What I Buy

May 10, 2011

Spring Shopping Series, Part 2

Next time I enter Ann Taylor or flip through the Patagonia catalog, what will I find? Clothing, shoe, and accessory manufacturers have a variety of textiles to choose from: natural, renewable fibers, such as cotton, rayon, linen, wool, and silk, and synthetics, such as polyester and nylon. And the cultivation, manufacture, and distribution of all of these materials have a pretty huge impact on the earth.

I’ll start with cotton, which makes up the lion’s share of my everyday wardrobe. (I’d guess it makes up a pretty good portion of yours too.) Cotton, which has been cultivated for use in clothing for thousands of years, is native to the tropics, but today it is grown in China, the United States, India, Uzbekistan, Australia, and some African countries. Two and a half percent of the world’s farmland is devoted to cotton, and 25 million tons of the crop are grown every year. It is one of the world’s most heavily irrigated crops and also one of the most heavily fertilized and sprayed: a third of a pound of chemical fertilizers and pesticides are required to grow just one pound of cotton. In 2000 84 million pounds of pesticides were sprayed on cotton, making it the most heavily sprayed crop behind corn. These chemicals find their way into our waterways, killing fish and birds, and even into feed for cows raised in factory farm lots. (Beef and dairy cattle consume about 3 million tons of cotton meal annually.) And, in the United States hundreds of cotton farm workers suffer from pesticide-related illnesses each year.

By 2003 nearly 80 percent of cotton grown in the United States (which is the second-largest producer of cotton in the world—China is the first) was genetically modified (GM). There are 131 million acres of GM cotton in the world—it is everywhere except in the poorest countries in Africa and Asia, where farmers can’t afford the fancy, expensive seeds. Monsanto developed the two kinds of modified cotton seeds popular today: one is Roundup Ready, i.e., bred for herbicide resistance, and one is insect resistant, i.e., bred to repel the tobacco budworm, the bollworm, and the pink bollworm (but not the infamous boll weevil). So, one type of seed encourages the indiscriminate use of herbicides, but the other reduces the need for pesticides. Huh. There are numerous cons to genetically modified products, even those that don’t find their way into our food.* For one, growers who have purchased GM cotton seeds from Monsanto’s distributor, Delta and Pine Land, have been required to sign a contract saying that they will not save and replant the seeds the next season, which obviously increases the financial burden on the farmers. For an outline of additional cons of genetic engineering, see the Center for Food Safety website. (If you want to hear both sides of the story, also visit the Monsanto website.)

Among the other popular fabrics in my wardrobe are wool (sweaters) and synthetics (exercise clothes). Conventionally grown wool comes from sheep raised in inhumane conditions, on small, overgrazed pastures. Because these conditions increase the sheep’s vulnerability to parasites, the animals are regularly doused with pesticides. The raw wool is again treated with pesticides before it is spun into yarn in order to kill any remaining ticks, lice, and mites. Organic wool is a more eco-friendly option; it’s free of inorganic pesticides, hormones, and dyes, and probably comes from sheep that have generally been better treated. And, like conventional wool, it is naturally fire-retardant, durable, and wrinkle-resistant.

Synthetic fibers, such as polyester and nylon, are made from petroleum by-products in an energy-intensive process. A variety of pollutants, including nitrogen and sulfur oxides, particulates, carbon monoxide, heavy metals, and carbon dioxide, are emitted during production of these fabrics. I choose running shorts and shirts made with synthetics because they’re quick-drying and wick sweat away from my skin—which makes for a more comfortable run during Virginia’s hot and sticky summers. These fabrics are also pretty durable. I’ve been wearing the same couple pairs of running shorts since college! Of course, this means that once I toss them, they’ll sit for another few hundred years in the landfill without degrading—and once they start degrading, they’ll leach additional chemicals into the soil and groundwater. The good news is some bright minds out there have developed synthetics made from recyclables, like soda bottles. I even have some long underwear made from recycled polyester. You can buy recycled-fiber clothing from Patagonia and other members of the Textile Exchange.

More eco-friendly fabrics to consider incorporating into your wardrobe are hemp, linen, and bamboo rayon. Hemp and linen, both derived from plants that grow quickly and require few pesticides and herbicides, are in some ways the most eco-friendly fiber choices. But, neither hemp nor textile-grade flax (the source of linen) is grown in the States, so all hemp and linen clothing you find in stores here has traveled from countries such as China, Romania, Hungary, and Poland. Like hemp and flax plants, bamboo is quick-growing and requires few fertilizers and pesticides during cultivation. Plus, it is naturally antimicrobial and moisture wicking, meaning finished clothes don’t need to be treated with additional chemicals to introduce these properties. The downsides to bamboo are, first, turning stalks into textile-grade fiber is energy- and water-intensive and, second, as the demand for bamboo has increased, farmers have begun to cultivate it in monocrop fields, which endangers biodiversity and degrades the soil.

Creating finished clothing from any of these fibers requires a host of energy-sucking machines: machines that prepare the raw product for shipment to factories, machines that turn the raw product into thread, machines for weaving and knitting the thread into fabric, and, finally, machines for sewing and assembly. In addition to the energy use are the myriad additional chemical inputs. Fabrics are dyed in a multistep process, involving scouring (in an alkali) to remove impurities and bleaching (with hydrogen peroxide or chlorine) to prepare the garment for dye. The dying itself usually involves benzene, heavy metals, and formaldehyde. Then the fibers are treated with more formaldehyde to make them soft, wrinkle-resistant, stain and odor resistant, fireproof, mothproof, and antistatic. (Formaldehyde, by the way, can cause respiratory problems, burning eyes, cancer, and allergic-contact dermatitis.) Lucky for us, most of the toxic chemicals used in the production of clothing are rinsed or leached out by the time the products hit the stores. So, only the low-wage workers in the textile factories (i.e., sweatshops) and anyone who drinks from water sources nearby are affected by the toxicity and the waste.

Just to put the amount of chemicals in perspective, here are some stats from Stephen Yafa’s Big Cotton: 3/4 pound of chemicals are applied to every pair of jeans and 1 1/4 pounds are applied to every set of queen-sized sheets. Oh, and here’s another crazy stat for you, this one from The Story of Stuff: A single cotton t-shirt generates at least five pounds of CO2 before it gets to the retailer. Distribution and care for the t-shirt over its lifetime will likely double that number.

The best way to limit the impact of your clothing is to make do with what you already have or buy used or recycled. Talk to your neighbors about good consignment shops in your area. Check out your local Freecycle. There are even a bunch of vintage clothing stores online: Etsy, Posh Girl Vintage, Rusty Zipper, to name just three.

*Make no mistake, though. Cottonseed oil made from GM cotton seeds finds its way into a wide variety of processed food products sold in American grocery stores. Check your labels.

Sources and Related Reading

Solvie Karlstrom, “Guide to Greener Fibers,” NRDC Smarter Living, November 20, 2009.

Annie Leonard, The Story of Stuff: How Our Obsession with Stuff Is Trashing the Planet, Our Communities, and Our Health—And a Vision for Change (New York: Free Press, 2010).

Shanti Menon, “Green Fashion: Beautiful on the Inside,” NRDC Smarter Living, February 11, 2010.

National Labor Committee, Mickey Mouse Goes to Haiti: Walt Disney and the Science of Exploitation, Parts 1 and 2, YouTube video, from a documentary filmed in 1996, posted by “nicnet,” January 26, 2010.

Andrew Olsen, “Problems with Conventional Cotton Production,” Pesticide Action Network, May 2, 2011.

Stephen Yafa, “The Shirt on Your Back,” in Big Cotton: How a Humble Fiber Created Fortunes, Wrecked Civilizations, and Put America on the Map (Viking: New York, 2005), 270-304.


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