Earth Matters: The Ecological Cost of Fashion

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Earth Matters: The Ecological Cost of Fashion

There are lots of things to consider when shopping for clothing. Whether it’s a dress, suit, winter jacket, sweater, active wear or bathing suit, most people typically look for style and brand, but other considerations include color, fabric, buttons vs. zippers, fitted vs. comfortable, seams or no seams… and the list goes on.

But what do our clothes say about our environmental awareness? It’s probably unlikely that any of the following considerations ever cross the minds of most consumers:

Are cotton t-shirts organically grown or produced conventionally using prodigious amounts of pesticides and water. Are ski outfits treated with chemicals to make them waterproof? Are baby socks impregnated with BPA? Do synthetic or silk blouses contain anti-static chemicals? Do wrinkle-free shirts contain formaldehyde? Are sneakers treated with odor-and-bacteria-resistant antimicrobial chemicals? Do bathing suits have chemical sunscreens embedded in their fabric? Are synthetic fabrics really made from plastic?

For almost all of history, clothing has been made from agricultural or forestry products. These natural fibers, including wool, cotton, linen, silk and hemp, come from continuous, regenerative natural cycles. But in the 1930’s, the world saw a sea change in the textile industry. In 1931 Dupont created nylon, a “miracle” fiber that was totally synthetic.

DuPont claimed their new fabric had the “strength of steel and the sheerness of a cobweb” when it introduced the first nylon stocking at the World’s Fair in 1939. It was an immediate hit. Women flocked to department stores by the thousands, and four million pairs sold out in four days.

Chemical engineers and fabric manufacturers in partnership have been creating new kinds of synthetic fibers with desirable characteristics ever since. Using oil and natural gas as basic building blocks, the industry has created fibers that are spun into the fabrics we know today as polyester, acrylic, spandex, acetate, olefin, neoprene, polyester fleece and microfiber. Essentially, they are all types of plastic, and their manufacture, use and disposal are having a giant impact on our environment. More than 60% of our clothing today is made from synthetics.
So, how does this impact our planet?

Around 5% of global emissions come from the fashion industry, and according to a McKinsey report, the manufacture of clothing was responsible for 2.1 billion metric tons of greenhouse gas emissions in 2018. This is more than the emissions from international airlines or maritime shipping. In addition, most clothing is made in China and India, where both countries rely heavily on coal fired power plants.

Textile manufacturers also add chemicals to their plastic fabrics to give them desirable features, but they do not have to disclose this information to the consumer. Like many human endeavors that purport to improve on nature, this addition of chemicals to plastic fabrics has turned out to have a heavy price tag. During their manufacture, use or disposal, many of these chemicals are released from their clothing hosts and make their way into the world, where they contaminate our air, our water, our food chains and even our bodies, with serious consequences. Some of the most commonly added chemicals, like dyes, PFAS, formaldehyde, phthalates and triclosan, are known or suspected carcinogens, reproductive toxicants, neurotoxins, skin irritants and allergens.

Even the process of washing and drying our plastic clothing is filled with environmental dilemmas. For instance, washing a single fleece jacket or hat releases billions of tiny plastic fibers, or microfibers, into the wastewater, along with their attendant chemicals. MIcrofibers are a common group of microplastics – pieces less than 5mm in length. Recent studies have found microfibers from petroleum-based synthetic fabrics like nylon, acrylic and polyester in 83% of the world’s drinking water.

Throwing the washed clothing into the dryer adds yet another environmental burden, as plastic fibers are released from the tumble dryer into the surrounding air. Microfibres are a common group of microplastics – plastic pieces less than 5mm in length. They have been found in the most remote regions of the planet, from the Arctic to the Earth’s troposphere. Every individual clothes dryer in the world releases between 90 million and 120 million microfibers annually.

Slow, but positive steps are being taken to address plastic pollution worldwide. New laws on the use of single-use plastic bags or the sale of polystyrene packing peanuts are finally being implemented. Take-out food establishments are actually asking customers if they need plastic knives and forks, instead of just throwing them in the bag.

But what about our clothing?

The easiest and best solution is to avoid buying new synthetic clothing, especially “fast” fashion,” which is inexpensive and not designed to be durable. The choice of natural fibers for our clothing is about health, comfort, sustainability and a positive impact on our planet.

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