Dear EarthTalk

Can you enlighten on the environmental impact of the fashion industry? As I understand it, the industry overall is no friend to the environment.

Tan Cheng Li

Malaysia

According to the non-profit Earth Pledge, today some 8,000 synthetic chemicals are used throughout the world to turn raw materials into textiles. Domestically, the U.S. Department of Agriculture reports that one-quarter of all pesticides used nationwide go toward growing cotton, primarily for the clothing industry. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency considers many domestic textile manufacturing facilities to be hazardous waste generators; and lax standards and enforcement in developing countries, where the majority of textiles are produced, means that untold amounts of pollution are likely being deposited into local soils and waterways in regions that can hardly stand further environmental insult.

Luz Claudio, writing in Environmental Health Perspectives, considers the way Americans and Europeans shop for clothes as “waste couture”: Fashion is low-quality and sold at “prices that make the purchase tempting and the disposal painless.” Yet this sort of so-called “fast fashion” leaves a pollution footprint, with each step of the clothing life cycle generating potential environmental and occupational hazards.

According to Technical Textile Markets, a quarterly trade publication, demand for man-made fibers such as petroleum-derived polyester has nearly doubled in the last 15 years.

“The manufacture of polyester and other synthetic fabrics is an energy-intensive process requiring large amounts of crude oil,” reports Claudio. In addition, she says, the processes emit volatile organic compounds and solvents, particulate matter, acid gases such as hydrogen chloride, and other production by-products into the air and water.

“Issues of environmental health and safety do not apply only to the production of man-made fabrics,” says Claudio, citing subsidies to the pesticide-laden cotton industry that keep prices low and production high.

In an effort to green up the industry, Earth Pledge launched its FutureFashion initiative in 2005 to promote the use of renewable, reusable and non-polluting materials and production methods. Besides putting on its own FutureFashion showcases, the group organized the January 2008 New York Fashion Week, encouraging designers to create and showcase greener clothing on their runway models. Green-leaning designers can also pick through Earth Pledge’s library of 600 sustainably produced textiles, including organic cotton as well as exotic materials such as sasawashi, pina, bamboo, milk protein, and sea leather.

Another effort underway to speed the fashion industry into a carbon-constrained future is the Ethical Fashion Forum, which provides a variety of tools and resources and runs training sessions and networking events to help facilitate moving the industry towards more sustainable practices.

One stumbling block to the greening of fashion is that only a small number of consumers — some analysts say less than one percent — will pay more for a greener shirt. But if the industry itself can improve its footprint from the inside and drive the costs of more eco-friendly materials and processes down, the benefits will trickle down to consumers, whether they are bargain-conscious or fashion-conscious.

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