We recycle bottles, computers and paper. But what about clothing? Many of us think we’re doing some good by sorting through t-shirts and shorts our kids wore last summer, or through our own closets adhering to the fashion mantra, “if you haven’t worn it for two seasons, toss it.” We pack away anything that’s not too dirty or torn and cart it off to Goodwill or the Salvation Army. But really, for those who are environmentally inclined, we’d do best by remembering the first R, of the Reduce, Recycle, Reuse slogan, and consider the impact of our clothing on earth’s environments and inhabitants.
In the September issue of Environmental Health Perspectives, there’s a fascinating article, “Waste Couture: Environmental Impact of the Clothing Industry”, by Luz Claudio, revealing the full life-cycle of clothes. Might just make you want to keep your shirt on for a little bit longer.Luz highlights the trend for cheap "disposable" clothing - or "fast fashion," and the impacts not only of clothing production, but its afterlife as well.
Aside from the pesticides used for cotton - and the U.S. is the largest exporter of cotton, which accounts for a large chunk pesticides used in the U.S. - there's the petroleum based synthetic fibers, the toxic chemicals used for treating and dyeing textiles and the energy required to keep our cottons and other materials crisp and clean.
There's hope though, as Claudio notes, the fashion industry is just beginning to embrace "sustainably grown cotton, hemp, bamboo and other fiber crops that require less pesticides, irrigation, and other imputs." Additionally, some companies are looking to reduce their footprint futher, by recycling materials Patagonia, for example not only uses recycled PET bottles, but recycles certain garments (including Capilene undergarments and their cotton T's.) And, still others are experimenting with biodegradable materials.
"Well Dressed," a report on the clothing industry (detailing production, human and environmental cost) by researchers at Cambridge University suggests that reductions in the environmental impact of clothing will require major changes in both industrial and consumer behavior. A few examples of industrial changes include increased recycling of certain materials, changes in production (such as a switch from conventional to organic cotton, ) and innovations that result in an extended consumer lifetime for products, and less energy intensive upkeep. Reducing the need for frequent washings, for example, or reducing water temperatures required for cleansing and drying.
Likewise, according to the report, we all can contribute by choosing more durable clothing, buying garments produced in both a socially and environmentally equitable manner, washing less often - using cooler water and line-drying, and, when we're finished with our duds, sending them off to a second hand store, or a reliable clothing recycler.