When it comes to sustainability, fabrics are often times the elephant in the room. They’re all around us but are all too frequently left out of the conversation. We simply overlook fabrics, maybe because we see the end product, the fashion, the design, and not the process by which fabrics are produced.
The textile industry has been criticized as being one of the world’s worst offenders in terms of pollution because it requires a great amount of two components:
• Chemicals: as many as 2,000 different chemicals are used in the textile industry, from dyes to transfer agents; and
• Water: a finite resource that is quickly becoming scarce is used at every step of the manufacturing process. The water becomes full of chemical additives and is then expelled as wastewater, which in turn pollutes the environment as it is saturated with dyes, bleaches, detergents, optical brighteners, equalizers and many other chemicals used during the process.
In 2014, approximately 90.8 million metric tons of textile fibers were produced worldwide in total, of which 63.3 million metric tons were chemical fibers. The trajectory has been rising since 1975 where approximately 23.94 million metric tons of textile fibers were produced, of which 10.64 million metric tons were of chemical origin. The sheer amount of fabric produced each year is an indication of how much fabric has become a necessity in our lives. The United States is the largest importer of garments in the world, and China accounting for 54% of the world’s textile production. As consumers we can no longer overlook the production of fabrics impact on the environment. But what can we do as consumers and designers do, to limit the negative impact?
Here are a few guidelines to keep in mind when purchasing clothes, or anything manufactured with fabric.
Any fabric lover who is eco-conscious should stay away from synthetics. Here are some of the many reasons:
- Chemicals that make synthetic fabrics do not decompose. They leach into the environment, leaving an impact on groundwater, wildlife, air and soil, and they also may be absorbed or inhaled directly.
- Producing synthetic fibers produces air pollutants. Nylon and polyester are made from petrochemicals, whose production creates nitrous oxide, a greenhouse gas that is 310 times more potent than carbon dioxide. Rayon is made from wood pulp that has been treated with chemicals, including caustic soda and sulphuric acid. Dye fixatives used in fabrics often come from heavy metals and pollute water systems.
- Acrylic fabrics are polycrylonitriles, which may be carcinogenic.
BUY NATURAL AND ORGANIC
Generally speaking, natural fibers have half the carbon footprint of all synthetics. In addition to having a much smaller carbon footprint in production, natural fibers are biodegradable when discarded. Microorganisms can safely break them down and these broken down fibers are easily composted, with all carbon returning to the soil and assisting in regrowth of new plants. Clothing made from natural fibers or discarded textiles can also be recycled into anything from paper, cotton rags or seat cushions, depending on the severity of wear and tear. When unsalvageable, natural fiber clothing is easily composted.
Organic fibers are the most heavily regulated. Their carbon footprint is almost always, the most impressive. Only organic guarantees no toxic synthetic pesticides, toxic synthetic herbicides, or chemical NPK fertilizers used in production, and no antibiotics or growth hormones are given to animals. Organic producers and processors are subject to rigorous announced - and unannounced - certification inspections by third-party inspectors to ensure that they are producing and processing organic products. Organic, all-natural fabrics like cotton, wool and linen may be the safest options when it comes to your health. Animal fibers such as silk, wool, cashmere, angora are also more intelligent choices.
Substituting organic fibers for conventionally grown fibers is not just a little better but lots better in all respects. A study published by Innovations Agronomiques (2009) found that 43% less GHG (greenhouse gases) are emitted per unit area under organic agriculture than under conventional agriculture. A study done by Dr. David Pimentel of Cornell University found that organic farming systems used just 63% of the energy required by conventional farming systems, largely because of the massive amounts of energy requirements needed to synthesize nitrogen fertilizers.
However just because it’s organic doesn’t mean it necessarily has a smaller carbon footprint. This is because it is all contingent on the area of manufacture. In a study from Stockholm Environment Institute, they found that the total energy to produce organic cotton in India was greater than the conventionally, non-organic cotton produced in the USA. The reason is because yields are much less in India, so it takes much more land, employees, transportation and energy to grow the same amount of organic cotton that is grown in places such as the United States. In addition, much of India’s energy is still driven from coal, a nonrenewable resource. Organic is great in any capacity but if you’re going to buy organic, just be mindful of where it’s produced.