House & Home

Green Winter Clothes: Stay Warm and Save the Planet

Posted October 14, 2014 10:35 a.m. EDT

Wearing synthetic fabrics is a no-no if you're committed to saving the planet -- or even just wishy-washy about it. Most synthetics, for example polyester and acrylic, are based on petroleum, often with other goodies like natural gas or coal mixed in. Not only does the manufacture of these "miracle fibers" leave a great big ugly carbon footprint, they tend to off-gas dangerous substances (such as carcinogenic PFCs), affecting you on a very personal and immediate level. Even natural fabrics may be made in a way that exploits human beings, animals, or the earth itself. So when you shop for winter duds, look for natural fibers that are sustainable, fair trade, and cruelty-free, to make sure that you're not staying cozy at anyone else's expense.

What's the Process of Staying Warm?

Normal human body temperature is about 98.6 degrees Fahrenheit. While skin temperature can vary, it is dangerous for your core to cool down more than approximately two degrees.

Staying warm is a multistep process. When you eat, your body digests the food and converts it into energy, otherwise known as body heat. You must produce energy faster than you lose it in order to stay warm. The best winter clothes will protect you from wind, rain, and snow. Besides being windproof and waterproof, they provide insulation (keeping the cold air out and your body heat in), ideally regardless of whether the fabric is wet or dry. If you are active outdoors, wicking is also essential. This means absorbing perspiration and using capillary action to draw it away from your body, where it would otherwise cool you down.

How to Choose Eco-Friendly Fibers

"Natural" fiber is not the same as "eco-friendly." The impact of any fabric on the environment is a combination of how sustainable its source is; the amount of checmicals and energy used in the manufacturing process; and whether its production involves child labor, cruelty to animals, or other exploitative practices. Two of the best natural fibers for keeping you snug come from animals but are available in cruelty-free versions. These are wool, an excellent insulator even when it becomes damp, and silk, which feels cool in hot weather and toasty in the cold. (Cruelty-free silk, made from cocoons that were gathered without the usual procedure of killing the pupae inside, is also known as "peace silk.")

While not as good at insulation, organic fair trade cotton can be used to make soft and cozy items like track suits and flannel pajamas without compromising your beliefs. Hemp (yes, it's made from the stems of cannabis sativa) is the rising star of the eco-friendly fabric world, due to its many virtues, including sustainability, durability, light weight, and absorbency. This latter quality makes it a good choice for warm winter clothes.

For an extra touch of eco-friendliness, unravel wool yarns and recycle them as new garments.

How to Get the Most Warmth from Your Clothing

To stay extra toasty in frigid weather, dress in layers. These will trap more heat; they can also be removed, one at a time, if the sun comes out and the mercury rises. Thermal weaves and good old-fashioned long underwear serve the same function of keeping the heat in.

Your body is hardwired to keep your brain cozy, and will divert heat from other areas for this purpose if necessary. In a cold Northeastern city like Philadelphia, a concrete action you can take to protect your noggin is wearing a protective wool hat, preferably with earflaps. Pampering your neck and feet with wooly scarves and sock respectively will go a long way toward raising your outdoor comfort level, as well.

On a sunny but frosty day, wear black to absorb the sun's rays and raise your skin temperature. Speaking of the sun, don't slack off on your UV protection just because it's winter. Continue to use a sunscreen with an SPF of at least 30.

Laura Firszt writes for

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