Between 1993 and 1997, bra sales enjoyed a 50 percent boost to $39.3 billion per year, while total apparel sales rose only 20 percent over that same period. By the year 2000, shipments in the lingerie industry, including the bra segment, were in the $3.68 billion range. Regardless of what they're made of, women's underwear comes with ecological consequences throughout the life cycle: from production, to ongoing care to disposal.
Women's lingerie is made of a variety of materials, including cotton, satin, silk, lace, and synthetics such as nylon. The most detrimental environmental impact of the underwear industry is the harvest and production of conventional cotton, which is considered to be the world's most pesticide-intensive crop. While only 2.4 percent of farmland worldwide is dedicated to cotton, it accounts for 24 percent of global insecticide sales and 11 percent of global pesticide sales. In total, $2 billion worth of chemicals are sprayed on global cotton crops each year, almost half of which are classified as hazardous by the World Health Organization.
The various chemicals used to treat conventional cotton can harm beneficial insects and soil micro-organisms, pollute ground and surface water, and adversely affect the health of humans and wildlife—including fish, birds, and livestock. Additionally, up to 70 percent genetically modified organism (GMO) seeds are used in conventional cotton farming in the United States.
Nylon, another synthetic material used in lingerie (as well as in carpets, tires, auto parts, and various other products), has also 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.
Once underwear and lingerie are brought home from the store, they inevitably require washing. Home laundering is a frequent necessity that consumes large amounts of water and energy. Eighty percent of the energy that goes into clothing is attributed to laundering rather than the clothing's production or distribution process. The national laundry load amounts to 35 billion home laundering cycles per year, which cost an average household about $150 annually.
The US generated some 8 million tons of waste from clothing and footwear in 2005—roughly 54 pounds per person. Even though the "barelegged look"—fueled by casual dress codes and the popularity of open-toed shoes—has become more fashionable in recent years, hosiery still enjoys annual US sales of about $3 billion, contributing to landfill waste.
- genetically modified organism (GMO): A GMO is created by merging the genetic make-up of two organisms, resulting in a desired byproduct that could otherwise not be found in nature. Engineering GMOs is a common practice in conventional farming, and studies have shown that GMOs pose significant environmental risks such as killing off living, natural organisms and becoming immune to pesticides.
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- Answers.com - Women's full-length and knee-length hosiery, except socks