Do you ever stop to wonder what's gone into the pair of jeans you're wearing? Fast fashion practices can be harsh on farmers, factory workers, and the environment.
Your favourite T-shirt may be stitched up with a shady history and some secrets—sick truths that could affect your good health in ways you never imagined cotton could.
The truth about textiles
Tracing textiles from farm to factory to resting on your fair shoulders reveals a manufacturing map significantly soiled by toxicity and waste. Production paths of the garment industry rival the impact of some of the dirtiest contaminant trades on the planet, but it is not only the earth that suffers from noxious realities hidden behind the glitz and glamour of the style sect.
Cotton, for example, is our most widely used textile and one of the world’s most valuable crops, with 300 million people depending on some form of it daily. However, it is also one of the most toxic, using one full quarter of the globe’s yearly application of pesticides and significantly wasting our dwindling clean water resource—some sources suggest it takes approximately 2,700 litres to produce just one T-shirt.
Over 80 billion new garments are produced every year, and both the human and environmental costs of this assembly are astronomical. We create and dispose of clothing more frequently than can be sustained; in the US alone, over 12 million tonnes of textiles are trashed in one year. Farmers and mill workers exposed to the chemicals necessary to churn out garments this quickly find themselves plagued by a number of health ailments. Retail consumers also pay hefty fees of air and groundwater contamination, and ill effects of toxic residues that seep from treated fibres.
Whether you follow runway shows religiously or upgrade a favourite black hoodie biannually, we are all subject, to some extent or another, to the effects of fast fashion.
About fast fashion
Today’s fast fashion industry is built upon ideals of being cheap and disposable. In the quest for style that can adapt and evolve seasonally and be sold competitively, it has become the norm for manufacturers to produce items based on volume, rather than quality.
Consumers then use a fraction of their wardrobes for an even smaller fraction of time, before garments become worn or unwearable. It is estimated that the average woman only wears 20 percent of her wardrobe. Charity organizations and textile recyclers only save a dent of what ends up in landfills.
Effects of fast fashion
On the environment
- Synthetic fabric manufacturing expends large amounts of energy and crude oil.
- Americans throw away over 68 lbs (30 kg) of textiles per person annually, representing about 4 percent of municipal solid waste.
- Air and groundwater pollution occurs from processes and chemicals that are toxic and degrade poorly. Formaldehyde-coated nylon, for example, can take up to 40 years to decompose.
On farmers and factory workers
- Direct exposure to pesticides and toxic crop treatments cause lung and skin irritations.
- Differing international regulations for global clothing brands result in frequent use of nonylphenol ethoxylates (NPEs), phthalates, and other hazardous chemicals.
- Workers can inhale harmful particles during dyeing, printing, and other processes that release cancer-causing agents.
- Virtually all “easy care,” “wrinkle-resistant,” and “permanent press” garments are treated with toxic formaldehyde.
- Substandard working conditions can lead to injury, and even death, as in the recent garment factory collapse in Bangladesh.
- Garments treated with chemical compounds before, during, and after manufacturing can transfer poisonous residues onto the skin.
- Chemicals reach consumers via soil pollution and through contamination of food chains and groundwater.
- Airborne emissions from the production of synthetic materials can cause or aggravate respiratory disease.
- The American Academy of Dermatology estimates that 10 to 20 percent of children and 1 to 3 percent of adults experience eczema from textile chemicals.
Industry remedies & responsibility
Just last year, over 6,000 environmental regulation violations were recorded in textile factories. Fortunately, however, there is a slow and steady rise toward an ethical industry aided by efforts from organizations such as Greenpeace to hold international brands accountable for their toxic processes. More corporate fashion houses—such as H&M, Levi’s, and Zara—are incorporating textiles and treatment processes that use less water and chemicals, and fashion weeks around the globe have been increasingly supportive of showcasing “green” designers.
Consumer remedies & responsibility
Seek to source local or “eco” clothing as much as possible. When textiles haven’t had to travel twice around the world to get to you, they instantly carry less of an impact; they are also less likely to be swathed in chemicals that get bypassed by international safety standards.
The rising popularity of vintage, thrift, and consignment store shopping also positively contributes to safer fashion. The Council for Textile Recycling estimates that 2.5 billion pounds of textile waste is stopped from entering the waste stream by consumers choosing to shop second-hand, recycling, swapping, and upcycling existing items.
It has long been said that fashion is cyclical. Just because something is out this season doesn’t mean it’s outlived its function.
Bamboo is often cited as an environmentally friendly textile option, as it grows quickly and requires minimal pesticide use. Unfortunately, in order to create bamboo fibres, the plant must be soaked in harsh chemicals, thus adding to the earth’s toxic load. Further, some companies claim that their clothing boasts bamboo’s antimicrobial properties, but in actuality the chemical process strips bamboo fibres of their inherent antimicrobial benefits.
Best and worst textiles
- Hemp: low maintenance, durable, and strong
- Organic cotton, wool, or silk: all-natural and time-tested; look for items in neutral, undyed shades or that have been dyed naturally
- Recycled fibres: made from rewoven fabrics or even recycled bottles and other materials; keeps items out of the landfills
- Nonorganic cotton: grown with heavy pesticide use; runoff contaminates water
- Polyester: derived from petroleum; processing can release toxins into the environment
- Rayon: production is energy intensive and uses poisonous chemicals, which are released into the air
- Nylon: nonbiodegradable; production is energy intensive and creates nitrous oxide as a byproduct
- Anything stain resistant, permanent press, or wrinkle-free: toxic finishes are used to create the desired effects