Back in 1959, I was featured in a kids clothing catalog, I was two years old. I found a copy in my mother’s old photo tin the other day and I noted that the baby blankets and quilts were made from nylon and filled with Terylene. It is interesting to think that back then we were beginning to introduce more man-made textiles into our clothing. In fact, we started as far back as 1935, when the first synthetic fiber, nylon was produced by Dupont. Nylon was initially used for hosiery and was created from petrochemicals. That same year, Marks and Spencers opened the first textile lab attached to their head office in London’s Baker Street. Here they could test new textiles, and synthetic fabrics were developed.
As the daughter of a seamstress during the 1960’s I remember my Mother talking a lot about new textiles. Crimplene, Dacron, Polyester to name but a few. We had entered the age of drip-dry, crease-resistance, and nylon. Does anyone remember brushed nylon sheets? My mother-in-law used to swear by them. The fabric would eventually go bobbly. I hated them. You cannot beat the feel of freshly laundered linen to sleep in. I do not care if I have to iron it. When I moved to France I started to collect French linen. I still have it and use it. Some of it is nearly 100 years old. It does not need to biodegrade. Can you imagine polyester sheets staying beautiful for that long?
Little did we know how detrimental some of these textiles would become to the future health of our environment when manufactured on such a scale My crisp cotton dresses, lovingly created by my mother in the fifties were being replaced by crimplene shift dresses and mini skirts in the ’60s. During that time we celebrated what we called progress and my mother was happy she had less ironing to do.
Knowing what most of us now know, should we be blaming the inventors, designers, and producers of these products? Processes that have been detrimental in creating a darker side of fashion.
When Jeans designer Claude Blankiete came up with using potassium permanganate back in the ’70s for getting a stone-washed effect on our denim jeans, he was unaware of the potential hazard it would eventually cause to the textile workers. When breathed in, Potassium Permanganate can irritate your lungs and cause shortness of breath. A more extreme risk is that it can cause a build-up of fluid in the lungs and may affect the health of the liver and kidneys. Claude Blankiete is now a pioneer in looking for safer ways to satisfy the consumer demand for stone-washed jeans. His idea caught on but it has been the demand that has been responsible for the problems caused, by trying to service the demand for the effect created by the process. Our demand for cheaper clothes and a fast turnaround of the latest fashion has resulted in us buying too much. (Five times more than our grandparents used to buy).
Synthetic fibers like polyester and nylon, such as those found in faux fur can cause problems to our lungs when exposed to regularly. It is suspected we are all breathing in a certain amount of microplastic particles every day from our clothing and home textiles. There have been scientific studies that have found the presence of microplastics in the lungs of cancer patients back in the ’90s causing concern. In cases of studies on textile workers, the processing of polyester and nylon shows a potential health risk such as coughing, wheezing, asthma and inflammation in the lungs.
Non organic cotton
I am afraid that is about 99% of the cotton fabric available to us. It also has a gruesome tale to tell. Growing conventional cotton accounts for 25% of all the insecticides used worldwide. Residue from these poisons makes their way into the fibers. The processing of fiber to fabric also requires a brew of toxic chemicals, formaldehyde, heavy metals, flame retardants, silicone waxes, ammonia, to name a few. Your cotton dress, losing its appeal? Please buy organic cotton or at least start demanding it
Fortunately for us in the EU, Azo Dyes containing aryl amines have been banned as they have been linked to bladder and liver cancer. When we sweat the dyes leave our clothes and can be absorbed rapidly through our skin. They are still widely used in manufacturing as they dye textiles at a much lower temperature than Azo-free dyes. Azo dyes used in the textile and leather industries pose a hazard to the environment as they do not degrade under natural environmental conditions. Factories will pollute rivers which leads to contamination of drinking water. Azo dyes have also been linked to problems causing neurosensory damage, metabolic stress, and death in fish.
However, we cannot be sure some clothing that is getting into Europe is as safe as it should be. according to a European survey on the presence of banned azodyes in textiles, a study revealed shirts from a Chinese factory, found their way into stores in Germany Spain, and Italy and far exceeded the safety limit. Some Department stores require written guarantees from their suppliers. Transparency is now of utmost importance in a global market.
Who is to blame, the factory owners, the fashion chains, the government?
But really, who is to blame? The fashion industry is a business like any other. It wants to make it easy for consumers to buy and let’s face it, we want that too. Factory owners are forced to cut costs as we drive down prices, Governments should be tougher on regulating health and safety rules to keep people safe.
If anyone is to blame it is the people who turn a blind eye to the facts presented. Our rivers are polluted, textile workers’ lives are put at risk because of unsafe working conditions, farmers are killing themselves and the mountain of discarded clothing grows on landfills where toxic chemicals bubble in the earth as people scour over them looking for something to sell. It has to start with the consumer saying enough is enough. When we make a choice and realize that there is no bargain to be had here. Buy less and demand a sustainable product.
Enough should be enough. Change your clothes.