By Mary Mazzoni
In 2013, shoppers were reacquainted with the tragic story of their clothing when a massive factory collapse claimed the lives of more than 1,100 Bangladeshi garment workers.
The nonprofit Fashion Revolution, formed in response to that disaster, continues to track the apparel industry's progress on environmental stewardship and human rights. But four years later, big brands are still not doing enough to disclose their efforts to customers, the organization concluded in a recent report.
Consumers Against Toxic Apparel (CATA) increases awareness and educates consumers about the dangers of toxic apparel, connects the organic apparel community by partnering with organic companies nationwide and creates a resource that allows consumers to save money on their purchases. It’s the first campaign in the U.S. designed to bring attention to the growing concerns surrounding the non-regulated practices in the textile industry involving the saturated use of toxic chemicals in clothes.
How toxic are your clothes? Photo courtesy of Shutterstock
Instead of focusing on the big dirty textile industry and asking them to change the way they produce clothes, CATA is creating a community of small companies’ already producing clean, safe, organic and natural apparel. The key goal is to make it easy for conscious consumers to source and buy organic clothes—and also to show consumers who believe organic clothing is ugly, boring and unfashionable just how pretty, colorful and stylish the selections are today.
Most consumers have no idea what the phrase "organic apparel" really means. Organic apparel is fiber grown without the use of pesticides, herbicides and synthetic fertilizers. Organic fibers include cotton, linen, hemp and wool. In order for these natural fibers to be classified as organic they must go through rigorous third party certification. There are other natural fibers, such as nettle, soy, vegan silk, peace and wild harvested silk, that are not organically classified but make excellent sustainable choices for clothes provided they are dyed using natural or low impact dyes.
Why is the way we produce clothes such a big deal?
It has become a big deal because of the health implications associated with toxic apparel, the environmental impact, as well as the sustainability factor. How much longer can we produce things that are harmful to humans, animals and our environment that will never go away? The rhetorical question is Why would we? when nature has provided in abundance everything we need to dress well. The life cycle of textiles affects everyone and everything on Earth from start to finish and beyond disposal. It all begins with the fiber/fabric type.
Natural fibers are much better for us simply because they feel good against our skin and natural—like an extension of who we are, courtesy of Mother Nature. Synthetic fabrics are restrictive and binding. They affect proper muscle movement and hold sweat against our skin. They’re created in a laboratory using hazardous and dangerous chemicals. The fiber is man-made and feels quite unnatural. Its creation is derived by combining thousands of chemicals together in a controlled laboratory process all while producing carcinogenic hazardous waste, contaminated water, air pollution and even climate change. Synthetic fibers include polyester, rayon, acrylic, nylon, acetate, ploynosic, vinyl and microfibers. Through clever marketing, other fabric types such as modal, viscose, tencel and loycell have been introduced by the industry as natural fibers and compared to the real ones.
The fashion and textile industry has made it more difficult for most consumers to know the truth. It is true; the raw material used to create these fabrics is natural. The fabrics are created from beech trees. Beech trees are wood, but that’s where the natural aspect ends. The process used to create the fiber is the same process used to create rayon. It involves the use of caustic soda, ammonia, carbon disulphide, acetone and sulphuric acid. The energy used to produce the fiber is exhaustive and the overall waste affects the environment causing everything from mutation to reproductive and developmental problems in wildlife. Currently, bamboo fiber is considered to be the answer to eco-fashion and sustainability. It is a rapidly growing natural grass. However, the process to produce bamboo is also the same as rayon. Bamboo can be produced by using less toxic means and there are a handful of companies doing so, but not enough to impact the industry to-date. Many in the industry are hopeful this will soon change and bamboo will become a major player in the clean apparel market. Bamboo provides many positive benefits to soil and air. It is well worth our efforts to produce it more responsibly.
What does it all mean?
Synthetic fabrics prohibit our bodies from naturally breathing and sweating. When we sweat, toxins are removed through our skin, the largest organ. This natural process enables us to maintain a healthy immune system and fight disease. Man-made fibers are produced from petrochemicals such as petroleum, coal, dihydric alcohol, terepthalic acid, natural gas and agricultural by-products (things not intended by nature to be against our skin). Research has linked synthetic fabrics to chronic illness and disease. These fabrics and the finishes on them are attributed to cancer, neurological brain disorder, infertility, leukemia, Parkinson’s disease, severe skin ulcerations, contact dermatitis and much more.
The overlooked environmental cost of disposable toxic fashion
2010 figures from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency reported that Americans discarded 13.1 million tons of textiles. Only 15 percent was reclaimed by recycling, while 11.1 million tons was dumped in landfills across the country. There are approximately 3,581 active landfills in the U.S. and 10,000 inactive. Textile waste occupies 126 cubic yards of space each year. These textiles are rapidly increasing the amount of methane gas—a harmful greenhouse gas affecting climate change. In addition 17-20 percent of industrial freshwater waste pollution is caused from dying.
Estimates find that 10-15 percent of total dyestuff is released into the environment each year. That’s equivalent to 280,000 tons of hazardous, toxic waste. Today, 43 percent of conventional cotton is GMO (genetically modified organism) requiring more and stronger chemicals to grow, further depleting the quality of soil. Soil quality and carbon play a vital role in global warming. In China, more than 20 percent of the groundwater and 40 percent of the surfacewater is contaminated from textile manufacturing. How much more can the planet take before our natural resources are depleted or rendered useless for living a quality life?
CATA is designed to initiate real-time change by connecting consumers with companies currently producing organic apparel. Currently, CATA has brought together 15 organic apparel companies creating a core resource for consumers, offering everything from underwear to kids’ clothes and full wardrobing. The roster of companies include SOS from Texas, Foxfibre, Vreises Limited, Vital Hemp, Sassis Organic Clothing, Indigenous Fair Trade Organic Fashion, Fed by Threads, Synergy Organic Clothing, Silver Needle & Thread, Xylem Organic Clothing, Fiercely Green, Earth Creations, Imagine GreenWear, bgreen Apparel and Tag Custom Bridal. The CATA Community of Partners is committed to doing business with conscience before profits, eventually creating a paradigm shift in the way we produce clothes. It’s time to put your money where your heart is.
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For the first time ever, clothing brands, retailers, consumers, municipalities, charitable organizations, academics and recyclers are joining forces to promote the recycling of clothing and textiles. The Council for Textile Recycling (CTR) recently released its new website aimed at educating the public on the importance of recycling all clothing and textiles, not just those that are “gently worn.”
The council’s new website mirrors the organization’s slogan—Wear. Donate. Recycle. “Our goal is to have zero post-consumer textile waste going into landfills by 2037,” says Eric Stubin, CTR chairman of the board. “In the United States the average person discards 70 pounds of their old clothing, shoes and household textiles in their local landfill each year. We’re educating people that clothing and textiles are among the most recyclable items in their home.”
In the U.S., the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency estimates more than 25 billion pounds of clothing and textiles including clothing, linens, belts and shoes are generated annually. The agency also reports more than 21 billion pounds (70 lbs. per person) of post-consumer textile waste ends up in landfills every year with only 15 percent of all post-consumer textiles enter the recycling stream.
“For the first time ever, all segments of the clothing industry including consumers, manufacturers, charities, retailers and recyclers have been brought together,” says Stubin. “I am active in many organizations that promote sustainable clothing manufacturing and green initiatives in the apparel industry and it’s exciting to finally have an organization representing all of the stakeholders as we strive to bring wide scale awareness to a very solvable problem. If consumers, municipalities and the apparel industry implement, promote and market, “Wear. Donate. Recycle,” we will significantly divert more post consumer textile waste in the years to come.”
Studies conducted at both the federal and state level show clothing and textiles make up more than 5 percent of all materials going into local landfills. “Consumers don’t realize 95 percent of all clothing and textiles is recyclable,” says Jackie King, executive director of the Secondary Materials and Recycled Textiles Association and member of the Board of Directors of the Council for Textile Recycling. “As long as items are clean and dry, even those that are stained or torn, they can be processed by textile recyclers extending the end-of-life of the material.”
Consumers are encouraged to visit the council’s new website to learn more and to join the organization. The Council for Textile Recycling will be compiling a resource library for consumers, municipalities, apparel and footwear brands and retailers interested in developing clothing and footwear recycling programs. A database of end-users including charities and private sector recyclers from all aspects of the industry will also be available to members of the Council for Textile Recycling.
For more information, click here.
The Council for Textile Recycling is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, tax exempt organization incorporated in the State of Maryland. The CTR is not involved in the collection of textile waste in any form and is entirely devoted to creating more awareness about keeping post-consumer textile waste out of our solid waste stream.