A few years ago, I attended a climate reality training conference in Minneapolis. One of the speakers was involved in sustainable fashion. She told us what drove her to leave the world of haute couture and create her own line of clothing. On a trip to China, her former employer threw millions of badly dyed buttons and thousands of yards of fabric into a river in China. Rather than finding another use for the imperfect fabric and buttons, they chose to waste them and pollute the environment.
A garment’s supply chain from cradle to grave harms the environment. Most damage comes in the form of toxic emissions and pollution. Workers in industry and the environment are paying the price so that we can have cheap clothes that have to be shipped thousands of miles across the ocean.
We wear jeans almost every day, totally oblivious to the environmental issues surrounding the production of a pair of jeans. Over five billion pairs are made each year. It takes an average of 1,800 gallons of water, 110 kilowatt-hours of energy and 5 ounces of chemicals to produce a pair of jeans.
Dana Thomas’ book “Fashionopolis” claims that jeans, the most popular item of clothing in history, are also the most destructive of the fashion items we consume. Guangdong Province, China claims to be the “world capital of jeans”. Each year, 200,000 textile workers in the 3,000 factories and workshops of Xintang produce 300 million pairs of jeans, or about 800,000 pairs per day. The documentary, “The River Blue: Can Fashion Save the Planet? “ details the environmental damage caused by the production of jeans.
In an effort to avoid the “break in” period for the new jeans, the industry has proposed distressed jeans. Popular in the late 1980s, these jeans have to be artificially treated to achieve that aged and worn look. Workers use millions of gallons of water and energy to wash jeans with pumice stone. Often, heavily contaminated washwater is discharged untreated into rivers.
In Guangdong, the local water treatment plant closed years ago, leaving factories to dump dye waste directly into the East River. The river quickly became opaque; aquatic life could no longer survive. Greenpeace reported that the riverbed contained high levels of lead, copper and cadmium, and the river had a pH of 11.95. Workers exposed to water and dust reported rashes, infertility and lung infections.
The recently published report “A new textile economy” states that between 1.22 billion and 2.93 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide are pumped into the atmosphere each year by the textile industry. If you include the emissions released to wash these clothes, the total contribution of clothes represents 6.7% of global greenhouse gas emissions.
We live in a time of “fast mode” where high fashion designs are mass produced in a way that uses incredible amounts of energy and resources as well as large amounts of toxic dyes. Clothes last just over a few months before being judged “old fashioned” or looks like an old rag from a few washes. Millions of pieces of fast fashion clothing end up in landfills every year. In New York City alone, more than 400 million pounds of clothing is wasted each year and the EPA reports that 5.8% of annual municipal solid waste comes from textiles. It can take up to 200 years for a piece of tissue to break down.
Every type of clothing, whether it’s wool, fur, or polyester, has a carbon footprint, but man-made fibers are far worse than others. If you sew like me, you’ve probably noticed that the amount of fleece fabrics available in fabric stores has exploded. In some cases, half the store is stocked with various fleece fabrics.
An article in “The Revealer” states that the amount of polyester in our clothing has doubled since 2000. It takes 342 million barrels of oil per year to supply man-made fibers, which means fibers like fleece have a high carbon footprint. Consider that when discarded, fabrics like polyester, nylon and acrylic join the plastic fibers that contaminate the waterways in our environment.
Cotton-based fabrics also come at a high cost to the environment. Cotton, formerly called “The fabric of your life”, mainly comes from genetically modified cotton plants. The genetically modified seeds are designed to resist herbicides such as Roundup, which allows fields to be sprayed without killing the cotton plants. The use of pesticides and artificial fertilizers also adds to the carbon footprint of conventionally grown cotton. According to the World Health Organization, the global cotton harvest requires 200,000 tonnes of pesticides and 8 million tonnes of fertilizer each year.
The 2019 Soil Association report, “Thirst for fashion” explains how switching to organic cotton can help reduce fabric externalities. Organic cotton costs more, but workers have much safer working conditions, the crop uses much less water, uses little or no industrial chemicals, and improves soils. The higher price of organic cotton is well worth it.
Another alternative fiber that is gaining ground around the world is hemp. The 2018 Farm Bill legalized the cultivation of hemp, which until then had been declared an illegal drug like other cannabis plants. Unlike its cousin marijuana, hemp does not contain a significant amount of THC. Hemp has a long and colorful history in the United States, and farmers once had to grow it. Our first American flags and Levi jeans were made from hemp, and our Navy used ropes made from hemp grown in the United States.
However, in the early 1900s, industrialists like DuPont and Hearst lobbied against culture because they saw the threat it posed to some of their industries. Hemp can produce four times more paper than trees. PR campaigns soon began to associate benign cultivation with “Crazy pot smokers”.
Hemp can be grown without pesticides or fertilizers, it grows faster and absorbs more carbon dioxide than other crops, it is biodegradable, UV resistant and breathes, unlike synthetic materials.
There are other ways to reduce the carbon budget of your clothes. Madeline Hill, an author who writes on sustainability, said in her “Of course, you” column, “We have to follow these fashion practices: reduce, reuse, reuse, repair and resell. “ There are many companies like Patagonia that “Times” on old clothes from their stores and repair clothes for a small fee.
In 2015, I attended a conference sponsored by the Patagonia Company. The company receives high marks for its contributions to grassroots environmental groups and its sustainable business practices. During the conference, Yvon Chouinard, founder of the company, spoke to us. Sitting on an over-padded chair, dressed in an old flannel shirt, he asked: “Why do children need so many T-shirts and twenty pairs of jeans? “ That was a good question and one to consider as the ludicrous Christmas shopping craziness approaches. Instead of buying inexpensive products made in China and transported across the ocean using fossil fuels, why not refrain from consuming or at least buy something that will last longer than the next wash cycle? Let your fashion choices reflect your desire for a livable planet.
Randi Pokladnik, Ph.D., from Uhrichsville, is a retired research chemist who volunteers with Mid Ohio Valley Climate Action. She holds a doctorate in environmental studies and is certified in hazardous materials regulation.