The clothes on your back probably don’t come to mind when you think about the biggest polluters on the planet, but the clothing industry is a toxic one, nearing the top of the list. Along with being a water intensive industry, the dyeing and treatment of textiles uses many dangerous chemicals, such that these processes are said to contribute 20% of industrial water pollution globally.1
As noted by Rita Kant of the University Institute of Fashion Technology at Panjab University in India, color is a major reason why people choose to buy certain articles of clothing. “No matter how excellent its constitution, if unsuitably colored it is bound to be a failure as a commercial fabric.”2
While there are ways to dye clothing that are safe and do not harm the environment, the majority of textile dyes are toxic for virtually all forms of life.
Why Textile Dyes Are so Dangerous
When clothing is dyed, about 80% of the chemicals stay on the fabric, while the rest go down the drain.3 Problems exist not only with the dyes themselves but also with the chemicals used to fix or set the colors onto the fabrics. According to Kant:4
“The textile dyeing and finishing industry has created a huge pollution problem as it is one of the most chemically intensive industries on earth, and the No. 1 polluter of clean water (after agriculture). More than 3600 individual textile dyes are being manufactured by the industry today.
The industry is using more than 8000 chemicals in various processes of textile manufacture including dyeing and printing … Many of these chemicals are poisonous and dam- aging to human health directly or indirectly.”
Examples of some of the toxic chemicals used to dye textiles include the following:5
Formaldehyde-based dye fixing agents
Chlorinated stain removers
Hydrocarbon based softeners
Nonbiodegradable dyeing chemicals
Toxic Dye Chemicals Lead to Water Pollution
Millions of gallons of toxic effluent are discharged from textile mills, often at high temperature and pH, which in and of themselves are damaging. Combined with the chemicals, the wastewater can contaminate drinking water and soil and even deplete the water of oxygen, harming marine life. Kant explained:6
“It [mill effluent] prevents the penetration of sunlight necessary for the process of photosynthesis. This interferes with the oxygen transfer mechanism at air water interface. Depletion of dissolved oxygen in water is the most serious effect of textile waste as dissolved oxygen is very essential for marine life.
This also hinders with self purification process of water. In addition when this effluent is allowed to flow in the fields it clogs the pores of the soil resulting in loss of soil productivity. The texture of soil gets hardened and penetration of roots is prevented.
The waste water that flows in the drains corrodes and incrustates the sewerage pipes. If allowed to flow in drains and rivers it effects the quality of drinking water in hand pumps making it unfit for human consumption. It also leads to leakage in drains increasing their maintenance cost. Such polluted water can be a breeding ground for bacteria and viruses.”
Some of the heavy metals used in dyes are known to cause cancer and accumulate in crops and fish via contaminated water and soil. Chronic exposure to dye chemicals has also been linked to cancer and hormone disruption in animals and humans.7
Azo dyes are among the most commonly used and the most toxic, as they break down into cancer-causing amines. According to the Soil Association, in their report “Thirsty for fashion?” even azo dyes in very small quantities of less than 1 part per million in water may kill beneficial microorganisms in soil such that it affects agricultural productivity and may also be toxic to flora and fauna in water.8
Further, textile dyeing facilities tend to be located in developing countries where regulations are lax and labor costs are low. Untreated or minimally treated wastewater is typically discharged into nearby rivers, from where it spreads into seas and oceans, traveling across the globe with the currents.
An estimated 40% of textile chemicals are discharged by China.9 According to Ecowatch, Indonesia is also struggling with the chemical fallout of the garment industry. The Citarum River is now one of the most heavily polluted rivers in the world, thanks to the congregation of hundreds of textile factories along its shorelines.
When Greenpeace tested discharge from a textile plant along the river, they found antimony, tributylphosphate and nonylphenol, a toxic endocrine-disrupting surfactant.10 Kant further noted, “Some 72 toxic chemicals have been identified in water solely from textile dyeing, 30 of which cannot be removed. This represents an appalling environmental problem for the clothing and textile manufacturers.”11
Clothing Manufacturing Uses Staggering Amounts of Water
The clothing industry is not only polluting water but also using massive quantities of it. Kant stated that the daily water consumption of a textile mill that produces about 8,000 kilograms (17,637 pounds) of fabric a day is about 1.6 million liters (422,675 gallons).12 Further, some of the greatest water usage comes from growing the cotton used to make the clothing.
The Soil Association stated that growing cotton accounts for 69% of the water footprint of textile fiber production, with just 1 kilogram (2.2 pounds) of cotton requiring 10,000 (2,641 gallons) to 20,000 liters (5,283 gallons) of water to produce.13
Green America also noted that it takes 2,700 liters (713 gallons) of water to grow enough cotton to make a T-shirt (and this doesn’t account for the water used for dyeing and finishing).14 Cotton is also considered to be a “dirty” crop, requiring 200,000 tons of pesticides and 8 million tons of fertilizers to grow, annually.15 The Soil Association added:16
“Cotton production uses 2.5% of the world’s cultivated land, yet it accounts for 16% of all insecticides sold globally. It also accounts for 4% of artificial nitrogen and phosphorus fertilisers used globally. It is estimated that growing cotton requires 200,000 tonnes of pesticides and 8 million tonnes of synthetic fertilisers every year.”
Problems With ‘Fast Fashion’
The fast fashion industry dictates that you must buy the latest new clothing fad each season, adding more garments to your probably already overstuffed closet. Americans have increased how much clothing they buy due to this consumption trend, with the average person bringing home more than 65 articles of clothing in 2016, according to the “Toxic Textiles” report by Green America.17
At the same time, Americans throw away 70 pounds of clothing and other textiles each year.18 According to the U.S. EPA, textiles made up 6.1% of municipal solid waste in 2015. Only 15.3%, or 2.5 million tons, was recycled while landfills received 10.5 million tons of textiles in 2015, accounting for 7.6% of all municipal solid waste landfills.19
Even when clothing is recycled, Green America notes that “less than 1% of the resources required to make clothing is recaptured and reused to create new clothing.”20 When you donate clothes, it’s also not a sustainable solution, as the majority end up getting sold to textile “recyclers” and exported to other countries.
The Ellen Macarthur Foundation’s Circular Fibres Initiative describes the clothing industry as a linear system that is “ripe for disruption:”21
“The textiles system operates in an almost completely linear way: large amounts of non-renewable resources are extracted to produce clothes that are often used for only a short time, after which the materials are mostly sent to landfill or incinerated. More than USD 500 billion of value is lost every year due to clothing underutilisation and the lack of recycling.
Furthermore, this take-make-dispose model has numerous negative environmental and societal impacts. For instance, total greenhouse gas emissions from textiles production, at 1.2 billion tonnes annually, are more than those of all international flights and maritime shipping combined.
Hazardous substances affect the health of both textile workers and wearers of clothes, and they escape into the environment. When washed, some garments release plastic microbreads, of which around half a million tonnes every year contribute to ocean pollution – 16 times more than plastic microbeads from cosmetics. Trends point to these negative impacts rising inexorably, with the potential for catastrophic outcomes in future.”
Care What You Wear
We can all do our part to opt out of the demands of fast fashion and minimize our support of this highly polluting industry by choosing high-quality garments and using them until they wear out.
If you no longer need an item, try to give it to a friend or family member who can use it. Also, choose to buy, sell or swap used clothing items online or via thrift stores, and opt out of the fast-fashion mindset of buying excessive amounts of low-quality, “throwaway” clothes.
When shopping for clothing, make sure it’s organic, biodynamic and/or GOTS-certified. Organic cotton certified by GOTS (Global Organic Textile Standards) restricts the chemicals that can be used during manufacturing, making them preferable options.
I’ve chosen to carry SITO (Soil Integrity for Textiles Organically) brand socks and underwear, as SITO supports our global mission for improving fabric production and putting an end to fast fashion. To learn more about our Dirt Shirt and SITO brand products, see the video above — 100% of the profits from every Dirt Shirt sold on our site will support the regenerative agricultural movement.
The Mercola-RESET Biodynamic Organic Project is also currently working with 55 certified organic farmers in India, with a mission of converting them to biodynamic and planting biodynamic cotton on 110 acres of land this season.
RESET (Regenerate, Environment, Society, Economy, Textiles) will pay all organic biodynamic farmers in our project a 25% premium over conventional cotton prices, which will be paid directly to the farmers, helping to stop the cycle of toxic clothing.