it’s not just what you eat that kills the earth and all of its inhabitants. This is also what you wear. Every time you buy an item of clothing, you are making a choice between the biosphere and the lithosphere. The biosphere is an agricultural area where cotton, flax (from flax), hemp – even silk (mulberry) – are cultivated. Wool, although cruel in another way, is also cultivated. The lithosphere is the protective crust of the earth. Fossil fuels are extracted from it and turned into synthetic fabrics like polyester.
Clearly, a sane human being would choose a renewable resource; something that can be cultivated over and over again. But 70% of all clothing comes from non-renewable fuels – we humans wear plastic, nylon, acrylic, polyester. Even the wonderful sarees of Benaras, which were heirlooms for all brides, are now mixed with polyester.
Fashion is as much an agricultural choice as food. It is common for us to pay attention to vegetables and grains and to question the farming community, but we do not pay attention to the fashion industry. Think of the tissue as emerging from the ground, then concern yourself with the practices required to grow and harvest it.
The beef industry is responsible for cutting down thousands of forests, but the fashion industry is no less. Tissues made from trees, such as bamboo and eucalyptus, cause forests to be cut down and turned into plantations and these trees are made into clothing.
If we choose cotton, as I have done all my life, I am guilty of ignoring the massive pesticides used and their impact on all of life. Cotton in India uses neonicotinoid pesticides – which are responsible for destroying billions of bees, putting our food supplies at risk. But polyester / nylon is responsible for massive mining, destroying forests, leaving gaping holes in the ground and contaminating water sources for miles around.
However, even if you choose to wear a sustainable agricultural product, the next problem is with dyes. The fabric can be organic cotton but its color comes from synthetic dyes. The cotton is first bleached – and the bleach kills all marine life. Then it is dyed. Synthetic dyes color most of the textiles we wear.
It is estimated that 25% of the chemicals produced in the world are used to make clothing, and many of them are used for dyeing. Heavy metals, such as cadmium, mercury, tin, cobalt, lead, and chromium, are needed to bind dyes to fabric and are present in 60-70% of dyes. Large amounts of water are also needed in the dyeing industry, and excess chemical dyes are flushed out and dumped into rivers as effluent. A few years ago I was in Udaipur and encountered the most terrible rivers: blood red waters with so many dead animals around – animals that had been forced to drink because there was no no other water. It was all downstream from the fabric dyeing industry.
The effect of working with chemical dyes is apparent in the communities employed in this work (they are affected by exposure to endocrine disruptors contained in the dyes. Endocrine disrupting chemicals can interfere with hormones, causing cancerous tumors. and birth defects). Who knows the effect of synthetic dyes on the human body through clothing. Dyes aren’t the only problem – there are a lot more chemicals in our clothes than we think.
The textile industry is the most polluting of all industries in India. In the world, clothing is the second source of pollution after oil. This industry is responsible for 10% of global carbon emissions and becomes the world’s fifth largest emitter of carbon dioxide. It is also one of the top 3 industries for wasting water and severely polluting freshwater resources. About 2,600 liters of water are needed to produce a single t-shirt.
Every time you wash synthetic materials, they lose millions of plastic microfibers, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Marine Debris Program. Microfibers are a type of microplastic, that is, a plastic-based yarn thinner than a human hair, measuring less than 5mm. The wires are so small that they pass directly through sewage treatment plants into the sea. Batches are trapped in sewage sludge – which is then sprayed onto the soil as fertilizer. Marine organisms, like plankton, mistake these tiny plastics for food. Small animals and fish depend on plankton for their main food. And humans eat fish. Thus, the fibers break off from your clothes and enter your stomach.
In a study published in Science News, it was shown that nitrous oxide increases in the atmosphere by 0.2% per year, and part of this comes from the production of nylon and polyesters. Nitrous oxide is a powerful greenhouse gas and has 300 times more potential than carbon dioxide. The production of polyester, for textiles, emitted approximately 706 billion kg (1.5 trillion pounds) of greenhouse gases in 2015; the equivalent of the annual emissions of 185 coal-fired power plants.
What are they doing to you? Plastic clothing has an effect on the skin and the respiratory tract. It has also been found to cause infertility in men. Nylon, used in swimsuits, tights, and stockings, requires chemicals to reduce static electricity. Formaldehyde in tissues causes skin allergies, tearing of the eyes, and is also a known potent carcinogen.
How to get out of this mess? There are only a few solutions at the moment, but they are important.
Don’t buy artificial fabric: no nylon, polyester, lycra, acrylic, no ‘upcycled plastic’ that many fashion brands say is green. If you stop using man-made synthetic and man-made fabrics, mining will decrease and you could save forests. You will certainly save a lot of oil. And none of these man-made materials are biodegradable. There is also something that is often referred to as semi-synthetic, like rayon, which is made of natural materials like cellulose from trees, but the fibers are made artificially. Rayon causes massive deforestation as trees have to be uprooted, and that includes protected forests. Some animals are on the endangered species list specifically because of rayon. Bamboo is not to be encouraged either. Its stiffness is converted smoothly using toxic chemicals such as carbon disulfide, sodium hydroxide, and sulfuric acid.
Don’t buy so many clothes and throw the clothes away because they are old-fashioned. A recent study by the Ellen McArthur Foundation found that a garbage truck of textiles is wasted every second. The Copenhagen Fashion Summit reported that fashion is responsible for 92 million tonnes of solid waste dumped in landfills each year. Synthetic fibers can take up to 200 years to decompose. Over a million tonnes of textiles are thrown away every year. It is estimated that 150 billion clothes are produced each year, or about 20 new clothes for each individual. Between 1999 and 2009, garment scrapping increased by 40%.
Try fibers like pineapple leather. Vegetable or fruit leather, made from waste, attracts attention. Pinatex, for example, is a material made from pineapple leaves grown in the Philippines. Its production is much more durable than traditional leather. It requires less water and no harmful chemicals which are ecologically toxic to wildlife. The remaining leaf waste is recycled and used for fertilizer or biomass. Soybean fabric is an environmentally friendly fabric made from the husk of soybeans, the scraps of food production; a cruelty-free and sustainable option. They are biodegradable and the material is renewable.
Keep it simple: just buy organic cotton with organic dyes and you’ll save the world.
To join the animal welfare movement, contact [email protected], www.peopleforanimalsindia.org