Colors for T-shirts are created with dyes that may contain heavy metals.© www.apparelforu.com
After harvesting, cotton is often treated with chlorine bleach to whiten it. Not only is chlorine toxic at acute doses, but it can also be a skin and lung irritant at lower concentrations. The fabric is also frequently treated with formaldehyde resins—often to render it “easy care"—another highly toxic chemical.
Traditionally, colors are created with dyes that may contain heavy metals, such as chromium copper. Even some so-called "natural dyes" can be mixed with heavy metals to prolong their color.
If you made T-shirts in art class, chances are you used screen printing. Although there are less-toxic screen printing techniques available today, most major operations rely on the old methods—including an ink called plastisol, a variation of the toxic-to-produce polyvinyl chloride (PVC).
Discharge printing is faster and produces more vibrant colors, but often uses toxic chemicals as well. For example, zinc formaldehyde sulfoxylate (ZFP) is often used to print light colors onto a dark shirt. But again that includes formaldehyde, a known carcinogen. Some people have even gone so far as to suggest that it might not be a good idea to wear such shirts to sleep or while working out.
Our economy is global, and so are our T-shirts. Much of today’s cotton is grown in the Middle East and India, yet garments are most commonly made in East Asia. Finished products are typically shipped from China and elsewhere to North America and other markets. That results in a substantial use of fuel (often the very dirty stuff burned by container ships), not to mention release of greenhouse gases, particulates and other pollutants.
Plus, it’s not uncommon for shipping companies to spray fabrics with insecticides in transit.
Buy Local, Buy Organic
You can help decrease the footprint of your wardrobe, and still look great, by buying locally produced goods, especially stuff made from fibers sourced in your region. Yes, it can help to buy American, although as the above notes sometimes only part of the entire process happens domestically.
It’s always a good idea to buy used clothes, or swap things with friends, family or even strangers (swap meets can also be a lot of fun). Used clothes already exist—they don"t consume energy during growing, production and distribution like new clothes—so their overall carbon footprint is a lot less.
You can also find an increasing selection of clothes made from organic cotton, or alternative fibers like bamboo, hemp or recycled materials. These greener goods keep coming down in price, and in many cases are cost competitive with all but the very cheapest, low-quality duds.
Organic cotton, in particular, is grown without synthetic pesticides and herbicides, using techniques that replenish and maintain soil fertility and biodiversity. By buying third-party certified organic, you have greater assurance that the product is produced with genuine sustainability in mind. In the U.S., no genetically engineered materials are allowed in organic products.
The good news is that the farming of organic cotton has been on the rise. That segment increased 152% during the 2007-2008 crop year, according to the Organic Cotton Farm and Fiber Report 2008 by Organic Exchange. Next time you"re shopping for a new favorite tee, look for the organic label.
BRIAN CLARK HOWARD is the Home and Eco Tips editor for The Daily Green