The Impact of Cheap Fabric Production on Our Health and the Environment

The world develops a taste for fair fashion

When the Rana Plaza building collapsed on the 24th of April 2013, its rumble resonated around the world. Once the dust settled the truly terrible consequences emerged. The death toll ultimately counted 1.134. Many of the victims were underage. An additional 2.500 were injured, often suffering the loss of one or more limps. Effectively maimed for life, they were left in a country without a social system providing for the disabled.

The high human cost of those working in the fast fashion industry suddenly became a topic of global interest. Successively major brands that had been producing at Rana Plaza scrambled to avoid further image damage by making vague promises on future production standards. Little has however changed since 2013 in the production cycle of mainstream fashion. The topic faded from most people's minds, while many large companies saw corporate responsibility as a means to boost sales rather than truly improve conditions.


Sustainable fashion encompasses more than workers’ rights

The main incentive after Rana Plaza was to strengthen workers’ rights and provide better wages and working conditions. Little has changed regarding workers’ rights over the last years. The workers, however, have found their champions, continuously fighting for workers’ rights, better payments and health, and safety standards.

I, as a SCUBA diver and ocean lover, however, want to bring a different topic to your attention: The environmental impact the fashion industry has. This environmental impact concerns us all. It is not just an ethical question of whether we can justify exposing third-world workers to harmful chemicals during the manufacturing process. It is more than a matter of water pollution and its impact on species diversity and ecosystems. Our own health is directly impacted by our demand for fashion as well.


Fast fashion equals toxic waste

We are all actually wearing toxic waste, sad but true. Fast fashion brings man made fabrics front and center and calls for them to be produced ten times as much as what was being produced before. Man-made fabrics are produced from crude oil. The same crude oil that is being sourced on offshore oil rigs. Even if there is no disastrous oil spill, those take a toll on the environment.

If you think that cotton is the more environmentally friendly choice, think again. For starters, cotton needs a ridiculous amount of water, 22.500 liters per kilogram of cotton to be exact. Non- organic cotton is also treated with insane amounts of pesticide. The documentary "The True Cost" briefly shines a light on conventional cotton production in India. Entire regions with high cotton production are ravaged by pesticide-induced birth defects, respiratory diseases, and mental health problems.

The exaggerated use of pesticides should deeply concern us as consumers. Our health is at stake as well. Trace amounts of chemicals not only adhere to the finished fabric but enter the waterways as runoff and ultimately accumulates in fish and crops.

Chemicals in the Production Process


All processes in the production of a garment that require water are considered part of the wet- working process. This includes the induction of water-resistant properties, dyeing, bleaching and distressing. All these processes not only require considerable amounts of water but they also use a number of harmful chemicals that are subsequently released into the environment as part of the wastewater discharge.

A Greenpeace study on two textile factories in China discovered that even wastewater treatment plants do little to eliminate such chemicals. Many chemicals that prove problematic display three different traits.


Toxic/carcinogenic/hormone disruptive etc.

This is the direct impact a chemical has on a living organism. Some are poisonous, some can cause cancer or mutations, some disrupt the normal hormonal balance and others are suspected to cause birth defects.



If a chemical complex is persistent that means that it is not easily broken down into different more harmless compounds. Sometimes, the initial chemical easily breaks down into the actually persistent and dangerous form. By being persistent those chemicals can travel over far distances virtually unchanged.


Bioaccumulation means that the chemical, once absorbed by a living organism, binds to its cells and stays there instead of passing through the system. Mercury in large fish like tuna and swordfish is a well-known case.

Not only do the chemicals accumulate in our food but eventually in us as well. Two chemical complexes frequently used in textile production and their impacts. Greenpeace's study revealed the presence of at least two types of chemicals whose use is heavily controlled and limited in Europe, Canada, and the United States. Neither of those compounds occurs naturally, so any traces come from human contamination. Both compounds can be traced as far as the Arctic Circle these days.


Alkylphenols + Perfluorinated Chemicals (PFCs)

Alkylphenols are used throughout the textile manufacturing process. From being an ingredient in pesticides during cotton farming, over the manufacturing of certain plastics to their use as a detergent in the wet-working process, alkylphenols are used everywhere. They are known to be toxic, persistent, bio accumulative and a xenoestrogen. Xenoestrogens are chemical compounds that resemble estrogen and can, therefore, disrupt the natural hormonal balance. They are suspected to cause breast cancer and influence the male/female distribution in fish towards more female being born.

Perfluorinated chemicals are used to make fabrics water resistant. Apart from certain types being greenhouse gases, they are bio accumulative, persistent and may cause tumors as well as neonatal deaths. By binding to a protein in the blood they accumulate heavily in the liver where they can cause organ damage.The above-described complexes are just the tip of the iceberg. Many other chemicals are used during fabric production. Unfortunately, suspicious behaviors have been observed at several textile factories where certain discharge is only released into the rivers at night when monitoring through the authorities is less likely to occur.

Heavy metals + Azo dyes and aromatic amines

Heavy metals are frequently used during the dyeing process to make the color adhere to the fabric permanently. The majority of the heavy metals is washed out again, leaving harmless trace amounts in the clothing, but causing environmental problems when simply released into the river. It has long been suspected that certain whale species may commit suicide after suffering from bio accumulative heavy metal poisoning. Furthermore, those heavy metals accumulate over the cause of the food chain, both for meat eaters and vegetarians.

A study of the University of Southern Texas found that 15% of the tested women's underwear that contained azo dyes exceeded the limits set by the European Union. The highest concentration was almost 30 times that of the set limit. At least some azo dyes are proven to be carcinogenic and could potentially be absorbed through skin contact.

This study is a perfect example of why we should be personally concerned with how our clothing is manufactured. We are essentially wearing toxic waste and once we're done with our clothes this is what they literally turn into. Donating your old clothing doesn't mean that it will be worn again by some grateful person in a poorer environment. Fact is that first world countries go through more clothing each year than the rest of the world could ever possibly take up and reuse. So thousands of tons of clothing end up in third world countries' landfills each year, where they're left to slowly degrade. While the clothing degrades, more harmful chemicals are released into the surrounding groundwater and rivers. This not only endangers the aquatic ecosystems but also poses a significant health risk to the local population through groundwater contamination. Eventually, those harmful chemicals will end up on our table in form of ocean fish or imported vegetables.


What you can do

Luckily, you as the consumer are the one who can and will initiate a change in the textile industry. By buying only from brands that have concrete sustainability goals and timeframes you can dictate the industry standards.If a company tell you their goal is to try and be more sustainable in the future, then that's a good indicator that they just want to drive more sales and not actually change their ways. If they state that e.g. they plan to become a zero carbon emission company by 2025 throughout their entire production and work with NGO's who can back up their efforts than they're likely to make a real effort because they can be held accountable by you.

You can always send an email to a company that you'd like to buy from and about who's sustainability you wonder. A company with an actual interest in sustainability will proudly tell you about their efforts when asked. If their answer is "we are trying to be more sustainable" then that doesn't mean anything. I try to stop eating so much chocolate cake, too. Doesn't mean I actually eat less of it ;)
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