Week of 11/27/2005

Dear EarthTalk: What’s better for the environment, a fake or real Christmas tree?

—R.M. Brandt, Nutley, NJ

While there is no crystal clear answer to the age-old "real versus fake" Christmas tree debate, most environmentalists, "tree-huggers" among them, would agree that real trees are the better choice, at least from a personal and public health standpoint. Some might make a case for fake trees, because they are re-used every year and thus don’t generate the waste of their real counterparts. But fake trees are made with polyvinyl chloride (PVC, otherwise known as vinyl), one of the most environmentally offensive forms of non-renewable, petroleum-derived plastic.

Furthermore, several known carcinogens, including dioxin, ethylene dichloride and vinyl chloride, are generated during the production of PVC, polluting neighborhoods located near factory sites. Most of those factory sites are actually in China, from where 85 percent of the fake trees sold in North America originate. Labor standards there don’t adequately protect workers from the dangerous chemicals they are handling.

In addition to PVC, fake trees contain lead and other additives designed to make the otherwise rigid PVC more malleable. Unfortunately, many of these additives have been linked to liver, kidney, neurological and reproductive system damage in lab studies on animals. The Children’s Health Environmental Coalition warns that fake trees "may shed lead-laced dust, which may cover branches or shower gifts and the floor below the tree." So heed the advice of the label on your fake tree telling you to avoid inhaling or eating any dust or parts that may come loose.

The primary downside of real Christmas trees is that, because they are farmed as agricultural products, they often require repeated applications of pesticides over their typical eight-year lifecycles. Therefore, while they are growing—and then again once they are discarded—they may contribute to pollution of local watersheds. Beyond the run-off issue, the sheer numbers of trees that get discarded after every holiday can be a big waste issue for municipalities that aren’t prepared to mulch them for compost.

The most eco-friendly way to enjoy a Christmas tree is to buy a live tree with its roots intact from a local grower, and then replant it in your yard once the holiday has passed. However, since trees are dormant in the winter, live trees should spend no more than a week indoors lest they "wake up" and begin to grow again in the warmth of your home. If this happens there is a good chance the tree will not survive once it is returned to the cold winter outdoors and replanted.

CONTACTS: Children’s Health Environmental Coalition, www.checnet.org; About.com’s "How to Care for a Live Christmas Tree," http://forestry.about.com/od/christmastrees1/ht/living_x_tree.htm.

Dear EarthTalk: What’s up with these "eco-fashions" I keep hearing about?

—Glenn Hammond, San Francisco, CA

Simply put, the term "eco-fashion" refers to stylized clothing that uses environmentally sensitive fabrics and responsible production techniques.

The nonprofit Sustainable Technology Education Project (STEP) defines eco-fashions as clothes "that take into account the environment, the health of consumers and the working conditions of people in the fashion industry." Clothes and accessories that meet such criteria are usually made using organic raw materials, such as cotton grown without pesticides, or re-used materials such as recycled plastic from old soda bottles. Eco-fashions don’t involve the use of harmful chemicals and bleaches to color fabrics—and are made by people earning fair wages in healthy working conditions.

Designers have been playing around with organic and natural fibers for years, but so-called "eco-fashions" had their coming out party at New York City’s famed Fashion Week back in February 2005 when the nonprofit EarthPledge teamed up with upscale clothing retailer Barneys to sponsor a special runway event called FutureFashion. At the event, famous and up-and-coming designers showcased outfits made from eco-friendly fabrics and materials including hemp, recycled poly and bamboo. Barneys was so enthused that it featured some of the environmentally sensitive designs in its window displays for several weeks following the event, imparting a unique mystique to this emerging green subset of the fashion world.

One of the highlights of FutureFashion was a stunning pink-and-yellow skirt made from corn fiber by uber-cool Heatherette designer Richie Rich. "It’s definitely something we’re going to continue toying with," Rich told reporters. "People often perceive the fashion world as superficial, so it’s great to work with materials that are actually good for the environment. I had my doubts, but when we actually saw the fabric swatches we were blown away. They were gorgeous, and it wasn’t hard to design with them."

The party moved to the west coast in June when San Francisco culminated its World Environment Day celebration with "Catwalk on the Wild Side," an eco-chic fashion show sponsored by the nonprofit Wildlife Works and featuring top models and designs from the likes of EcoGanik, Loomstate, Fabuloid and others.

One of the pioneers of the emerging eco-fashion movement is designer Linda Loudermilk. Her "luxury eco" line of clothing and accessories uses sustainably produced materials made from exotic plants including bamboo, sea cell, soya and sasawashi. The latter is a linen-like fabric made from a Japanese leaf that contains anti-allergen and anti-bacterial properties. Loudermilk also incorporates natural themes in each season’s line—her most recent one being an oceanic motif. "We aim to give eco glamour legs, a fabulous look and a slammin" attitude that stops traffic and shouts the message: eco can be edgy, loud, fun, playful, feminine (or not) and hyper-cool," Loudermilk says.

CONTACTS: Earth Pledge, www.earthpledge.org; Wildlife Works, www.wildlifeworks.com; Sustainable Technology Education Project (STEP), www.stepin.org; Linda Loudermilk, www.lindaloudermilk.com.