by Ivory King
Cover image courtesy of The Opulent Toads
Of course we know that for clothes, organically grown, natural materials are best for the earth. But not everything we wear is made out of fabric - glasses, shoes, jewelry and other accessories are usually made from sturdier materials. Often these come with quite the environmental impact - especially the plastics that make up so much of what we wear apart from our clothes. So what do we choose instead? Certainly, natural material choices are a good rule of thumb, but upcycling and recycling can open up more options, too.
While wood seems like a no-brainer for a renewable resource, when it’s used for consumable items it reveals its flaws. Most wood is usable only after the trees are cut down, which can be done in a sustainable manner but often isn’t. When used for construction or furniture, wood is cherished for years - even decades. That mirrors the amount of time that it takes for a tree to grow in its place. But for eyeglasses and other accessories, they often only get worn for a year or two, so more trees may be chopped down than have time to be replaced. There are ways to make sure that brands use ethically sourced wood - it can be reclaimed, for example, or it can be certified by the Forest Stewardship Council.
Cork--Think Outside The Bottle
Then there’s cork - we grow and use cork from several Mediterranean countries and there’s no cutting down of a tree. Instead it’s harvested by stripping the bark, and the tree lives on season after season. And though it is often associated with oenophilia - 70 percent of cork sits in the neck of a wine bottle - it can be used in several other ways. Used in shoes, it’s a cushiony alternative to what would likely be plastic-based soles, most famously with Birkenstocks, and has even begun appearing on Nike sneaker uppers in the place of leather. It can also form a weather-resistant, vegan exterior to a handbag or backpack.
Bamboo-based Rayon--Use Responsibly
While bamboo-based rayon can be environmentally damaging, using it for non-fabric purposes has led it to be a highly visible choice for sustainability. Since it grows so quickly from relatively little water and without pesticides, the crop itself is set up for being eco-friendly. There certainly are concerns due to its tendency to be an invasive species, but when grown in an appropriate setting it can be cultivated for use not only in construction and home accessories, but for eyeglasses frames, bag embellishments and more.
And . . . Teeth?
In a more artistic setting, small scale projects open up even more options. While at first Lucie Majerus’ earrings look like they are adorned with distinctive pearls, the jeweler creates the pieces using her own and clients’ teeth. She started the collection when she had her own wisdom teeth taken out, and has created tie pins and rings as well. This isn’t scalable to be accessible to everyone, of course, but it’s an amazing example of new ways to look at things we discard - human ivory, as Majerus calls it.
Reduce, Reuse, Recycle… Renewable?
Of course the most sustainable options of all follow the 3Rs mantra. By heading to thrift stores and antique shops, we reduce the need for more items to be made, and reuse those that someone else doesn’t want anymore. But if for one reason or another secondhand isn’t an option for you, finding brands that recycle or use renewable resources is a better option. Apparently we need to add another R to the adage!
Less Sustainable Options
Since we covered some options for when we want to add to our wardrobe but not add to our carbon footprint, let’s look at the dirtier choices. Plastic and metal are recyclable, but depending on the material they can take quite a lot of energy to melt them down and reform them into something new. Of course it takes less energy than making the original products, so it’s still a better choice, but they aren’t renewable resources.
Nearly all metal eyeglass frames are made from titanium or stainless steel, sometimes with silver elements. According to an article on eyeglasses in Green America, each of these metals is safe in the final product for the wearer, but was manufactured or mined in extremely chemically-intensive and toxic conditions. Not only are they polluting, but the mining industries are often conducted in ways that are irresponsible to the workers.
As we learned from The True Cost documentary, conventional leather is also made with large amounts of chemicals. The most common way to tan leather is with chromium salts, which is toxic but so widespread because it is a faster process - about 85 percent of leather is made this way across the globe.
Although less often used for accessories, it is important to note that not all “natural fiber” is sustainable or renewable. Rayon, a common fabric that is derived from cellulose, has also been joined with materials like modal and viscose. These fabrics can be very soft, and have a nice drape to them, but the process of extracting fiber is resource intensive, and can be made from old growth trees. Swaths of rainforests have been cut down for this purpose, and has led to a “rainforest-free” clothing movement. Some brands are using lyocell derived from fast-growing eucalyptus trees as an alternative. This material also has its shortcomings, as the plantations can be environmentally destructive.
While all materials have their pros and cons, educating yourself about options is a great step to making sustainable choices. Keeping the 3Rs (or 4!) in mind is a great way to have a crib sheet on what shops to get shoes and other pieces to complete your outfit. There are many implications when we are buying new or used, plant-based or locally made. But we discover mindful brands and better production methods all the time - it keeps getting better!