Dressing for health & the environment

The Issues

  • Production of natural fibres may involve the use of pesticides, chemical fertilizers and high water usage. Many man-made fibres are a petroleum product, and chemicals are used in their manufacture.
  • Dyeing alone can account for most of the water used in producing a garment; unfixed dye then often washes out of garments, and can end up in rivers, as treatment plants fail to remove them from the water. Dye fixatives – often heavy metals – also end up in sewers and then rivers.
  • Bleaching of fibres and cloth often uses dioxin-producing chlorine compounds.
  • Formaldehyde is used to treat virtually all polycotton (especially bedlinen), plus all ‘easy care’, ‘crease resistant’, ‘permanent press’ cotton (also used for flameproofing nylon).
  • Transport of clothing form far flung lands raises the carbon footprint of your clothing purchase.
  • Sweatshops Most garment workers (possibly children) toil in third world countries, earning tiny wages for long hours, often in unsanitary and unsafe conditions. Unfortunately no overarching “sweatshop-free” label exists, and the definition of a sweatshop varies.
  • Over-consumption –  Although sending your unwanted clothing to the Sally Ann is better than sending it directly to landfill, the truth is that there is just far too much perfectly usable clothing being discarded and some of it will end up in a landfill anyway. We clearly buy far more clothing than we need, and the environment pays the price.Over 80 billion garments are produced annually, worldwide. In Canada, for example, over $30 billion is spent on new clothing each year, translating to approximately 1.13 billion garments.In Canada, an estimated 10 percent of charitable contributions are sold by thrift stores.
  • Disposal – On average, Canadians discard over 15 lbs. of clothing per capita each year.
    Natural fibers can take hundreds of years to decompose, and once in the landfill may release methane and CO2 gas into the atmosphere. Textiles manufactured from synthetics are designed not to decompose. In the landfill they may release toxic substances into groundwater and surrounding soil.

The Materials

  • Conventionally Grown Cotton is the most pesticide intensive crop in the world: these pesticides injure and kill many people every year. Nearly $2.6 billion worth of pesticides are sprayed on cotton fields each year. Many of the most hazardous pesticides on the market are sprayed on cotton fields. It also takes up a large proportion of agricultural land, much of which is needed by local people to grow their own food. Both herbicides and the chemical defoliants used to aid in mechanical cotton harvesting, add to the toll on both the environment and human health. These chemicals typically remain in the fabric after finishing, and are released during the lifetime of the garments. The development of genetically modified cotton adds environmental problems at another level. Growing enough cotton for one t-shirt requires 257 gallons of water. On top of that, bleaching and then dyeing the resulting fabric creates toxins that flow into our ecosystem. On the plus side, cotton is biodegradable – however it is unlikely to biodegrade under landfill conditions.
    (See – http://www.panna.org/resources/cotton and http://ejfoundation.org/cotton/cotton-and-pesticides)
  • Conventionally produced wool industry workers suffer from exposure to organophosphate, a pesticide in sheep dip. Sheep are big producers of methane, a potent greenhouse gas. Bleaching, dyeing, and finishing uses energy and water, and causes pollution.


  • Silk is inherently natural because it’s made by silk worms, not chemical-based synthetic processing. But there’s a drawback: vegans don’t wear silk because to get at the silk fibres, the silk worms are thrown in a vat of boiling water once their hard work is complete. If that seems cruel to you, look for a new generation of the fabric: peace silk or vegan silk (it’s always clearly labeled, so accept no substitutes). This kind of silk is made from the worm casings gathered only after the moths have emerged and moved on.
  • Nylon and polyester are made from petrochemicals, Nylon manufacture creates nitrous oxide, a greenhouse gas 310 times more potent than carbon dioxide. Making polyester uses large amounts of water for cooling, along with lubricants which can become a source of contamination. Both processes are also very energy-hungry.


  • Rayon (aka viscose), another artificial fibre, is made from wood pulp, which on the face of it seems more sustainable. However, old growth forest is often cleared and/or subsistence farmers are displaced to make way for pulpwood plantations. Often the tree planted is eucalyptus, which draws up phenomenal amounts of water, causing problems in sensitive regions. To make rayon, the wood pulp is treated with hazardous chemicals such as caustic soda and sulphuric acid. The use of rayon for clothing is contributing to the rapid depletion of the world’s forests.
  • Rayon from bamboo sounds greener than it is. A somewhat better choice than regular rayon, since bamboo is fast growing, and is usually grown without use of fertilizer or pesticides, however the production of the fibres uses the same chemicals as regular rayon.
    N.B. Bamboo is sometimes used to make a cashmere-like cloth, in which case the fibres are produced without the use of chemicals. For more info see:
  • Fleece made from recycled plastic bottles and scrap fleece from the garment industry. Manufacturing this fibre is preferable to creating new petroleum-based fibres. Polyester is oil and once oil has been made into plastic bottles it’s far cheaper to recycle it into yarn than starting from scratch, both because you’ve eliminated a huge part of the production cycle (and carbon footprint) of extracting and transporting the oil and because it takes a tremendous amount of energy to make the first-generation polyester and considerably less to recycle it into second-generation.

From waste water emissions to air pollution and energy consumption, the textile industry weighs heavily on the environment.


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