Consider the clothing you’re wearing right now. Do you know where it came from? Can you name what kind of fabric or materials it’s made from or how it was produced? The textile industry has been identified as the second most polluting industry on the planet second only to Petrochemicals. This is why we at Purse for the People are focused on improving the supply chain in our product and work to raise awareness. There are viable sustainable alternatives to choose from. So not only can you look radiant and beautiful you can also care for our planet.
The fibers you wear matter more than just how they feel and look on your body. It gets complicated because even natural fibers can be extremely damaging to the environment when they are processed with toxic chemicals and dyes. According to Dyeing for a change: current conventions and new futures in the textile color industry, on average, each kilo of finished fabric needs between 80 to 100 liters to dye it. A t-shirt weighs around 200 grams, meaning each one uses 16-20 liters of water. About 80% of conventional direct dye is retained by the fabric; the rest is flushed out from the shirt, polluting the water it enters. Each year, the global textile industry discharges 40,000-50,000 tons of dye into rivers and streams, and, in Europe alone, 200,000, tons of salt (used in the process to even out color) are discharged every year. Although this wastewater can be treated to remove the heavy metals and other toxic chemicals it contains so it can safely be returned to water systems, this does not always happen, and if it does, the process can depend on fossil fuels and more chemicals. So it is critical that we not only examine the origins of the fiber but how it is processed to make the end products we wear.
Understanding Natural Fibers
Before delving into why you should wear natural fibers it’s certainly important to understand what constitutes a natural fiber. The most common natural fibers include:
- Abaca (Manila Hemp)
- Flax (linen)
- Camel Hair
Synthetic fibers when made, go through a process called polymerization that joins plastic fibers together in order to make fabric. This process requires multiple toxic chemicals and solvents in order to create this fabric. Nylon, polyester, rayon and spandex are all examples of synthetic fibers. One of the most environmentally impactful issues with synthetic fibers is that they can not be colored with natural dyes that are safer for the environment. So synthetics have a double negative impact both when the fiber is produced and again when it is dyed.
According to Green Cotton Blog: The chemicals used to produce synthetic dyes today are often highly toxic, carcinogenic, or even explosive. The chemical Aniline, the basis for a popular group of dyes known as Azo dyes (specifically group III A1 and A2) which are considered deadly poisons (giving off carcinogenic amines) and dangerous to work with, also being highly flammable. In addition, other harmful chemicals used in the dying process include
1) dioxin – a carcinogen and possible hormone disrupter;
2) Toxic heavy metals such as chrome, copper, and zinc – known carcinogens; and
3) Formaldehyde, a suspected carcinogen.
All of this adds up to strong evidence that natural fibers are the all around best choice for the environment and our health.
- Natural fiber clothing is less toxic.
As you can see from the section above, toxic chemicals and processes are required to both make and dye fabric from synthetic fibers. These chemicals are hazardous to the environment, and spill into the food chain. What you may not realize, however, is that your skin could be absorbing some of this toxicity as well. As a note of clarification, there is no exact science on this yet – but many are concerned that this poses a health risk. The findings from two Greenpeace reports on chemical content in sportswear and fashion suggest they might be. Their analysis found that sportswear from major brands contained known hazardous chemicals, like Phthalates, PFCs, Dimethylformamide (DMF), Nonylphenol ethoxylates (NPEs), and Nonylphenols (NPs). And a Swedish study estimates that ten percent of all textile-related substances are “considered to be of potential risk to human health.”
- Natural fiber clothing is sustainable. Consider recycling – plastic can’t biodegrade easily, or at all, and so when synthetic fibers are placed in landfills they break down very slowly and release their toxins into land and groundwater. Natural materials, like vegetable leftovers and compost, can decompose and return to the earth. Your clothing works similarly. All natural fiber can return safely to the earth and act as a nutrient source to continue the natural production cycle. This natural production cycle means that we will never run out of the materials from which these fibers are made. Unlike synthetics, which are predominantly produced from petroleum, a nonrenewable that we will inevitably run out of.
- Comfort and durability The fibers are tightly woven, yet extremely breathable and surprisingly soft and they do not cling to the body. Most natural fiber textiles are extremely comfortable and much more breathable than synthetics. Synthetic fibers are man made, and therefore seem to break down much faster than natural fibers and are much less breathable than synthetics. It’s a common complaint that you have to pay more for natural fiber and/or organic clothing, but consider this: you can pay a few hundred dollars for a handful of shirts that will last you years, or continuously pay a little under 100 dollars every year for clothing that doesn’t last. Which sounds more economically feasible?