When you think about curbing pollution, taking aim at the clothes in your closet is probably not high up on the list. But the textiles industry is one of the most polluting on the planet. New trends and “ultrafast fashion” has clothing entering popular clothing stores on a weekly or even daily basis.
As a result, Americans have increased how much clothing they buy, with the average person bringing home more than 65 articles of clothing in 2016, according to the “Toxic Textiles” report by Green America.1 Where clothing was once valued for durability and practicality, we’re living in an age where people feel pressured to keep up with clothing trends, at the expense of quality and the environment. Green America noted:2
“[S]ocial media has led to a new trend of ultra-fast fashion — where companies are able to design, manufacture, and sell hundreds of products mere weeks after the initial conception of design, thanks to a large network of local and international factories.
Some ultra-fast fashion companies, such as Fashion Nova, release 600 new items a week — and sell out most of them too. We’ve entered an age where clothing is made to be worn and subsequently discarded, where ‘good-enough’ is the metric for the quality of our clothes.”
Textile Manufacturing Is Polluting the Planet
The textile industry is an often-overlooked contributor to pollution that is destroying the planet. Green America released some sobering statistics, including that textile manufacturing causes about 20% of industrial water pollution and emits 10% of global carbon emissions.
Textile production also uses 43 million tons of chemicals annually,3 and this doesn’t even include the pesticides used to grow cotton (glyphosate, the most used agricultural chemical, is an herbicide used to grow cotton that’s linked to cancer and found in cotton textiles).
Chemicals are used at multiple stages of production when it comes to turning raw materials into clothing and include azo-aniline dyes, which may cause skin reactions ranging from mild to severe.
Even more concerning, azo dyes may release aromatic amines, which are carcinogenic.4 If you're sensitive, such dyes may leave your skin red, itchy and dry, especially where the fabric rubs on your skin, such as at your waist, neck, armpits and thighs.
Formaldehyde resins are also used in clothing to cut down on wrinkling and mildew. Not only is formaldehyde a known carcinogen, but the resins have been linked to eczema and may cause your skin to become flaky or erupt in a rash.5
Brominated flame retardants, used to stop clothes from burning (although this is questionable), may be found in children’s clothing. These chemicals are neurotoxic endocrine disrupters that may also cause cancer. Polyflourinated chemicals (PFCs), used widely in uniforms and outdoor clothing to create stain-repellant and water-resistant fabrics, are carcinogenic, build up in your body and are toxic to the environment.
The chemicals may be mostly washed out, but some can linger in the clothing as you wear it. Some clothing is treated with additional chemicals for water-resistant, wrinkle- and stain-protection as well. However, workers are exposed to the chemicals during manufacturing and when they’re rinsed off the fabrics (a process that uses copious amounts of water), they end up in waterways. Green America explained:6
“Once released into the water, chemicals can also affect the community, through exposure to water sources, but also due to the leaching of chemicals into the soil, which affects the local agricultural system. The chemicals that are commonly used in the manufacturing process pose a variety of health and environmental risks.
There isn’t a lot of transparency about what specific chemicals are used in the manufacturing process, which is especially concerning when it comes to the workers who are directly exposed to the chemicals, sometimes without adequate safety protection.”
Americans Throw Away 70 Pounds of Textiles Every Year
While Americans add dozens of new articles of clothing to their collections annually, they also get rid of others, tossing 70 pounds of clothing and other textiles each year.7 According to the U.S. EPA, textiles made up 6.1% of municipal solid waste in 2015. Only 15.3%, or 2.5 million tons, was recycled while landfills received 10.5 million tons of textiles in 2015, accounting for 7.6% of all municipal solid waste landfills.8
Even when clothing is recycled, Green America notes that “less than 1% of the resources required to make clothing is recaptured and reused to create new clothing.”9 When you donate clothes, it’s also not a sustainable solution.
The fact is, the sheer volume of clothes being donated far outpaces the demand. Charities sell only a fraction of the clothing they receive in donations, and the majority ends up getting sold to textile “recyclers.”
These “recyclers” may sell some of the clothing at that point, but most of it may end up being exported to other countries. There, it will either be sold, made into rags, processed into industrial uses or end up in landfills.
“Although 35% of our clothes are technically being diverted from American landfills, they may end up in a landfill in another country. This means that two of the most environmentally destructive aspects of the apparel production system — the manufacture of textiles and the disposal of unwanted clothing — is happening disproportionately in other, oftentimes developing, countries,” Green America noted.10
“Furthermore, countries that traditionally have imported second-hand clothing are reducing the amount they are importing.”11
Fourteen US Clothing Companies Evaluated
Green America evaluated 14 U.S. apparel companies that are widely available in malls and shopping centers. This includes Target, Nike, Gap, Walmart, The Children’s Place, Carter’s, J. Crew and others. They evaluated each company’s social and environmental practices to create a scorecard, considering such factors as chemical management, factory safety, water management and waste and recycling.
While some of the companies had policies in place for some of the benchmarks measured, including sharing progress toward the benchmarks, most of the companies were lacking. While some stated they had policies in place to manage environmental or labor issues, most did not give details about the policy or reveal measurements to achieve the goal.
“While none of the major brands are true leaders in the field, Green America identified the following companies as having better environmental and labor practices — Target, VF, Nike — and several companies that were clearly laggards — Carter’s, J.Crew, Forever 21,” Green America explained.12 They added:13
“It’s important to note that even if a company has some policies in place to address sustainability within its current supply chain, it does not negate the sheer volume of resources used and lost annually to manufacture new clothes. Furthermore, there is still, unfortunately, no way for us to shop our way to sustainability.”
Why Conventional Cotton Isn’t a Sustainable Option
Cotton is a primary player in the textile industry, accounting for 27% of production.14 It’s often viewed as a natural option, but conventional cotton is a resource heavy crop.
Green America noted that 200,000 tons of pesticides and 8 million tons of fertilizers are used for cotton crops annually, while it takes 2,700 liters of water to grow enough cotton to make a T-shirt (and this doesn’t account for the water used for dyeing and finishing).15
Even organic cotton isn’t perfect, unless it’s certified by GOTS (Global Organic Textile Standards), as it still requires chemical processing in order to become a textile. However, organic cotton certified by GOTS restricts the chemicals that can be used during manufacturing, making them preferable options.
Other materials have problems of their own, including rayon/viscose, wood pulp converted to textiles — which is contributing to deforestation — and polyester, which is made from petroleum, which does not biodegrade and is made with the heavy metal antimony, a possible carcinogen.16
SITO and Dirt Shirts Raise Funds for Regenerative Agriculture
Keep in mind that just because you have a textile that someone tells you is organic doesn’t mean it’s an organic textile. A GOTS-certified textile, on the other hand, is tracked through every single step of the process, from farm to packaging.
Even hang tags have to comply with recycling standards. In other words, for a textile to be certified GOTS, each and every step of the supply chain must be certified to GOTS standards, not just one or two of the steps.
The organic clothing industry is still rather small, and it’s not always easy to find sustainably grown organic clothing. Dirt Shirt will eventually expand to provide GOTS-certified underwear and other types of clothing, in addition to T-shirts.
At present, I’ve chosen to carry SITO (Soil Integrity for Textiles Organically) brand socks and underwear, as SITO supports our global mission for improving fabric production and putting an end to fast fashion. To learn more about our Dirt Shirt and SITO brand products, see the video above — 100% of the profits from every Dirt Shirt sold on our site will support the regenerative agricultural movement.
Why I’m Paying Farmers to Convert to Biodynamic
The Mercola-RESET Biodynamic Organic Project is currently working with 55 certified organic farmers in India, with a mission of converting them to biodynamic and planting biodynamic cotton on 110 acres of land this season. Biodynamic farming is organic by nature, but it goes even further, operating on the premise that the farm be entirely self-sustaining.
In the U.S., biodynamic farms use the USDA organic standard as a foundation but have additional requirements, encompassing the principles of regenerative agriculture and more. For instance, biodynamic farms must produce at least 50% of their own organic animal feed, and 100% of the farm must be biodynamic (on the contrary, an organic farmer may raise only one crop as organic). In addition:17
- Crops and livestock are integrated
- Animals are treated humanely, and all have access to the outdoors, free-range forage and plenty of space to move around
- At least 10 percent of farm acreage is set aside for biodiversity
- The farm must uphold standards of social responsibility
Biodynamic farming brings animals and plants together to form a living web of life, a self-sustaining ecosystem that benefits the surrounding community. RESET (Regenerate, Environment, Society, Economy, Textiles) will pay all organic biodynamic farmers in our project a 25% premium over conventional cotton prices, which will be paid directly to the farmers.
How to Opt Out of Fast Fashion
Biodynamic farming is urgently needed in the textile industry to offset the polluting practices of conventional cotton growing. When shopping for clothing, make sure it’s organic, biodynamic and/or GOTS-certified. However, ultimately the best choice for the environment is to purchase less clothing overall.
When you do purchase clothing, choose high-quality pieces and use them until they wear out. If you no longer need an item, try to give it to a friend or family member who can use it. Also, choose to buy or swap used clothing items online or via thrift stores, and opt out of the fast-fashion mindset of buying excessive amounts of low-quality, “throwaway” clothes.
“It’s clear that continuing with business as usual is unsustainable — for people, for planet, and, in the long run, for profits,”18 Green America stated. You can be a model for change by choosing your clothing with a purpose and suggesting your friends and family do the same.