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The Poison Fields You Might Be Wearing

The poison fields

By Matthias  Gelber

Given the industrialised nature of both agriculture and manufacturing in our current society, it’s probably not much of a surprise to hear that our clothing is saturated at every stage of the manufacturing process with hazardous chemicals. An oft-stated rationale for this is that it is necessary to keep clothing inexpensive. But there are serious costs to us all – environmental and human – that don’t necessarily show up in the price tag. Is there a better way? Yes – if consumers begin to demand it.

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I can still recall a couple of years ago when the football shirts of my favourite German club Borussia Dortmund were pulled off the shelves because a German Green Test Institute had found them to be contaminated with not-so-healthy chemicals. In our dressing normally, day-to-day, we might not be conscious of the fact that our clothing has gone through many different processes, some of which may involve hazardous chemicals. Some clothes still come with this advice on their labels: Wash before use. We should really wonder why!

Look at cotton, the world’s most popular fabric. Generally quoted figures indicate that conventional cotton production consumes 10% of the world’s pesticides and 22% of the world’s insecticides. According to the US Environmental Protection Agency, the world used about 5.2 billion pounds of pesticides in both 2006 and 2007. (1) Essentially we are talking here about a huge amount of poisonous chemicals going into the soil, the water, and thence into plants – world-wide. Besides the environmental impact, there is the human impact. For example, cotton farmers, especially those in less developed countries, are repeatedly exposed to these agrochemicals, which results each year in numerous poisoning incidents and fatalities.

Farmer in cotton field

But that is not the end of the story. As a matter of fact, it is only the beginning. The production of cotton clothing at the factories can also be chemically intensive. I have vivid memories of visiting garment factories in China and Indonesia that looked like chemical storage plants.

Some of the additives that are in our clothes include the following:

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  • Perfluorinated chemicals, or PFCs, are added to give clothes the non-iron feature. This chemical is linked to cancer and other human health problems.
  • Formaldehyde, a highly toxic chemical, is used to prevent textiles from shrinking. It can cause allergic skin reactions and has been linked to cancer.
  • Many dyes that are used to colour our clothes are full of solvents or other chemicals. You can sometimes even detect the smell of solvents in new clothes. When you take your clothes home, you are also taking home a source of chemicals that will pollute your indoor air quality, which in turn damages your health.
  • Recent developments in antibacterial coatings or additives for clothes have led to concerns as well, because these chemicals are a potential hazard to waterways and human health.

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Cotton yarns

Here is a fundamental question: Why have so many harmful chemicals entered into our lives? The answer is simple and straightforward: All this is happening because of OUR consumption patterns.

But many people will ask the question whether or not they, as individuals, carry any responsibility? For me it is very clear cut – every item we buy influences the market place. When we buy something, we become part of the supply-and-demand economy. The more we buy a type of product or service, the more it will be on offer. We, the consumers, shape the economy in the developed Western systems. Marketing or manipulation from the sales industry has moved us to buy more than we need. It can also move us in another direction: we are encouraged to buy the cheapest things – things that have huge environmental impact and waste generation as part of their supply chain. But few of us are aware of this. The products stay cheap because we do not calculate the cost of cleaning up the environmental contamination or the disposal of waste into the price of the products.

What looks cheap – and might be cheap – at the counter, can come with a huge cost in habitat destruction, environmental impact, or clean-up costs. The power of the consumer counts; if we all start buying certain types of products and millions of others follow, we will then be a force to be reckoned with. Producers will have to satisfy our preferences and change the types of products and solutions they offer. Globally there is a movement called LOHAS. It stands for Lifestyle Of Health and Sustainability. The proponents of this movement are called LOHASians. In Malaysia around 14 % of consumers are classified as such. They are people that buy green and healthy and the market value of this movement goes into many billions. The bigger this green and healthy market grows, the more it will benefit the health of our planet.

Harvesting cotton

And what do LOHASians buy in terms of clothing?

Definitely not petroleum-based synthetic clothing! First of all, such synthetic fabrics are potential fire hazards because the raw material is combustible. Secondly, these synthetic fabrics can be problematic as they tend to be less breathable. A two year study compared a group of male dogs wearing polyester underpants with another group of male dogs wearing cotton underpants. Those wearing the former suffered a reduced sperm count, whereas those wearing the latter did not experience any adverse effects. (2) This is quite a significant finding. It leads us to conclude that “natural” materials like cotton are the way to go.

But in the case of cotton there are many factors we should take into consideration as well. Of particular import is the issue of whether we should go with conventional cotton or organic cotton. As pointed out earlier, conventionally grown cotton is a chemical-intensive crop, so it cannot be the first choice of LOHASians. This leaves us with organic cotton. But what exactly is “organic”? And is it a better choice?

According to the Textile Exchange, a non-profit organisation committed to the responsible expansion of sustainable textiles across the global textile value chain, “organic agricultural practices may vary slightly from country to country but common to all is the prohibition of toxic and persistent synthetic agrichemicals.” These include pesticides, herbicides, and fertilisers. So how do organic farmers manage the major problems of pests, weeds, and soil fertility? Let us take a moment to consider these agricultural issues.

Firstly, organic farmers do not depend on synthetic chemicals to manage pests. Instead, they plant so-called “trap crops” to lure pests away from the cotton; and they create a habitat for the pests’ natural predators.

Cotton in barn

Secondly, organic farmers deal with weeds the old-fashioned way – they remove them by hand.

Thirdly, organic farmers maintain, and in some cases, enhance soil fertility through environmentally friendly practices such as crop rotation and composting. This minimises or eliminates the need for fertilisers. Moreover, the higher amount of organic matter in the soil helps it to retain more water, thereby reducing the need for irrigation. This means organic cotton requires less water to grow – approximately 3,000 cubic metres per acre less, to be precise. In contrast, conventionally grown cotton is a notoriously thirsty crop: anywhere from 7,000 to 29,000 litres of water is needed to grow 1 kg of conventional cotton according to a World Wildlife Fund report.

All the aforesaid actions are not only good for the environment, they are also good for the people in it – farmers, industrial workers, and ultimately consumers. The benefit to farmers and manufacturing workers should be obvious; but the benefit to consumers is less apparent. Unbenownst to many, most agrichemicals are persistent; that is, they do not degrade easily. And at least one study has shown that hazardous pesticides applied during conventional cotton production can also be detected in cotton clothing. These residual chemicals can cause skin irritation and are bad for health.

The choice is ours. We, the consumers, hold the key, whether we are buying for ourselves or for our friends and family. Over to you!

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  • (1) Pesticides Industry Sales and Usage – 2006 and 2007 Market Estimates
  • (2) Environmental Impacts of Production: Water Use/
  • (3) Urological Research, 1993;  Volume 21, Number 5, 367-370.

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