Organic food, cosmetics, cleaning products and agriculture made sense to me as soon as I heard the terms – no one wants to be ingesting, inhaling or, what is effectively, marinating themselves in dangerous chemicals all day. But organic fabrics? Just sounded like a bit of a marketing strategy to me. But then I thought about it a little harder and realised that out of all of those categories ‘fabrics’ are the ones that our skin has the most contact with, for most of the time. Unless you are lucky enough to be a nudist your skin is in contact with some sort of fabric throughout most of the day whether its a blanket, a pillow, a towel, a dress or a jacket. So if these materials are produced with harsh chemicals and genetic modification are we, and our families, at danger of somehow absorbing them?
I guess it is not surprising that we need to use chemicals on these fibres. We want them to feel nice but be robust, keep us warm but not make us sweat, be washable but waterproof, be crease-resistant but also comfy. Lets face it… we expect a lot from our fabrics these days. Here is a quick run down of the fibres we have to work with:
- Natural Fibres – these come directly from plants and animals e.g. wool, cotton, linen, hemp and silk
- Semi-synthetic Fibres – the raw ingredient in these fibres is cellulose which is made from woodchips (and is also found in all plants). To be made into filaments the cellulose must be dissolved through a chemical process
- Synthetic Fibres – are produced by the petrochemical industry from crude oil and they include nylon, polyester, acrylic. PVC is a synthetic fibre used in products and clothing and during the manufacture releases dioxin… one of the most toxic chemicals around. Yuck!
So, looking at the three categories of fibres you can already see that the majority of fibres need to go through at least some sort of chemical processing before being made into material. But what exactly do they do?
How are chemicals used in manufacturing?
Dyeing and Bleaching
Considering the kaleidoscope of colours you can see in any clothing or homewares stores nowadays it is no surprise that bleaching and dyeing form part of the manufacturing process. Dyes are strongly linked to allergies, like eczema, especially those that have been used on synthetic fabrics. Azo dyes are the most allergenic of these and used to dye nylons and polyesters. It is a vicious cycle because these synthetic fabrics don’t breathe easily and cause us to sweat and the dyes are then water soluble so come into contact with skin and increase risks of allergies. Where do we typically sweat the most? Our armpits… right where our lymph nodes (the things that moderate our immune system) are found.
Genetically Modified Cotton
But cotton is a natural fibre right? Well once upon a time, but now it is the third largest genetically modified (GM) crop in the world after soybean and corn. GM crops are grown to be resistant to herbicides and pesticides which means they can be sprayed with as many poisons as the producer needs to kill insects and weeds without the plants dying along with them – as they would in their natural state. And while it sounds great in theory, GM can have dramatic repercussions for the surrounding ecosystems. In China, new cotton farms use GM cotton that produces a bacteria that kills their biggest pest but in doing so also removes the natural predators of other bugs. In particular Mirid bugs caused widespread damage because of this due to their taste for fruit: they decimated surrounding fruit farms and crippled a local industry. In Australia cotton is our third biggest export and is responsible for excessive irrigation water use, extensive land clearing and heavy pesticide use.
Insecticides and Fungicides
I always though that the reason clothing brands advise that you ‘Wash Before You Wear’ was in case the dye leaked? Wrong. It is actually because, while the material products are in storage they are sprayed with fungicides and pesticides to avoid any damage to the garments – nevermind damage to your health. Considering you have to wear protective clothing to handle the stuff, I don’t fancy cladding myself in fabrics that have soaked in it for god knows how long.
Everyone loves a good band t-shirt; I am subjected to my husbands favourite Motley Crue shirt at least once a week. But other than the danger of being exposed to incredibly cheesy hair-bands, the plastic used to print these designs on the shirts also expose us to (the hard to pronounce) Phthalates. You may recognise phthalates from any ‘avoid in cosmetics’ lists and this is because they are linked to hormonal issues and are also potentially carcinogenic. These can be especially dangerous for children who may chew or suck these shirts who have a very high risk of ingesting poisonous compounds. Those ‘I’m a tits man’ baby shirts aren’t looking too hot now.
Polyester is derived from coal, air, water and petroleum. Is there one of those resources that should be used recklessly when there are other alternatives? Enough said.
So , Should I become a Nudist then?
The good news is you can keep your clothes on and postpone that move to the grotto – there are other options! There are so many alternatives that can save money, the environment as well as giving you a whole new depth in creativity in your style. Since discovering all the damage these fabrics can cause to my health and do cause to the environment, I will now be considering very seriously which materials I use to decorate my house and body with.