Friday, 22 July 2011

Sustainable Style: How Green is Your Style?

Textile dye

Last week, Greenpeace released a report on textile industry-related pollution in China. (1) Youngor, China's largest textile firm who has access to some of China's most advanced technology for dyeing, weaving and printing, as well as hi-tech sewage treatment systems, has discharged into the water systems near Shanghai several toxins, including liver and sperm affecting chemicals and nonylphenol, an endocrine disruptor that builds up in the food chain. The chemicals are not illegal in China, but they are banned in the EU and many developed nations. The factories responsible for this pollution manufacture clothes for H&M, Lacoste, Abercrombie & Fitch, Calvin Klein, Puma and Nike. It is worth noting here that China's share of the world's apparel exports is 30%. Americans buy 1 billion pieces of clothing made in China every year - that is four pieces per citizen. (2) That's an awful lot of clothes that are manufactured in environmentally questionable conditions. Chemical agents used in textile treatment become waste. They are dumped into rivers and lakes in countries with few and poorly controlled environmental laws.

China is not alone. A US Aid-sponsored study on industrial pollution in Bangladesh found that textile industries release 30 billion liters of polluted water annually into the water systems of the Kaliakoir region. The area hosted just 20 garment factories in 2003, and by late 2005, the number of factories had increased to 166. As the textile industry in Bangladesh is booming, the pollution problem is getting worse every year. (3)

And it is not just the developing countries that create textile-related pollution: according to The Guardian, in 2006, the clothing and textiles industry in the United Kingdom produced up to 2 million tonnes of waste, 3.1 million tonnes of carbon dioxide, and 70 million tonnes of waste water. (4) So why does textile manufacturing pollute so much? Some of it comes down to farming of cotton, some to the way textiles are chemically treated at the factory.

Cotton; picture from

Cotton is considered the world's dirtiest crop, and yet we love to wear it. Cotton farming uses huge amounts of fertilizers and pesticides - anywhere between 16-25% of all pesticides used worldwide go to conventional cotton farming. Some pesticides used in cotton farming are highly dangerous, even lethal to humans, and they leak into ground waters. 99% of all cotton farmers come from developing countries, and they produce 75% of the world's cotton: environmental and health concerns associated with cotton are the highest in the developing countries, and this is all happening before cotton is even made into clothes. (5) (5b)

The complex manufacturing processes of natural fibers and their relatively short age-for-wear contribute to the poor track record of cotton. Synthetic fibers aren't exactly clean either; for one thing, they don't decompose. Nylon and polyester are essentially thermoplastics - they are synthetic, petrol-based chemical compounds made into fabrics, and we often automatically assume that just because something is synthetic, it has to be bad for the environment. The manufacturing process of man-made fibers releases a lot of carbon dioxide, but their upkeep is actually environmentally friendly: they are easy to clean and they are durable (acrylic is an exception to the rule). In the long run, synthetic fabrics score much better on the carbon footprint scale than traditional cotton, for example. (6) (6b) This is true especially of so called semi-synthetics like rayon. (7) However, looking at the carbon footprint statistics, the most environmentally sustainable fabrics are the organically farmed natural fibers - the most ecological choice is hemp. (8) (8b) Organic cotton farmers use 3,000 cubic meters per acre of water less than conventional cotton farmers, and the organic farming practices are environmentally sustainable. (9) However, cotton, organic or not, is still a notoriously "thirsty" plant, and it always goes through finishing processing, which involves acids, chemical washing, bleaching and dyeing. Consider your favourite pair of jeans: according to a 2006 report by Levi's, the manufacturing process of a single pair of jeans is equivalent to "running a garden hose for 106 minutes, powering an average computer for 556 hours or driving a car 125.5 km (78 miles)". The washing and dyeing process of a pair of jeans consumes 42 liters of water. (10) That's a hefty price the environment has to pay for a pair of cotton pants.

How about our shoes and accessories? The impact of leather on the environment ranges from heavy livestock-related pollution to the chemicals used in tanning processes released into water systems, from air pollution due to the so-called transformation process where hydrogen sulfide and ammonium are used, to leather's long decomposing time (25-40 years). As with textiles, leather hides are often produced in countries with lax environmental laws. (11) (11b) I wasn't able to find much actual data on the production of artificial or vegan leather and its carbon footprint, but it seems like the footprint should be much lower than that of leather: its production doesn't involve raising livestock (duh!), and its life cycle is much longer. (If anyone has additional info on this, I'd love to hear it; I'm looking at you, jesse.anne.o!)

Now let's step away from manufacturing for a while. As much as we'd like to think that the pollution aspect of our style choices comes from farming and manufacturing processes alone, I am sad to inform you that much less than a third of a garment's carbon footprint is traceable to its manufacturing, and it takes longer than you'd think before a garment's carbon footprint really takes off. Once the garment leaves the factory, it is packaged and transported, often by plane. An environmentally friendly pair of Patagonia shorts travels 10,000 miles on average before it reaches the customer. (12) The amount of plastics used in clothing packaging during transportation is astounding, by the way - I don't have figures here, but I've unpacked dozens of clothing deliveries while working in clothing retail. Tank tops and t-shirts are sometimes single-packed in plastic, coats come on single-use plastic hangers, often triple-packed in plastic bags. Every single pair of jeans is packed in plastic, even handbags, bracelets and necklaces. Whatever you buy in a clothing store, it has been packed in plastic. A delivery, of, say, 1,000 garments, once unpacked, produces an entire room full of plastic packaging. No joke. I've seen it. Add one-season-use retail marketing equipment (posters, store dummies, window decorations and stickers etc.) and the thousands of plastic bags a retail store uses every season, you'd think that this is where a lot of the carbon footprint comes from. But no, we still have to wait until the garment is bought, worn, and then cleaned, over and over again.

I was shocked to find out that 75-80% of a garment's carbon footprint comes from the way you wash and dry it. (Some sources say 60%, but that's high, too.) I thought of the thousands of miles my H&M tank top has flown from Bangladesh, how it was packed in plastic, how it was placed on a single-use plastic hanger, and how, still, 75-80% of its carbon footprint has been created by me and my washer/dryer. On the one hand this was truly shocking, but on the other, this is something where I can actually make a difference. It turns out that hand washing and line drying is the way to go. If we all line dried our laundry, each and every one of us could save 700 pounds of carbon dioxide every year. (13) (13b)

Once a piece of clothing is worn to the point where we no longer want it, we recycle it. Right? Well, no. Unfortunately only 15% of textiles are donated to thrift stores in the United States. Luckily it doesn't end to the measly 15%, though. Out of the 68 pounds of post-consumer textiles per person thrown away every year by Americans, it is estimated that 2 million pounds of waste is collected annually and prevented from entering into the waste stream. (14) That's something. But an awful lot of clothes and other textiles end up in landfills. A huge part of it comes down to people not caring, but some of it is also ignorance. Few people know that these days even polyester and nylon are recyclable.

So what can you do? First, shop your own closet. Reuse, repurpose, recycle. Sew your own clothes. When buying fabrics, choose your textiles wisely and buy organic whenever it's available. Thrift and buy second hand. When you buy second hand, you are buying products that have been already made. People who buy new clothes often argue that what they buy has already been made, too. What's the difference? It's pretty simple, really: when you buy something new, you create demand for more manufacturing. When a clothing retailer sells, say, 500 t-shirts a season, they'll have every reason to order 500 t-shirts for the next season. For every piece of clothing you buy new, there is someone calculating the need to order and manufacture a piece to replace that garment for that particular retailer. So, sew and thrift, and do it smartly. Consider vegan shoes and accessories - and I'm not talking about nasty plastic shoes. There are alternatives out there - if Stella McCartney can do it, we should be able to do it, too.

A clothing recycling centre

If you are not a sewer or a thrifter at heart - we all aren't, that's just the way it is - buy consciously, and buy clothes that last for several seasons. Buy from brands whose environmental pledge you can trust. Buy organic cotton, Fair Trade, organic linen, organic wool. Don't take retailers' plastic bags - bring your own. Tell retailers that you are concerned about the environment. If you order clothes online, choose ground shipping if you can. When you're done with your piece of clothing, take it to a thrift shop.

And this is the most important thing: look at your laundry habits long and hard. I'll say it again: up to 75-80% of your clothes' carbon footprint comes from the way you do your laundry. We live in a world where it is so easy to think that global problems are too big for us to handle, and that one person can't make a difference. But this is really something where everyone can make a difference. Wash your clothes by hand whenever possible. If you don't have the time for hand washing, or if you don't have the space for line drying, make sure that you wash full loads to save water and energy, and use cold water. Use biodegradable detergent, and don't use fabric conditioners - they loosen up fibers and age your clothing. Also, consider whether your clothes are actually dirty before washing them. Don't throw everything into the laundry basket after you've worn it once. Air out sweaters and jeans instead. Little things help.

Note on images: I lost some of the image credits in the process of writing this post. If you would like to add a picture credit, or want a picture taken down, please let me know.


Camelia Crinoline said...

I love this series. It's so interesting in a horrifying kind of way. I mostly buy second hand clothing or sew my own. I know that sewing isn't necessarily the right solution because like you say, cotton has a terrible environmental impact, not to mention, the people working in cotton manufacturing are often treated worse than those in sweatshops and paid even less. I try and buy second hand fabric too, but it's not always easy. That's fascinating about washing clothes. I hand wash lots of my clothes because some are 50 or so years old and way too precious to put in the washing machine. I think hand washing prolongs the life of some garments like knits as well. I had no idea this was better for the environment. I also like to line dry my clothes because they smell so much nicer after they have been in the fresh air and sun, weird as that may seem.

Charlotte Holmes said...

Here, here, Waves! You're a woman after my own heart. Now I have an even better reason to thrift. I'm sitting here in my Willi Smith linen skirt and Eddie Bauer cotton tee--purchased at Goodwill for 29 cents and $1.50 respectively, and still in mint condition.

Carolyn said...

This is a wonderful series. You could submit this to a magazine for publication!
I have to admit to using a washing machine, well I have a family of five to wash for! but we do have a five star rated washing machine. The washing is always line dried. I can see very little reason for having a dryer if one lives in Australia.

Thank you for these articles; they are very informative and very well-written!

Teeny said...

Thanks for this post Waves. My eyes were popping in astonishment i tell you. I knew it was bad, but I didn't realise how bad. No wonder infertility is on the rise with toxins like that in water, in our food chain. I was really proud that for my birthday all clothes i received were second hand.

Maytheweed said...

Thanks for these posts - very interesting and a needed shove in the right direction. I've never seen the point of tumble dryers myself - I've always line dried, often indoors. My airer takes up about as much space as a dryer and can be packed away when not in use. People are very attached to their dryers though as I've noticed when I point out how wasteful they are! V. interesting about fabric conditioner - I use an eco brand but might try going without.

Northmoon said...

Thank you for this very informative post. I sort of knew some of this already, but seeing it all laid out from beginning (in a field or as oil) to end (in a landfill or thrift store) really shows the whole picture.

I alreay use a small european style front load washer and air dry my laundry, glad to see how much that helps. I shop thrifts too for some items. But I'd never considered the packaging used to get a new item to the store.

What I obviously need to work on is my need for novelty in my wardrobe. Sometimes I just get tired of wearing a piece and want to buy something new. Or I brouse clothing stores for recreation, not a specific need, and end up bringing another unneeded item home. Thrift shopping is actually worse for this - I end up with more random items this way. Then I either don't wear them or go and buy the rest of the outfit new. Wasteful!

Anonymous said...

A really excellent post - so much to think about. And thank you for telling us actual things we can do to make a difference!

Anonymous said...

I had been unaware of the environmental impact of dyes, though after reading Travels of a T-shirt, I had realized that my t-shirts are more well-traveled than I. Am already practicing the thrifting, but I need to do a better job of thinking about my laundry habits.

Zuba said...

This is a great post, I'll need some time to go through it once more. I didn't know so many things about it, somehow just a part of the information come- and I'm maybe not willing to find it out myself. It is much easier to close my eyes and shop than to think once more before buying another item( it is necessary to be aware of the life, everyday, whatever you do, inlucing buying clothes)

jesse.anne.o said...

I'm late to respond because I had to root around a little! The last time I looked into this I recall there being a LOT of gray area, and it seems that's still the case, for a few reasons.

Pleather/vegan leather isn't all created the same. The only common denominator is that is doesn't involve animal by-products (which yes, takes that part of the footprint out of it; the leather industry does subsidize the meat industry so it's partially responsible for there being a meat industry or the cost for meat would be incredibly prohibitive so leather is responsible for the emissions/used resources just as much as the meat industry). So, while leather only has a few processes that are used to prep it for manufacturing, pleather/vegan leather has many different base ingredients which inform their process.

The differences that can affect environmental standing are (but not limited to!):

- source materials (petroleum/PVC/polyeurethane; supposedly PVC is the worst environmentally) vs recycled plastic products vs the heard-of-but-rarely-seen bioplastics

- sturdiness and longevity there is a huge huge spectrum (the Mother Jones article I'm including at the end of my comment cites length of usage as a huge deciding factor with regards to what has a lighter footprint- and some of the vegan brands have gotten quite good at producing sturdy and repairable products)

Most pleather/vegan leather items don't specify what the item is made of. E.g. Matt & Nat uses recycled plastic water bottles for their bags' lining but it doesn't say what the actual bag is made of, even in the FAQs which ask if the bag is environmentally friendly. Same with Melie Bianco - no citing of the material used.

Then you have brands like Melissa, who are using PVC (so not vegan leather, but a good vegan-friendly substitute) but are doing it in a 99% closed-loop way. Where okay, it's now melflex and it can be broken down to be recycled *and* it's 99% closed loop...but still PVC. Just that the toxins are being handled in-house closed-loop and the workers supposedly treated well so I'm assuming the process isn't so toxic that it's a health risk to them/that they're exposed to it. (I just found a flip flop brand named Ipanema that uses melflex, too - I thought it was a proprietary material via Melissa but I guess not!)

Places like Patagonia will note if something's vegan and will outline recycled content but it doesn't really get into manufacturing process.

So - I don't know if that's an accurate enough answer but some people say YES, synthetics are better environmentally, in comparison given all of the variables and some say no, better to buy leather because it lasts longer. Over the years the better vegan and eco brands have gotten better about making quality merchandise so I tend to lean on them more. I find myself buying Cri de Coeur/Hearts of Darkness over Payless. I've learned to look for shoes that can be reheeled and bags that are sturdy enough to carry a heavy load and can be repaired.
* Mother Jones

* The Vegan Collection's comparison of petroleum-based pleather vs leather environmental footprint:

* I decided to spare you the dozen "about us"/FAQ pages I visited for varied vegan companies (Olsen Haus, Cri de Coeur, Matt & Nat, Melissa, Melie Bianco, Patagonia, etc.)

Millie from Interrobangs Anonymous said...

This is a great read, and laundry is a big thing that not a lot of people think about from an environmental standpoint! Line drying is not encouraged here -- here's a notice in the basement reminding us that it's against a bylaw to hang laundry outside, which is silly. I line dry inside, but not everyone has rooms for that...

Also, I dug this up a while back, and it's not a quick fill, but here's a tool to calculate the environmental impact of your wardrobe (including laundry).

Anonymous said...

One of the documents you referenced lists responsible clothing manufacturers, but I've never heard of them except American Apparel. Can you post about which brands are responsible (environment and workers' rights)? Which brands use organic cotton?