© 2022

Textiles: A Potential Ecological And Ethical Disaster



Three years of fashion school, and the value in what I have learnt is abundantly clear. Now, whenever I go shopping, even secondhand, I check the tags of the product to see the exact garment composition and its country of origin. Often, this provides a valuable insight into the environmental and ethical practices that have gone into the product you’re buying, which, at the end of the day, may not coincide with your ethos on what is ethical for people and the environment. Without this knowledge it’s difficult to make ethical decisions, so here’s a breakdown into textiles and their meanings.

First, there are two main types of fibers and fabrics to look out for. Synthetic fibers, such as rayon, polyester, and spandex, are not found in nature. These products were made with petroleum, and, like polyester, can be considered plastic. These products are not biodegradable, and with each wash, can release microplastics into the water, thus polluting our oceans. Natural fibers, such as cotton, wool, and silk, can be found and harvested in nature, and thus are considered more sustainable sources for garment production.

Financial empires have risen and fallen because of cotton. While cotton is a natural fiber that can be found in nature, the historical increased demand for it has made its production unsustainable. To make a single cotton t-shirt, it takes 2,700 liters of water. Cotton, known as the dirtiest crop in the world, reliant on enormous amounts of pesticides and harmful toxic chemicals to grow it, causes increased contamination of water sources due to the runoff created by storms. Recently, Xinjiang, China, has been a source of significant ethical concern due to the human rights abuse, as the slave labor of Uyghur minorities has been utilized to pick one of the world’s largest sources of cotton for global fashion companies.

Polyester and other synthetic fibers are, essentially, plastic. They’re cheap to make and use in garments, which makes them popular among consumers, because the markup and final price isn’t as high as, for example, a wool blazer. Often, you’ll find products labeled as 100% polyester, unless you want a little bit of a stretch to the fabric, then it may be, for example, 90% polyester and 10% spandex.

So what’s the harm created by synthetics such as polyester and nylon, amongst others? As stated before, most forms of synthetic fibers are unable to be broken down or decompose. Because synthetic fibers are reliant on the petroleum industry, it creates a continuous cycle of reliance on fossil fuels rather than renewable energy. As companies like H&M begin their recycling programs, it’s noteworthy that one should be cautious when buying products that are labeled as made from recycled synthetic fibers or water bottles.

Research has shown that when companies run programs that utilize, say water bottles, and turn them into clothing, it is actually even more polluting and dangerous than the original plastic water bottle. By breaking it down into fibers to make a garment, it also breaks down the plastic into thousands, if not millions, of individual fibers. Consequently, when you go and wash your new “recycled” jacket, it then introduces the microplastics into the water. It would’ve been harder for microplastics to reach an ocean if the product had remained a plastic water bottle in its original form.

Wool, leather, and animal skins can be sustainable textiles, but for ethical reasons, one may choose not to buy these products brand new due to concerns over animal cruelty. However, it is important to note that an outspoken group of conservationists advocated for the sale of exotic animal skins, as many were sourced by Australian Aboriginals as well as local indigenous tribes in Kenya, Indonesia, and Bolivia, just to name a few. These communities relied on the income due to these luxurious sales, thus preserving the animals, and when they lost these forms of income, often they resorted to ecologically-damaging methods to alleviate their poverty: logging, slash-and-burn farming, and gold mining.

In regards to sustainable fibers, here are some that often top lists: organic hemp, organic linen, and Tencel. Hemp can grow in dry soil, thus it doesn’t need large amounts of water to cultivate the plant. Hemp also can help stabilize soil, which allows for the soil to be used for a multitude of other purposes. Organic linen is made from flax, which is a recyclable fiber. Tencel is a rather new member on the textiles scene—it’s essentially a manmade fiber that comes from the wood pulp of trees.

It’s of importance to remember simultaneously that the country of origin provides critical insight into the conditions in which the product was likely made. It is estimated that 85-95% of sweatshop workers are women. In countries like Bangladesh, where sweatshops are rampant and even lethal to its workers, the textile industry makes up 20% of the total GDP and employs 20 million people. It is estimated that 60% of the women working in these factories and sweatshops face physical or verbal violence in the workplace, a dangerous, threatening condition. While this is just a glimpse into Bangladesh, it’s important to remember that there are sweatshops all over the world, and this is just a glance into the horrific conditions that women-dominated spaces face.

By looking at what your garment is made from and where it was made, it can give a very specific and significant insight into the birth and life of the product. A shirt may have originally just been a set of fibers made into a textile, but the practices used in the process determine if the product was environmentally-friendly, ethically made, and are of crucial importance in consumption decisions.

Ashley Hajimirsadeghi is a writer and artist based in Baltimore and New York City. Her work often deals with intergenerational trauma, utilizing cinema from a cultural, sociological, and socioeconomic lens, and the impacts of urbanism and loneliness. An undergraduate at the Fashion Institute of Technology studying International Trade, she hopes to advocate for sustainable and ethical practices in the global marketplace.


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