Most people understand the negative impact that driving cars or dumping trash has on the environment but never think about the impact of the clothes they purchase and wear. The manufacture of nylon and polyester releases massive amounts of nitrous oxide into the atmosphere, a greenhouse gas that is over 300 times more dangerous than carbon dioxide. Rayon is often made from wood pulp harvested from old-growth forests that is later treated with hazardous chemicals.
Cotton is the world’s most pesticide intensive crop and requires large amounts of agricultural land to grow, resulting in a heavy toll on the environment. Dyeing and bleaching these fabrics puts even more strain on the environment because the processes use large amounts of water and chemicals that are leaked into surrounding environment. In light of global warming, the demand for green textiles is growing, and many manufacturers are now adopting more eco-friendly techniques and fabrics that pose a lesser threat to the environment.
Organically grown cotton, wool, hemp and flax are increasingly being used in clothing production. These plants are grown without the use of synthetic chemicals like fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides and therefore eliminate the threat of groundwater contamination. These organic fibers are also biodegradable. To increase durability and longevity, the fibers are often blended with other fabrics to extend their life.
The Global Organic Textile Standard outlines processing standards for textile processors that includes both social and ecological criteria. To meet the standard, textile manufacturers may not use aromatic solvents, toxic heavy metals, genetically modified seeds or chemicals like formaldehyde. All waste water must be treated, recycled materials must be used whenever possible and bleaches must be oxygen based. To gain a certified organic label from the organization, products must be made of at least 95 percent certified organic fibers.
Man-Made Natural Fibers
Naturally-derived man-made fibers like soy, bamboo, corn and wood pulp can also be used to manufacture clothing. Bamboo is an ideal source of raw material because it takes just four to five years to fully mature, and harvesting the plant has a minimal impact on the surrounding environment. The plant does not require pesticides because it is naturally insect-resistant, and growing bamboo actually improves soil quality and can restore eroded soil.
Recycled clothing is a growing industry that uses materials like plastic bottles to create fibers for clothing. Plastic water bottles, for instance, can be reduced to pulp and spun into fibers that are used to create items like sweaters and socks. Recycling plastic into textiles uses 57 percent less energy than manufacturing clothing from virgin materials and reduces carbon dioxide emissions by one ton for every ton of plastic that is recycled. Cotton can also be recycled into new fabrics.
While the textile industry is becoming more eco-friendly, it still has a long way to go. Most clothing is still made of synthetic materials or fabrics made using energy-intensive practices and chemicals. Some clothing is marketed as eco-friendly but only contains a small fraction of organic materials or just has a tag made from recycled paper.
The factories that produce clothing from organic sources still leave a significant carbon footprint, and transporting clothing from factories to warehouses around the world uses a tremendous amount of fossil fuels. To truly go green, the industry must address these issues, including fiber sourcing, water conservation and quality, transportation, air quality, raw materials, recycling, energy efficiency and safety of materials in its manufacturing practices.