“The clothing industry is the second largest polluter in the world ... second only to oil,” the recipient of an environmental award told a stunned Manhattan audience earlier this year. “It’s a really nasty business ... it’s a mess.”

Since 2011, the Greenpeace Detox campaign has challenged some of the world's most popular clothing brands to eliminate all releases of hazardous chemicals. Photo credit: Jonas Gratzer / Greenpeace

While you’d never hear an oil tycoon malign his bonanza in such a way, the woman who stood at the podium, Eileen Fisher, is a clothing industry magnate.

On a warm spring night at a Chelsea Piers ballroom on the Hudson River, Fisher was honored by Riverkeeper for her commitment to environmental causes. She was self-deprecating and even apologetic when speaking about the ecological impact of clothing, including garments tagged with her own name. Fisher’s critique may have seemed hyperbolic, but she was spot-on.

When we think of pollution, we envision coal power plants, strip-mined mountaintops and raw sewage piped into our waterways. We don’t often think of the shirts on our backs. But the overall impact the apparel industry has on our planet is quite grim.

Fashion is a complicated business involving long and varied supply chains of production, raw material, textile manufacture, clothing construction, shipping, retail, use and ultimately disposal of the garment. While Fisher’s assessment that fashion is the second largest polluter is likely impossible to know, what is certain is that the fashion carbon footprint is tremendous. Determining that footprint is an overwhelming challenge due to the immense variety from one garment to the next. A general assessment must take into account not only obvious pollutants—the pesticides used in cotton farming, the toxic dyes used in manufacturing and the great amount of waste discarded clothing creates—but also the extravagant amount of natural resources used in extraction, farming, harvesting, processing, manufacturing and shipping.

While cotton, especially organic cotton, might seem like a smart choice, it can still take more than 5,000 gallons of water to manufacture just a T-shirt and a pair of jeans. Synthetic, man-made fibers, while not as water-intensive, often have issues with manufacturing pollution and sustainability. And across all textiles, the manufacturing and dyeing of fabrics is chemically intensive.

Globalization means that your shirt likely traveled halfway around the world in a container ship fueled by the dirtiest of fossil fuels. A current trend in fashion retail is creating an extreme demand for quick and cheap clothes and it is a huge problem. Your clothes continue to impact the environment after purchase; washing and final disposal when you’re finished with your shirt may cause more harm to the planet than you realize.

Fisher is right, the fashion industry is truly a mess.

A Thirsty, Needy Plant

Cotton is the world’s most commonly used natural fiber and is in nearly 40 percent of our clothing. It has a clean, wholesome image long cultivated by the garment industry. But the truth is that it is a thirsty little plant that drinks up more of its fair share of water. It is also one of the most chemically dependent crops in the world. While only 2.4 percent of the world's cropland is planted with cotton, it consumes 10 percent of all agricultural chemicals and 25 percent of insecticides. Some genetically modified varieties, which are resistant to some insects and tolerant of some herbicides, now make up more than 20 percent of the world's cotton crop. Cotton is indeed grown all over the world with China being the largest cotton grower followed by India, the U.S., Pakistan and Brazil.

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Uzbekistan, the world’s sixth leading producer of cotton, is a prime example of how cotton can severely impact a region’s environment. In the 1950s, two rivers in Central Asia, the Amu Darya and and the Syr Darya, were diverted from the Aral sea to provide irrigation for cotton production in Uzbekistan and nearby Turkmenistan. Today, water levels in the Aral are less than 10 percent of what they were 50 years ago. As the Aral dried up, fisheries and the communities that relied on them failed. Over time, the sea became over-salinated and laden with fertilizer and pesticides from the nearby fields. Dust from the dry, exposed lakebed, containing these chemicals and salt saturated the air, creating a public health crisis and settling onto farm fields, contaminating the soil. The Aral is rapidly becoming a dry sea and the loss of the moderating influence that such a large body of water has on the weather has made the region’s winters much colder and summers hotter and drier.

While Uzbekistan is an extreme example of how cotton farming can wreak havoc on the environment, the impact of cotton agriculture is felt in other regions, including Pakistan’s Indus River, Australia’s Murray-Darling Basin and the Rio Grande in the U.S. and Mexico.

Organic cotton is a much more sustainable alternative, but today it is only about one percent of all the cotton grown worldwide and quite expensive to grow compared to conventional cotton. It is not without its downsides, however. Organic cotton still needs large amounts of water and the clothing made from it may still be dyed with chemicals and shipped globally, meaning that there’s still a big carbon footprint with cotton garments carrying the “organic” tag.

Clothes to Dye For?

Dyes are creating a chemical Fukushima in Indonesia. The Citarum River is considered one of the most polluted rivers in the world due in great part to the hundreds of textile factories lining its shores. According to Greenpeace, with 68 percent of the industrial facilities on the Upper Citarum producing textiles, the adverse health effects to the 5 million people living in the river basin and wildlife are alarming.

Little care was paid to Indonesia’s water infrastructure when its textile boom began; proper framework for waste disposal was largely neglected. Clothing manufacturers dumped their chemicals into the river, making the Citarum nothing more than a open sewer containing with lead, mercury, arsenic and a host of other toxins. Greenpeace tested the discharge from one of these textile plants along the Citarum and found disturbing amounts of nonylphenol, an endocrine disruptor, which can be deadly to aquatic life. Greenpeace also found the water to be high in alkalinity—equivalent to that of lye-based drain openers—and had apparently not even received the most basic of treatment. Greenpeace described the discharge as “highly caustic, will burn human skin coming into direct contact with the stream and will have a severe impact (most likely fatal) on aquatic life in the immediate vicinity of the discharge area.”

The menace caused by nonylphenol doesn’t end at the Citarum River. The chemical remains in our clothes after they are produced and only comes out after a few washes. For this reason, the European Union (EU) member states have banned imports of clothing and textiles containing nonylphenol ethoxylates (it banned nonylphenol for its own textile manufacturing more than a decade ago.) While not banned in the U.S., the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has identified eight safer alternatives to nonylphenol ethoxylates.

Altogether, more than a half trillion gallons of fresh water are used in the dyeing of textiles each year. The dye wastewater is discharged, often untreated, into nearby rivers, where it reaches the sea, eventually spreading around the globe. China, according to Yale Environment 360, discharges roughly 40 percent of these chemicals.

New technologies, such as waterless dye technologies have been developed, but have not yet been deployed at most manufacturing sites. The textile industry, which has been using copious amounts of water to dye garments for hundreds of years, may be reluctant to embrace this change. After all, this new technology is expensive to install and only works on certain fabrics.

Well-Traveled Attire

While a majority of the world’s apparel conglomerates are U.S. based, more than 60 percent of world clothing is manufactured in developing countries. Asia is the major clothing exporter today, producing more than 32 percent of the world's supply. China is the leading world producer and supplier of clothing, providing nearly 13 percent of the world’s exports.

But as production and labor costs rise in China, clothing companies are moving to countries where manufacturing is cheaper; places like Bangladesh, Vietnam, Pakistan and the Philippines. These countries might not have the raw materials needed, so they’re often shipped there from countries like China, the U.S. and India. Once manufactured, the garments are put in shipping containers and sent by rail, container ships and eventually rail and trucks to the retailer. There’s no way to gauge how much fuel is used to ship clothes worldwide, but 22 billion new clothing items are bought by Americans per year, with only 2 percent of those clothes being domestically manufactured. In total, some 90 percent of garments are transported by container ship each year.

While we don’t know what percentage of cargo garments comprise on the world’s 9,000 container ships, we do know that a single ship can produce as much cancer and asthma-causing pollutants as 50 million cars in just one year. The low-grade bunker fuel burned by ships is 1,000 times dirtier than highway diesel used in the trucking industry. These ships do not consume fuel by the gallon, but by tons per hour. Pollution by the shipping industry, which has boomed over the past 20 years, is beginning to affect the health of those living in coastal and inland regions around the world, yet the emissions of such ships goes mostly unregulated.

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Disposable Dress

In the first world, shopping has become a way of life, a weekly pastime and for many an addiction. Shopping malls, glossy fashion magazines, catalogs and Internet ads bombard us with entertaining opportunities to spend money. Feeding this rampant consumerism is the “fast fashion” trend, in which clothing is designed to be moved as quickly as possible from catwalk to store. Only about 10 years old, fast fashion is leading the way in actual disposable clothing and it is particularly worrisome because it creates demand for and then constantly churns out massive amounts of cheap clothes, ultimately accelerating carbon emissions and global warming.

At $108 for a white organic cotton tank top, Eileen Fisher is a high-end retailer, out of reach for most consumers. The vast majority of us shop at the giant fashion retailers, which have the biggest carbon footprint—and many of them specialize in fast fashion. Swedish giant H&M is the current largest clothing retailer in the world at $20.2 billion in sales (as of January 2015) followed by Zara, another fast fashion specialist.

The fashion industry by design is constantly changing with the seasons, but fast fashion can change weekly, summed up by a sign in H&M, “New stuff is coming in each and every day. So why not do the same.” It's not uncommon for shoppers to wear an item once or twice before throwing it away for next week’s style, aided by the poor quality of many of the clothes causing them to fall apart after several washes.

Fashion is all about image, so many retailers have recently made efforts to cultivate a greener image. H&M has a sustainability effort called H&M Conscious: a “promise to bring you more fashion choices that are good for people, the planet and your wallet.” But what of its claims of sustainability? There is some question as to whether this is real greening or just greenwashing.

As stated In its 2014 sustainability report H&M's CEO Karl-Johan Persson said, "In order to remain a successful business, we need to keep growing and at the same time respect the planetary boundaries." The intense consumerism and rate of production needed to grow these fast fashion retailers does not reflect the fact that energy is increasingly expensive and resources are limited. Globalization and the never-ending search for the lowest labor rates that made those jeans possible has limits as well.

Crude Duds

Made from petrochemicals, polyester and nylon are not biodegradable, so they are unsustainable by their very nature. While the manufacturing of both uses great amounts of energy, nylon also emits a large amount of nitrous oxide, a greenhouse gas, during manufacturing. The impact of one pound of nitrous oxide on global warming is almost 300 times that of the same amount of carbon dioxide, the most ubiquitous greenhouse gas.

It’s estimated that it takes about 70 million barrels of oil just to produce the virgin polyester used in fabrics each year. But recycled polyester made from discarded plastic polymer products is now being considered as a greener option, as it takes less than half the energy to produce and helps keep plastic products, like drinking bottles, out of landfills. But there are downsides to recycled polyester. Used plastic bottles must still be cleaned and the labels mechanically removed before made into polyester fabric. The process is mostly done by hand and that means these plastic bottles are shipped to countries with low labor rates, using dirty fossil fuels to send them there.

Much of what is touted as recycled polyester is actually greenwashed products. The U.S. still has a very low rate of plastic recycling, only 6 percent. So clothing manufacturers, eager to tout their “recycled” clothes, can’t get enough old soda bottles. Because the demand is so much higher than the supply, some cynical suppliers are buying unused bottles directly from their manufacturers to make polyester clothing which they can label recycled.

Even when they're being laundered by you, your polyester clothes are harming our waterways. Ecologist Michael Browne examined sediment along the world's shorelines and noticed fibers everywhere. The threads he found were tiny, synthetic and ubiquitous near sewage outflows. Eighty-five percent of the microfibers found along the shoreline were human-made material and “matched the types of material, such as nylon and acrylic, used in clothing.”

Going down the drain from our domestic washing machines Browne estimates that around 1,900 individual fibers can be washed off a single garment and find their way into the oceans and on shores everywhere. These fibers are another pathway for the chemicals in the fabric to get into the environment.

A Thread of Hope

Some top clothing designers, such as Fisher, Stella McCartney and Ralph Lauren are on the leading edge toward reforming the fashion industry. Eileen Fisher’s eponymous company is already using 84 percent organic cotton, 68 percent organic linen and is reducing water use and carbon emissions and working to make its supply chain sustainable by 2020.

But as Fisher said in her speech at the Riverkeeper Ball, hers is just one company. And while part of Eileen Fisher’s mission is to share its insight with other clothing manufacturers, one company’s overall impact is still rather small. But Fisher said: “Because [the fashion industry is] the second largest polluter in the world I also think we can be a huge force for change. I have hope. I know it’s possible to make clean clothes, to do it a better way.”

But real change in the clothing industry will only come if the big, affordable brands find a way to make and sell sustainable clothing. Until then, consumers can help by changing where they shop and what they buy.

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