Textiles just one step behind petrochemicals in the great pollution debate
The issue of pollution due to industrial production is not at all a new one. As far back as the 18th century, and especially in Britain where the industrial revolution began, air and water pollution swiftly became a very real issue with the introduction of steam engines and the swing away from cottage industries to large scale manufacture. It was the advent of the industrialization of cotton textiles that created the industrial super-boom, responsible, many have argued, for giving Great Britain the strategic advantage over its immediate competition in dominating world trade for the following century. But it was equally responsible for creating the world's first serious industry related pollution problem. Indeed, so severe were these pollution issues that they still affect modern day Britain, the by-products of powering the cotton mills and other areas of industry responsible for the continuing contamination of nearly 2,000 miles of waterways.
One could be forgiven for thinking that such horrors, at least when associated with textiles, have been consigned firmly to the past. Nowadays, the association between pollution and industry is more commonly made regarding mining, ore processing, alloy production and the petrochemicals industry. However, of all these, only the latter is responsible for contributing more pollutants than the global textile and clothing industry. Textiles and garment manufacturing is often seen as a “soft” or light industry and so usually manages to avoid the attention of environmental watchdogs and conservation organizations. And yet the industry itself is enormous, fulfilling one of humankind's most essential needs, and worth somewhere in the region of $1,175 billion annually. But the sad fact is that the supply of clothing, once firmly a homespun affair, is responsible for causing untold harm to the environment. In order to improve the bottom line, most garment manufacturing occurs thousands of miles away from where the finished product is sold – lower labor costs in developing countries dictating this choice. Shipping the huge quantities of garments overseas is a key contributor to carbon emissions and global warming. However, and unbeknown to many, the textiles industry is also one of the highest pollutant releasing industries on the globe. According to some sources, around a fifth of all fresh water pollution globally can be directly attributed to the various stages, aspects and types of textile production. A report on the top ten polluting industries ranked by their negative effects upon human health includes two entries from garment manufacturing, including the dyeing industry which affects nearly half a million people annually and tannery operations which affect nearly two million people.
Tanneries often slip by the attention of the general public in the pollution stakes, but for those who live near them in nations where regulations fail to protect the public and the environment alike, the ubiquitous tannery effluent which finds its way into the local ecosystem is an ever present threat. A brown slurry that carries with it metals such as, lead and cadmium, toxic and carcinogenic by turn, the greatest threat is the presence of chromium, the main ingredient for treating leather. One region which suffers more than its fair share of the by-products of the tanning industry is India. Kanpur, for example, which sits upon the Ganges, is a key exporter of leather goods for which the tanneries are essential in maintaining. Although the presence of a thriving industry in a city of 2.5 million is something normally to be welcomed, the price paid for that gift has been high indeed. Due to the leaching of chromium into the Ganges and from thereon into the gardens, farms and fields of the surrounding areas, whole districts have been blighted by the tannery industry's insidious touch. There are places where leaves hang blackened and lifeless from withered trees, crops entirely unable to grow. Most of the products produced by this industry find their ways to the US and Europe, and yet politicians from both those places seem as unwilling to help as India's own. Of course, as is usually the case, public rhetoric abounds, but action is rarely taken where the bottom line may be affected.
In the tanneries, as in any other area of textile production, the use of water is key in effecting the required treatments. In fact, the textiles industry as a whole is responsible for the use of millions of gallons of water each and every day. This excessive usage is, in itself, a huge issue facing textiles, with groundwater levels depleting daily in what is often described as the key crisis of future generations. Even in the current day, droughts are a serious problem the whole length and breadth of the world, from California on the western coast of the US, to North Korea on the eastern coast of Asia. However, the chief problem regarding water usage, is that it is often re-released into the environment carrying numerous toxic materials, from the heavy metals mentioned above, to chlorines, formaldehyde and PBDEs. All of which are devastating to the river ecosystems, as well as surrounding lands, and potentially fatal to those who live in and off the surrounding areas. Although in small quantities the harm done might be minimal, textiles plants tend to release high volumes that accumulate organically in a very dangerous manner. The process most responsible for this usage and process is that of dyeing, which it is widely accepted requires huge volumes of water without exception. And yet, dry dyeing has been existence for a number of years now, where water usage and hence pollution is next to zero. Problem solved. Except, this process is more costly than traditional water dyeing methods, as well as being costly to initiate, and as anyone with even a modest amount of realism knows, big business does not forsake profits for something as trivial as human life or the welfare of the environment.
A less known issue with textiles and garment manufacturing is that of air pollution, which can sometimes be the equal of water in terms of how negatively it is affected. Like any other form of production, energy is required to power its wheels and, depending upon what source it comes from, the amounts of air pollution can be considerable. In places like India, which as mentioned above is one of the world centers of tannery and textile production, plants are normally powered by huge diesel generators, producing large amounts of Suspended Particulate Matter as well as the usual air pollutant suspects. And SPMs can have devastating consequences for any life, human or otherwise, which lies in its fall path, and can turn slight vulnerabilities into causes of mortality. Additionally, because the boiling of liquids is a paramount aspect of textile production, a very high energy consuming process, the energy requirements can often be much higher than other unaffiliated areas of manufacturing.
Unfortunately, whilst the world's textile and garment manufacturers are held so apparently free of account for their patent lack of concern, air and water pollution do not stand alone amongst the industry's ills. For instance, it may come as a surprise to many that textiles and garments are amongst the most numerous of contributive materials in landfill sites – especially in the west. Already hugely responsible for the negative cost to global warming in shipping costs, and in insisting on operating in weakly regulated and hence heavily-polluting nations in order to improve the bottom line, the western consumer is as much a part of the problem as the garment trade multinationals are. Although the west's hunger for new trends and hence new garments is seemingly insatiable, the rate at which new clothes are purchased is only matched by the speed at which they are thrown away. It is not uncommon for certain sections of society in the west, usually those with rather more money than sense, to only wear an item once before discarding it, irrespective of the financial, human or environmental cost. Which would not be half so bad had we learned to recycle clothing in the same way that it has glass, plastics or paper. As it stands, one Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) study claims that in the U.S. the average person throws away around 70 pounds of garments every year.
The environmental issues associated with the textiles and garment industries are so complex and various that it almost seems a lost cause to attempt to bring that vast field of endeavor into the fold of sustainability. Yet, the answers are plain and simple on every count. If contaminated water is being released into the ecosystem, and there seems to be no economically viable alternative, then ensure that it is filtered in a way that ensures its safety. Or, where possible, governments could subsidize the implementation of safer technologies such as dry dyeing. Where air pollution is a concern, plants could look at using cleaner, sustainable energy sources as an alternative to the fossil fuels they currently depend on. If, as in cotton farming where pesticides are often used to a far greater extent than in other agricultural businesses, promote the possibility of organic farming instead. Of course, this all depends on the involved parties, private and/or public being open to the idea of reduced profit for the first term of implementation and, as we all know, this is a big ask for the dollar hungry captains of industry who would be largely responsible for making that happen. But the diatribe against the big corporations, the internationals and multinationals, end here, because not a single one of them would be in that position of preeminence were it not for the humble consumer. In the matter of garments and textiles, as much as we may want to point the finger of blame elsewhere, the buck stops firmly with us. Yes, to develop a common conscience, a public awareness of the issues surrounding this industry, may require some affirmative action by the governments of the global west; reeducation programs regarding consumer responsibility, recycling drives, etc. But make no bones about it – the people most responsible for this situation, are the ones who look back at us in the mirror every morning.