Alternative Marketplaces

August 17, 2011

Spring/Summer Shopping Series Part 3

In July I accompanied my mom on a trip to the mall. That’s right, readers: I aided and abetted a shopper. Mom wanted new outfits for the wedding ceremony and subsequent party, though she had a dress and a skirt in her closet that she could “make work” if necessary. Of course I groaned when she first told me this and then proceeded to show me the two perfectly appropriate garments, but at the same time, I could completely relate to her situation. After all, Mom is the woman who taught me not only how to shop but also when it’s desirable to buy new stuff.

She also taught me to be picky. Five hours after our arrival at Tysons Corner, she had only a handful of new items to show for herself: a pair of shoes, a wrap (to go with the dress already in her closet), and a sundress. I walked away with nothing other than a belly full of the tuna salad I had for lunch. Not that I wasn’t tempted. The brightly lit, expertly styled window displays made the sundress I was wearing—one of my favorites—look a little worn (from three summers’ worth of wash cycles). But I stuck to my guns and even declined Mom’s offer to buy me a skort that would’ve been ideal for my bachelorette weekend at Lake Anna (and guess what—I didn’t have to go naked).

I know a lot of people who don’t like the mall and nearly as many who avoid Tysons Corner in particular. Malls can be big and crowded and overwhelming. Parking is a chore; traffic is even worse. Prices are high. And think of the resources used for all those plastic clothes hangers, not to mention building materials for the mall itself and the individual stores, plus water usage in the restaurants and restrooms, plus energy usage for heating, cooling, lighting, etc.

I could go on about the problems with malls, but instead I’ll just suggest two more eco-friendly brick-and-mortar alternatives.*

For those who like the convenience of having everything in one place, there are independent markets. It seems like every city I visit has a fun, open-air, independent arts and crafts market these days. In the DC metro area, the big one is Eastern Market, but many other communities around here have them, including Reston, which hosts an arts and crafts market every Saturday at Lake Anne in conjunction with the farmers market. At first glance the little Reston market seems like a Podunk affair with a tiny selection of niche items, none of which may actually serve your present need. But I’ve taken notice the last few times I’ve walked through (on my way to the farmers market), and you can actually get a pretty huge variety of stuff, from clothing and toys to furniture and throw pillows to soaps and detergents. There are even at least two alpaca yarn vendors for those who prefer DIY.

The best part of the independent craft market concept is direct access to artisans. Customers at markets have a huge say in vendor offerings. Requests for things like organic products or goods made from repurposed materials are much more likely to be heeded because we’re often making those requests of the person who actually handles buying and manufacturing and within a small, local customer base one voice carries a lot of weight. Plus, if you can’t find exactly what you are looking for at one stand, you are mere steps away from someone who can probably help you out, either by agreeing to take a custom order or by pointing you in the direction of a vendor who offers what you need. You can’t get service like that at the mall. And, sure, it may cost you a little extra, but in most cases the quality will be higher than what you might find in a retail store and thus the product will last longer, if not because it’s handmade, then because the seller or artisan is directly accountable to his or her customers.

For many of us, though, cost is an issue, and so secondhand shopping is probably a better eco-option than the independent market.** In her book Made from Scratch, Jenna Woginrich extols the fun and utility of shopping at flea markets and antique shops for furniture and other household goods. She writes that older products were made to last; in the 1930s, ’40s, and ’50s manufacturers weren’t yet planning obsolescence. In particular she tells the story of buying a heavy old metal cheese grater that had, as she put it, “been through a world war and was still going strong.” On her advice, I’ve decided to consider only secondhand citrus reamers when I finally get around to replacing the glass juicer I broke in January. I’m also trying to convince Channing to take a trip with me to the Old Lucketts Store to find the butcher’s block he wants for the kitchen (and maybe that “new” couch he’s been whining about for the last two years).

Secondhand stores are also excellent sources for clothing. I discovered this in June, when my friend Nan and I went to Alexandria to hunt for wedding dresses on consignment. Having had some less-than-satisfying experiences in thrift stores as a teenager, my expectations for this trip were extremely low. Little did I know, Old Town Alexandria has a good number of consignment boutiques within walking distance of one another. The two I visited, Diva Boutique and Mint Condition, stocked high-end merchandise and mimicked the experience of traditional retail stores—meaning they were well organized and easy to navigate. Clothes were displayed by color and style, everything was freshly laundered, and prices were one-half to one-third of the original retail cost. I looked only at their dress selections but noticed they had business attire and jeans as well. Labels ranged from Vera Wang to J. Crew.

No mall-based retail therapy can match the feeling of finding the perfect wedding dress—or anything else, really—in a store full of other people’s discards. I’d highly recommend it. To find secondhand stores and craft markets in your area, Yelp is a pretty great resource.

*Even more alternatives abound on the Internet, but sometimes it’s nice to touch stuff before you buy it, right?

**Secondhand shopping is also the only option for those of us doing the No Stuff Experiment.


Channing and I headed to the courthouse on Monday this week to get our marriage license. We are now legally obligated to get hitched in the next sixty days. Hooray!

The plan is to get married in a small ceremony in early August and have a party for all our family and friends the following weekend. August is coming up quick, so with Melissa and Helene’s permission, a couple weeks ago I bent the rules a tad by buying party invitations.

I didn’t make the decision to violate the rules (yet again) lightly. Channing and I even toyed with the idea of sending an Evite to party guests in order to avoid the numerous environmental costs of shipping paper via the U.S. mail. But, the thing is, we love invitations by mail. Whenever we throw a party, we send homemade invites to all our potential guests. Unfortunately, Channing’s family is gigantic (relative to mine, anyway), and I didn’t have enough card stock on hand to make wedding invites by hand. So, remembering the plantable Christmas card Nan gave me last December, I began a search for eco-friendly invitations embedded with seeds.

My search led me to a company called Botanical PaperWorks, which sells a variety of paper products made from postconsumer paper waste and wildflower, herb, or vegetable seeds.* They have several attractive wedding invitation designs, nearly all of which were perfect for us, given the venue of our party (the local nature center). Once our guests have marked the pertinent details of the event on their calendars, they can plant the invitation and watch a variety of wildflowers grow. Oh, and we have asked them all to RSVP by e-mail, which should cut our wedding’s carbon footprint a bit.

I don’t anticipate having to buy anything else for the wedding during these last few days of the Experiment—that is, I don’t anticipate buying anything new. I am hoping to find a vintage white dress to wear to both the ceremony and the party (and whenever I want thereafter). I finally started looking for this dress last weekend while I was in Maryland checking out a master’s program at the Tai Sophia Institute. I visited three consignment shops and came up with nothing—well, except the realization that there are consignment shops nearby with a pretty great selection of lightly worn everyday clothes. That’ll be good to know next time I want to replenish my wardrobe.

So, I haven’t had luck in brick-and-mortar stores yet (I’m planning to visit another three in Virginia this coming weekend), but I have found a couple of possibilities on Etsy. Not only does Etsy offer a pretty amazing selection of vintage dresses, it also hosts a few vendors who make clothes from repurposed fabric. It’s amazing what you can find on the Internet. I have my eye on this one dress in particular, but it’s made to order and I’m not sure the vendor can finish and ship it in my six-week timeframe. Better, earth-wise, to find something off-the-rack at a store nearby (or in a friend’s closet) anyway, right?

Once July rolls around, and the Experiment is officially over, Channing and I will be purchasing wedding bands. (The wedding band purchase is actually the primary reason I wanted to wait until August to get married.) This week I found an ethical jewelry vendor online: Brilliant Earth. All of their wedding bands are made with recycled metals and conflict-free stones. I have to say I’m pretty jazzed about this find.

Other than the invitations, the dress, and the ring, I don’t anticipate having to purchase anything for the wedding outside of the No Stuff Experiment’s parameters (stay tuned for the lowdown on our fabulous caterer, though). And, we are asking our family and friends not to give us gifts—our kitchen is well stocked with appliances already, we have plenty of linens, and honestly, our condo is so small, we couldn’t fit much else in it anyway. (To appease the insistent gift-givers, we have set up a registry. The only item on it is help with a down payment on our first home—mostly because I have not yet figured out how to register for sparkling wine or donations to charity.)

*Is it buying something new if the product is made from waste?

What I Buy

May 10, 2011

Spring Shopping Series, Part 2

Next time I enter Ann Taylor or flip through the Patagonia catalog, what will I find? Clothing, shoe, and accessory manufacturers have a variety of textiles to choose from: natural, renewable fibers, such as cotton, rayon, linen, wool, and silk, and synthetics, such as polyester and nylon. And the cultivation, manufacture, and distribution of all of these materials have a pretty huge impact on the earth.

I’ll start with cotton, which makes up the lion’s share of my everyday wardrobe. (I’d guess it makes up a pretty good portion of yours too.) Cotton, which has been cultivated for use in clothing for thousands of years, is native to the tropics, but today it is grown in China, the United States, India, Uzbekistan, Australia, and some African countries. Two and a half percent of the world’s farmland is devoted to cotton, and 25 million tons of the crop are grown every year. It is one of the world’s most heavily irrigated crops and also one of the most heavily fertilized and sprayed: a third of a pound of chemical fertilizers and pesticides are required to grow just one pound of cotton. In 2000 84 million pounds of pesticides were sprayed on cotton, making it the most heavily sprayed crop behind corn. These chemicals find their way into our waterways, killing fish and birds, and even into feed for cows raised in factory farm lots. (Beef and dairy cattle consume about 3 million tons of cotton meal annually.) And, in the United States hundreds of cotton farm workers suffer from pesticide-related illnesses each year.

By 2003 nearly 80 percent of cotton grown in the United States (which is the second-largest producer of cotton in the world—China is the first) was genetically modified (GM). There are 131 million acres of GM cotton in the world—it is everywhere except in the poorest countries in Africa and Asia, where farmers can’t afford the fancy, expensive seeds. Monsanto developed the two kinds of modified cotton seeds popular today: one is Roundup Ready, i.e., bred for herbicide resistance, and one is insect resistant, i.e., bred to repel the tobacco budworm, the bollworm, and the pink bollworm (but not the infamous boll weevil). So, one type of seed encourages the indiscriminate use of herbicides, but the other reduces the need for pesticides. Huh. There are numerous cons to genetically modified products, even those that don’t find their way into our food.* For one, growers who have purchased GM cotton seeds from Monsanto’s distributor, Delta and Pine Land, have been required to sign a contract saying that they will not save and replant the seeds the next season, which obviously increases the financial burden on the farmers. For an outline of additional cons of genetic engineering, see the Center for Food Safety website. (If you want to hear both sides of the story, also visit the Monsanto website.)

Among the other popular fabrics in my wardrobe are wool (sweaters) and synthetics (exercise clothes). Conventionally grown wool comes from sheep raised in inhumane conditions, on small, overgrazed pastures. Because these conditions increase the sheep’s vulnerability to parasites, the animals are regularly doused with pesticides. The raw wool is again treated with pesticides before it is spun into yarn in order to kill any remaining ticks, lice, and mites. Organic wool is a more eco-friendly option; it’s free of inorganic pesticides, hormones, and dyes, and probably comes from sheep that have generally been better treated. And, like conventional wool, it is naturally fire-retardant, durable, and wrinkle-resistant.

Synthetic fibers, such as polyester and nylon, are made from petroleum by-products in an energy-intensive process. A variety of pollutants, including nitrogen and sulfur oxides, particulates, carbon monoxide, heavy metals, and carbon dioxide, are emitted during production of these fabrics. I choose running shorts and shirts made with synthetics because they’re quick-drying and wick sweat away from my skin—which makes for a more comfortable run during Virginia’s hot and sticky summers. These fabrics are also pretty durable. I’ve been wearing the same couple pairs of running shorts since college! Of course, this means that once I toss them, they’ll sit for another few hundred years in the landfill without degrading—and once they start degrading, they’ll leach additional chemicals into the soil and groundwater. The good news is some bright minds out there have developed synthetics made from recyclables, like soda bottles. I even have some long underwear made from recycled polyester. You can buy recycled-fiber clothing from Patagonia and other members of the Textile Exchange.

More eco-friendly fabrics to consider incorporating into your wardrobe are hemp, linen, and bamboo rayon. Hemp and linen, both derived from plants that grow quickly and require few pesticides and herbicides, are in some ways the most eco-friendly fiber choices. But, neither hemp nor textile-grade flax (the source of linen) is grown in the States, so all hemp and linen clothing you find in stores here has traveled from countries such as China, Romania, Hungary, and Poland. Like hemp and flax plants, bamboo is quick-growing and requires few fertilizers and pesticides during cultivation. Plus, it is naturally antimicrobial and moisture wicking, meaning finished clothes don’t need to be treated with additional chemicals to introduce these properties. The downsides to bamboo are, first, turning stalks into textile-grade fiber is energy- and water-intensive and, second, as the demand for bamboo has increased, farmers have begun to cultivate it in monocrop fields, which endangers biodiversity and degrades the soil.

Creating finished clothing from any of these fibers requires a host of energy-sucking machines: machines that prepare the raw product for shipment to factories, machines that turn the raw product into thread, machines for weaving and knitting the thread into fabric, and, finally, machines for sewing and assembly. In addition to the energy use are the myriad additional chemical inputs. Fabrics are dyed in a multistep process, involving scouring (in an alkali) to remove impurities and bleaching (with hydrogen peroxide or chlorine) to prepare the garment for dye. The dying itself usually involves benzene, heavy metals, and formaldehyde. Then the fibers are treated with more formaldehyde to make them soft, wrinkle-resistant, stain and odor resistant, fireproof, mothproof, and antistatic. (Formaldehyde, by the way, can cause respiratory problems, burning eyes, cancer, and allergic-contact dermatitis.) Lucky for us, most of the toxic chemicals used in the production of clothing are rinsed or leached out by the time the products hit the stores. So, only the low-wage workers in the textile factories (i.e., sweatshops) and anyone who drinks from water sources nearby are affected by the toxicity and the waste.

Just to put the amount of chemicals in perspective, here are some stats from Stephen Yafa’s Big Cotton: 3/4 pound of chemicals are applied to every pair of jeans and 1 1/4 pounds are applied to every set of queen-sized sheets. Oh, and here’s another crazy stat for you, this one from The Story of Stuff: A single cotton t-shirt generates at least five pounds of CO2 before it gets to the retailer. Distribution and care for the t-shirt over its lifetime will likely double that number.

The best way to limit the impact of your clothing is to make do with what you already have or buy used or recycled. Talk to your neighbors about good consignment shops in your area. Check out your local Freecycle. There are even a bunch of vintage clothing stores online: Etsy, Posh Girl Vintage, Rusty Zipper, to name just three.

*Make no mistake, though. Cottonseed oil made from GM cotton seeds finds its way into a wide variety of processed food products sold in American grocery stores. Check your labels.

Sources and Related Reading

Solvie Karlstrom, “Guide to Greener Fibers,” NRDC Smarter Living, November 20, 2009.

Annie Leonard, The Story of Stuff: How Our Obsession with Stuff Is Trashing the Planet, Our Communities, and Our Health—And a Vision for Change (New York: Free Press, 2010).

Shanti Menon, “Green Fashion: Beautiful on the Inside,” NRDC Smarter Living, February 11, 2010.

National Labor Committee, Mickey Mouse Goes to Haiti: Walt Disney and the Science of Exploitation, Parts 1 and 2, YouTube video, from a documentary filmed in 1996, posted by “nicnet,” January 26, 2010.

Andrew Olsen, “Problems with Conventional Cotton Production,” Pesticide Action Network, May 2, 2011.

Stephen Yafa, “The Shirt on Your Back,” in Big Cotton: How a Humble Fiber Created Fortunes, Wrecked Civilizations, and Put America on the Map (Viking: New York, 2005), 270-304.