Sartorial-minded greenies can dress head to toe in natural fibers like hemp and bamboo, organic cotton, and other eco-friendly threads without looking like a hippie. Before giving your wardrobe an earth-friendly revamp, get the not-so-good looking facts on everything from those trainers to tennis bracelets.
Jeans are made of denim, a cotton product, and the trademark “blue jean” color is a result of an indigo dye. The environmental impact of jeans is caused chiefly by the conventional growth and production of cotton and synthetic indigo, as well as the dyeing process.
Conventionally grown cotton is a highly water- and pesticide-intensive crop. It takes about 1,800 gallons of water to produce the cotton used in one pair of jeans. To produce 11 pairs of jeans would take about 20,000 gallons, enough water to fill the average swimming pool. This water intensity drains surface and groundwater sources leading to erosion, ecosystem degradation, and species loss. When combined with the intensive use of chemicals, the runoff from jeans production contaminates lakes, rivers, and wetlands.
The detrimental environmental impact of the T-shirt is rooted in the farming of, you guessed it, conventional cotton. In the United States, an estimated one-third pound of agricultural chemicals is used to produce a single cotton T-shirt. Thus, a 100 percent cotton T-shirt actually contains 73 percent cotton—the remaining 27 percent is made up of chemicals and chemical residues. In addition, approximately 400 gallons of water are required to produce a single cotton T-shirt.
Organic cotton farming is not exempt from this reality either. Organic cotton may be chemical-free, but its production still requires significant amounts of irrigated water (though on the plus side, water supplies aren't at risk of being contaminated).
Although the wool used to make sweaters is a completely renewable resource, "grown" in all 50 states, it also poses environmental risks. In 2000, sheep used in wool production were treated with over 14,000 pounds of pesticides to ward off lice, flies, mange, and other pests. The three leading insecticides used on sheep in 2005—fenvalerate, malathion, and permethrin—pose various environmental dangers, including high toxicity to fish and amphibians and groundwater contamination.
Chemical antibiotic feed additives used to boost growth rates in sheep are believed to contaminate surface and groundwater, and in some cases, drinking water supplies in rural areas. This is a result of antibiotics in sheep feces. There are also direct environmental consequences, such as soil erosion, that stem from large-scale livestock operations.
Additionally, enteric fermentation—or livestock belching and flatulence—continues to be a major contributor to global climate change. In New Zealand, for example, 90 percent of the nation’s greenhouse gas (methane, in particular) emissions are a result of enteric fermentation, primarily coming from sheep.
With cotton covered, what else is there when it comes to skivvies? Nylon, a synthetic material used in both men's and women's underwear has been shown to have adverse environmental effects. The United States produces over 2 million tons of nylon annually, a process that requires over 2.2 million metric tons of adipic acid, which in turn requires the oxidation of cyclohexanol or cyclohexanone by nitric acid, a process that produces nitrous oxide (N2O), an ozone-depleting greenhouse gas.
In 2004, 98.4 percent of all shoes purchased in the US were imported from a factory in another country. Imported shoes totaled over 2 million pairs. This means that over 98 percent of shoes have crisscrossed the globe to reach this country via a transport system that uses nonrenewable fossil fuels and generates greenhouse gases.
Over half of the leather tanned around the world is used for shoemaking, and the leather tanning process impacts the environment by releasing toxic substances. In 2001, the top countries for leather production respectively were China, Italy, India, Korea, and the US. China and India accounted for over half of the leather produced and have relaxed or nonexistent environmental regulations, which results in tanneries releasing more of these toxic substances into the environment.
Standard dry cleaning, despite its name, is neither a dry nor "clean” process. In the US, dry cleaners are the largest source of emissions from perchloroethylene (perc), which is used as the liquid solvent in their cleaning method. Perc, which is also known as tetrachloroethylene, has been known to cause short-term side effects, such as headaches, dizziness, and nausea. Prolonged inhalation exposure is linked to chronic kidney, liver, and reproductive damage, and may also increase the risk of cancer.
An individual cleaner only uses about 140 gallons of perc per year, but when this is multiplied by 30,000 businesses, it amounts to approximately 4.2 million gallons of perc being used annually. Perc itself does not deplete the ozone, but when broken down, it may combine with other chemicals and contribute to ozone depletion. All solvents, both industrial (e.g. dry cleaning) and non-industrial (e.g. paint thinners), release greenhouse gases. Dry cleaning solvents comprise approximately 6 percent of hydrocarbons emissions and contribute to carbon monoxide and nitrogen oxide emissions.
The production of just one 18-karat gold ring that weighs less than one ounce can generate 20 tons of harmful mine waste. This waste can contaminate nearby water with mercury and arsenic, which is harmful to human health. Two-thirds of newly mined gold comes from open-pit mines, which require companies to blast an entire site and remove rock and minerals in the area. Smelters used to purify metals like gold, aluminum, nickel, and copper produce 142 million tons of sulfur dioxide to the atmosphere annually, which is 13 percent of global emissions.
Find out how to green your clothing:
- methane: A greenhouse gas released into the atmosphere from both natural and man-made sources, includig landfills, agricultural activities, wastewater treatment, and coal mining. Once introduced into the atmosphere, methane can exist for 9 to 15 years. It’s more effective in trapping heat in the atmosphere (global warming) than fellow greenhouse gas, carbon dioxide.
- US Geological Survey - Water Facts
- Sierra Club - Water facts
- Organic Consumers Association - Clothes for a Change: Background Info
- TreeHugger - Glo 4 Life Organic T-shirts
- Save the Sheep! - The Environment
- Apparel and Footwear Association - Shoe Stats 2005
- The Green Guide - Product Report: Shoes
- US Environmental Protection Agency - Compliance Assistance For Dry Cleaners
- US Environmental Protection Agency - Inventory of US Greenhouse Gas Emissions and Sinks: 1990-2005, Chapter 5
- Inter Press Service News Agency - Gold Jewelry: World's Dirtiest Valentine's Gift?
- No Dirty Gold Campaign - Polluted Air