Remember the 3R's

A single pound of raw cotton requires 100 gallons of water to produce, and the polymers that make up synthetic fibers use 70 billion gallons of oil per year. After the textiles are converted into clothing, 12.8 million tons of textile waste is generated. The production-to-disposal process of textiles needs to link to the environmental impacts as recycling, our current solution, doesn’t go far enough to significantly reduce the impact of clothing production on the environment. Recycling should be the last resort, after first reducing the amount of clothing we buy and reusing what we have. The “dirtiness” of the textile industry is well chronicled, but two striking examples to convince you that recycling doesn’t cut back enough are the effects that production of virgin (new) synthetic fibers and cotton have on the environment.

About double the amount of plastic is used to produce textile fibers which is equivalent to what is used for disposable water bottles. It requires 70 million barrels of oil per year to produce virgin synthetic fibers, which is of course, not a sustainable or renewable resource. This is shocking when I think about how much I abhor disposable water bottles. The dyeing process of synthetic fibers leeches out the carcinogenic catalyst, the disposal of which leads to dangerous levels in water when multiplied by the millions of pounds of fibers produced each year. This can be, but is not always, removed from the water, and still must be disposed of after removal from the water. Over 100 gallons of water is required to produce a single pound of raw cotton or wool, which doesn’t include the dyeing and processing of the cotton. Additionally, the dyeing process introduces many chemicals dangerous to the marine (and human) environment into water systems.

Clothing donations are also not the ideal solution you might like it to be. In an article this fall, The Huffington Post delineated the process our donated clothes go through once we send them to Goodwill.

Americans generated 12.8 million tons of textile waste in 2013, which includes clothes unable to be resold at Goodwill. Even for the clothes that do make it into someone else’s closet, they cannot be worn and re-worn forever. Many of these leftover clothes are sold as textiles for recycling to be further processed with more water and dyeing, and the remaining 5% make up part of the 12.8 million tons of textile waste. Unfortunately, recycling is not yet a closed loop process that eliminates the need for virgin materials.

Neither recycling nor even reusing are going far enough to make the clothing industry greener. The best way to go green as a clothing purchaser is to reduce the demand we as consumers put on the industry and the planetary resources. At home, reduce the amount of water you use and your contribution to water pollution by washing your clothes less. The clothes will wear out less quickly, also enabling you to reduce the rate at which you require new clothing. Try just letting your clothes air out – bacteria require oxygen-free environments to proliferate (and create those nasty smells), so deprive them of that by hanging your clothes after wearing them. When clothes do eventually wear out and break down, take a free sewing class, or connect with your family members (grandma time?) by asking them to teach you how to repair your clothing before eventually donating them.

When you do need to obtain clothing or gifts, second hand stores are a good place to start because you are not supporting the production of new materials. Additionally, brands like Levi Strauss & Co. are already coming up with ways to reduce or eliminate water from the dyeing process. Even more brands have committed to making their manufacturing process free of the most dangerous chemicals that come out of the textile industry. These shifts from major clothing retailers demonstrate that consumer pressure is enough to shift industry practices, so keep up the good work fellow consumers - and continue to demand good.

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