Some of the environmental impacts of clothes production include:
- Energy: agricultural energy for natural fibers, mining/processing for synthetic ones, production and processing of the fabric and finished product, and shipping between the various factories involved.
- Toxic chemicals: pesticides whether synthetic or organic, dyes and bleaches, chemical processing for fibers like bamboo or rayon, etc.
- Land/natural resources: natural fibers can require large areas for production, synthetic ones typically require petrochemicals
- Water: mostly irrigation of cotton, although all fabrics require some water use during production
Ideally, any “eco-friendly” clothing would have low scores on all these environmental impacts and consumers would have easy choices. But the reality is not so simple.
Take cotton as an example. Although cotton is the most pesticide-intensive crop in the world, even switching to organic isn’t a “slam dunk.” While organic cotton does mean less use of toxic pesticides, it can also sometimes result in more water usage, generally has to be shipped farther (since most organic cotton is grown overseas), and may require more land. To complicate things further, the word organic means different things on different labels, and organic cotton may still be dyed with toxic heavy metals (as many other fabrics are).
The trick is that sometimes organic cotton is great—for instance, if it is rain-fed, locally sourced and processed. But sometimes it has a bigger impact than conventional cotton. By the same token, many emerging “green fibers” have a catch of some kind: bamboo is fast growing and needs relatively little pesticide or fertilizer, but on the other hand bamboo clothing is just a kind of rayon and the production process involves toxic chemicals.