We tend to think that natural products are better for the environment, but this isn’t always the case.
The table below shows the amount of energy needed to produce one kilogram of the fibre. As you can see nylon uses the most with cotton using the least amount of energy.
|MJ/kg of fibre|
Below we outline some of the issues in the cotton industry before looking at the problems associated with man made fibres.
Cotton – ethical pros and cons
• Bio-degradeable material
• Renewable resource
• Organic certified cotton does not use chemical pesticides
• Organic certified garments do not use toxic dyes or finishes
• In India, home to over one third of the world’s cotton farmers, cotton accounts for 54% of all pesticides used annually – despite occupying just 5% of land under crops. Hazardous pesticides associated with global cotton production represent a substantial threat to global freshwater resources and are now known to contaminate rivers in USA, India, Pakistan, Uzbekistan, Brazil, Australia, Greece and West Africa.
• Cotton monoculture is a threat to biodiversity
• In addition to the environmental concerns, genetically modified cotton puts the control of cotton seed supply in the hands of large multinationals
• Cotton fabrics have a shorter life – more prone to staining and stretching
• Requires more washing and takes longer to dry so uses more energy/water/detergent
• Cotton growing requires large amounts of water
• Provides employment for cotton farmers and pickers
• Fairtrade certification protects farmers from the volatile world market
• Organic certified cotton is less harmful to the health of cotton growers and pickers
• Pesticides and dyes are harmful to the health of those who work with cotton at all stages of it’s life cycle, especially child workers. A 2004 study conducted by researchers at the Technical University of Lódz, in Poland, has shown that hazardous pesticides applied during cotton production can also be detected in cotton clothing.
• High prices demanded by pesticide companies leads many small-scale cotton farmers into debt, and drives many to commit suicide.
• In Uzbekistan children are forcibly taken out of school to harvest cotton from state owned plantations.
• Cotton prices often fail to provide farmers with enough to live on.
• Cotton seed is used as an animal feed and, in the form of cotton seed oil, as a common cooking product accounting for approximately 8% of the world’s vegetable oil consumption. World Health Organisation data shows the potential for pesticides to contaminate both refined cotton seed oil and cotton seed derivatives fed to animals.
Did you know...?
• Most synthetic fabrics are made from oil based chemicals.
• Toxic sludge containing heavy metals and other poisons such as formaldehyde is a by-product of textile manufacture and is often sent to landfill.
• The production of nylon and polyester creates nitrous oxide, a greenhouse gas that’s 310 times more potent than carbon dioxide. Polyester and nylon are also non- biodegradable.
• Polyester uses 63% more energy to manufacture than cotton, weight for weight.
Perfluorinated chemicals (PFCs), such as PFOA which is used to make fabrics that are both waterproof and breathable, do not break down in the natural world and enter the food chain, ending up in wildlife and humans. PFOA has been shown to be toxic and carcinogenic to animals, as well as being linked in studies to human health risks. The US Environmental Protection Agency guidelines on “Carcinogenic Risk Assessment” says that PFOA is “likely to be carcinogenic to humans” in cases of high exposure.
• All synthetic garments can be recycled and some clothing companies are starting recycling programs.
• In the US each year the textile industry discharges 40,000 – 50,000 tons of dye and more than 200,000 tons of salt into rivers. Synthetic dyestuffs are highly toxic. They often contain heavy metals, such as lead and mercury, and poisons such as formaldehyde.
• The process of dyeing cloth uses a great quantity of water. It takes between 5 – 35 gallons of water for every pound of finished fabric, to dye enough fabric to cover a sofa (25 square yards) takes between 125 – 875 gallons of water.
• Azo dyes were commonly used on clothing in the EU until they were banned in 2003 due to their carcinogenic properties and adverse effect on aquatic life. They are however still widely used outside the EU.