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“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.”

Greenpeace tested the discharge from a textile plant along the Citarum and found disturbing amounts of nonylphenol, an endocrine disruptor, which can be deadly to aquatic life. Photo credit: Jonas Gratzer / Greenpeace
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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