The fashion Industry is the second most polluting industry in the world, the first being oil. Yet, why is it that so many of us hardly ever think about the realities of where our clothes come from, how they’ve been made, who’s made them, and how all of these factors have an effect on our world.
The harsh reality of the textile industry
Many of the clothes we wear are made from synthetic materials such as nylon and polyester. These synthetic fibres are made from petrochemicals, which pollute the environment and cause global warming. Polyester and nylon are also non-biodegradable, meaning they don’t break down easily, making them difficult to dispose of. Within the manufacturing process of nylon, nitrous oxide is released; this is a greenhouse gas that is 310 times stronger than carbon dioxide, again contributing to global warming.
Viscose is another artificial fibre made from wood pulp. The pulp is treated with toxic chemicals such as caustic soda and sulphuric acid. These chemicals are exposed to the wearer’s body and skin, but it doesn’t end with synthetic fibres.
Cotton on to what’s happening
When it comes to fashion, so many people seek cotton garments as a superior alternative to ones made from synthetic fibres such as viscose and polyester. You may be thinking, well, cotton’s a natural fibre, so it must be better for the environment. This is where you need to be looking for organic cotton, because otherwise, you may be shocked to find that in fact, cotton has been named the world’s dirtiest crop, owing to it’s heavy use of insecticides and water, high greenhouse gas emissions, and land use.
It is the most abundantly produced natural textile in the world, with over 20 million tonnes of cotton produced in over 100 countries, primarily by smallholder farmers in developing countries, thus is an industry that supports the livelihoods of around 350 million people.
While cotton is of great commercial importance globally, it plays its part in an industry that faces many social, economic, and environmental challenges. For the cotton market to work sustainably, improvements such as increasing the income of smallholder farmers, eliminating toxic pesticides and fertilisers, reducing water use and improving water quality and soil health; including a positive carbon impact, needs to be considered.
So, what can we do? The simple answer is choose organic.
We’re all aware of the term “organic” when it comes to food and beauty, but have you considered what it means for a fabric to be organic, and why we should care?
There are various reasons why choosing organic cotton is better than non-organic.
- Firstly, it’s hugely important for the environment, as organic cotton is grown without the use of synthetic fertilisers or toxic pesticides. By building soil fertility, organic farmers help seal CO2 into the soil, helping to mitigate climate change. By not using the toxic pesticides that are in non-organic farming, the environment and life within it, will benefit hugely. Toxic pesticides are responsible for the poisoning of wildlife and rivers, as well as killing an estimated 16,000 people each year; a number that can be avoided by simply going organic.
- Another reason to choose organic is, the benefit it has on the people who grow and pick the cotton. By avoiding the use of toxic pesticides, cotton workers benefit by avoiding the associated health problems and deaths common in non-organic cotton production. Avoiding pesticides also reduces production costs and farmer debts, as for many; the affliction of pesticide debt has become overwhelming, thus resulting in thousands of suicides in the developing world.
- Social conditions for non-organic cotton growers and workers can often be difficult, with poverty, health problems, and suicide a common issue. With organic cotton farming, factory conditions are significantly better, and Soil Association certified organic textiles, must meet social criteria based on the International Labour Organisation conventions. These standards cover issues such as minimum wages, working hours, child labour, and freedom of association, discrimination, and harsh or inhumane treatment.
- Organic cotton standards ensure that the chemicals used within the processing of textiles, meet the strict requirements on toxicity and biodegradability, whilst in contrast, non-organic manufacturing uses tens of thousands of acutely toxic chemicals. By eliminating harmful chemicals in the processing and production of organic textiles, the final product does not contain allergenic, carcinogenic, or toxic residues that can be inhaled or absorbed through the skin of the wearer.
“Fast fashion is difficult to resist, I hope this is changing though. People are becoming much more interested in buying good style and quality that will last, rather than something that will fall apart after a couple of washes.” – Safia Minney, Founder of People Tree, in an interview with Soil Association.
Issues faced within the textile industry:
- The textile industry uses more water than any other industry apart from agriculture.
- One hundred million households (most in some of the world’s poorest countries) are dependent on cotton farming.
- As well as GHG emissions, cotton is responsible for 16% of global insecticide use, which is more than any other crop.
- Globally, cotton production releases 220 million tonnes of CO2e, and one tonne of non-organic cotton produces 1.8 tonnes of CO2e.
Reasons why organic textiles are kinder and cleaner:
- Organic fibres are grown without using harmful pesticides or genetically modified organisms; therefore promote a healthier farm and environment.
- There are no harmful manufacturing chemicals, so it’s better for wildlife and workers.
- Animal welfare is at the heart of organic systems.
- Organic textiles don’t contain allergenic, carcinogenic, or toxic chemicals.
- Organic textiles are better for your skin and body- it’s never good to have your body exposed to harsh chemicals and pesticides.
Get economical with your clothing choices
You may have got this already, but there’s no harm in reiterating… organic cotton is the way forward!
Another eco-friendly fabric to look out for is hemp. Hemp can be grown easily without the use of harsh chemicals and pesticides. You may find this blended with organic cotton, which results in a super soft, elastic fabric. It can also be blended with silk, creating a smooth and luxurious draping fabric.
Keep your eyes pealed for other eco-friendly fabrics such as linen, organic wool, and wild silk.
Labels to look out for:
- Organic Cotton Standard 100 Certification:
This label verifies that a product has met organic standards throughout its journey, from raw materials, to the finished product. The OCS 100 label is used only for products that contain 965% or more organic material.
- Organic Cotton Standard Blended Certified:
This label verifies that a product has met organic standards throughout its journey, from raw materials, to the finished product. The OCS Blended label is used for products that contain 5% minimum of organic material blended with conventional or synthetic raw materials.
- Global Organic Textile Standard:
GOTS is the leading textile processing standard for organic fibres. Every step within the supply chain is checked, from harvesting, through to production, processing, manufacturing, and labelling.