The United States represents the largest apparel market in the world, with total annual sales of $331 billion. The average American household spends about 3.8 percent of its total income on clothing. That may be only about one third the amount consumer households spend on food. Still, every consumer dollar spent on clothing has an impactfrom economic to environmental, ethical to health.
Here are 10 reasons why you should care what you wear.
1. Synthetic fibers pollute the natural environment. Clothes are made from both natural fibers, like cotton, hemp and wool, and synthetic fibers, like viscose rayon and polyester. Clothes made from synthetic fibers may not require as much agricultural land to produce as clothes made from cotton and hemp. But synthetic fibers, often marketed as wrinkle-resistant, durable, or easy to clean, are produced using industrial methods that are both energy-intensive and polluting. Polyester, for example, is made from petroleum, a non-renewable natural resource. And rayon, technically "semi-synthetic," is derived from wood pulp and transformed into fiber through a highly water-and chemical-intensive factory process. Once these synthetic materials are transformed into fleece sweaters, bath towels and garments, consumers take them home where the synthetic fibers continue to pollute the natural environment in the form of “micro-plastics,”nanoparticles, and chemical residues which contaminate water. Micro-plastics and nanoparticles (along with processing chemicals and cleaning detergents)travel to the oceans and mingle with groundwater when synthetic clothes are washed.
2. Non-organic cotton is one of the most genetically engineered, pesticide- and chemically-contaminated crops in the world. The massive use of GMOs and chemicals on non-organic cotton lends a more sinister meaning to the phrase made popular by hikers: "Cotton kills." More than 90 percent of the cotton grown in the U.S. is genetically engineered, spliced with the Bt toxin and modified in order to withstand large quantities of Monsanto's herbicide, Roundup. Cotton occupies a relatively small percentage (2.4 percent) of arable land globally. Yet conventional cotton crops account for a staggering 25 percent of global insecticide sales. In the U.S, it typically takes a third of a pound of toxic agricultural chemicals to produce a pound of cottonthe amount of cotton it takes to make one T-shirt. Several pesticides used on cotton are known carcinogens. Not only do these pesticides linger on the clothes worn next to human skin, but the fish, marine and wildlife surrounding or downstream from cotton fields also suffer from pesticide pollution. Non-organic cotton crops are doused with large amounts of chemical fertilizers that routinely pollute groundwater and emit nitrous oxide, the most destructive (300 times more destructive-per-weight than CO2) of all greenhouse gases. Non-organic cotton must be irrigated, requiring large quantities of water. And it’s typically processed and dyed with synthetic chemicals.
3. GMO and toxic cotton. You’re eating it. Government regulatory agencies, prompted by large cotton farmers and the garment industry, falsely claim that cotton is not a "food crop," in spite of the fact that 60 percent (by weight) of cotton harvested in the U.S. ends up in the food chain. The result is that chemicals which are banned for use on food crops are widely used on cotton. But many so-called cotton by-products, including cotton seeds, cotton seed oil, and cotton gin trash, end up being sold and consumed as ingredients in both animal feed and human fooddespite the fact that cotton is one of the most chemically contaminated crops in the world. The pesticide residues in cottonseed accumulate in the fatty tissues of livestock, which is in turn consumed by humans, in the form of meat. Cottonseed oil is also used in a variety of food products, such as vitamins and potato chips, and it’s often used as a dilutive in olive oilunlabeled. When GMOs and pesticide residues from cotton crops find their way into food products, they can potentially trigger health issues including food allergies, cancer, and liver, kidney and immune system damage.
4. Agricultural workers suffer dangerous effects from farming toxic cotton. Farmers, farm workers and people who live in rural communities near cotton fields suffer from exposure to pesticides, GMOs and chemicals. Many of these agricultural workers suffer from acute pesticide poisoning. Rural cotton farmers in particular lack the necessary safety equipment and training for handling the hazardous pesticides, leading to chronic and acute health issues. Pesticides used in cotton farming have been shown to cause endocrine dysfunction, with farmers in rural and poor areas especially at risk.
5. Cotton farmers in the developing world are exploited in the global marketplace. Small cotton farmers in developing countries struggle financially, unable to compete in the global market because of U.S. cotton subsidies. The result is both economically and socially devastating. Subsidies allow U.S. cotton farmers to sell cotton at less than the price of production. This lowers the global market price for cotton, even at a time when the costs associated with growing and processing cotton are rising, because of increases in the cost of seeds and in the amount required, rising prices, of pesticides. As a result, cotton farming in some developing countries is no longer financially viable. Developing countries dependent on agricultural production falter economically, as farmers fall into debt. India’s cotton farmers are committing suicide at an alarming rate. The country’s once-thriving cotton belt has been renamed the "suicide belt."
6. Most garments are manufactured in sweatshops that abuse and exploit their workers. Paid less than minimum wage, less than a living wage, and often deprived even of these wages, garment factory workers suffer from unsafe working conditions, physical, psychological and sexual abuse, 18-hour work shifts and other illegal labor practices in an industry that prospers from the dehumanization of its labor force. Women, who make up the overwhelming percentage of garment factory workers, are forced to work in these conditions under the threat of extreme poverty. Obscured by the maze of global industry, labor laws remain unenforced in sweatshops, while those who sell these garments to consumers claim ignorance of the exploitation from which they profit.
7. Chemical-intensive clothing poses dangers to human health. Skin is the body's largest organ. One of its major jobs is to protect internal systems. But your skin also acts as a conduit, a means for toxic chemicals and pesticides from synthetic materials to enter your bloodstream. If you care about what you put in your body, you should also care what you put on your body. Health issues from such toxic chemical exposure range from headache to asthma to cancer.
8. These dangers increase the more your clothing promises. "Easy care" garments are especially saturated by chemicals, including formaldehyde, triclosan and preflourinated chemicals, in order to allow manufacturers to market the clothes as anti-microbial, anti-odor or anti-wrinkle. Formaldehyde, used to eliminate wrinkles, static, odor and bacteria from clothes, is highly toxic and known to cause cancer, skin ulcerations, heart palpitations, eczema, asthma and other health issues. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency classifies preflourinated chemicalswhich make fabric stain-resistantas cancer-causing agents. Triclosan is another chemical used in clothing, especially athletic wear, to prevent the growth of bacteria. These chemicals in "easy care" garments enter the bloodstream via the skin. Clothing containingnanoparticles, often marketed as stain or odor-resistant, represents a new and ominous health and environmental threat. Nanoparticles in consumer products are neither labeled nor safety tested.
9. What you wear "down there" is not as innocuous as you may think. Because feminine hygiene products are considered "medical devices," those who manufacture pads and tampons are not required to disclose their ingredients. Bleached and made from the chemical- and pesticide-drenched materials of non-organic cotton and rayon (wood pulp), pads and tampons contain various ingredients that may be toxic and absorbed through skin and mucus membranes. The FDA regulates the process through which tampon materials are bleached, claiming that levels of dioxins (toxic, chemically-related compounds common in environmental pollutants) are at or below the "detectable level" and that such trace amounts do not trigger health concerns.
The World Health Organization says that "dioxins are highly toxic and can cause reproductive and developmental problems, damage the immune system, and may interfere with hormones and also cause cancer." Dioxins are present in environmental pollution and commonly consumed by humans through food. Though new bleaching procedures for tampon materials generate a significantly lower amount of dioxins, trace amounts remain. Cotton used in pads and tampons also contains the pesticide residue from this highly treated, almost always GMO, crop. What looks like cotton can also be bleached wood pulp or rayon, a semi-synthetic material made in a chemically-intensive process.
Toxic Shock Syndrome, a rare and dangerous illness caused by a bacterial infection from Staphylococcus aureus, has been linked to super-absorbent tampons made of a blend of synthetic materials including rayon. Toxic Shock Syndrome is linked to leaving such tampons inserted for long periods of time, creating both an environment for the bacteria to grow, and causing tears and abrasions inside the vagina. As with anti-odor clothing, tampons with fragrance or anti-odor properties contain even more potentially harmful chemicals. Safer alternatives to conventional feminine hygiene products include organic tampons and pads.
10. The choices you make regarding your clothing are not only expressions of style or identity, but are vital to personal health as well as environmental and ethical responsibility. You should feel good in your clothes. Good about the way your clothes were produced and made. Good about their effects on your health. Good about the way they make you feel. Consumerist culture is toxic in the way it encourages people to constantly buy and replace clothing produced through unethical conditions. It can be difficult to divorce yourself from this toxic culture, to establish your clothing choices outside of this pressure. To not care about clothes is not the solution. The solution is to care how fibers are produced and processed. To care how your clothes are made. To care what's in the garments you wear next to your skin, and ultimately, to care how you feel wearing them.