Green Junction: Clothes you wear could be pollution By Julie Peller Ph.D.

The clothing industry is responsible for many different types of pollution. This sector creates more carbon pollution than the combination of international air and water shipping. The clothing and textiles industry is the 2nd largest industrial consumer of water and pollutes water, mainly from the coloring process. More than half of the world’s textiles are made from petroleum-based materials. Polyester production, the most common plastic fabric, releases 2-3 times more carbon than cotton production. The constant, massive release of microfibers from these materials has polluted all facets of the environment, the air, water, soil, etc.

For years, the clothing industry modified manufacturing practices; they lowered labor costs, bought and sold in bulk, and focused on lower-cost materials to increase output and sell clothes at a lower price. This led to an increase in consumer purchases. For example, from 2000 to 2014, people purchased about 60% more clothing items. People buy more clothing than ever and throw away more clothing. Used clothing is now a significant contributor to our waste problem, much of it considered plastic waste (polyester, etc.). An estimate of one garbage truck full of clothes is burned or dumped in a landfill every second worldwide. 

Solutions to these types of enormous problems are possible when people use their talents, experiences, and training for the greater good and society responds. The Ellen MacArthur Foundation released a report in 2017 for a vision on a new textiles economy where “clothes, textiles, and fibers are kept at their highest value during use and re-enter the economy afterward, never-ending up as waste.” The foundation studies ways to transform the world toward circular economies where resources are valued, energy use, and waste are minimized, all in context with economic stability. 

It is excellent to know that many people want clothing manufacturers to change practices to protect the environment, and many companies are moving in that direction. Everlane, Pact, and Patagonia are a few clothing companies that function as a sustainability model. The well-known Levi’s brand is “committed to sustainability through the entire design and manufacturing process, including working towards 100% sustainably sourced cotton and recycling old jeans into home insulation.” Even though it is not easy to break from the mindset of bargain purchases, it is essential to invest in fewer, higher-quality clothes to protect the environment/public health. Once again, consumers can take small steps to change the course of environmental degradation. What will be your choice?

Julie Peller Ph.D. is an environmental chemist (Professor of Chemistry at Valparaiso University ) and she leads the Environmental Ministry at Nativity of Our Savior in Portage IN. Julie has been writing a weekly column for church bulletins for the past ~5 years called the Green Junction and is helping to move the call of Laudato Si to action forward. Her Research Interests are in Advanced oxidation for aqueous solutions, water quality analyses, emerging contaminants, air quality analyses, Lake Michigan shoreline challenges (Cladophora, water, and sediment contaminants), student and citizen participation in environmental work.

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