As a passionate environmentalist, I’m always looking for ways to reduce my environmental impact and tread lightly on the Earth. I love fashion and have been sewing since I was four. In my early twenties, I had a brief stint as a model, and dabbled in clothing design and patternmaking. But the fashion industry is one of the most polluting industries in the world, up there with agriculture and oil. Creating a sustainable life is difficult. The more I discover about the reality of life in a modern world, the more it feels like a paradox, a maze I must carefully navigate, through inconsistencies and contradictions, to find my middle way, the least damaging and most ethical path for me.
Every year, the fashion industry produces approximately 80,000,000,000 garments. Annual global production of textile fibres and fabrics consumes 1,000,000,000,000 gallons of water, 33,000,000,000,000 gallons of oil, and 20,000,000,000 pounds of chemicals.
These are 2015 estimates.
Many problems and challenges exist in the fashion industry because of the environmental impacts of the fibres used to create the clothing we wear, with many related issues around the negative social and ethical impacts for a modern society with a fashion obsession.
I prefer natural fibres over synthetic materials, but it’s not as simple as you might think when making a choice about the most environmentally friendly or ethical option. A natural fibre may not be the more sustainable choice, and sometimes the more ethical choice is not the most environmentally friendly one.
It takes more water to grow a natural fibre than it does to manufacture a synthetic material. It takes 2,700 litres of water to make one cotton shirt (the water intake of one person over a two-and-a-half-year period!).
Is it ethical to use so much water to grow a natural fibre to make clothing that will likely be discarded when it’s no longer fashionable, when millions of people around the world don’t have access to fresh, clean water? Is it ethical to divert any amount of water to the fashion industry away from people who need water to survive?
The growth, harvest and manufacture of natural fibres and synthetic materials have an environmental impact, occurring along every stage of a garment’s lifecycle, and the level of impact is determined by whether the fibre is renewable, biodegradable and/or recyclable, by the amount of water and energy required, and the type and quantity of chemicals used.
This article summarizes the positive and negative aspects of natural fibres and synthetic materials and I’ve expanded on a few key points below:
These include nylon and polyester made from petrochemicals, chemical substances derived from petroleum. They could technically be called a natural material as they’re made from oil, a natural substance, but I’ve included them here. Non-renewable fossil fuel synthetic materials require excessive amounts of energy and water to produce, which emits high levels of carbon dioxide, pollutes the air and water, and release volatile organic compounds (VOCs) into the environment.
Manufacturing polyester involves the use of carcinogenic chemicals, including benzene, toluene, arsenic and other heavy metals. Manufacturing nylon produces nitrous oxide, a greenhouse gas 300 times more potent than carbon dioxide.
Clothing made from synthetic materials shed micro-fibres when washed, that are released into wastewater, cannot be filtered out by treatment plants, and enter the ocean, where they harm marine organisms and ecosystems.
Plant-based ‘natural’ fibres
Cotton is renewable, biodegradable and recyclable, but its production is more harmful to the environment than any other textile crop, requiring more chemicals, land, water and energy. Cotton is pesticide-intensive, and hazardous defoliants are required to remove the cotton fibres from the plant during mechanical harvesting. Intensive farming causes land degradation and irrigation circulates chemicals into groundwater.
Linen is renewable, biodegradable and recyclable. This traditional, durable fibre is made from the flax plant, and the entire plant is utilised, leaving no waste. In its growth phase it requires virtually no water, energy or chemical fertilizers and has minimal environmental impact however, the retting process produces highly polluted wastewater, and the use of enzymes increases eutrophication of water systems.
Rayon is renewable and biodegradable but not recyclable. I’ve included it here as it’s made from cellulose, which occurs naturally in plants, but it’s considered a man-made fibre, although it’s neither natural nor artificial. Rayon requires intensive chemical processing before the fibres can be rendered viable to be used in its many variations as a clothing fabric. Old growth forest is cleared to make way for monoculture plantations. The wood pulp is treated with hazardous chemicals (caustic soda and sulphuric acid) and catalytic agents (cobalt and manganese).
Animal-sourced ‘natural’ fibres
Wool is renewable, locally abundant, naturally fire retardant, biodegradable and recyclable. Processing wool fibres requires large amounts of water, chemicals (including organophosphates), and dyes containing heavy metals, and produces polluted wastewater and toxic effluent that may harm aquatic life. There are many ethical issues associated with conventional wool production.
Silk is a renewable, naturally flame retardant and biodegradable fibre, made from the cocoon of the silkworm, but the silkworm has to die in order for the silk to be extracted. The intact cocoons are boiled or steamed, killing the chrysalis. A single silk strand is then wound onto a reel. The alternative is peace or ahimsa silk, where the silk is harvested after the silkworm has left the cocoon. Because the silkworm bores a hole in the cocoon, the silk strand is broken and has shorter fibres. The silk has to be spun instead of reeled.
Leather is an agricultural byproduct of the meat and dairy industries. Every year, the leather industry slaughters more than one billion animals for their skins. There are ethical and animal rights issues associated with the fashion industry’s use of leather. Many animals are tortured in intensive- and factory-farming conditions that are cruel and degrading. The global source of leather is usually unknown, and much of it comes from countries where animal welfare laws are non-existent. Highly toxic and hazardous substances are used in the tanning process, including formaldehyde, coal-tar derivatives, cyanide-based oils and dyes, and chromium.
An environmental or an ethical choice?
I want to use shoes as an example to illustrate why the most ethical choice is not necessarily the one that’s best for the environment. I know this is a highly charged emotional issue, and I’m not going to tell you what you should do. It’s a personal choice.
When buying shoes, do we buy the traditional leather version or the more ethical synthetic one? We know the ethical issues associated with leather, but what about shoes made from synthetic materials?
Most synthetic leather substitutes are made from petrochemicals and often contain extremely hazardous and toxic materials, including polyurethane, nylon and PVC, which may be far worse for the environment than those used in the leather tanning process. Manufacturing PVC-based synthetics produces dioxins, an extremely toxic chemical. Plastic-based synthetics aren’t fully biodegradable, and when breaking down create micro-particles including phthalates that are ingested by animals and enter the food chain. Polyurethane micro-fibres have to be compressed and chemically treated with high levels of hazardous, toxic substances.
Do we choose the more ethical choice of synthetic leather for the animals, even though it may be more harmful to the environment? Isn’t protecting the Earth organism also a question of ethics? Our ethics need to apply to the Earth too, and to animals, and to people? It’s a difficult one to get our heads around, I know.
I think I may just have to go barefoot.
A social welfare issue
Most clothing items for Western consumption are made by people in poorer countries who receive little more than a few dollars a day for their efforts and work long hours in often unsatisfactory and illegal conditions. Textile employees in developed countries may also experience workplace exploitation. There are fourteen countries around the world where cotton is produced using child labour, where children work nine hours a day while being exposed to pesticides and toxic chemicals that are detrimental to their health. To their credit, many fashion companies have already addressed these issues in their operational plans and mission statements.
Fabric offcuts and dyes
I’ve often wondered where fabric offcuts go, that are left over after a pattern has been applied to fabric, and the garment pieces have been cut out. They are burned or thrown into landfill, although many companies today, like Reformation, will now collect offcuts to be recycled or rewoven into new fabric.
Dyeing fabric is energy- and water-intensive and requires the use of heavy metals as fixatives. Any unfixed dye will wash out of a garment and enter the water system. Chemical dyes create potentially environmentally hazardous waste products, pollute water, and release volatile organic compounds (VOCs) into the environment.
Reconciling a love of fashion with a desire to protect the Earth is a challenge. Yet amid my frustration, there is hope, and a chance we can find a way to live sustainably, and live well, on the Earth.