Greener Clothing Choices
Making, processing, transporting, using and disposing of our clothing amounts to a major impact on the environment. Cotton production accounts for 25% of US pesticide use as well as enormous amounts of water. Demand for synthetic fibers, such as polyester and nylon, has steeply increased over the last 15 years. The manufacturing of these synthetic fabrics is an energy-intensive process requiring large amounts of crude oil and releasing emissions into the air and water. The EPA considers many textile manufacturing facilities to be hazardous waste generators.
Finishing, such as dyeing, often uses heavy metals that contaminate sewers and rivers and bleaching results in the production of the toxin, dioxin. Almost all polycotton and ‘permanent press’ cottons are treated with formaldehyde. Polybrominated Diphenyl Ethers (PBDEs) are gaining worldwide recognition as neurotoxins. These are the family of chemicals that act as flame retardants. They have been linked to neuro-developmental and behavioral deficits, thyroid hormone disruption, and possibly cancer. PBDEs are used more heavily in the U.S. and Canada than anywhere else and studies show increasing levels are prevalent in humans and wildlife. PBDEs are slowly released over the life of the plastics, foams, and fabrics to which they are applied accumulating in water and working their way up the food chain. Flame retardants are often added to children’s clothes, pajamas, and mattresses.
Today, 30% of world apparel exports come from China and increasingly more clothing in the U.S. comes from countries that regularly keep their textile workers in slave-like situations. As well, child labor is still going strong in most of the world and grows with the demand for more cheap clothing. According to UNICEF there are more than 218 million child laborers worldwide (excluding domestic labor). Gap recently came under scrutiny when it was discovered that some of their kids clothes were being made by child laborers in brutal conditions in India. Unfortunately, sweatshop situations still flourish in the U.S. The Northern Mariana Islands exemplifies this situation: many textiles there are made in sweatshops and then sold as “Made in the USA.”
WASTE AND LIFECYCLE COSTS
An estimated 21% of annual clothing purchases never leave the home (until they enter the garbage)! Where they account for about 4% of total landfill space. The majority of energy used in the life cycle of a simple cotton t-shirt comes from washing and drying after it is brought home, thus even after clothes are purchased there is ample opportunity to reduce the environmental impact. Drycleaning reaps a high environmental burden and kids can be particularly sensitive to the volatile organic compounds (VOCs) that drycleaned clothes emit.
- Get hand-me-downs for your children. Sometimes people feel awkward giving handed-down clothes as gifts, so make it clear on party invitations or in person that this is not only acceptable, but preferable.
- Buy organic, fairly-traded clothing when buying new. (More and more you can find organic kids clothes everywhere, even Target. As well, there are many websites and boutiques that provide organic clothes for children. Under the Nile, Hanna Andersson, Lapsaky, Grembo, are just a few well-known companies. Many other companies, e.g. American Apparel, have organic baby clothes.)
- Make your own baby clothes from organic or all-natural materials.
- Look for clothes and textiles that bare labels such as the Öko-Tex Standard 100. (The European Union has adopted the Öko-Tex Standard 100, a testing and certification program that provides uniform guidance to the textile and clothing industry to help eliminate all substances that might be harmful to humans from the raw materials to the finished products and every stage in between.)
- Remember that you can save energy, water, and pollutants by how you care for your clothes at home. Buy a front-loading washer and line dry.
REAL WORLD OPTIONS
- Shop for alternative materials such as bamboo and hemp (and even corn!) or, popularized by the major retailer Patagonia, recycled PET fleece.
- Avoid buying children’s clothing and pajamas made of flame-resistant fabrics. Choose cotton over polyester, it is less likely to have been treated with flame retardants. (Watch out for those cute polyester pajamas, many of them have PBDEs in the material.)
- Buy an organic mattress for your child. Your baby spends half his life in bed, get one that will limit his chemical exposure. Organic mattresses don’t have to be expensive, visit www.tinybirdsorganics.com for a range of inexpensive options.
- Use cold water to wash your clothes and don’t cook clothes when using the dryer.
- Pass on your children’s clothes when they have outgrown them: gift them, take them to resale stores (e.g. Once Upon a Child), donate them to a charity, or drop them off at a thrift store.
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- PBDE Flame Retardant Levels Among Californian Pregnant Women Highest In The World (medicalnewstoday.com)
- High levels of potentially toxic flame retardants in California pregnant women (eurekalert.org)
- Study finds high levels of flame-retardant chemicals in California pregnant women (eurekalert.org)
- Dust on office surfaces can be a source of exposure to PBDEs (medicalxpress.com)
- High levels of potentially toxic flame retardants in California pregnant women (medicalxpress.com)