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Monthly Archives: November 2011

Water footprint: how the fashion industry and your shopping impact the Planet

The following article was originally posted at Elena_SC’s Blog:

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Today is Blog Action Day, and I decided to be part of this great event.

When I found out this year’s topic – water – and I read the list of suggested post ideas, I didn’t hesitate one second: I was going to write about water’s footprint in fashion.

The reason is simple: I am a fashionista, and I love to shop. However for this my first Blog Action Day I really wanted to learn something important and share it with people who have my same passion. Understanding and being aware of the consequences of our actions should really be our priority.

Many people probably don’t know that the fashion industry is facing today a very big challenge related to water usage. The reason is simple: the textile industry is the third largest consumer of water in the world – behind at paper and oil industries – as well as polluter, making the business of fashion and clothing – from production, to consumption, care and disposal – among the world’s most environmentally damaging.

I found out that today about 8,000 synthetic chemicals are used throughout the world to turn raw materials into textiles. Ninety per cent of our clothes are imported, and it’s not just the children labouring in sweatshop conditions we may not see – it’s the 2 million tons of waste, 3.1 million tons of CO2 and 70 million tons of waste water that the industry produces in a single year.

Water consumption is a huge problem for growing fibres: the ever-thirsty Cotton plant takes around 1,800 gallons of water to grow enough to produce just one pair of regular blue jeans, and a whopping 400 gallons of water to grow the Cotton required for an ordinary shirt.

All this info broke forever my ignorance that made me think of Cotton is probably one of the most natural material for clothes – when I say natural I mean environmentally friendly.
I was wrong.

Therefore I found out how Cotton is bad for the environment, not just for the vast amounts of water needed (over 30,000 L to create 1 kg of Cotton), but also because it uses huge amounts of chemicals – pesticides and fertilisers – only marginally reduced by making the Cotton organic.

Looks like too often the focus is on the fabric, so if people buy a T-shirt made of organic Cotton they believe they’ve saved the world, but if it’s dyed in the same way as a normal T-shirt, it can actually be just as bad as using non-organic Cotton.

The dye process itself is also highly wasteful: in the worst instance up to 600 L of water can be required to dye 1 kg of fabric. Also, the more water that is used, the more harmful chemicals that are released, and the more energy is required to heat the dye.

Surprisingly I found out that a Polyester T-shirt, which uses a small amount of oil to produce the fabric, has less of an environmental impact, and Lyocell is the most sustainable fabric. It’s made from eucalyptus plantations, which produce more fibre per acre than, say, Cotton. There are no pesticides and processing and dyeing Lyocell is relatively clean. Even Bamboo has a questionable manufacturing process, because it’s hard to refine into fiber unless a manufacturer uses toxic chemicals like sodium hydroxide, which can cause chemical burns or blindness, to break down bamboo’s cells into something pliable called viscose.

Waste water is conceivably an even bigger issue than consumption. Toxic chemicals produced from dyeing textiles, along with other chemicals such as those used to produce synthetics, are contributing to a major crisis in pollution of fresh water, affecting the health of a number of species, including humans. Heavy metals such as chromium and cadmium, which are used to make bright and vibrant dyes, pose a threat wherever they appear in a product life cycle, particularly the use of the dye in dye wastewater.

But so much attention has been given to the energy, chemicals and water that go into making a garment that what many people don’t realize is the majority of the environmental damage comes once a garment has been purchased.

Talking about water’s footprint connected to our wardrobe, you’d be surprised at how much impact your personal or family clothing preferences have on the environment.

There are two aspects of this problem: shopping and household care.

– Shopping:
On Environmental Health Perspectives Luz Claudio 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.

“Fast fashion provides the marketplace with affordable apparel aimed mostly at young women. Fueling the demand are fashion magazines that help create the desire for new “must-haves” for each season. Yet fast fashion leaves a pollution footprint, with each step of the clothing life cycle generating potential environmental and occupational hazards”

“Much of the cotton produced in the United States is exported to China and other countries with low labor costs, where the material is milled, woven into fabrics, cut, and assembled according to the fashion industry’s specifications. China has emerged as the largest exporter of fast fashion, accounting for 30% of world apparel exports, according to the UN Commodity Trade Statistics database. In her 2005 book The Travels of a T-Shirt in the Global Economy, Pietra Rivoli, a professor of international business at the McDonough School of Business of Georgetown University, writes that each year Americans purchase approximately 1 billion garments made in China, the equivalent of four pieces of clothing for every U.S. citizen”

Once bought, an estimated 21% of annual clothing purchases stay in the home, increasing the stocks of clothing and other textiles held by consumers.

Another area where the national wardrobe is setting off alarm bells, is the fact that the vast majority of our cast-offs don’t get a second lease on life and are just chucked in the bin. More than one million tons ending up buried in landfill every year, so then clothing and other textiles represent about 4% of the solid waste. This is why, even if you currently buy 50 cotton T-shirts a year, at $5 each, and throw them all away, moving to buy 10 high-quality and higher-priced T-shirts will make a huge environmental impact.

The other problem with cheap clothes is their simply not economical to maintain. Less than two per cent of our clothing budget goes on things that will extend the life of a garment – such as repair and mending (read more)

How you can make the difference:

* Make do and mend. Prolong the lifespan of a garment by finding a local tailor or buying a sewing kit to fix rips and lost buttons. Dry cleaners often offer low-cost repairs

* Never chuck clothes in the bin. Gift them to charity, pass them on or turn them into cleaning rags

* See new clothes as an investment. Pay more for higher quality clothes that will last season after season

– Household care:
But the real issue could be that our household care and cleaning of our clothes can be the bigger culprit of polluting water. The energy and water required to wash a garment has far more devastating effects than the growing of the raw materials and the manufacturing of the textiles. Surprising? Not really when you consider that the average piece of clothing lasts three years, and is laundered hundreds of times in its lifetime.
Think about it: how many clothing washes do I do a week? At what temperature? How many times do I tumble dry a week? And what about ironing?
An average North American household washes 400 loads of laundry per year. This accumulated number of washes requires 13,500 gallons of water to complete, and is equivalent to how much water it takes to fill a standard above-ground pool!

The first steps towards recovering from our water addiction begin with wearing our clothes several times before washing. But once we get to a full laundry basket that is truly in need of a wash, there are a few basic tips to help you get started on eco-friendly and budget-smart laundering habits.

How you can make the difference:

* Wash your clothes in cold water. A very interesting fact I found out is that using only hot water for washing your clothes uses more electricity in a year than leaving the refrigerator door open 24 hours a day for an entire year. Cold water is the best alternative, as it not only reduces fabric shrinkage, but it allows colors to remain vibrant. So your clothes will fit and last longer and you’ll reduce your carbon emissions by 500 pounds a year! Not bad!

* Wash full loads. Washing machines are most efficient when operating at capacity. Take advantage of your washing machine’s full potential and load it up. Your wallet – and the Planet – will thank you for it.

* Use the right amount and type of detergent. When doing a load of laundry do you use the cap size as an indicator of the amount of detergent you should use? If so, odds are you are using way too much laundry detergent than what is actually needed. The amount you use should reflect the guiding lines on the inside of the cap. Another helpful hint is to look for phosphate-free detergents. Phosphates are the leading chemical agent in algal blooms and a major cause of aquatic ecosystem depletion. Also, instead of fabric softeners, try using white vinegar in the rinse cycle. The acid vinegar will neutralize the basic detergents and as a result will help keep your clothes looking clean.

* Consider an Energy-Star rated washer. If you’re in the market to replace your washing machine, consider a more cost-effective one. An Energy-Star or front-loading washing machine can save thousands of litres of water a year and be 30 – 85% more energy-efficient.

This journey through water footprint has been a great experience, and I thank Blog Action Day to give me the opportunity to open my mind and share with you what I have learned.

In conclusion –> we should view sustainable or organic fashion in the same context as organic food and local produces, and change our habit of household care of our wardrobe in the same way we take decisions about out nutrition and lifestyle.

Please share this post with your social network. Let them know about this important issue.