Thursday, January 25, 2007

How 'Green' is Your T-shirt?

Can Polyester Save the World? touched on many issues dear to my heart (link to the NYT article published 1/24/07 and good for 7 days) . I had never before read a full analysis of the energy impact of a cotton t-shirt and a polyester blouse.

The pop up graphic on the left side, How 'Green' is Your T-shirt?, is particularly interesting. Before adding in the impact of laundering, the energy use for both the polyester blouse and the cotton t-shirt is nearly identical. Although I have a few quibbles with the assumptions used in the calculation, the results are close enough to the energy impact analysis for "Paper or Plastic?" that they make intuitive sense to me. (Our household receives both Chemical and Engineering News and NRDC's OnEarth magazines.)

I have personally heard some people sneer that polyester is made with petroleum and cotton is made is renewable. Well, it depends on whether one counts the petroleum used in farming (fertilizer and pesticides), transporting and processing the cotton. Cotton T-shirts, like paper grocery sacks, are heavier than polyester blouses and plastic grocery bags and, thus, require more energy to transport. (Let's not even go into the energy expended to move trucks of bottled water around to places where tap water is plentiful and safe.) Additionally, I have read in several other places that more pesticides are applied to produce cotton than any other crop in the world. I also know, from living in California, that cotton is an enormously water and energy-intensive crop. Water is heavy; pumping water around is also very energy-intensive.

Several of the assumptions in How 'Green is Your T-shirt? may not apply to you. They certainly do not apply for our household. For both energy and safety reasons, we set our water heater to 130 F. After Iris' birth, we lowered it even further to 120 F. We wash most of our laundry in warm and cold water. We also use a clothesline for our synthetics, t-shirts, towels, jeans and other items that take a long time to dry in the dryer whenever the weather is amenable.*

What can be done about this problem? We have seen the enemy and the enemy is us. I cleaned out my closet last weekend and was shocked at how my wardrobe had multiplied like bunnies in the darkness of the walk-in closet. The fashion cycle moves so fast, it is dizzying. It is also so easy and inexpensive to buy disposable fashion now. Moreover, like food, we can buy clothing in more venues than in the past.

The end of the article gives me some hope for change, but also shows how far we still need to go in terms of changing people's attitudes:
And so Marks & Spencer is thinking about whether its customers will be willing to change their buying habits, to pay more for less-fashionable but “sustainable” garments. After all, consumers have shown a willingness to pay more for clothes not made in sweatshops, and some are unwilling to buy diamonds because of forced labor in African mines.

On a recent day outside Marks & Spencer on Guildford High Street, where everyone was loaded with shopping bags, Audrey Mammana, who is 45, said she was not “a throw-away person” and would be happy to lease high-end clothing for a season. She would also be willing to repair old clothes to extend their use, although fewer shops perform this task.

But, she added: “If you cut out tumble-drying, I think you’d lose me. I couldn’t do without that.”
It is good to read that such a large retailer believes that there is a market for sweatshop-free clothing. It is not so heartening to read that the consumer cannot make her own clothing repairs. I am especially disheartened to read that she rules out line-drying her clothes.

Links:
I joined Wardrobe Refashion for a two-month period. I wrote about refashioning clothes and sweatshops previously in I want to be let alone. I wrote about how using a clothesline can save you time (and energy) in Another Way.

Read Joel Achenbach's article for the WaPost entitled Another Way, and the subsequent discussion. Joel, too, also categorically ruled out using a clothesline even though he admitted to using one in childhood.

Sigh. You don't have to give up tumble drying altogether. You need only tumble dry less. One good thing, maybe the only good thing, that came out of the electricity crisis in California is that the state legislature made it illegal for homeowners' associations to penalize residents for using a clothes line in places where it is against the Covenants, Conditions and Restrictions (CC&R's). How can it be legal to waste energy and be illegal to conserve energy?

* The weather forecasts that are pretty darn good. Use them to plan your laundering around non-rainy days. During el Nino years, we have long stretches where we use the dryer more than usual. However, we hang our jeans and towels on in indoor rack. Even cold weather can freeze-dry your clothes. ;-)

That's all folks.

1 comment:

  1. Mardel16:13

    Interesting post. I am often intrigued about how are assumptions and sometimes most dearly held beliefs are based on inadequate information and are often proved to be completely wrong if we bothered to look.

    One thing I dearly miss is my clothes line, and will be happy to have it back. I will find a way to rig it up on the new deck. The weather is not conducive right now anyway, but it will be again. I also dearly miss having a sunny deck to air out pillows, mattresses, down comforters, blankets and other things. Low tech perhaps but effective.

    My grandfather was quite a successful cotton farmer in the early part of the 20th century in So22uthern Texas. In the end he quit because the water issue got far to expensive. The whole water rights issue is another interesting one.

    Meanwhile, I am not green enough and have far too much stuff, but we all try in our small ways.

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