Environmental Effects of the Clothing Industry
It was a beautiful springtime day in Vermont and a great day to take a hike so I called my friend Larry to see if he wanted to hike a trail along Gleason Brook near Camels Hump. When we arrived we found the trail closed due to the spring time mud and decided to hike a trail along the side of the Winooski River. Water was flowing everywhere and hopping across little streamlets was a major part of our hike. The air was chilly and as we walked along one layer of clothing after another was peeled off like layers of an onion. The layering of clothing is what we depend on to regulate our temperature in cooler climates such as Vermont and most of the outside activities I do require this ritual of putting on layers and then taking them off. At this time of year it is so easy to lose pieces of clothing and as a teacher for many years I have observed piles of children’s clothing left behind on the warm days of spring.
The Industrial Age brought many advances in our lives; one of which is that clothing has become relatively inexpensive. In bygone years people had to work many hours to purchase clothing and textiles and now clothing is used for a very short time and then passed down the line to thrift stores or shipped to poorer countries in huge amounts. According to Eco Watch (Aug. 17, 2005) the clothing industry is the second most polluting industry in the world second only to the oil industry. It is the whole life of cloth that starts with growing cotton to throwing it away in a landfill (throughput) that must be considered. Growing cotton is responsible for one quarter of all the pesticides used in the United States and we are the largest exporter of cotton in the world, with China being a major destination. It is cheaper to use Chinese labor to manufacture the cotton into clothing and then have it sent back for us to buy thereby increasing our trade deficit. According to the EPA of Solid Waste, Americans throw away more than 68 pounds of clothing and textiles per year per person. (“Waste Culture: Environmental Impact of Clothing Industry”, Environmental Health Perspectives, September 2007).On an average one kilogram of fabric generates 23 kilograms of Green House Gases and since clothing is made of not only cotton, but with other fibers such polyester, it can be difficult to recycle making a large portion of clothing destined for the landfill. (“The Environmental Cost of Creating Clothes”, Economist, April 11, 2017 by M.S.L.J.).
When Mary and I traveled through Arizona we had the opportunity to observe the cotton fields as we bicycled along. We saw tufts of cotton that littered the side of the road as trucks filled with bales of cotton moved to the factories to be processed, including weaving and dyeing, or to be shipped to other countries. The fields looked depleted and as we learned from our hosts we stayed with, there is no crop rotation. To keep production up there needs to be massive amounts of fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides to feed the exhausted soil.
Depleted soil is the trademark of the cotton industry
When soil is depleted it can lead to desertification. The United Nation Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD) defines desertification as, “land degradation in the arid, semi-arid and dry sub-human areas resulting from various factors including climatic variations and human activities”. (World Meteorological Organization (WMO), #989, 2005). According to the UNCCD land the size of Rhode Island turns to desert each year and one third of the Earth’s surface is at risk. In China 36,000 square miles has turned to desert, however, this article was written in 2004 and over 1,000 square miles per year turn to desert in China. (USA Today, June 15, 2004). Turning desert back into arable land will take a great amount of resources of future generations.
Haboob, a naturally occurring phenomenon, is a type of intense dust storm which is carried by atmospheric currents along a weather front. The high winds blow loose dry silt and clay from the desert forming dust clouds moving across the landscape. In 2015 Phoenix had such a storm and Interstate 10 had to be closed down because of visibility. Through our Arizona hosts we found out that traffic was detoured through their town recently because Route 10 was again closed because of visibility. Naturally occurring haboobs are part of Earth’s balanced life cycle, however, too much of a good thing can bring many consequences. As soil is depleted dust storms will increase and these consequences will mount such as absorption and reflection of solar radiation depending on the situation, the particles can act as cloud condensation nuclei (CCN) which modify cloud behavior and can have a significant fertilization effect on oceans. The dust also is connected to health issues such as silicosis which may lead to lung cancer, damage to the immune system, conjunctivitis and can carry along allergens and pathogens. (“Haboobs: convectively generated dust storms in West Africa”, School of Earth and Environment, University of Leeds, Alex Roberts and Peter Knippertz; Weather, December, 2012, Vol 67 # 12).
Later in the day, as Larry and I hiked back down the trail, the layers of clothing were put back on one by one. Some of the shirts have been with me for years and are like old friends. I tend to pass them down the line, first as going out in public clothes, and then they become work clothes, and finally, rags. Each phase is useful, even as rags they become the original quicker picker upper. Rags can be washed and used over and over again and one can often recall old memories while using them. By using rags paper towels are eliminated saving trees that future generations can enjoy and since rags can be reused we are left with more than we can use and the oversupply can be recycled, or what we do is to give them to a local mechanic who needs them desperately. Can we change the perception of the clothes we wear and see the beauty in older garments? People with low income, who may have no other choice but to wear older used clothing, will not feel singled out and we as a culture can meet one on one. The future generations needs us to do this.
When reading these articles it is good to consider environmental concepts such a throughput, Law of Diminishing Returns, variations of Jevon’s Paradox and Netherlands Fallacy, and Exponential Growth.