Mis à jour : 17 oct 2019
A few months ago, someone sent me a video about the damage done to our Water from the clothes that we wear. Naturally, as a “Water Walker” and spokesperson for the Water, I watched that video almost immediately and what an eye opener it was. Evidently, I knew about the dye and other toxic material in my clothes and I always try to buy the most natural fabric as possible. I have been meaning to do more research on the subject, so needless to say, when I received this assignment, I knew right of way, that I had to take this opportunity to research fabrics and dye, the latter being a big concern of mine. We often hear about additives and preservatives in our food and other pollutants from un-organic agriculture but the topic on fabric is not very popular and yet is one of the biggest polluters in the world, I am hoping to raise some awareness on the subject with this paper.
I do not have any products in my kitchen, my bathroom, and my food pantry that contains any chemicals; I do not wear make-up or put on any commercialized cream or lotion. I make most of my personal hygiene and cleaning products or use organic baking soda, vinegar and essential oil from a very good source.
But going through my closet, in my bedroom, I saw lots of bright colours, navy, black and red. Looking at labels, I have mostly non-organic 100% cotton, rayon and wool, I also have some clothes containing acrylic and even some polyester. I buy most of my clothes from second hand stores, so I didn’t always check the fabric, I also make lots of my clothes (all my traditional and ceremonial clothes is handmade and always 100% cotton, but just became conscious that all the ribbon trimmings are polyester, another eye opener, never thought of looking at the ribbons’ origins.
“The clothing industry is the second-largest polluter in the world, second only to the oil industry,” high-end retailer Eileen Fisher has famously said and repeated, and written, and tweeted. This very powerful statement from Mrs. Fisher is unfortunately not re-searchable as there is very little data on the fashion industry’s global footprint.
In 2016, the Washington post wrote: “Water is a big part of the problem: Cotton is a thirsty plant. Textile manufacturers use a lot of Water, and the vast amounts of wastewater they discharge are contaminated with bleaches, solvents, acids, alkali's, dyes, inks, resins, softeners and fluorocarbons.”
Note: The way this statement is written putting the Water as part of the problem is a very colonial way of thinking. I would say that cotton is a big part of the problem and not the Water.
Fabric is not an easy topic to research, there is so little information and most of the sites are mostly speaking about fashion or trying to sell their so call “environmentally friendly” line of clothes.
Every piece of clothing has an impact on the environment, but how much impact is the big question. It is important to know about a fabric’s production and disposal method in order to make an educated choice while shopping for clothes.
Getting from fibre to clothes – bleaching, dyeing, and finishing – uses yet more energy and Water, and causes yet more pollution.
Cloth is often bleached using dioxin-producing chlorine compounds.
And virtually all polycotton (especially bedlinen), plus all ‘easy care’, ‘crease resistant’, ‘permanent press’ cotton, are treated with toxic formaldehyde also used for flameproofing nylon. (See appendix A for more information on formaldehyde)
Looking into manufacturing a little deeper, I discovered the “National Resources Defence Council” NRDC, founded in 1970, their head office is in New York and some of the people on the board of trustee are Leonardo DiCaprio, Robert Redford and Alan F. Horn from The Walt Disney Studios but also many university teachers across Canada and the United States. I trust this is a good resource, subsequently, here are some very disturbing statistics:
To manufacture one ton of fabric it takes 200 tons of Water
Approximately 12.8 million tons of textiles are thrown away every year in the U.S. alone.
Cotton occupies only 2.4% of agricultural land, but accounts for 20% of global sales of insecticides and 11% of pesticides.
All that Water used becomes loaded with dyes and nasty chemicals; those chemicals are used to make the clothes soft, wrinkle free and stain resistant. All this ends up in our Water supplies and causes damage to agricultural local farmer’s land, which of course end up in our plates making its way to our digestive system. Water is not the only concern; incredible amount of energy is required to produce all that hot Water and steam needed to dye the clothes. As an example: colour-fading process for jeans, use even more toxic materials, here is some chemicals used in the colour-fading process and its effect on the environment according to Environment Canada:
Nonylphenol ethoxylates= cleaning and rinsing agent, perfluorinated chemicals used for waterproofing & stain proofing
CEPA 1999 schedule 1: this substance has been added to the list of toxic substances, this substance is entering the environment from the Textile Industry in Wet Processing. It affects growth & development reproduction & liver dysfunction. There is a document of 105 pages available in PDF from the Canadian Environmental Protection Act, 1999 “PRIORITY SUBSTANCES LIST ASSESSMENT REPORT” Nonylphenol and its Ethoxylates written in April of 2001.
Perfluorinated chemicals (PFCs) are man-made chemicals widely used by industry for their non-stick and water-repellent properties. In the textile industry they are used to make textile and leather products both water and stain-proof.
Evidence shows that many PFCs persist in the environment and can accumulate in body tissue and bio-accumulate through the food chain. Once in the body some have been shown to affect the liver as well as acting as hormone disruptors, altering levels of growth and reproductive hormones.
The best known of the PFCs is perfluorooctane sulphonate (PFOS), a compound highly resistant to degradation; it is expected to persist for very long periods in the environment. PFOS is one of the ‘persistent organic pollutants’ restricted under the Stockholm Convention, a global treaty to protect human health and the environment, and PFOS is also prohibited within Europe and in Canada for certain uses. Please note that this is still used in the textile industry.
Each year the textile industry gulps down trillions of litres of fresh Water together with massive amounts of chemicals. The wastewater from that industry is then dumped, often untreated, into rivers that brings its toxic contents to the sea, where it spreads around the globe.
Clothes are made from lots of different materials, leather comes from animal skin, wool also comes from animals, cotton and linen are made from plants but other materials, such as polyester are man-made materials. Most of our clothes are made overseas in poor areas where it is much cheaper and more work gets done; the clothes in our closet are made by workers who get paid way below poverty line and the conditions of those factories are considered to be slave labour, one of the main reasons why big companies choose these countries is that they don’t have to worry about human rights. Some of these countries are Bangladesh, India, China, Vietnam, Ethiopia, Indonesia, Sri Lanka and the Philippines. Therefore, our clothes, are the results of a reckless industry, responsible for some of the worst pollution and most horrific human rights violations on the planet.
Chemicals from dyeing are spread worldwide by exporting clothes with residues on them and of course this all ends up in our waterways when washing our clothes. Chinese official Sunyun Yao, said “The dyeing industry has made the clothes beautiful but turned the clean Water black.” The need to reform the textile-dyeing industry is urgent especially in China, Bangladesh, India, Vietnam and Thailand.
In a 2012 report from the non-profit Institute of Public & Environmental Affairs (IPE) China’s textile industry discharges about 2.5 trillion of wastewater into the river annually. Among these wastes we find many hazardous chemicals: TBT, PBDE, phthalates, PFOS & aniline. These are all banned or strictly regulated in other countries because they are toxic, persistent, bio-accumulative, hormone disruptive and can cause cancer.
According to 2012 statistics from China’s Ministry of Supervision, Water pollution accidents have risen to more than 1,700 annually, about 5 accidents per day. But this is not the main concern, says Ma Jun, one of China’s leading environmentalist and founder of IPE, which created the China Water Pollution Map “These toxic spills are emergency situations, but the daily discharge of hazardous substances is by itself already an ongoing disaster” Ma said “ Some suppliers of brands such as Ralph Lauren, Hugo Boss and Victoria’s Secret are very bad polluters, but these companies do not want to face the issue of pollution in their supply chain. This is, in my view, totally irresponsible”.
I also found out that the label “made in” only refers to an item’s last stop on what is typically a global journey. In the case of clothing, the words “made in” describe the place where a garment is knit or sewn.
I decided to look at what was offered on the market besides cotton, which I thought was the most sustainable fabric until I started my research. So here is a description of some of the fabric available to us, this information was gathered from several sources, as listed in the reference page.
Bamboo is the latest plant material to hit the Eco-friendly fabrics market. It is described as hypoallergenic, absorbent, fast-drying and naturally anti-bacterial and comes from a very fast-growing plant. It’s not all good though, there are some concerns over the chemicals used in its processing, however less pesticides and fertilizers are used, and it is still a sustainable choice compared to most other fabrics.
Hemp: Hemp is a thoroughly ecological crop, highly productive, easy to cultivate and pest tolerant, so needing few or no agro-chemicals while at the same time binding and enriching the soil with its deep roots. It is a traditional fibre, that went out of favour in the 1930's for political reasons, rather than practical ones. It is now at long last undergoing something of a revival. But it is important to remember that unless it is organic, hemp also use very toxic colouring process. Note: agricultural hemp, though versatile and productive as a fibre, oil and food plant, is useless as a narcotic!
Wool: If someone is comfortable with the fact that wool is an animal product, this would be the most environmentally friendly option. Wool is though, wrinkle-resistant, resilient and it holds colourful dyes without the use of chemicals. The biggest issue with wool is the methane emission from burping sheep. It is estimated that 50% of wool’s carbon footprint comes from sheep as opposed to other fabric industries whose larger emission hail from the fabric production process. These sheep are usually raised on non-arable land.
Linen: plant-based fabric made from flax which can be grown on rough terrain that is not suitable for food production. It can also be produced and processed without the use of chemicals. Linen was used by ancient Egypt as a currency and it is more commonly found in Europe. According to Summer Edwards from sustainable fashion regarding Water-retting process: “Conventional linen is processed into fiber from the raw flax crop. This involves soaking the flax crop in waterways & results in a high amount of pollutants, these include residual agro-chemical as well as natural waste. There are more eco-friendly methods such a dew-retting & enzyme-retting; these processes turn the raw crop into fiber while avoiding water pollution.” So, it is recommended to use linen produced in Europe rather than in China, however, conventional linen is still a more sustainable choice than cotton, or any other synthetic fabric.
Rayon: petroleum-based fibres including acrylic, polyester and nylon and of course an increasing contributor of global deforestation is rayon. This is another artificial fibre, made from wood pulp, which on the face of it seems more sustainable. However, old growth forest is often cleared and farmers are displaced to make way for pulpwood plantations. Often the tree planted is eucalyptus, which draws up phenomenal amounts of Water, causing problems in sensitive regions. To make rayon, the wood pulp is treated with hazardous chemicals such as sulphuric acid and caustic soda and routinely dumped into local ecosystems. According to the Japan Soda Industry Association Even a dilute solution of caustic soda can affect the tissue of the skin if it repeatedly comes into contact with the skin, which may cause dermatitis or chronic eczema. Made from petrochemicals, these synthetics are non-biodegradable as well, so they are inherently unsustainable on two counts. Nylon manufacture creates nitrous oxide, a greenhouse gas 310 times more potent than carbon dioxide. Making polyester uses large amounts of water for cooling, along with lubricants which can become a source of contamination. Both processes are also very energy-hungry.
Cotton: a natural plant-based fibre that makes up a quarter of all fabric used in clothing, it is also used in other textiles blends such as rayon and synthetic fabric. It is durable, breathable, highly versatile and it is also biodegradable which is a huge plus. So why is cotton such a big deal and not really good for the environment?
Cotton uses a tremendous amount of Water, 35% of the global Water use, according to the UN. It can take more than 5000 gallons of Water to manufacture one cotton t-shirt and one pair of jeans and is the most pesticide intensive crop in the world, cotton consumes 10% of all agricultural chemicals in the Us and 20% of all insecticides. In other words, cotton is a huge resource hog. While organic cotton can improve chemical effect, not only is not affordable for most people it also requires more land because crop yields decrease.
Throughout my research, I found that a number of great innovations are being implemented by certain sectors of the fashion industry but changes needs to come from consumers; our personal relationship with fashion must evolve. What can we do?
Stop fascinating fashion, instead create your own
Stop consuming and start creating
Buy second hand and wear it out, then use it to make rags to do your cleaning
Donate back to keep the cycle moving
Organize clothing swaps parties with friends and family
Buy organic when you can or at least buy natural fabric
I will sure be more conscious of all the fabric I purchase, from the clothes I wear to my bed linen. I will think twice before buying any dyed new clothes and of course I will continue to not support multi-national companies.
I strongly suggest to buy eco-friendly coloured clothes, if we can’t afford it, the best way would be to do it ourselves using herbs, berries, vegetables, oak, walnuts just to name a few, I think experiencing dyeing my clothes will be fun and rewarding, until then I will just keep buying from second hand stores and be very mindful when I buy material to make my own.
In conclusion, I would like to say, that I could write a whole book on this subject and 10 to 15 pages is just a short introduction to a very large topic. Fabric provenance and process has yet to be included in awareness conference on ecological sustainability. I looked up conferences and meeting on ecosystems, environment and sustainable development and there is a list of all the conferences across the world for 2018 and 2019 and only 1 conference is listed for textile in China in 2019. I also researched Canada only conferences and nothing on fabric and very little on Water. I have been giving conferences across Canada and other countries on Water issues and I intend to do some more research and include textile industries, fashion and dyeing process in my next conference. After completing this work, I now realize that cotton may not be the best source for my clothes unless I could afford organic cotton and even then, I am not convinced that it is sustainable, just like hemp if it is not organic then the colours are just as bad as the colours used for cotton but from what I could see, natural hemp is more easily found and a much better choice than cotton and I will look into bamboo a little further as there is very little information on this new fabric.
Note to the readers: I am anishinabe and in my culture, Water is very much alive and we always use a capital letter when we talk about Water the same with our mother the Earth.
The foundation of Strategic Environmental research: www.envormation.com
Edwards, Summer tortoise & lady grey: http://www.ethicalwriters.co/summer-edwards/
Conferences and meeting on ecosystems: https://www.conference-service.com/conferences/ecosystems
Conferences in Canada: www.planetfriendly.net
Japan Soda Industry Association: http://www.jsia.gr.jp/data/handling_01e.pdf
(copied as is, with the referencing) https://oecotextiles.wordpress.com/2011/01/04/formaldehyde-in-your-fabrics/
Formaldehyde in your fabrics
In January 2009, new blue uniforms were issued to Transportation Security Administration officers at hundreds of airports nationwide.  The new uniforms – besides giving officers a snazzy new look – also gave them skin rashes, bloody noses, light headedness, red eyes, and swollen and cracked lips, according to the American Federation of Government Employees, the union representing the officers. “We’re hearing from hundreds of TSOs that this is an issue,” said Emily Ryan, a spokeswoman for the union.
The American Federation of Government Employees blames formaldehyde.
In 2008, an Ohio woman filed suit against Victoria’s Secret, alleging she became “utterly sick” after wearing her new bra. In her lawsuit, the plaintiff said the rash she suffered was “red hot to the touch, burning and itching.” As more people came forth (600 to be exact) claiming horrific skin reactions (and permanent scarring to some) as a result of wearing Victoria Secret’s bras, lawsuits were filed in Florida and New York – after the lawyers found formaldehyde in the bras.
For years the textile industry has been using finishes on fabric that prevents wrinkling – usually a formaldehyde resin. Fabrics are treated with urea-formaldehyde resins to give them all sorts of easy- care properties such as:
· Permanent-press / durable-press
· Anti-cling, anti-static, anti-wrinkle, and anti-shrink (especially shrink proof wool)
· Waterproofing and stain resistance (especially for suede and chamois)
· Perspiration proof
That’s why you can find retailers like Nordstrom selling “wrinkle-free finish” dress shirts and L.L. Bean selling chinos that are “great right out of the dryer.” And we’ve been snapping them up, because who doesn’t want to ditch the ironing?
According to the American Contact Dermatitis Society, rayon, blended cotton, corduroy, wrinkle-resistant 100% cotton, and any synthetic blended polymer are likely to have been treated with formaldehyde resins. The types of resins used include urea-formaldehyde, melamine-formaldehyde and phenol-formaldehyde. Manufacturers often “hide” the word “formaldehyde” under daunting chemical names. These include:
· Methyl aldehyde
· Methylene oxide
· Morbicid acid
Not only is formaldehyde itself used, but also formaldehyde-releasing preservatives. Some of these are known by the following names:
· imidazolidinyl urea
· diazolidinyl urea
Formaldehyde is another one of those chemicals that just isn’t good for humans. Long known as the Embalmer’s Friend for its uses in funeral homes and high school biology labs, formaldehyde effects depend upon the intensity and length of the exposure and the sensitivity of the individual to the chemical. The most common means of exposure is by breathing air containing off-gassed formaldehyde fumes, but it is also easily absorbed through the skin. Increases in temperature (hot days, ironing coated textiles) and increased humidity both increase the release of formaldehyde from coated textiles.
Besides being associated with watery eyes, burning sensations in the eyes and throat, nausea, difficulty in breathing, coughing, some pulmonary edema (fluid in the lungs), asthma attacks, chest tightness, headaches, and general fatigue, as well as the rashes and other illnesses such as reported by the TSA officers, formaldehyde is associated with more severe health issues. For example, it could cause nervous system damage by its known ability to react with and form cross-linking with proteins, DNA and unsaturated fatty acids.13 These same mechanisms could cause damage to virtually any cell in the body, since all cells contain these substances. Formaldehyde can react with the nerve protein (neuroamines) and nerve transmitters (e.g., catecholamines), which could impair normal nervous system function and cause endocrine disruption. 
Medical studies have linked formaldehyde exposure with nasal cancer, nasopharyngeal cancer and leukemia. The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) classified formaldehyde as a human carcinogen. Studies by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the National Cancer Institute (NCI) have found formaldehyde to be a probable human carcinogen and workers with high or prolonged exposure to formaldehyde to be at an increased risk for leukemia (particularly myeloid leukemia) and brain cancer. Read the National Cancer Institute’s factsheet here.
Formaldehyde is one of about two dozen chemical toxins commonly found in homes and wardrobes that are believed by doctors to contribute to Multiple Chemical Sensitivities(MCS). Chemical sensitivities are becoming a growing health problem in the U.S. as the persistent exposure to harsh and toxic chemicals grows. One of the signs of increasing chemical sensitivities is the rise of contact dermatitis caused by formaldehyde resins and other chemicals used in textile finishes. Repeated exposure to even low levels of formaldehyde can create a condition called “sensitization” where the individual becomes very sensitive to the effects of formaldehyde and then even low levels of formaldehyde can cause an “allergic” reaction, such as those suffered by the TSA workers.
Countries such as Austria, Finland, Germany, Norway, Netherlands and Japan have national legislation restricting the presence of formaldehyde in textile products. But in the United States, formaldehyde levels in fabric is not regulated. Nor does any government agency require manufacturers to disclose the use of the chemical on labels. Because it’s used on the fabric, it can show up on any product made from fabric, such as clothing. And it can show up in any room of the house – in the sheets and pillows on the bed. In drapery hanging in the living room. The upholstery on the sofa. Even in the baseball cap hanging by the door.
“From a consumer perspective, you are very much in the dark in terms of what (fabric or) clothing is treated with,” said David Andrews, a senior scientist at the Environmental Working Group, a research and advocacy organization. “In many ways, you’re in the hands of the industry and those who are manufacturing our fabrics. And we are trusting them to ensure they are using the safest materials and additives.” 
“The textile industry for years has been telling dermatologists that they aren’t using the formaldehyde resins anymore, or the ones they use have low levels,” said Dr. Joseph F. Fowler, clinical professor of dermatology at the University of Louisville. “Yet despite that, we have been continually seeing patients who are allergic to formaldehyde and have a pattern of dermatitis on their body that tells us this is certainly related to clothing.”
Often, it’s suggested that washing the fabric will get rid of the formaldehyde. But think about it: why would a manufacturer put in a wrinkle resistant finish that washes out? If that were the case, your permanent-press shirts and sheets would suddenly (after a washing or two) need to be ironed. Do you find that to be the case? Manufacturers work long and hard to make sure these finishes do NOT wash out. At least one study has found that there is no significant reduction in the amount of formaldehyde after two washings. (5)
So, we can add formaldehyde to the list of chemicals which surround us, exposing us at perhaps very low levels for many years. What this low-level exposure is doing to us has yet to be determined.
 “New TSA Unifroms Trigger a Rash of Complaints (Formaldehyde)”, The Washington Post, January 5, 2009, Steve Vogel.
 Berrens, L. etal., “Free formaldehyde in textiles in relation to formalin contact sensitivity”
 Thrasher JD etal., “Immune activation and autoantibodies in humans with long-term inhalation exposure to formaldehyde,” Archive Env. Health, 45: 217-223, 1990.
 “When Wrinkle-Free Clothing Also Means Formaldehyde Fumes”, New York Times, Tara Siegel Bernard, December 10, 2010
(5) Rao S, Shenoy SD, Davis S, Nayak S., “Detection of formaldehyde in textiles by chromotropic acid method”. Indian J Dermatol Venereol Leprol 2004;70:342-4.