Who’s misleading who in this “environmentally friendly” game of cat and mouse?
While the Federal Trade Commission and other such agencies focus their efforts on exploiting companies for “alleged” misleading environmental claims, it might shock you to know that in the world of textiles…the consumer is, in fact, the energy consumption machine.
So get ready to grease up those wheels because it’s time to air out your dirty laundry – quite literally.
For years consumers have been lead to believe that the processing of textiles such as cotton, polyester, rayon, and even viscose from bamboo are the culprits in destroying our planet. Whereas pesticides, soil erosion and releasing chemicals into the atmosphere are enough to make you gasp, The American Fiber Manufacturers Association and Danish Environmental Protection Agency will prove the largest environmental impact is in fact YOU – the Consumer. Shocking, but true.
The Lifecycle of a Cotton T-shirt & Polyester Blouse from Cradle to Grave
From seedling to growing and harvesting, to ginning and processing, to distribution and transportation, to your closet, on your person and into the trash is what is referred to as the “lifecycle” in a nutshell. Now let’s get to the facts of where the true energy consumption stems from – creating the biggest environmental impact.
Research from the Netherlands shows that the average piece of clothing remains in a Dutch person’s wardrobe for 3 years 5 months, is on the body for 44 days during this time and is worn for between 2.4 and 3.1 days between washings.1 Yet even though the typical garment is only washed and dried around 20 times in its life, most of its environmental impact comes from laundering and NOT from growing, processing and producing the fabric or disposing of it at the end of its life. For example, the washing and drying of a polyester blouse uses as much as six times as much energy as that needed to make it in the first place.2 Just by washing the blouse half as often, the product’s overall energy consumption can be cut by almost 50 per cent.
Whether you’re concerned about the environment or not, it’s at least worth looking at your bottom dollar when it comes to energy consumption with electricity, gas, water usage and laundry detergent.
To break this down into US dollars per T-shirt for the environmental cost of each stage in the lifecycle of a cotton T-shirt, let’s take a look at how this translates:
Consumer Care: 2.69
In 1993 Franklin Associates conducted an overall lifecycle performance of a polyester blouse for the American Fiber Manufacturers Association.2 The study uses an established LCA methodology and its results show unequivocally that the major part of environmental impact in the lifecycle of a blouse arises from the consumer use phase. It concludes that as much as 82 per cent of energy use, 66 per cent of solid waste, over half of the emissions to air (for carbon dioxide) and large quantities of waterborne effluents (96 per cent if measured by Biological Oxygen Demand alone) are amassed during washing and drying. Cotton and polyester account for over 80 per cent of world fibre demand, both of which reflect that the highest impact phase is attributed to the choices consumers make after purchasing the garmets. The main issues at hand include energy, water, and detergent use in washing, and energy use in drying and ironing. If a garment were washed on cold temperatures and dried on a line instead of in a tumble dryer, then the total lifecycle energy consumption could be reduced by a factor of four according to data for polyester2 and a factor of two for cotton.3 If you were to wash your garments at a lower temperature it would reduce energy consumption by about 10 per cent for every 10°C reduction.4 Eliminating tumble drying (which accounts for 60 per cent of the use phase) and ironing, in combination with a lower washing temperature, has been calculated to lead to around 50 per cent reduction in total energy consumption of the product.3 More recently, consumers have more choices in fibres which can also impact the type of care needed. Studies reveal that different fibre types are laundered on different temperatures when it comes to the wash cycle. Cotton items are most commonly washed on warm temperatures (50°C or 60°C), whereas synthetics are washed cooler (at 30°C or 40°C). Therefore, synthetic or natural fibres have a far less impact associated with the use phase of the lifecycle than cotton.
Although it is clear that the consumer use phase of garments has the largest environmental impact, the textile and fashion industries can assist in reducing the use phase. Some designers have tested crazy methods of designing clothes that require no laundering, but with little success. So far it is just not possible to create a piece of clothing that can dispel our bodily odors and food stains without the occasional wash cycle. However, one such material that has made leaps and bounds over cotton and other materials, when it comes to several phases of the lifecycle, is viscose from bamboo. Not only is organic bamboo grown without pesticides and herbicides, it requires no water irrigation to grow and it removes CO2 from the atmosphere and produces over 30% more oxygen than an equivalent stand of trees. But most importantly, viscose from bamboo plays a significant role in the consumer use phase due to its high level absorption properties and odoriferous qualities. Garments can be worn several times between washes, should be washed on cold temperatures and can be line dried. It’s materials like this that the fashion industry needs to focus on when keeping the end user and our environment in mind.
So the next time you go shopping, think about your environmental impact, your bottom dollar and most importantly…your “dirty laundry”.