Ignorance is bliss. What we do know is that the fashion industry is a whimsical place filled with creativity, style and more recently; really affordable silhouettes and trends. What we may not know or tend to sweep under the couture rug is that the fashion industry is up there with the oil industry when it comes to being one of the world’s most polluting industries. Dealing with issues of the environment is a little bit like the concept of the Matrix trilogy. If you take the blue pill, you can go about existence as you were blissfully unaware of what is actually going on behind the scenes. However, should you chose the red pill, you’d be immersing yourself in the dirty truth. I must admit, the blue pill sounds enticing because of the notion that what you don’t know won’t hurt you. But here’s the thing; it does. It may not happen right this instance; nevertheless the effects will eventually catch up with you.
The textile industry – the folks making all the fabrics that make your clothes – tend to use a lot of processes that end up emitting substances that are harmful to the atmosphere. In fact, after water pollution, its high greenhouse gas emission is the second greatest pollutant by the fashion industry. This includes the globalization of the industry that has resulted in clothes and textiles being transported more widespread than ever before.
But let’s back track a little bit. What exactly is air pollution? This happens when textile processes introduce chemicals, particulates, or biological materials that cause harm to living organisms; including us human beings. Most of these harmful agents are expelled in the finishing stages of production, especially the processes used for fabric coating. Materials such as plasticizers, lubricating oils, water repellent chemicals and paints are used for coating before being cured in heating apparatus such as dryers and ovens. All that heat results in vaporisation of organic compounds into volatile organic compounds (VOCs).
It’s no doubt that the end process is important as it affects the stain resistance, shrinkage control or even the softens of the finished garment. So, you may be wondering what some of these finishing processes are and why they are being vilified. We’ll start with Tentering. When a fabric has been through chemical solution immersion it needs to go through a moisture removal and drying process. A tenter frame is used to hold out the edges of the fabric so that a series of nozzles can run heated air through it. Heat setting is a finishing process that is critical for synthetic fabrics as it provides superb excellent dimensional stabilisation and crease proof properties, maintained till the fabric is exposed (by air blowing) to very high temperatures.
Some opt for the curing process which hat treats the fabric for a few minutes (also known as flash curing) but at very high temps or moist curing which occurs at lower temps for a longer period of time. Calendaring is also a heating process but passes fabric through rollers at high pressure and temperature. These are just some of the finishing processes and they all seem pretty simple, no? However, here are some Examples of VOCs they emit:
- Oil Mist – When lubricants and plasticizers are subjected to heat processes such as tentering, heat setting, curing, drying or calendaring.
- Acid Mist – From spray dyeing and the carbonization of wool
- Solvent Vapours – Released during dry cleaning and other solvent processing operations
- Exhaust gases – These are released from polycondensation of melt spinning fibre lines
But it isn’t just the end processes that contribute to air pollution. Other main sources include thermos pack, boilers and diesel generators which issue gaseous pollutants such as oxide of nitrogen gas, suspended particulate matter (SPM), and sulphur dioxide gas.
Greenhouse gas emissions can also be looked at from the point of view of the kind of fabric you’re dealing with. Synthetic fibres such as polyester, nylons and acrylics are in high demand at the moment, as it works out cheaper for both consumers and producers. Corporate clothing – which you’re probably not wearing today on account that it’s a Friday – is made from a polyester-cotton blend. This blend allegedly emits quite a bit of CO2 during the steaming process, making it the highest GHG influencer when it comes to finishing textile processes. In general, manufacturing non-renewable resources (petrochemicals) such as polyester and nylon is an energy-consuming process that results in large VOCs deposits and acid gases like Hydrogen Chloride that cause pretty nasty respiratory diseases.
The above pretty much looked like a chemistry lesson but in a nutshell, GHG and VOCs are too high a price for an affordable coat. If you remember a little bit of your geography lessons, GHG plays a major role in global climate change. Then there’s the ocean acidification, changes occur to the natural plant growth and nutrition levels meaning less nutrition and more ailments. And finally ozone pollution and depletion – that’s the thick smog such as what China is experiencing and less UV protection. VOCs have the same grim results. With increased exposure over time, it increases the risks of cancer, liver & kidney damage and central nervous system damage. All that for a cheaper pant suit you probably will wear two or three times.
What does this all mean for Kenya? According to Kenya’s Apparel and Textile 2005 report, the country had 55 garment manufacturers/exporters, with 26 firms under the Export Processing Zone (EPZ) program. Let’s narrow in on synthetic materials. While all the synthetic material are imported, they still have to undergo the finishing processes. For example, the polyester is imported as granules, it’s heated and then extruded into fine threads to create synthetic yarn. With the plans to phase out the second-hand clothing industry in the next three years, it’s probable that focus will shift in building up the textile industry to supply the demand the SHC will leave. This puts the country in the position to learn from the lessons China has learnt since it embarked on its massive industrialisation boom. Images from major production countries would lead to believe that it is the norm to see manufacturing companies, with high chimneys bellowing huge tufts of smoke and smog, it doesn’t have to be the case. Ethical fashion practices requires a joint effort from consumers, designers and manufacturers to drastically address the production and consumption processes and patterns. It should find that a balance of creating quality, style conscious comfort that minimizes social and environmental impact.
So as consumers and designers we have to start asking questions on how we can learn from the mistakes – and solutions they’re working on – of other nations to grow a more sustainable industry. On the consumer end, apart from applying pressure for regulation that ensures companies work under ethical conditions, do we start to demand for more transparent design processes from our designers? So that we can only buy clothes that haven’t played a part in environmental degradation? But also, starting to ask ourselves, what can we do individually to reduce the pollution impact. Join us this coming week, as we’ll be looking at some of the solutions designers and countries are dabbling with in a bid to create fashion more ‘Air’ friendly.