With the arrival of modern capitalism, fashion has become the force driving the scale of the clothing industry. Between 1990 and 2005, global textile production increased by 50%, while global population rose by 23% during the same period. Colours that are ‘in’ one season are ‘out’ the next, and clothes are commonly discarded long before they are worn out. Although this is a marketer’s dream, it results in a huge ecological footprint.
Where an item of clothing in good condition is no longer wanted, it is worth finding a way of passing it on to a new owner, as this represents about 98% less energy than is needed to manufacture a replacement. One kilo of re-used cotton represents a saving of about 65 kilowatt hours (kWh), while a kilo of polyester saves 90 kWh. If woollen clothing is sent to landfill, it also generates the greenhouse gas methane which is 21 times more powerful than CO2.
Op shops are a good idea for donations and secondhand purchases, but it is also worth checking whether some of your items may be thrown away if there is an oversupply. Another possibility is ‘Swishing’, a name for the swapping of clothes and accessories among women, as a means of saving money while protecting the environment. Originating in the UK, it is now spreading around the world.
Also in Britain, the Waste and Resources Action Program has raised the possibility of the nation reducing its carbon footprint through hiring items such as clothes rather than purchasing them. Such a shift towards hire would involve a move away from a culture of ownership.
If you have the patience, you could always unravel old jumpers to recover their yarn. Having virtually disappeared in the postwar era, this frugal practice is again becoming more common today. Wool is the easiest material to salvage in this way.
Unfortunately, the textile industry has its share of environmental impacts. Natural fibres require land that could be used for growing food, and may be linked to excessive pesticide use and land degradation. Man-made fibres avoid all of these issues, but are usually dependent on petrochemical feedstocks, are often polluting, and have a higher carbon footprint.
Although it is hard to believe, about eight thousand different chemicals are used in textile processing industries, for functions such as scouring, washing, bleaching and finishing. Most of these are toxic, and people with chemical sensitivities may experience symptoms that include skin rashes, headaches, and nausea. Exposure to clothing chemicals is increased through perspiration.
Crease resistance is often achieved by impregnating the material with formaldehyde, a likely cancer-causing chemical that is most commonly encountered in cheap clothing from China. Australia currently has no limit on formaldehyde residues in textiles, and in 2007 some blankets imported from China were found to have residues up to nine hundred times the level considered harmful. Unless it is certified organic, try to wash and air-dry new clothing and bedding before use, ideally more than once.
Another issue associated with the clothing industry is the unlabelled nanoparticles now used to provide a range of properties, including anti-bacterial action, sun-protection, and spill-resistance. Unlike nanoparticles that are solidly embedded in a product, those used as clothing treatments are liable to come off in the wash, later entering the environment.
Cotton’s toxicity problem
Despite cotton being breathable and having a natural, environmentally sound image, the reality is often different. Taking up about 2.5% of the world’s agricultural land, it nevertheless accounts for 25% of the world’s insecticide use. According to the World Health Organization, about twenty thousand people die every year from pesticide poisoning linked to cotton spraying.
In Australia, where cotton is largely grown for export, it is prone to infestations by the Heliothis caterpillar. As a means of control, the insecticide endosulfan is aerially sprayed, a chemical that is banned in at least 62 countries including the EU.
Proponents of GM technology claim that the Bollgard II/Roundup Ready variety, developed as a collaboration between Monsanto and the CSIRO, has reduced the use of cotton insecticides in Australia by up to 80%. Other countries growing GM cotton include India, China, the US, South Africa and Argentina.
Cotton is also relatively thirsty, and is usually grown under irrigated conditions, potentially contributing to soil salinity. The synthetic dyes used in the production process tend to be toxic, and in countries such as China and Mexico they are often dumped in waterways. It is better to buy un-dyed cotton, items that have been coloured with non-toxic dyes, or even better, to go organic.
The organic alternative
As environmental awareness has risen, increasing numbers of people are buying organic textiles, especially cotton. This is often a lifestyle choice, but it can make a huge difference to the health of people who are living with chemical sensitivities. Organic cotton also tends to be softer, and is popular for baby clothes. Choosing organic is the easiest way to avoid genetic modification, and ensures that all processing steps are kind to the environment.
Compared to the conventionally grown crop, organic cotton tends to be grown on smaller acreages, where it is often rotated with other crops due to its high demand for nutrients. Animal manure may be used in place of synthetic fertilisers, and the water requirement is reduced.
In place of pesticides, Integrated Pest Management (IPM) involves techniques such as the release of predator insects into fields where ‘refuge’ crops such as alfalfa have been planted around the perimeter. IPM is widely used by conventional growers too. On organic farms, weed control is carried out through mechanical and hand-hoeing techniques, and the crop is picked by hand rather than being machine-harvested.
This labour-intensive quality is one reason why organic cotton is more expensive, the others being the costs of organic certification and a lack of economies of scale. Although per-hectare yields may be lower, large savings are made by cutting out expensive chemical fertilisers and pesticides.
An evolving organic industry
As the number of retailers selling items made from organic cotton continues to proliferate and the range of products grows, this demand has historically been met via imported cloth. Fortunately, in 2005 an Australian organic cotton industry was established in New South Wales, and now supplies part of this market.
The challenges facing organic cotton in Australia include the lack of a low-cost labour force, and an overall lack of investment in cotton manufacturing infrastructure. Australian soils, being light and fragile, are damaged by hand-tilling, and even more so by machine tilling, leading the surface layer to be loosened and exposed to wind erosion. More promising organic growing areas tend to have better soils, and are less windy. Where soil fertility is built up using animal manure, organic cotton can be grown in dryland (non-irrigated) conditions.
Today, the organic crop is grown in 24 countries, and the top producers are India, Turkey and China. Major certifying bodies include KRAV (Sweden), Demeter (Germany), IVN (Germany) and SKAL (Netherlands).
Since 1996, when the outdoor clothing maker Patagonia switched to organic cotton for its T-shirts, large companies including Nike, The Gap, Timberland and Wal-Mart have followed its example. Some are blending it with their regular cotton, while others such as Nike are selling their own branded range of organic T-shirts.
Wool – conventional versus organic
Australia produces about eighty percent of the world’s wool, and therefore has a leading role to play in introducing environmentally sound practices to the industry.
Where sheep are farmed in drier zones, soil erosion is a risk, but can be reduced via maintaining sufficient vegetation cover and keeping stocking densities down. Unfortunately, the water use associated with wool is huge, and has been estimated by Professor Wayne Meyer of the University of Adelaide to be 170,000 litres per kilo.
Among other issues:
- Sheep produce large quantities of the greenhouse gas methane.
- The use of chemicals, particularly sheep dip insecticides, is widespread.
- Wool is usually scoured using chemicals to remove the grease, and the resulting sludge can contain sheep dip residues.
- Unlike most other textiles, wool has the unusual ability to absorb chemical contaminants such as sulphur dioxide, nitrogen dioxide, and formaldehyde from within buildings without re-emitting them.
- An ongoing controversy surrounds the painful practice of mulesing, where skin is removed from around the sheep’s buttocks to prevent flystrike. This is slowly being phased out.
While organic wool is water-intensive, standards ensure that damage to the environment is minimised. The number of sheep per hectare is kept below the land’s carrying capacity. For the latter part of gestation, organic livestock feed is used. Hormones and pesticides are banned, and scouring involves non-chemical biodegradable substances. Harmful mothproofing chemicals are not used on the finished product, and alternatives to mulesing are employed.
As with organic cotton, certified wool producers face added costs associated with labour, management, certification, and a lack of economies of scale. While conventional producers have the capacity to make up a cash shortfall by overstocking and overgrazing, this is not an option for their organic counterparts. However, organic producers can achieve some financial stability through the sale of certified lamb meat.
Hemp, bamboo and linen
Hemp is the world’s oldest textile, with a history going back about eight thousand years, and possesses some important advantages compared to cotton. It is about three times stronger, has a low fertiliser requirement, does not require irrigation, and does not attract insect attack. In low-rainfall areas it can produce reasonable yields. Hemp is suited to plant-based dyes, which are far less toxic.
In the first half of the 20th century, world hemp production took a huge dive following prohibition, when industrial production was targeted alongside the psychoactive variety. Since the 1990s Australia has been legalising industrial hemp state-by-state, and this new industry is growing from a very small baseline with at present no textile products made from the Australian crop. When buying a ‘hemp’ T-shirt, check the label to see whether it is largely made from non-organic cotton. Hemp/organic cotton blends can fortunately be tracked down.
Bamboo is a newcomer on the scene, and with its softness and high absorbency, it is commonly used for items that are worn next to the skin such as T-shirts and underwear. The world’s fastest-growing plant, it keeps regrowing from the root structure after harvest, but eventually needs replanting. Like hemp, it has no need for pesticides. Bamboo requires less dyes than cotton, and unbleached is probably a better environmental choice.
Some controversy has arisen in connection with the processing of bamboo, where the fibres are separated via strong chemical alkalis including sodium hydroxide and carbon disulfide. As a result, some argue that bamboo material is best regarded as a new type of rayon. This synthetic fibre is made through a lengthy, relatively chemical- and energy-intensive process, and as it is derived from cellulose sourced from trees, it can be a cause of deforestation.
Linen, a material derived from the flax plant, has a similar strength to hemp, and when grown organically in countries such as France and Finland, the fibre-separation process is achieved with nothing more than dew and sunlight. Natural dyes are used in place of potentially harmful chemicals.
Patagonia, the same company that pioneered use of organic cotton in the mainstream market, has since 1993 also been blazing a trail in the use of post-consumer recycled synthetic fibres. In its Capeline range of fleece products each garment is made from about 25 recycled PET plastic bottles, and technology has been devised to recycle these coats at the end of their life.
One possible downside to this recycled plastic-to-textile conversion process is the small amount of antimony trioxide, which is used as a PET manufacturing catalyst. Leigh Anne Van Dusen, head of the company O Ecotextiles, believes that this chemical, which is carcinogenic, is likely to be leached from the fibres during the dyeing process.
Looking at the life cycle
Investigations of the total environmental impact from clothing during its entire lifespan have found that a large chunk of its ecological footprint occurs at the washing stage. The best options are to fill the washing machine, wash on a cold cycle with an environmentally sound washing powder, and to dry on a line instead of the energy-intensive option of tumbling in a dryer.
Dry cleaning is problematic because it commonly uses the solvent perchloroethylene (perc), a chemical associated with liver and kidney damage that has been known to cause air and groundwater pollution. Clothes cleaned this way will continue to release residual amounts of perc into the indoor environment unless they are aired outside first. Safer dry cleaning chemical alternatives exist, and may be available locally. The best solution of all is probably to steer away from ‘Dry clean-only’ clothing.
To continue the process of greening the clothing industry, we need to keep asking retailers for organic certified items, and other environmentally sound options including hemp. Demand for Australian-grown organic cotton is far outstripping supply, pushing up the farm gate price, and encouraging new growers to come on board.
Finally, perhaps we could also look critically at fashion’s love-affair with over-consumerism, and decide at some point that we already have enough in the wardrobe.
Martin Oliver is a writer and researcher based in Lismore (Northern NSW).
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