Is you clothing toxic? Well, it could be, depending on where it came from, who made it, and how much you paid for it.
What? Read on.
The clothing industry pollutes a lot. Right from growing the crops (or the animals) from which the textile is woven – to the final product on the shelf in the store, there are several steps in the process followed by the textile industry. Numerous chemicals are used in each of the different steps of the process, in “natural” as well as synthetic fabrics. And so, just like that, alkylphenols, nonylphenol ethoxylates, phthalates, heavy metals, formaldehyde, amines, perfluorinated substances, and more are exposed through our clothes into our skin and our most vulnerable parts every day.
For example, cotton: Cotton crops cover about 2.5 per cent of the world’s arable land. And they consumes approximately 25 per cent of all the pesticides used worldwide. Traditional (non-organic) cotton requires 0.33 pounds of chemicals and toxins to produce one t-shirt.
Why are there so many chemicals in clothes?
Here’s what some of the most common chemicals are used for:
Hexavalent chrome: for tanning leather
Formaldehyde: for crease resistance; carrier for dyes/prints
Amines: to brighten dye colors
Nonylphenol ethoxylates: to make fabric waterproof
Glyphosate: as herbicide for cotton crops
Chlorine Bleach: for stain removal
Brominated flame retardant: to prevent clothes from catching fire (it’s a requirement in children’s clothing)
Ammonia: for shrink resistance
Phthalates: for printing
Heavy metals: for dyeing
Should I be worried about toxins in my clothes?
I hear ya: “I mean, we’re all mostly fine. We haven’t grown an extra ear or developed scales due to all the toxins we – and all living organisms – are ingesting constantly. Is this really a problem?”
YES. It is.
Exposure to these chemicals increases the risk of allergic dermatitis, apart from more severe health effect for humans as well as the environment. Check out what happened to the American Airlines employees last year.
Polyester has been found to make cancer cells grow quicker. It also emits phytoestrogen, a “hormone disruptor, a known carcinogen, and culprit of skin rashes and dermatitis.” It ain’t just polyester; nylon and rayon, too, are bad for us.
Nonylphenol ethoxylates, which are commonly used as detergents in textile processing, are released into the water when you wash your clothes. There, they break down into nonylphenols—which are endocrine-disrupting chemicals. You are exposed to them, of course, and then they in turn accumulate in the environment and are highly toxic to fish and ocean wildlife.
Toxins in the environment
Chemicals used during production continue to leech into the environment during the production itself, during actual use, and after disposal. We’re essentially contaminating the environment by the very act of clothing ourselves. Synthetic microfibers take a long time to degrade, and so do micro plastics, which basically live forever. In fact, micro plastics have now been found to enter our food chain after being consumed by other animals that we consume. Synthetic materials cannot be digested and broken down, and so they can remain unchanged in the ecosystem for a long time.
Yep. It’s one of the drawbacks/benefits of being at the top of the food chain – all the toxins will reach you in perfect condition and finally fuck you up.
Is the textile industry regulated?
The TSCA (Toxic Substances Control Act), Prop 65 and the Safer Consumer Products Regulations go to a certain extent in regulating the industry. However, like all controversial regulations, these don’t go nearly far enough, and the onus is mostly left on the consumer to look after her safety.
The European REACH regulation aims to regulate and limit the exposure to certain chemicals considered very toxic. However, we all know our clothes aren’t only made in Europe. The relatively recent fast fashion phenomenon has led to huge, global production and supply chains, most of which are very nebulous and therefore difficult to regulate, even if someone wanted to. Basically, there is little to no control of how the majority of clothing items are being produced.
Some companies, after listening to consumer feedback, have committed to gradually eliminating the use of certain toxic chemicals from their production process. But that’s obviously not enough. Clothes do not have an ingredient list like food items, although they should, and there is no way anyone can ascertain where a certain item of clothing came from and what went into making it (not by just looking at it, anyway).
What can I do to detox my clothes?
Well, we have to take matters into our own hands, as usual (thanks, government). The best you can do when you are shopping for new clothes are the following:
1. Opt for undyed natural organic clothing and fabrics. If it is dyed, then it should be with a natural/vegetable or non-toxic dye.
Organic fabric is fabric that has not been produced with the use of toxic pesticides and other chemicals. This not only is healthier for your body, but is better for the farmers working on these crops (they’re not exposed to the harmful chemicals), the local ecology and wildlife (again, not exposed to harmful chemicals), as well as for the environment. Win, win, win, win.
2. Look for authorized certifications such as Blue Sign, which is an emerging standard and is pretty specific about harmful substances, Textile Exchange or GOTS, among others. Cradle to Cradle measures additional aspects such as social justice, material reuse, renewable energy, and water stewardship.
3. Buy from brands that sell certified organic items. (Here’s the list, you incurable fashionista!). Choose quality, long-lasting pieces over quantity.
4. Buy locally-made clothes. This will make it much easier for you to ensure the supply chain is transparent (plus, you will be supporting local businesses).
5. Buy vintage clothing (from thrift shops or online stores, or try Swap). Not only do toxins tend to become less potent as time passes, but more importantly, this whole system of industrial production with chemical usage is very recent. This means sufficiently old vintage clothing items will probably have been made with much less exposure to toxins in the first place.
6. Stop buying clothes. You have enough. Seriously. This entire issue isn’t just about polluting our body and the environment with toxins; it’s about using up resources at an unsustainable pace, emitting greenhouse gases from the factories, and tremendous waste generation at the end of it all. So just look at the clothes you already have, and detoxify them – and continue using them.
How to Detoxify Your Existing Clothes: Soak them overnight in water mixed with non-toxic detergent (to be covered in the next post). Wash and then hang them out to dry in the sun. The sun works great to disinfect and detoxify. (But remember, you are, unfortunately, releasing the chemicals into the environment when you wash them off your clothes. This really is an incredibly complicated situation.) Repeat this a couple of times, and your clothes will be much safer for you to wear. Continue to wash them only with non-toxic detergents.
To learn more about building an ethical wardrobe, read Wear No Evil by Greta Eagan.
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