It may be an endless source of fashion faux pas jokes, but polyester, in its heyday in the post Second World War period, was considered a miracle fabric, famed for its affordability and easy care properties – relatively painless to wash, dry and iron. Many a modern woman did it ‘liberate’ from the drudgery of clothes maintenance. Cotton, cultivated since 3000BC, on the other hand, is unmatched by any synthetic in terms of softness, comfort and durability. Its two most famous offspring – t-shirts and jeans – are bought in the hundreds of millions globally.
Polyester and cotton are the two dominant fabrics in one of the world’s most polluting industries, textiles. But the lifecycle analyses –covering the production, processing, use, and disposal of a fabric – have so far failed to determine their overall footprint. This is because, as garments go, a lot depends on how it is made and who buys it.
Polyester is man-made by melting and combining two types of oil-derived plastic pellet to create hte polymer polyethylene teraphlalate. Polyester production can result in air and water emissions of dangerous substances including heavy metals, and the greenhouse gas nitrous oxide (aka laughing gas). Most polyester is manufactured using antimony as a catalyst, which is a carcinogen and toxic to the heart, lungs, liver and skin.
Cotton is a natural fi bre, but one that is grown with a mind-boggling array of toxic chemicals. Endosulfan, a widely-used insecticide has been linked to several thousand deaths of cotton farmers and their families. A single drop of aldicarb, a pesticide used on cotton in 26 countries, absorbed on the skin can kill an adult. Less than a third of the world’s cotton is rain fed and as it is very thirsty, leeching away a vital resource in many drought-prone areas where it is grown.
When it comes to the various steps between turning a raw fabric into a fi nished product, overall environmental impact may vary wildly. In the dyeing process alone, water use can range from a best-case scenario of 80 litres per kilo of fabric, to an unscrupulous 800 litres. The same is true for the overall energy and waste a fabric uses and produces.
Another missing link in determining a sustainable fabric is what happens to a garment once it leaves the shop. A study by Cambridge University found that the ‘global climate change impact’ of a cotton t-shirt can be cut by 50 per cent simply by altering washing, drying and ironing (see below).
More vexing is the fact that choosing between cotton and polyester is often not an option . Rarely do you come across something that is made 100 per cent of any one fabric. Most clothes are blends of two or more fabrics. Even a ‘100 per cent’ fabric can include as much as five per cent of other fabrics.
Mixing fabrics may lend a cotton garment easy care properties and softness to a synthetic one, but it has proven a nightmare for clothing afterlife. Reprocessing a mixed fabric garment destroys the quality of the fabric, so most are downcycled to cleaning rags or insulation.
A clear, recognisable, universal labelling system for clothes enabling individuals to, say, determine how much energy and water went into making it, how many miles it has travelled, by whom and under what conditions it was made and how it can be disposed of would enable us to choose an ‘AA’ rated garment rather than an ‘F’ rated garment. Sadly, no such labelling system exists.
Retailers should do more to help us – first, by removing clothing with the most significant social and environmental impacts from the market. The government could promote sustainable clothing with fiscal incentives and initiatives. The French are taking the lead in one respect – with a producer responsibility decree that requires textile makers to provide or contribute to the recycling of or waste disposal of their products.
Shopping vs swapping
The web of unsustainable industry practices is compounded by the so-called ‘Primark effect’ – we spend less of our budgets on clothes but are coming home with more and more of them. About two-thirds of our cast-offs are sent to landfill, making clothing the fastest growing stream in household waste. An environmental select committee found that textile waste at landfill sites rose from seven to 30 per cent in the last five years.
Our shopping decisions are influenced by a number of things – the media, celebrities and the ‘feel’ of a certain fabric. But mostly, as a Defra-led study found this year, the actual activity of clothes shopping determines what we buy. We may go to the shops with one thing in mind, but usually we end up with something
we had no intention of buying.
Swapping seems to me one way we could ultimately make our wardrobes more sustainable. One of the most stylish people I know has been swapping clothes with a group of fi ve friends for years and swears by it. First of all, she says, it is fun and sociable – what shopping is meant to be. Friends will be more honest than any shop assistant and the range on offer will already be edited to ‘choice’ pieces. There is the added benefit of knowing that something we may no longer treasure
can find a new home and a new lease on life. Sometimes the solutions we need just aren’t on sale in any shop.
Simple ways to green your wardrobe
// Changing laundry habits is the simplest way to cut your clothing footprint. Wash at 30° C, don’t tumble
dry and limit ironing
// Organic cotton is always an improvement to conventional cotton: it saves lives, is better for the environment and better for farming communities.
Look for the Soil Association logo or its international counterpart, the Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS). See Wear Organic
// Retailers such as Marks & Spencer and Howies have launched take back schemes. Donations of M&S clothing to Oxfam get you a £5 M&S voucher. Howies are offering a £25 t-shirt when you hand back jeans at its London store.
// Swap – get together four or five friends whom you consider to be on the same fashion wavelength and bring at least one very nice but no longer loved item and something fun to drink.
This article first appeared in the Ecologist February 2009