Monday, April 5, 2010

Sustainable Fashion: Part II Environmental Impact

"From an environmental point of view, the clothes we wear and the textiles they are made from can cause a great deal of damage. " Growing cotton accounts for 2.6% of the world’s yearly water usage. One t-shirt made from conventional cotton represents 2700 liters of water, and a third of a pound of chemicals, which often contaminate water supplies." From EcoFashionWorld.com

Save the Whales, Plant a Tree, Reduce Reuse Recycle! I am assuming we all grew up with and/or are all too familiar with those slogans. We all do our part to help out, we recycle, we use green products, we carry water containers and don't use plastic water bottles. We buy food at farmer's markets. We are green. We care about the environment and our impact upon it. At least, I'd like to think so.

I thought I was doing my part, more than my part actually- I follow a vegan diet, Mario and I recycle, we use natural cleaning agents (baking soda, water, green soap) I use natural beauty products and make-up. We walk or take public transportation. We shop local. But there is one part of my life where I fall woefully behind. That part is my wardrobe. You may all be much more savvy on these points than I, but what I have learned over the past few weeks has in fact scared me.

I knew about sweatshop labor - that is one thing that has been an important issue for me. Because of that I tend to buy from smaller designers - or to buy thrift. But, because I am not wealthy, I also buy- (or rather bought) a lot from shops like Levis, the Gap, and Forever 21. I tried to be sure that the labels pointed to labor/manufacturing in the states. I know, I know - knowing what I know how could I? I felt a little less guilty in learning that said companies are making strides to better working conditions for their employees, but then there is the environmental impact and many of the statistics I found are absolutely shocking.

I found the following stats on
TheGreatAmericanApparelDiet.com Oddly enough, many of the statistics are for Canada, so if anyone finds any charts specific to the US, please let me know!


In North America, the average person consumes over 80 pounds of textiles per year.
Synthetic (man-made fibres) products will not decompose, and while woolen garments do decompose, they produce methane gas which contributes to climate change.

38% of Canada’s methane emissions (greenhouse gases) comes from landfill sites.

On average, 80% of textiles thrown away still have 75% of their wear-ability left. 

If everyone in Canada bought one reclaimed woolen garment each year, it would save an average of
300 million gallons of water and 400 tonnes of chemical dyes (imagine what this means for the U.S. which is 10 times the size of Canada).

Fashion is the second largest industry next to agriculture in terms of water consumption.

One pound of low impact dyed cotton uses 100 gallons of water.
One single cotton t-shirt requires 357 gallons of water to produce.
A single t-shirt uses about 9 ounces of cotton, an average of 17 tsp of synthetic fertilizers and nearly a teaspoon of pesticides that are classified as among the most toxic by the Environmental Protection Agency.

Agrochemical companies make on average $2.2 billion selling cotton pesticides each year.
Many of the agents used to spray cotton were originally developed in WWII as nerve gases.

95% of US tanneries have moved overseas to avoid environmental oversight penalties. Tanneries are so toxic that many old tannery sites can’t be used for agriculture or built on or even sold

Quick and permanent chrome tanning creates soft leathers, dyes easily etc; however chemicals are extremely poisonous and linger in ecosystems.

In addition to chromium, modern tanneries use synthetic chemicals such as sodium sulphide, formaldehyde, glutaraldehyde, sulphuric acid, bactericides, paints, dyes, degreasers and surfactants various solvents which release volatile organic compounds (VOCs)

Chromium (VI) is the most persistent toxin used by the leather industry. It is a known carcinogen with the following documented human health effects: skin rashes, upset stomachs and ulcers, respiratory problems, weakened immune systems, kidney and liver damage, alteration of genetic material, lung cancer and death (source: Organic Leather) – because of this most tanneries have switched to chromium (III) which is considerably less toxic but it commonly oxidizes into chromium (VI) during the tanning process and so the finished product contains toxins

According to the EPA, 95% of all leather has been tanned with chromium.

Synthetic dyes are made from coal tar, one of the most carcinogenic substances on the planet.
Conventional dye process discharges massive quantities of toxic chemicals into the environment, including huge amounts of dioxins, the world’s number one carcinogen (source: Mike Betts, Director Better Thinking Ltd).

On the local level – effects on ecosystems – wet processing effluent discharged into rivers and streams, resulting in dead zones due to effluent aquatic toxicity and biological oxygen demand; areas where chemicals are found disrupt normal reproduction of fish.

On a global level – depletion of the stratospheric ozone layer due to emissions of chlorofluorocarbons and climate change due to CO2 and other greenhouse gases.

Heavy metals such as chromium and cadmium, while capable of making bright and vibrant dyes, can pose a threat wherever they appear in the product life cycle – during mining, use of the dye in dye wastewater, or as result of composting or incineration.


Fibers, particularly micro-fibers, which are synthetic and petroleum derived, are perilous to our lungs. Tiny dust particles – micro-dust – coat our lungs, potentially inducing lung cancer. Some fabric dyes use cadmium, which with exposure to air, binds to small particles. It falls to the ground or water as rain or snow, and may contaminate fish, plants and animals. (source: Horst Rechelbacher)

The main catalyst used in polyester production is antimony – a known carcinogen and toxin that affects the heart, liver, lungs and skin. By products of antimony cause bronchitis

This is scary stuff, these are things that we wear close to our body! But, not just that, these chemicals and waste are being put out into the environment in mind boggling amounts.

I urge you to read more about the environmental impact of the fashion/apparel industry. It is really complex and there are many interesting articles available on the topic.

Aside from researching the environmental policies of the companies where you buy clothes from, you can lessen your clothing carbon footprint (as was pointed out to me in a comment to my previous post) by simply buying less. (I am working on that!)

You may also chose to:

Buy Organic - When you can, buy items that are made with natural dyes, and organic cotton. I am trying to do this now with my tees and socks and such. By supporting the companies that do provide us with organically made items we are asserting that as consumers this is important to us.

Buy Used/Vintage- Reduce the amount of items that end up in a landfill shop local thrift shops and vintage stores. I also tend to buy items from ebay that people seem to have worn for only one season then got sick of. Or save that money and Participate in clothing swaps. (And, seriously if anyone knows of any happening in the Oakland area let me know!)

Buy Local/Locally Made - Look to see if there are any designers/ clothing companies in your local area that also produce their clothes locally. I have found that many young local clothing designers, have gone green. This is also great because the clothes do not need to be transported a great distance.

Buy Independent- While yes, it can be expensive at times, small designers tend to make items in small batches, and it is easier to call and talk to someone about how and where their products are manufactured. Are they organic? Do they use natural dyes? Many do.

Again, I welcome any thoughts and comments or additional information on the topic. As you can tell, I am not an expert I am learning - and am hoping that by doing so I can make changes that will lead me to have a more sustainable/green conscious wardrobe.

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