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The Fabric of our lives

Overview of the textile industry and it's impacts on human, environmental and social health.

By Susan W. Clark

Our lives are filled with fabrics. From baby blankets to ball gowns, from fire protection suits to spandex swimsuits, fabrics offer comfort, fashion, and protection. As a long-time advocate for sustainability, I try to make responsible choices in fabrics, but as I researched fabrics, I realized that we have a long way to go before we can feel secure in our textile options. What are the impacts of the fabric choices we make?

Lifecycle of Fabric

From the source of raw material to fiber preparation, from bleaching, dyeing, making the yarn, weaving or knitting to making the final product, a textile item goes through multiple events of washing, drying, and thousands of miles of shipping. Add to that the working conditions in the Third World textile industry, and you can see that our clothing and other textile products have a huge trail of consequences.

How Much We Buy

Environmental impact is often about scale. When it comes to fabric, we buy far too much. Our closets are stuffed, our second hand stores have so much extra that they ship it out to other countries, and garage sales dot every corner. One scientist has estimated that the industrialized countries consume ten times what might be a sustainable amount of fabric.

The global consumer class – 1.7 billion people, or a quarter of humanity – is growing rapidly, according to a World Watch article by Danielle Nirenberg. We create most of the impact on natural resources. “Consumer credit is now available throughout Asia,” an April 2005 USDA report said. “As a result, developing Asia has replaced North American over the last five years as the source of growth in world household consumption of cotton fiber.”

With our fabric purchases, we support a polluting global textile industry that abuses millions of workers, plus our purchases are part of a vast over consumption by the world’s well-heeled consumers. Despite how simply we may try to live, we are still part of the world’s rich.

Natural Fibers and Synthetic

Our green intuition may lead us toward natural, rather than synthetic fibers. Unfortunately, the pollution produced in each step of the fabric industry is similar, whether the fiber grew or was chemically extruded. One of our natural favorites, cotton, is heavily treated with pesticides.

At the end of its useful life, the synthetic fiber item becomes toxic landfill content, while natural fibers can eventually be biodegraded. However, because of consumer preference for the benefits of chemical treatments, even some natural fibers become pollution when discarded.

Environmental Impacts

According to the EPA report Profile of the Textile Industry, “Waste water is by far, the largest waste stream for the textile industry.” Examples include alkaline waste from fiber preparation, dye waste, desizing waste containing large amounts of salt, acid, or alkali, oils, solvents and degradable surfactants.

“Dyeing and rinsing processes…” the report continues, “generates about 12 to 20 gallons of waste water per pound of product.” Just one example of solid waste is the cutting waste from denim, which totals over 100 million pounds annually.

The industry has made some improvements in reducing toxic waste, introducing recycling, and so on, but the global nature of the textile industry makes it difficult. Improving environmental performance usually adds costs, and cheaper products from another country can take market share from a company trying to make responsible choices. Unfortunately, the best environmental choice usually isn’t the cheapest.

Impacts on human health

Health impacts can begin in the fields of cotton where workers are subject to massive amounts of pesticides. It continues through each step of fiber manipulation with dust, lint, toxic dyes, heat and chemical treatments that contaminate the air workers breathe, and stays on the fabric to contaminate the homes of the ultimate user.

The Environmental Working Group (EWG) published a report titled BodyBurden: the Pollution in People, by Jane Houlihan, lead author (www.ewg.org). The research began with exhaustive testing of nine adult volunteers for toxins in their bodies. They were found to have 167 chemical pollutants and pesticides in their bodies. Two thirds of these (many banned substances) can harm human health, threatening nearly every organ at every stage of life.

These tests revealed chemicals used in textile treatments such as perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA), part of a family of chemicals (PFCs) that include Teflon, Stainmaster and Scotchgard. These chemicals are readily absorbed by the body but not excreted, accumulating throughout life. They have been found worldwide in animals, humans and drinking water and are associated with serious health problems.

Another textile treatment chemical is polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PDBEs). They are used in fire retardant treatments and are persistent, bio-accumulating toxins.

A complex, and multi-national industry

“Many of the least developed and small developing countries have built a huge dependency on the (textile) sector,” stated Neil Kearney, a textile union leader. It “…often accounts for more than 90 percent of industrial exports and more than 50 percent of total employment.”

Kearney gives Bangladesh as an example, with textiles accounting for 95 percent of industrial exports. In just 20 years nearly two million workers, mostly young women, entered the Bangladesh textile industry. Most are working seven days a week, often 14 hours per day with almost no health or safety protection. They are paid so little they cannot afford the products they make.

Kearney’s analysis continued, “Today, in textiles and clothing, all indicators point to one major winner – China – hitting the jackpot at the expense of a host of losers, mainly small and poor developing countries.”

From 1974 to 2004 an international Multi-Fiber Arrangement governed trade in textiles and clothing. It was phased out gradually with a final cut-off date of December 31, 2004. Kearney continued, “As the phase-out proceeded it became increasingly clear that trade in textiles and clothing was moving in directions that now threaten to destroy the industry in some of the poorest developing countries…China’s share of world markets has increased dramatically while exports from other countries, particularly some of the poorest counties, have plummeted.”

“Today, China is leading a race to the bottom, which will quickly drive other developing nations out of the market,” Kearney reported. “And China’s deflationary pressures will further drive down wages and worsen working conditions.” In Mexico alone over 200 companies have left and 150 companies that would have come to Mexico have changed their plans, most going to China. “Everywhere workers are being told ‘compete with China or die’.”

Kearney’s report ends with a plea for development of an international movement toward a sustainable textile industry. Until action is taken, it appears likely that millions of textile workers may lose their jobs. Political unrest may unfold as people face destitution.

Organic and sustainable: babies and allergies

Textile products for babies and for people suffering from allergies have led the market for organic and sustainable textiles. Bedding and diapers as well as clothing were marketed on the Internet well ahead of other textile products, and before certification programs began, leading to concern about how safe these products really were.

Organic and sustainable fabrics are a tiny portion of the whole. Organic apparel and diapers represented only 0.1percent of total U.S. fiber sales in 2005, according to an article by Jessica Herman. She described the emerging sustainable fashion market as mixed, using a variety of terms and approaches in this market. Some sellers emphasize natural fibers such as hemp, linen, soy, bamboo or seaweed. Others focus on reused content, or certification, which has its own trials.

In February 2006, Tilth announced the launch of its certification program under the American Organic Standards for Fiber and Textile handling of the Organic Trade Association (OTA). This program certifies the entire production from field or animal to finished products.

Early in 2007 the OTA recognized the GOTS, but also left Canadian and U.S. producers subject to the American Organic Fiber Processing Standards (AOFPS) and the USDA National Organic Program rules. GOTS stands for the Institute for Marketecology’s (IMO) Global Organic Textile Standard. IMO is an organization doing certification work in 90 countries, according to their website.

Textile certification is not at all like food, starting perhaps with the fact that the Federal Trade Commission is the Federal agency in charge, not the FDA that oversees organic food. Once the confusion is sorted out, organic textiles may succeed faster than the organic foods did because there is a ready consumer base of organic shoppers.

Is there a textile movement?

Whether you call it local, clean, safe, sustainable or organic at this point, rather than a movement there are hopeful signs of change such as the following:

  • Portland-based designer Anna Cohen uses minimal packaging, recycles water, buys carbon credits to offset fuel used in shipping, and follows fair labor practices.
  • Danish textile manufacturer Novotex developed Green Cotton and began selling a line of sustainable products in 2002.
  • Swedish layer Marlene Sandberg founded Nature Babycare, a small, green company selling biodegradable disposable diapers, and other green baby care items.
  • A British textile scientist, Richard S. Blackburn, has edited a book titled Biodegradable and Sustainable Fibres, which features chapters by experts from around the world.
  • L.A. based Americal Apparel (www.americanapparel.net) finds its business booming, offering domestic and organic clothes.

While these efforts are laudable, developing a truly organic, sustainable fabric industry will take consumer pressure and wisely crafted international legislation to take the current textile industry into a more environmentally safe future.

Sue Clark is a freelance writer and co-founder of the Oregon Sustainable Agriculture Land Trust (OSALT). She lives on the Natural Harvest farm in Canby, Oregon.
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