The Truth About the Clothes We Wear: How Fashion Impacts Health and the Environment

Most of the clothes we wear (unless they are labeled "Fair Trade" or "Organic") contain some pretty toxic additives. For example, conventionally grown cotton uses more insecticides than any other single crop.
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"How often do you think about the clothes you're wearing or its impact on the people who make it?" asked Matt Reynolds, President and Co-Founder of INDIGENOUS, an organic and fair trade fashion company, at a recent eco fashion talk in San Francisco. The gathering was sparked by the recent Bangladesh tragedy where a garment factory collapsed and over 1,100 workers died.

Poor working conditions, minimal environmental regulations, and child and slave labor are commonplace in the $1 trillion garment industry. One way INDIGENOUS is helping to rectify that situation is to create transparency between their consumers and textile workers. Scott Leonard and Matt Reynolds, INDIGENOUS Co-founders, embedded their hang tags with QR (quick response) bar codes, which can be scanned by a smartphone so that consumers can learn where a garment was made, and the social impact the purchase makes on the lives of the workers. "This is nutritional labeling for the fashion industry," said Shamini Dhana, who moderated the event. Dhana is Founder of Dhana EcoKids, a children's apparel company that uses 100% certified organic fabric and eco-friendly dyes. "We need to start thinking about people and planet and not just profit," she added.

Our Health Might be at Risk

Most of the clothes we wear (unless they are labeled "Fair Trade" or "Organic") contain some pretty toxic additives. For example, conventionally grown cotton uses more insecticides than any other single crop. Research shows that non-organic cotton farming uses 25% of the insecticides applied worldwide, making cotton production a significant pollution factor for our environment and the eco system. The USDA reported that over 2 billion pounds of synthetic fertilizers are applied to U.S. cotton annually and ranks cotton third behind corn and soybeans in total amount of pesticides sprayed. The Environmental Protection Agency considers seven of the top 15 pesticides used on cotton in the U.S. as "possible," "likely," "probable," or "known" human carcinogens.

To make these numbers real, look at a common item like a cotton t-shirt, for example. It takes almost a 1/3 pound of synthetic fertilizers to grow one pound of raw cotton; and it takes just under one pound of raw cotton to make one t-shirt. During the conversion of cotton into conventional clothing, many hazardous materials are used and added to the product, including heavy metals, flame retardants, ammonia, phthalates and formaldehyde, just to name a few. These harmful chemicals pollute the air, water, soil and get into the fabrics we put next to our skin everyday. "Adequate testing has not been done to determine whether fabric additives, such as insecticides and metals, can safely be in constant contact with human skin," says Brian R. Clement, Ph.D., Founder of the Hippocrates Health Institute in his book "Killer Clothes."

Another chilling fact: In California, it is illegal to feed the leaves, stems, and short fibers of cotton known as 'gin trash' to livestock, because of the concentrated levels of pesticide residue. Instead, this gin trash is used to make furniture, mattresses, tampons, swabs, and cotton balls!

Become Aware of What You Buy

  • Look for Organic Cotton which uses no harmful pesticides or synthetic dyes, keeping the environment safe and free from pollution. It's not as hard as you think to find organic cotton products. Bed Bath and Beyond sells organic cotton towels, Eileen Fisher sells organic cotton clothing (sourced from INDIGENOUS), and Wal-Mart (the world's largest buyer of organic cotton) and Sam's Clubs sells organic cotton apparel and bedding.
  • Look for companies who practice Fair Trade, which means providing fair wages to local workers and treating them with dignity and respect, in a safe, healthy workplace. Fair Trade helps preserve native arts and improve the quality of life for communities around the world. Approximately 5 million people earn a living from fair trade production.
  • Avoid polyester and nylon because they are made from petroleum and contribute to increased global warming. Manufacturing them involves large amounts of crude oil which releases dangerous chemicals into the atmosphere, including acidic gases such as hydrogen chloride.
  • Avoid any garment that is advertised as being anti-shrink, antibacterial, antimicrobial, antistatic, anti-odor, anti-flame, anti-wrinkle, or anti-stain. These all contain chemicals not tested for safety on humans.
  • Support companies who are Certified B Corps, or Benefit corporations -- businesses who care about healthy environments and alleviating poverty. A few well known B Corps are Patagonia, Ben & Jerry's, Method and INDIGENOUS.
  • For more information check out The Sustainable Cotton Project, Organic Trade Association, Pesticide Action Network, Global Organic Textile Standard
Beth Greer, Super Natural Mom®, is author of the bestseller "Super Natural Home," endorsed by Deepak Chopra and Ralph Nader. She's former President of The Learning Annex, and an environmental health advocate who eliminated a sizable tumor in her chest without drugs or surgery. Beth is also an inspiring speaker and popular media guest having appeared on CNN, ABC and NBC. She designs Working Healthy corporate wellness programs and personalized in-home detox audits nationwide.

For more by Beth Greer, click here.

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