Synthetics and cotton. Manufacturing and environmental factors.

Which is more harmful to the environment?

Julian Samarjiev
May 23, 2017 · 11 min read

TL;DR: Non-organic cotton (99.9% of all cotton produced worldwide) is as harmful to the environment as synthetic fabrics, more often than not, even more (large amounts of pesticides used in its production). Please buy organic cotton, when possible and reduce purchasing of cotton fabrics, as well as purchasing in general (all types of production leave a footprint!). Benefit of synthetic materials is their longer life span, which saves manufacturing volume in the long run.


There’s been only one thing that bothered me, when it came to starting a company that’s going to be manufacturing products made from synthetic materials.

At some point during our initial discussions with our suppliers, the topic of whether synthetic fabrics are more harmful to the environment came up. I am a strong advocate and believer that we should reduce the damage we do to the planet during our time on it (I was vegetarian for about 8 years, upgraded to vegan about year and a half ago and no longer purchase anything with leather — wallets, belts, shoes etc.).

So, to be fair and start the discussion objectively, I want to say that all production, especially mass production, is harmful to the environment in one way or another and leaves its footprint. Try to buy only essentials and do your best to recycle.

Business and personal wise, I wanted to be part of a venture that brings value to its users, while being self-aware and conscious about the full effects of bringing a product to market. So, I did my research a couple of months ago and following is a summary of what I found, including the sources of the information.

Let’s first look at some comments on cotton production:


You may think using cotton is better both for you and the environment. because it is a natural product. However, if one takes a look at the production processes and the amount of energy released along with pollutants, it becomes clear that cotton is no less a culprit than man-made fabrics when it comes to the use of toxins and chemicals during its production. Another factor that forces us to think twice is the fact that cotton is perhaps the most pesticide-dependent crop, consuming nearly one-fourth of all pesticide used around the world.

Source:


Cotton production pumps thousands of tons of pesticides into the environment each year, but there are ways to help reduce the problem without swearing off T-shirts

Cotton is one of the most chemically intensive crops in the world. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, 84 million pounds of pesticides were applied to the nation’s 14.4 million acres of cotton in the year 2000, and more than two billion pounds of fertilizers were spread on those same fields. Seven of the 15 pesticides commonly used on cotton in the United States are listed as “possible,” “likely,” “probable” or “known” human carcinogens by the Environmental Protection Agency. And cotton defoliants are “the most toxic farm chemicals currently on the market,” says Fawn Pattison, executive director of the Agricultural Resources Center, a nonprofit organization dedicated to reducing the use of harmful pesticides.

For consumers who are willing to pay a little more for their T-shirts and jeans, however, there is a better way. Organic cotton, grown without the use of synthetic fertilizers, pesticides or defoliants, is becoming more widely available. “Organic cotton is just as good as conventional cotton,” says Lynda Grose, a fashion designer who cofounded Espirit’s Ecollection division and currently works as a marketing consultant for the Sustainable Cotton Project’s Cleaner Cotton Campaign. “The only difference is the chemicals.”

Right now, organic cotton represents less than 0.1 percent of all the cotton produced worldwide. But the market is slowly growing.

Even properly applied pesticides can be dangerous to wildlife. Biologists estimate millions of birds die every year in the United States from the effects of agricultural chemicals sprayed on cotton and other crops. When runoff from a field contains high levels of pesticides, it can kill fish in nearby rivers and streams. In one well-documented 1995 case in Alabama, at least 240,000 fish were killed by runoff — even though local officials determined afterward that the pesticides had been applied legally.

Source:


The paragraphs that will follow are an excerpt from — The paper compares the factors that go into manufacturing and energy consumption, during production of cotton and synthetic materials.

Cotton

Energy Usage

Cotton, especially, has been the natural fabric of choice for many generations. Many American’s prefer cotton garments because the majority of cotton is grown (37%) in the USA (25). Even though the cotton is grown in the USA almost none of it is kept here for the manufacturing phase of the process. China is the leader in manufacturing the clothing (25). Once the cotton fiber is harvested, it is transported to China where 20–30% of the cotton is unusable due to seeds, soil, lint, stems and fiber inconsistencies (1 and 26). So right from the first step there is a much greater need for more cotton because of the large amount lost. Cotton ginning requires 50kWh per bale of electricity (32). After the ginning process depletes the amount of cotton, the fibers are then spun to make the fabric that then has to be cut, sewn, dyed, washed, finished and then transported back to the USA. This process actually takes very little energy compared to the rest of the life cycle of the cotton garment.

The use phase of the cotton garment is where most of the energy usage occurs. One of the major drawbacks to cotton is the necessity for cleaning, drying and ironing all of which require massive amounts of energy in order to heat the water and air and iron (12). Cotton requires 72% more energy than synthetic fabrics for this phase (1). Once the garment is purchased it takes on average 25 washes during its lifetime (25). All of this accounts for 60% of the total energy during the lifetime of the cotton garment (25). If synthetic fabrics were used over cotton there would be a 10% reduction in energy during the use phase and a 20% reduction in the use of detergents (16). Many people assume that organic cotton is better for the environment than conventionally grown cotton. This is true in other aspects that will be included later, but for the use phase as well as the manufacturing phase organic cotton and conventionally grown cotton energy consumption is the same.

The following chart shows the energy profile for a 250 gram t-shirt in each phase of its life cycle.

The disposal phase includes incineration on this chart and therefore requires no energy (25).

Water Use, Pollution and Toxicity

Water use for a cotton garment is extremely high. Water requirements for cotton garment compared to a synthetic are 99.9% more (1). Throughout the life cycle of the cotton garment the most water is used in the growing phase. Cotton irrigation is required in almost all areas (73% of total areas) (3) where cotton is grown, especially the US. Cotton irrigation has been blamed for depleting the Aral Sea (3). This much irrigation causes pollution to local water sources, salinization, wildlife contamination, rising water tables and habitat destruction and is less than 40% efficient (2). The effluent from conventionally grown cotton causes eutrophication and nitrate contamination of nearby drinking water as well as a permanent increase in soil salinity (1).

In a study to compare 100% cotton sheets vs. 50% cotton and 50% polyester, the 100% cotton sheets used 300% more water and 72% more energy (1).

Conventionally grown cotton is extremely toxic due to the high levels of pesticides and fertilizers used. Cotton accounts for 24% of the world insecticide market and 11% of world pesticide sales (3 and 26). Not only is this toxic to the local area where the cotton is grown, it is extremely toxic during the manufacturing phase. There are 5 major chemical groups used in cotton production — insecticides, herbicides, fungicides, growth regulators and defoliants. All of these chemicals are washed out of the cotton during the manufacturing stage (25 and 26). After the mostly natural spinning process, the cotton needs to be sized with polyvinyl alcohol to make weaving easier (26). The fabric is then bleached with either less toxic hydrogen peroxide or highly toxic chlorine bleach (26). It is then washed with sodium hydroxide and then dyed with a formaldehyde agent to fix it to the fabric (26). The percentage of impact in terms of toxicity is 93% during the material preparation phase (25). The rest of the phases’ impact can be seen in the following chart regarding the toxicity percentages (25).

Organic cotton is much better for the environment in terms of less toxicity during the growing and material phases. The impact percentages are seen in the following table (25).

As you can see, the percentages for the stages changed, but the toxicity is still high in other phases of organic cotton’s life cycle due to dyeing and finishing the fabric. There is only about a 10% decrease in toxicity from conventionally grown cotton (25). Organic cotton uses natural manufacturing processed as much as possible the entire way through the process. Instead of the harsh chemicals, natural spinning oils are used to facilitate spinning the yarn and other natural substances are used instead of chlorine bleach, formaldehyde and others to reduce the toxic effects even further (26).

Unfortunately, organic cotton uses equal amounts of water throughout the life cycle. For cotton growers, there is not enough incentive to grow organically because in general yields are 20–50% lower (3). Organic cotton growing accounts for only 0.03% of the total amount of cotton grown (3). This number is rising thanks to consumer demand and competitive pricing.

Neither conventional nor organically grown cotton fabrics are ideal for the environment. Solutions to help curb the effect are to buy less clothing, especially cheap, fast fashion clothing, buy more second hand clothing, repair clothing and recycle used clothing (donating to charities or thrift stores).

Let’s now look into man-made synthetic materials, in this case polyester.

Polyester

Energy Use

The phase of manufacturing polyester that requires the most energy and has negative connotations throughout the clothing industry is the material phase (25). Polyester has a 63% higher energy consumption per kilogram of fiber than cotton during this phase (1). Polyester consumes 10 times more energy than cotton during production and produces 4 times more carbon dioxide (2). Polyester raw material releases high amounts of carbon dioxide. This rapidly increases global warming, which is why polyester and other synthetic fabrics are widely discouraged. The other reason is that some synthetic fabrics come from non-renewable resources such as oil. There are some synthetics produced from wood, which is renewable and the preferred method for the ecologically friendly manufacturers (25).

Because most of the energy usage comes from the materials phase, the rest of the life of the garment is considerably less harmful than natural fibers. Refer to the following table to compare energy uses during the life cycle phases (25).

As you can see the overall energy usage throughout the lifetime of the garment is considerably less than cotton. Because the majority of the energy required for polyester comes from the manufacturing process, there is much more that can be done to reduce the energy usage even further without having to rely on consumers. It is up to scientists to develop new methods that are healthier for the environment. Cotton has to rely on the end consumer/user to decrease its energy demands. Consumers are not motivated to reduce cleaning costs either by reducing the temperature or by washing less because they do not see the effects and it is not cost effective (25). The costs for upkeep of the garments are less than 2% of the cost for the garment (25). Polyester has a 10% reduction in energy use from cotton because of the lack of upkeep needed (16). It also shows a 20% reduction in energy use and can cut consumers’ energy costs by 20% and detergent costs by 20% (16). Polyester is a very strong and durable material. Polyester is resistant to chemicals, stretching, shrinking (18). It is wrinkle resistant as well as mildew and abrasion resistant (18). For these reasons, it needs to be washed less, dried little and not ironed at all (18).

One other beneficial asset to synthetic fabrics is the recycling option. All synthetic garments can be recycled and some clothing companies are starting recycling programs. Japan has a commonly used recycling program for synthetic fabrics, but it has been slow to move to other countries. People all around the world are becoming more aware of the need to recycle. Most people are already really proficient at recycling plastics and glass. It should be the job of manufacturers to let their customers know that it takes 10 times more energy to produce textiles than it does the same amount of glass (25). If people were more aware of this, there would be greater demand for recycling centers through retailers or other avenues to make it more favorable for all to recycle their synthetic fabrics.

Conclusion

In the end sustainability and environmental friendliness of the clothing industry depends on the entire lifecycle of the garment. The entire process needs to be taken into account before wide assumptions are made about which fabric is better for the environment. Natural fabrics are more harmful to the immediate environment (meaning the water and soil) while synthetics take a larger toll on the air and non-renewable resources. In reality, no single fabric is the best for the environment. It is up to consumers to demand that manufactures take a closer look at the processes to produce clothing and find the best way to make it healthier for everyone involved.

Source:


If you reached this point of the post, I respect your attention span and curiosity. Just one last scenario for an overview.

Let’s say we have two gentleman that both wear a shirt to work.

Jason is a fan of the traditional cotton shirt and therefore has 5 shirts for the week. Jason obviously likes ironing and/or going to the dry cleaners every week, doesn’t mind the sweat spots or his shirts becoming untucked with every move.

Gary on the other hand is more forward thinking than Jason and has 3 DULO performance dress shirts that can take him through the 5 day workweek. Gary obviously respects his time, convenience and comfort. He can also deliver a presentation and wave his hands without any visible wet spots.

When we take into consideration the longer lifespan of synthetic fabric, compared to cotton and because 3 is nearly half of 5, we can kind of assume that Jason will be buying 2x more shirts during his life. Therefore, if Jason listens to all the praise he is hearing from Gary about DULO products, he can cut his environmental footprint by HALF.


You can follow the journey on , , , and . We encourage any questions, advice, or just say Hi (rhymes) :)

Thank you!

The Needle

We want to share our process of building DULO with you. Join us on this journey of building a lean mean business machine. We will be documenting our thoughts and experience while doing so.

Julian Samarjiev

Written by

Co-founder of DULO, where we make performance dress shirts for DOers 👇 weardulo.com

The Needle

We want to share our process of building DULO with you. Join us on this journey of building a lean mean business machine. We will be documenting our thoughts and experience while doing so.

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