Cheap Clothing: High Price
The USA imports 20 billion garments every year—or about 64 clothing items per person. That will cost the typical American consumer around $700. This tells us that clothing is very important to us—maybe more than just for covering ourselves and keeping warm. It's also a hint that there's an environmental price to be paid for our love of clothing, both from the sheer amount we purchase, the materials and chemicals used to produce our duds (see below) and from the distance our garments travel to get to us.
And there's a price when we're finished with our clothing. The average US'er will toss 68 pounds of clothing per year—or 12.7 million tons altogether. Of what we donate to recycling centers, less than half continues on as clothing—the rest is thrown away (5 percent), or sold to fiber recyclers (20 percent) or industrial rag companies (30 percent). Of the clothing donated directly to thrift stores, only 20 percent is sold on site—the remainder is either sold to clothing merchants to be shipped overseas or sent to the rag companies or landfill. So here's the scoop on the environmental price tag on different kinds of fabrics.
The cotton industry markets its product as a clean, white fabric—but the earth took a lot of abuse to get it to that stage.
For instance, cotton uses one-quarter of all the world’s pesticides to keep bugs at bay. It also likes a warm climate, and this often means it will need to be irrigated substantially. Additionally, it requires bleach and dye to prepare it for production.
Here’s the ‘recipe’ for a pair of blue jeans
One of the major drawbacks to cotton (organic or not) is the necessity for cleaning, drying and ironing, all of which require lots of energy. An average of 25 washes during a cotton garment’s lifetime accounts for 60% of the total energy during the lifecycle of the cotton garment. (Levi's exec says "Don't wash those jeans!") Synthetic fabrics require 10% less energy during the use phase and a 20% reduction in the use of detergents (see below).
Wool production requires less energy than cotton but not enough to make a difference. In addition, sheep belch methane, a potent greenhouse gas. Sheep also require pesticides and antibiotics to stay healthy. Manufacturing wool uses harsh scouring agents to clean and purify the wool as well as chlorine bleach. Formaldehyde (and other similar agents for finishing cotton) is used to treat the final garments. Dyes can often contain copper, chromium and zinc and those heavy metals are often found in the effluent of the manufacturing plant.
This fast-growing plant has some benefits: its deep roots prevent erosion; a bamboo forest grows densely enough to return 30% more oxygen back to the atmosphere than most tree forests; bamboo can sequester up to 12 tons of carbon dioxide per hectare; and no pesticides or fertilizers are needed, and it usually doesn't need irrigating. Bamboo is also easy to harvest and will regenerate an entire forest very quickly.
HOWEVER, it can take over an area where it has been imported, rooting out native plants (and thus affecting the creatures that depend on these plants). In addition, lots of chemicals are used during the bamboo fabric manufacturing process, as its fibers must be broken down using sodium hydroxide and carbon disulfide (similar to ingredients in Drano). Bamboo can be manufactured without the use of chemicals, but it is extremely labor intensive and therefore not cost effective. Some proponents still say this is less damaging than petroleum-based polyester or chemical-laced cotton, but its best use may be for flooring, which doesn't require nearly as many chemicals as bamboo clothing.
Making polyester is a killer-diller. While synthetics use a lot less water and of course don’t require fertilizers and pesticides, during the fabrication phase they have a 63% higher energy consumption per unit than cotton and produce four times more CO2. Polyester’s benefits come, however, during the use stage, as it typically can yield a 20% reduction in energy and detergent use than cotton, due to being more durable and requiring less drying and no ironing.
Since 90 percent of our textiles are now made abroad, there is also a substantial carbon footprint from all the shipping involved. First, the cotton or petroleum from which the items are made is typically imported to the country where the garment factories are located. (Or in many cases, the cloth is dyed in one country and sewn in another.)Then the finished products are shipped to port cities, where they travel by container ship to distant ports. Once there, they go by truck or rail to retail outlets, and from there to your home (usually by car). When you tire of the item, it’s either off to the dump or to a used clothing store, where the majority are eventually bundled and shipped in bales to overseas markets. How much CO2 was released in the or to the resale shop (where most clothes end up being bundled and shipped abroad for re-re-sale). The per person carbon footprint of the entire process of making the 20 billion items of clothing bought in the US every year? About a ton per person.
In the end the sustainability of our clothing choices have to factor in the entire lifecycle of the garment, including how we treat our clothes once they are in our hands. It seems natural fabrics are more harmful to the immediate environment (the water and soil) while synthetics take a larger toll on the air and non-renewable resources. In reality, no single fabric is the best for the environment. Consumers have a role to play. They can: