When we think of pollution, we typically think of vehicles and factories coughing out large amounts of black smoke in the air, apart from sewage and factory waste polluting water bodies. What most of us don’t realize is that one of the biggest culprits is hiding in our closets (Pun intended).
Yes, you guessed it right! Our seemingly innocent clothes are the second largest source of pollution in the world and it starts much before you discard your old, torn t-shirt or rugged jeans in the dustbin. Right from the farming process to production, our clothes cause pollution in ways you would have never imagined.
In this week’s edition, we are going to reveal some startling facts on how the synthetic clothes we proudly wear are poisoning our environment and bodies.
How fashion industry has changed over the past few years?
In the past few years, there has been a radical shift in the material used by the fashion industry. Some 50 years ago, our environment was much cleaner and ancestors healthier. You know why? That’s because 50 years ago, natural fibers, like cashmere, wool, cotton, silk and hemp, dominated the scene. Today, however, synthetic and man-made materials have taken the centre stage.
The fashion industry, these days, is overrun with rayon, nylon, acrylic and polyester. The reason behind this shift is the cost effectiveness of these materials. This shift may offer savings in terms of money, but it has been costing a lot in terms of human health and environment. Here’s how:
Synthetic fabrics making our lives simpler but come at a cost!
Photograph: Will Rose/Greenpeace
Microplastic Pollution: You would be surprised to know that the synthetic materials used in our clothes are a big source of plastic pollution. Everytime we wash our synthetic clothes, such as leggings, athletic wear etc., small amounts of plastic fibres (size less than 1mm), known as microplastics are released in water and cause following damage:
- These microplastic fibers, which are nearly impossible to be filtered out ultimately end up in oceans, causing serious harm to the marine life. A study by the researchers at the University of California at Santa Barbara reveal that microplastics can get caught in the digestive tract of an organism, causing it to starve and die later.
- These microplastics also have the potential to become a part of the food chain and accumulate as toxins in the body of higher animals.
Health and environment hazard of synthetic dyes: Wastewater from the fashion industry contains a variety of pollutants, including dyes. Textile dyes, especially, azo-based compounds, pose very serious health and environment risks.
Photo Credit: Huffington Post
- Researchers have found Azo dyes damaging ecosystems when discharged into water systems.
- In 2002, the EU even banned Azo dyes that could break down to one of any of 24 possible cancer-causing products. Azo dyes are even found to be causing genetic mutations (changes in genes).
- Arylamines emitted by azo dyes can be absorbed by the skin and accumulate in the body, causing serious allergies. Arylamines are known to be very toxic to aquatic animals as well.
Chemical cocktail in synthetic materials
The chemicals used in the synthetic clothing materials do lend them superior and desirable qualities, but can you neglect the nasty effects they have on our body and environment? We have been doing so for the past many years without realizing that the damage done is beyond repair.
- Polyester is one of the most toxic materials in the fashion world today. Made from synthetic polymers that come from esters of dihydric alcohol and terpthalic acid, this material can be very harmful for our body. Scientists have found that excessive use of polyester fabrics can cause diseases like-skin irritation, respiratory diseases, and even skin cancer.
- Acrylic fabrics. According to the EPA, these are made of polycrylonitriles, which have cancer causing properties and effects similar to inhaling cyanide. Those exposed to high concentrations of polycrylonitriles may suffer from anemia, leukocytosis, kidney problems and jaundice.
- Rayon is made by treating recycled wood pulp with chemicals like ammonia, caustic soda, acetone and sulphuric acid. The toxic combination of these chemicals can linger on the clothing and cause several health issues, like nausea, headache, vomiting and chest pain, to the wearer. More serious health effects include Parkinson’s, neurological diseases, and even cancer.
- Acetate and Triacetate are made from cellulose, which has to go through chemical processing to produce the end product. These chemicals can cause grave immune system damage and hormone disruption.
- Nylon is made from petroleum, which pollute waterways and also cause harm to our health. Nylon also emits a large amount of nitrous oxide, which is a greenhouse gas.
- Static resistant, permanent press, stain resistant, wrinkle-free, moth repellent materials. Many of these materials are treated with harmful chemicals like- teflon and formaldehyde that have cancer-causing properties apart from being harmful to the environment.
- Antibacterial clothes: Triclosan used in antibacterial clothes act as a hormone disruptor, imitating estrogen, which increases your risk of developing breast cancer.
The Most health and environment friendly materials
Seeking out non-toxic materials can be complicated because even those who claim to grow materials ‘naturally’ use chemicals to some extent. The best way to choose is ‘all organic’.
Organic fashion industry uses all natural materials like organic cotton, hemp, silk, linen, alpaca etc. that are grown using the eco-friendly farming practices. The natural fibres used by the organic fashion industry are obtained from the farms that don’t use chemical fertilizers and pesticides. The fibres are then woven, spun, scoured and finished without chemicals. Even the dyes used by the organic clothing manufacturers are environment friendly. All these qualities make organic clothing not just good for your health but also for the health of the planet you call your ‘home’.
Just before we sign off...
Synthetic materials used in our clothing not just exacerbate the destruction of our environment and our health, but also create economic hardship for poor, despite being abundant and inexpensive.
Photo Credit: lmt-lss.com
We fervently seek justice for the farmers. In reality, we are the ones sponsoring their poverty. Make a difference by shunning synthetic materials and lean towards organic fashion. Act responsible. Keep everyone good in mind.
It is not that you’ll be doing this out of good will. We urge you to remember the bigger consequences of your small, everyday choices. Switch to natural fabric and do your bit towards bringing about the change.