What's this season's hottest color? Do you have the latest style of jeans? With quickly changing trends and fairly cheap clothing readily available, Americans buy new clothes without thinking twice. While many people are concerned about the impact a new car makes on the environment to the point of checking what kind of fuel it takes, its reliability and gas mileage ratings before buying, they rarely know what impact their new T-shirt has on the environment.

It's time to think more deeply about the entire cost of a new piece of clothing, from how it's produced to how it's cleaned.

How fabrics are made

There's a fairly significant environmental cost to making any fabric, but some are harsher than others. Whether a material is man-made or not isn't the end of the story.

  • Polyester is a synthetic material made from petroleum. The manufacturing process is energy-intensive and produces acid gases, particulate matter and volatile organic compounds that have all been attributed to breathing problems. The process also requires a lot of water for cooling.
  • Making synthetic nylon produces nitrous oxide, which has 310 times the carbon footprint of carbon dioxide, the predominant greenhouse gas, making even small quantities dangerous for the environment.
  • Rayon is made from the wood pulp of trees, usually eucalyptus trees, which require a lot of water to grow. Even worse, old growth forests are sometimes cleared to make way for these trees to be harvested as a cash crop.
  • Cotton production uses more pesticides than any crop worldwide. Believe it or not, anywhere from a third to an entire pound of pesticide goes into making just one T-shirt!

How clothing is manufactured

The processes used to turn fabric into wearable clothing can also be just as costly to the environment as producing the fabrics themselves.

  • Dyeing and printing require a lot of water and the excess color can run off into sewers and wind up in rivers.
  • To get the easy-care, no-iron permanent press quality in certain shirts and pants, the fabric is treated with formaldehyde, a gas that has also been attributed to health problems.
  • Distressing jeans to get that soft, lived-in look requires lots of water and chemicals.

The United States is the second largest producer of cotton in the world, but by far the largest exporter of cotton. In fact, more than half of the world's exported cotton comes from the U.S. The materials and finished product of any typical T-shirt bought in the U.S. made of American cotton but manufactured in China travel 17,000 miles before it's ever worn. All that shipping back and forth contributes countless pollutants to the air and water. Plus, most clothing is manufactured in developing countries that don’t do much to protect workers or the environment from the toxic substances used in production.

What's a conscientious consumer to do? Stayed tuned for Part 2 to find out.

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