Climate Change and Your Clothes. What’s a Girl to Do?
It’s summer and it’s hot! Time to clean out my closet, transfer my tank tops and shorts from the basement to the bedroom, and sort through my sweaters. Typically, this results in a large pile of clothes destined for my local thrift store or the trash. I never thought much about these piles of clothes until I started volunteering at the thrift store. Unbeknownst to me, there were four huge refrigerator boxes of clothes marked “mission” in the back. What I soon learned was that thrift stores don’t resell every donation. They can sell only what’s in season, still fashionable and in good shape. Consequently, most of what is donated ends up with a second-hand clothing distributor, and destined for markets overseas—and there are varying opinions as to whether this is good or bad. Unfortunately, there is a larger issue at hand; that is, the amount of clothing we consume and how it’s produced.
Every year, more than 15 million tons of used textile waste are generated in the United States.[i] The average American alone generates 82 pounds of this waste. Even more alarming: The fashion industry is the second largest polluter next to the oil industry. No wonder Pope Francis wrote, “The Earth, our home, is beginning to look more and more like an immense pile of filth.” [ii]
So, what’s a girl to do? I don’t want to support an industry that exploits people and the planet, but I also want to look presentable at work. I decided to make this a summer research project, so I began digging into conventional clothing manufacturing practices and alternatives.
Conventional Cotton and Clothing Dyes
Conventional cotton represents nearly half of the fiber used to make clothes and other textiles worldwide. Three of the most hazardous insecticides to human health, as determined by the World Health Organization, are among the top 10 most commonly used in cotton production. Not only are the pesticides and fertilizers harmful to people and the planet, the water needed to cultivate conventional cotton is immense. It takes 5,200 gallons of water just to produce enough cotton for one pair of jeans and a T-shirt![iii]
In addition to the hazard from pesticides, around 20% of industrial water pollution in the world comes from the treatment and dyeing of textiles, according to the Environmental Justice Foundation.[iv] These synthetic dyes and chemicals are entering our soil and streams through the runoff created in conventional fabric dyeing practices.
Solutions: Organic, Fair Trade Cotton and Eco-friendly Clothing Dye
Organic cotton farming uses natural predators, intercropping, special machinery and controlled fires as alternatives to synthetic chemicals for killing weeds and pests.[v] Natural fertilizers—like compost and animal manure—recycle nitrogen found in the soil, which reduces harmful emissions, rather than adding more nitrogen.[vi]
Organic cotton is also 80% rain fed, requiring little to no irrigation.[vii] Unfortunately, erratic weather patterns have recently led to the loss of entire crops of cotton, forcing farmers to diversify their crops and adapt to the changing climate in other ways.
Besides organic farming, another positive solution is natural dyeing. Several fair trade clothing companies are using natural dyes and traditional printing techniques that preserve the environment and cultural traditions. Some have even started zero-waste clothing lines. Our apparel partner, Maggie’s Organics, decided to get creative with scraps generated from its clothing production by turning them in to placemats woven by students with intellectual disabilities.
I am encouraged by the new and emerging models designed to reduce the footprint of clothing manufacturing. But I also know that it starts with my own closet. It’s about reducing my consumption, supporting companies that invest in protecting the environment, talking with my friends and family, and aligning my habits with my Catholic values.