More and more of us today are striving to live a healthy lifestyle. We avoid chemicalized, denatured, overprocessed foods. We drink pure water instead of municipal tap with its cocktail of toxic additives. We exercise regularly, practice meditation in its many forms and try to get a good night’s sleep. But how many of us consider that the clothes we wear may be hazardous to our health?
Most of the clothes produced today, including popular high and low-end name brands, are made from synthetic fibers – marketed as “wrinkle resistant, easy-to-clean, durable” – that contain a host of toxic chemicals such as PFC, phthlates, cadium, formaldehyde. Moreover, the manufacturing process of these goods causes major pollution in our food, air and water, along with dangerous working conditions for those who do the labor. Even Monsanto is in the game with its new super-toxic GMO dicamba-resistent cotton, a big seller, otherwise known as “frankencotton” by concerned environmentalists.
More than ever we need to read labels before we buy. There are an increasing number of online and retail companies offering non-sweatshop, natural fiber, organic clothes, accessories and textiles, like organic cotton, hemp, wool, but there are not nearly enough. We need to demand much more!
Here are some health, environmental and ethical issues to consider before you purchase your next item of clothing or a textile product:
- Synthetic fibers pollute the environment, the ocean, and eventually, the food supply. These industrially-produced products require huge amounts of energy, water and toxic chemicals. Polyester is made from petroleum, a fossil fuel. Rayon, considered “semi-synthetic”, comes from wood pulp converted into fiber by a highly intensive chemical/water process. Unlike natural fibers, synthetics don’t biodegrade. When washed, they release plastic-like micro-particles into the sewage system that end up polluting waters where they are eaten by fish, contaminating the seafood we eat.
- Non-organic cotton is one of the most genetically-engineered, pesticide- and chemically-contaminated crops in the world. In the U.S over 90% of cotton is GMO, and sprayed with huge amounts of Monsanto’s herbicide, Roundup, containing glyphosate, labeled “a probable carcinogen” by World Health Organization (WHO). The vast majority of cotton worldwide is GMO and accounts for roughly 25% of world insecticide sales. A typical t-shirt made in the U.S. – about a pound of cotton – takes a third of a pound of toxic agricultural chemicals to produce. Pesticide residues remain on the clothes next to human skin. Besides pesticides, large amounts of chemical fertilizers and synthetic chemicals for dyes further pollute soil and water.
- GMO cotton and food. In the U.S., waste from cotton gin production is usually recycled as feed for animals or processed into cheap vegetable oils, often used by fast food restaurants and school cafeterias. Thus, cows fed the stuff pass on pesticide residues in their milk and other dairy products. How is this allowed? Our so-called government “watch-dog” agencies, lobbied by big cotton farmers and the garment industry, have labeled cotton a “non-food crop,” enabling the use of super-toxic pesticides and herbicides. Regulations don’t take into account that wearing these materials can lead to human health problems, such as food allergies, cancer, liver, kidney, immune system harm, etc.
- Toxic cotton poisons farm workers. Many suffer from acute pesticide poisoning. Because rural cotton farmers often lack needed safety gear and training, many workers develop chronic and acute health problems from exposure.
- Most clothes are many in sweatshops that abuse and exploit workers. In countries like Bangladesh, Cambodia, Pakistan, Viet-Nam, workers are paid well below living wage, often suffer from unsafe, toxic work conditions, as well as physical and sexual abuse, 18-hour shifts and other illegal practices that rarely, if ever, are checked by authorities. The vast majority of these workers are women.
- Dangers to human health from chemicalized clothing. These toxic substances can enter the bloodstream via skin, our largest organ. So what you put into your body and what you put on your body are worth paying attention to. Over time, health effects can run the gamut from headache to asthma to cancer.
- The more supposedly positive attributes advertised for synthetic fibers, the more chemicals used. “Easy care” items are especially full of things like formaldehyde, triclosan, pre-fluoridated chemicals that give the clothes anti-microbial, anti-odor, or anti-wrinkle qualities. Formaldehyde, is known to cause cancer, skin ulcerations, heart palpitations, eczema, asthma and more. Pre-fluoridated chemicals, according to Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) are labeled cancer-causing agents. Nanoparticles for stain-or odor resistance, are a new and ominous threat, neither labeled nor safety-tested. All these can enter the body via the skin.
- Women’s hygiene products are not harmless. Designated as “medical devices,” pads and tampons are not required to list ingredients. They are most often made from chemically-saturated non-organic cotton and rayon which contain toxic ingredients that can be absorbed through skin and mucous membranes. According to WHO, these can “cause reproductive and developmental problems, damage the immune system, interfere with hormones and also cause cancer.” There are now safer alternatives to these products, made from organic cotton.
So what to do?
Clothes are important, not just for practical reasons, but as a creative expression of who we are. But perhaps we need to shift our thinking. Must we always have something new? Do we need a closet filled to the gills, so that we have to toss last year’s style into the landfill to make room for the latest trend? Why not make shopping a quest for clothes made from organic fabrics according to sustainable practices? Right now, these may be more expensive, but they also tend to last longer. Why not buy fewer, but higher quality items and use your ingenuity to mix and match without adding to the planet’s toxic load?
Make it a practice to use nontoxic unscented detergents, which do a fine cleaning job. Greenpeace recommends washing new clothes at least 3 times before wearing. When retested, they found that the clothes contained only a fraction or none of the dangerous chemicals. Commercial fabric softeners are among the most toxic personal care products sold today; they leave a residue on material that’s very hard to remove. You can make your own clean alternative simply by pouring a half cup of white distilled vinegar into the rinse cycle.
Look for organic cotton, hemp or wool, preferably colored with nontoxic dyes. There are more and more companies producing these, such as Patagonia, PACT, Under the Canopy, Fibershed, Savory Institute, TS Designs, Maggie’s Organics, Indigenous, Hempy’s, to name a few. So far, seven major international brands (Puma, Nike, Adidas, H&M, M&S, C&A and Li-Ning) have committed to changing to nontoxic materials. Asking for labels like “non-GMO” or “certified Organic Cotton or Wool or Fair Trade” will encourage more stores to get in the game. There is an organization called the Organic Clothing Alliance founded two years ago in Jacksonville, Florida to help people find organic clothing for the entire family. You can access its resources by clicking here.
You can also sign Greenpeace’s Fashion Manifesto, begun by a global movement of fashionistas, activists, designers and bloggers united by the belief that beautiful fashion should not cause toxic pollution.
So enjoy shopping! Make it an art, an adventure in simpler, cleaner living. The legendary philosopher/naturalist Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862), still very much in fashion today, said it best:
“Simplicity, simplicity, simplicity! We are happy in proportion to the things we can do without.”
“Beyond Monsanto’s GMO Cotton: Why Consumers Need to Care What We Wear” – Organic Consumers Association
“The Toxic Tale Behind Your Clothing” – Greenpeace
“Your Clothes Could Make You Sick” by Nikki Kimbleton
Organic Clothing Alliance
Thoreau on Fashion