Dear EarthTalk: Can you enlighten on the environmental impact of the fashion industry? As I understand it, the industry overall is no friend to the environment.
—Tan Cheng Li, Malaysia
According to the non-profit Earth Pledge, today some 8,000 synthetic chemicals are used throughout the world to turn raw materials into textiles. Domestically, the U.S. Department of Agriculture reports that one-quarter of all pesticides used nationwide go toward growing cotton, primarily for the clothing industry. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency considers many domestic textile manufacturing facilities to be hazardous waste generators; and lax standards and enforcement in developing countries, where the majority of textiles are produced, means that untold amounts of pollution are likely being deposited into local soils and waterways in regions that can hardly stand further environmental insult.
Luz Claudio, writing in Environmental Health Perspectives, considers the way Americans and Europeans shop for clothes as "waste couture": Fashion is low-quality and sold at "prices that make the purchase tempting and the disposal painless." Yet this sort of so-called "fast fashion" leaves a pollution footprint, with each step of the clothing life cycle generating potential environmental and occupational hazards.
According to Technical Textile Markets, a quarterly trade publication, demand for man-made fibers such as petroleum-derived polyester has nearly doubled in the last 15 years. "The manufacture of polyester and other synthetic fabrics is an energy-intensive process requiring large amounts of crude oil," reports Claudio. In addition, she says, the processes emit volatile organic compounds and solvents, particulate matter, acid gases such as hydrogen chloride, and other production by-products into the air and water.
"Issues of environmental health and safety do not apply only to the production of man-made fabrics," says Claudio, citing subsidies to the pesticide-laden cotton industry that keep prices low and production high.
In an effort to green up the industry, Earth Pledge launched its FutureFashion initiative in 2005 to promote the use of renewable, reusable and non-polluting materials and production methods. Besides putting on its own FutureFashion showcases, the group organized the January 2008 New York Fashion Week, encouraging designers to create and showcase greener clothing on their runway models. Green-leaning designers can also pick through Earth Pledge's library of 600 sustainably produced textiles, including organic cotton as well as exotic materials such as sasawashi, pina, bamboo, milk protein, and sea leather.
Another effort underway to speed the fashion industry into a carbon-constrained future is the Ethical Fashion Forum, which provides a variety of tools and resources and runs training sessions and networking events to help facilitate moving the industry towards more sustainable practices.
One stumbling block to the greening of fashion is that only a small number of consumers—some analysts say less than one percent—will pay more for a greener shirt. But if the industry itself can improve its footprint from the inside and drive the costs of more eco-friendly materials and processes down, the benefits will trickle down to consumers, whether they are bargain-conscious or fashion-conscious.
Dear EarthTalk: It has been said that global warming will bring a new ice age. Is this true or only fiction?
—Nitisha Jain, Delhi, India
While no one can be sure what and how severe the effects of global warming will be, it is entirely possible that one outcome of our profligate use of fossil fuels could be an ice age. The theory goes that a warming-induced influx of cold, fresh water into the North Atlantic from melting polar ice caps and glaciers could shut down the Gulf Stream, an underwater channel of warm ocean water that winds its way north from the Caribbean and moderates temperatures in the northeastern U.S. and Western Europe.
The result, some scientists speculate, would be a return to ice age conditions. In the extreme, glaciers and freezing temperatures would render large swaths of the civilized world uninhabitable and would kill off untold numbers of species unable to move or adapt. A less dire version would still cause bitterly cold winters, droughts, worldwide desertification and crop failures, and trigger resource wars across the globe.
Of course, over the history of geological time the planet has endured vast shifts in temperature and many ice ages and subsequent warm-ups. The last major ice age peaked about 20,000 years ago, when extensive ice sheets covered large parts of what we now call North America, Europe and Asia. Many climate scientists believe the planet oscillates between warmer and colder periods without human intervention due to various factors related to its orbital path and also variations in heat output from the Sun on a millennial scale—and that we are naturally heading toward another ice age, regardless of greenhouse gas emissions, over the next several dozen millennia.
But others believe those very emissions might just save us from the freezing throes of another ice age. In a study published in the September 4, 2009 issue of the Science magazine, researchers report that human-induced climate change is quite possibly fending off what had been presumed to be an inevitable descent into a new ice age based on data collected across various Arctic regions in recent years.
The study found that after a slow cooling of less than half a degree Fahrenheit per millennium as a result of a cyclical change in the orientation of the North Pole and the Sun, the Arctic warmed by some 2.2 degrees just since 1900, with the decade from 1998 to 2008 the warmest in 2,000 years. Without human intervention, researchers would expect summer temperatures in the Arctic to cool for another 4,000 years or so as the North Pole gets further from the Sun, but in fact, researchers believe, global warming is reversing this trend.
"The slow cooling trend is trivial compared to the warming that's been happening and that's in the pipeline," reports the study's lead author Darrell S. Kaufman of the University of Arizona. Of course, only time will tell whether our relatively short-term flood of pollutants will have a pronounced long-term effect on the planet's geological-scale warming/cooling dynamic. In the meantime, most responsible individuals and governments are working to lower their carbon footprints to try to take man back out of the climate equation once and for all. Hopefully our grandkids" grandkids will be around to thank us.
CONTACT: Science Magazine
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