“Blinding ignorance does mislead us. O! Wretched mortals, open your eyes!” – Leonardo da Vinci. Da Vinci may very well have been talking about our attitude towards the textile industry. As we buy more and more clothes, linen and fabric on shopping sprees, ignorance prevents us from understanding the impact the industry is having on the world around us. Some quick facts:
According to a World Bank estimate, almost 20% of global industrial water pollution comes from the treatment and dyeing of textiles.
About 72 toxic chemicals reach our water supply from textile dyeing, many of which cannot be filtered or removed.
Wastewater discharged by the textile industry contains chemicals such as formaldehyde (HCHO), chlorine and heavy metals such as lead and mercury. The damages are environmental degradation and human disease.
A landfill is a waste disposal site that contains garbage to prevent contamination between the waste and the surrounding environment, especially groundwater. Landfills contain minimal amounts of oxygen and moisture, so they are not designed to breakdown trash, but to bury it.
In North America alone, consumers are buying and discarding five times as much clothing as they did 25 years ago. About 85% of this ends up in landfills.
Even though the modern world needs more and more landfill space for its waste, textile waste in landfills is not merely a problem of space.
Textile waste forms leachate as it decomposes, often contaminating groundwater through leakage. The decomposition of organic fibres and yarn such as wool produces large amounts of ammonia and methane. Ammonia is highly toxic in both terrestrial and aquatic environments, and can be toxic in gaseous form. Methane, if uncollected, significantly impacts global warming.
Further, in landfills where textile waste is incinerated in large quantities, harmful substances such as dioxins, heavy metals, acidic gases and dust particles are emitted.
In the modern, free-market economy, “customer is king” is a commonly held business mantra. In the context of recycling textile, the customer has been found to be the worst offender.
Studies have found that only 15 per cent of post-consumer clothing is recycled in contrast to over 75 per cent pre-use clothing recycled by manufacturers.
Equally, the customer has the power to control the percentage of post-consumer textile that ends up in the landfill.
One in five British throw away a piece of clothing after single use. In America, the average lifetime of a piece of clothing is 3 years. Extending the average life of clothing by just three months of active use per item would lead to a five to ten per cent reduction in the carbon, water and waste footprints of the average American household.
As cheap, fast fashion caught on in the Western world, trade in second-hand clothes became common in the informal markets in Africa, even accounting for the majority of clothing sales in some countries. Today. more than 70 per cent of the world’s population uses second-hand clothing.
In 2010, the US exported over 100,000,000 kg of used clothing to Central America. In Honduras this meant 28 kg per Honduran, much more second-hand clothing than the world needs. Moreover, African nations have proposed phasing out trade in used garments in a bid to bolster their local economies by revitalising the apparel industry and creating jobs.
Donating it isn’t a solution to managing textile consumption and waste. It is not an alternative to buying less and throwing less.
While natural cotton fibre is completely biodegradable, it can take over 20,000 litres of water to produce cotton for a single T-shirt and pair of jeans. 2.4% of the world’s crop land is planted with cotton and yet it accounts for 24% and 11% of the global sales of insecticide and pesticides respectively.
On the other hand, polyester fibre is made from petroleum, a non-renewable resource that creates damaging environmental impacts during the extraction process. However, in the whole lifecycle of the fibre, from the raw materials, through the use phase to the end of the lifecycle, polyester has lower energy impacts during the washing and cleaning phase and is also completely recyclable at the end of its life.
Remind yourself of these facts the next time you step out to shop for clothes; you may just play a part in reducing the severe effects of the textile industry.
Overdressed: The Shockingly High Cost of Cheap Fashion By Elizabeth Cline