o-o not cool. Put a greener statement on
your back with a stylish hemp backpack from Hemp Sisters or a 100 percent post- consumer recycled rubber knapsack from Green Earth Office Supply.

Bad Grades: Planet-Polluting Clothes

In 2000, 84 million pounds of pesticides were sprayed on the 14.4 million acres
of conventional cotton grown in the U.S. (an average of 5.8 pounds of
pesticides per acre), according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture -- and
the EPA considers seven of the top 15 pesticides used on U.S. cotton crops to
be "possible," "likely," "probable," or "known" human carcinogens. But don't
just grab any old alternative material instead; polyester, one of the most
common cotton substitutes, is made from petroleum-based chemicals. And no
matter what fabric you're wearing, it's almost certainly been dyed, a process
that can release chlorine, chromium, and other pollutants into the environment.
Finally, formaldehyde and other toxic volatile organic compounds can be emitted
by permanent press, anti-stain, and other fabric treatments.

Good Grades: Earth-Friendly Attire

Organic Cotton: All-around smarter choices are pesticide-free, untreated,
uncolored organic cotton garments, or those tinted with natural "fiber- reactive" or "cold pad batch" dyes. Or try naturally "color grown" cotton
fibers, often heirloom varieties, that have been bred for colors ranging across
the spectrum. High grades also go to wool grown without the use of pesticides
and to hemp, a hardy plant that can thrive on far fewer pesticides than cotton,
according to the Hemp Industries Association. (At this point, though, there are
no organic standards or certification for wool or hemp.)

Used Clothing: Distressed, faded clothing has so much personality that
manufacturers have been refining techniques for years to create apparel that
looks like fourth-generation hand-me-downs. Why not just buy the real thing? Go
on treasure hunts to Salvation Army, Goodwill, or garage sales to find
authentic retro styles. And as incentive, you can pass on some of the savings
to your kids. (Just to be sure to wash all used items in hot water before
they're worn.)

Green Clothing Sources:

Maggie's Functional Organics uses organic cotton, wool, and hemp.
Earth Wear Organic Cotton Originals sells color-grown (brown, green, natural)
organic cotton jeans.
Garden Kids sells 100 percent organic cotton for young children.
All of Patagonia's cotton is organic, and they use recycled soda bottles in
their Synchilla fleece.
Thirteen Mile Lamb & Wool Company makes organic wool sweaters, hats, scarves,
and more.
Hemp clothing for adults and teens can be ordered from Grass Roots Natural
Goods or Rawganique.
For more clothing resources, check out the International Organic Cotton
Directory and the Organic Cotton Site.
Bad Grades: Sweatshop-Made Wearables

No Sweat T-shirt.

Sweatshops are usually associated with developing nations, but they exist in
the U.S., too. According to the Hot Fudge Social Venture Fund (a project of Ben
& Jerry's cofounder Ben Cohen), 54 percent of all apparel contractors in Los
Angeles have been found guilty of health and safety violations. On average,
according to the fund, just six cents of every dollar spent on apparel winds up
in the pockets of the workers who made the clothes. To counter these
conditions, Hot Fudge developed SweatX, a worker-owned and unionized garment
factory that makes casual clothes. Also, Bienestar International, under its No
Sweat label, manufactures union-made casual apparel sold exclusively online to
offset higher labor costs.

Anti-Sweatshop Resources:
United Students Against Sweatshops, a coalition of college students on more
than 200 campuses, protests unfair labor practices used to make garments that
bear university logos.
For company ratings on social and environmental issues, see Co-op America's For instance, they give Ecolution high marks for both fair
wages and pesticide-free hemp garments, while they rate Guess? low for "an
advertising campaign that falsely claimed their jeans are 100 percent sweatshop
The Fair Trade Federation also lists companies committed to "fair wages and
good employment opportunities to economically disadvantaged artisans and
farmers worldwide."
Bad Grades: Polluting School Transportation

The bus stops here.

Getting to and from school can be a challenge, particularly given our sprawling
communities and consolidation of schools into massive, distant institutions.
Busing kids saves gas compared to driving or carpooling, but kids who linger
around buses risk exposure to highly polluting diesel fumes, which have been
linked to rising asthma rates. For information on how you can help your school
district make its bus fleet environmentally friendly, see, a
campaign promoted by the Union of Concerned Scientists.

Good Grades: Walking & Biking to School

To help counter the effects of sprawl, walking and bicycling are ideal. Not
only do they save on pollution and fuel costs, but both are forms of
cardiovascular exercise that get kids in touch with your city and community.
Wednesday, Oct. 8 is national Walk to School Day, a chance to walk with your
children and get some exercise rather than drive or see them off to the school
bus. For more information on countering sprawl's effects on our children, see
the article "Suburban Sprawl, Waistline Spread" on the Green Guide website.

Bad Grades: PVC & Chlorine in School Supplies

Miscellaneous school supplies: Although advertised as "wipe-clean," notebooks,
binders, rulers, and pencil cases that contain vinyl leave an indelible smudge
on the planet. PVC-free supplies can be purchased from Real Earth Environmental
Co. and Mama's Earth.

Paper: The vast majority of conventional paper products have been bleached with
chlorine to make them "paper white." The problem: This process also creates
dioxins. Buy recycled, chlorine-free paper instead, and encourage your local
schools to do so too. Dolphin Blue sells 80 percent recycled, chlorine-free
office paper and tree-free papers made from scraps or hemp and kenaf. Also see
a list of products endorsed by the Chlorine Free Products Association.

Eco-Friendly School & Office Supplies:

New Leaf Everest writing paper, with 100 percent post-consumer content and no
chlorine bleaching
Envirographic 100 copy bond paper, with 100 percent post-consumer content and
no chlorine bleaching
Ultimate continuous form computer paper, with 100 percent post-consumer content
and no chlorine bleaching
Dolphin Blue tree-free paper, made from denim, hemp, kenaf, and old money
Also see the Green Guide's paper product report and Green Seal for lists of
Desk Supplies
Deskworks recycled stainless steel scissors, with a handle made of at least 30
percent post-consumer plastic
3M Scotch designer tape dispenser, containing at least 50 percent post-consumer
Nature Saver recycled paper clips, containing 25 percent post-consumer recycled
3M Post-it recycled paper notes, made of 100 percent recycled paper fiber with
30 percent post-consumer content (Office Depot)
Acme Kleen Earth 12" recycled plastic ruler, made from 70 percent post-consumer
recycled plastic
At-A-Glance DayMinder planners and appointment books, containing recycled paper
with 30 percent post-consumer fibers)
Safco half-quart fire-safe wastebasket, made from 25 percent recycled steel
Notebooks, Binders, & File Folders
Mead recycled wirebound notebooks, with 20 percent post-consumer fibers
Samsill recycled binders
Globe-Weis 100 percent recycled color file folders, with 40 percent post- consumer recycled materials
Pens & Pencils
Recycled cardboard pens
Biodegradeable cornstarch pens
Paper Mate EarthWrite recycled pencils, made from 100 percent recycled
Green Office-Supply Retailers & Suppliers
Dolphin Blue
Green Earth Office Supply
Green Field Paper Company
GreenLine Paper Company
New Leaf Paper
Naturally Yours
Office Depot
Recycled Products Purchasing Cooperative
Seventh Generation
Real Earth Environmental Co.
Treecycle Recycled Paper
Additional research and reporting conducted by P. W. McRandle.


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