By Staff Writer Megan E. Hunt.
We clothe our children with them, we dress our windows in them, we sit on them, relax on them, are warmed by them, and are saved by them.
“Textile” is often thought of as a synonym for “fabric”, but textiles actually include any material used for weaving or knitting. Thus the industry of textiles is more expansive than is often apparent.
Besides clothes and bed coverings, textiles also encompass the materials used in ropes, straw hats, cushion stuffing, carpets – even safety gear such as bulletproof vests and fire-retardant suits.
Really, it’s difficult to think of a situation where textiles are not included in the picture. Skinny dipping in a natural body of water may be one of the few.
Textiles are produced and used widely and frequently all over the globe. Last year, the United States alone imported 47,323,544,397 square meters of textiles and apparel.
As much as we like to think of our favorite sweater as being gentle and comfy, it – like other textiles – has had a seedy hidden life. A textile’s existence, from birth to death, is coated in pollution, extreme resource use, and waste.
The United States Environmental Protection Agency reports that in 2008, the fifty facilities with highest textile-production waste created 35,343,676 pounds of production-related waste. Unfortunately, statistics like these make textiles one of the least eco-friendly goods to generate.
While the details vary slightly depending on the fabric, the general picture remains the same. In order for a textile to be born, a resource must be generated. For cotton, many pesticides and large amounts of water are used for its growth. For rayon, forest plants are cut down for processing. Many synthetic fibers are processed with petroleum, a nonrenewable resource, and one whose use breeds a multitude of serious effects.
The U.S. textile industry is small compared to other countries such as China and India; thus it follows that the environmental damage is far greater in other areas of the world.
It is claimed there is a joke in China that says “the Chinese can tell what colors are in fashion in western countries by the color of their local rivers.” Unhappily, there is more truth to that statement than there is humor.
After the aforementioned toxic birth cycle, the textile is woven, knit, or felted into cloth and material. It is then shipped all over the world. Once the clothing, bed linen, carpet, or other form of textile hits the stores, consumers purchase them and take them home.
Regrettably, the textile’s environmental harm does not stop at production. Vast amounts of water, energy and polluting detergents are used every year to launder textiles. In addition, Waste Online reports that an estimated one million tons of textiles are thrown away each year. At least 50% of those are capable of being recycled.
So I’m supposed to live without fabric?
After understanding the life cycle of a textile, it almost seems as if it is impossible to be green and still buy, well, anything made from fabric.
However, all is not lost. The frontier of eco-friendly fabric is still new in the minds of designers, manufacturers, and producers. Much of the path has not yet been paved, but there are those who have started down that road and who are urging reform.
What We Can Do
Some things we can do to help during the reformation process: buy organic, minimize the use of pesticides, buy natural instead of synthetic fabrics-minimize the use of petroleum, and avoid fabrics that have been chemically processed.
Other creative choices we can make include trading clothes with friends, shopping resale, donating or recycling unused items, and buying detergents that are more environmentally friendly.
We do have options, and we will continue to see those options increase in number – as consumers like us demand more responsible textiles through our buying patterns.