Organic Clothing vs. Optical Brighteners and other Chemicals
Advances in the textile industry ranges from the types of fibers used, types of weave, all the way to the advances in color dyes and chemicals used to enhance the product. Thanks to the consumers, many large manufacturers have pursued the “buy the book by its cover” mentality and continued to put forth great products on the market. But are you aware of the “wolf in sheep’s clothing”?
According to the Organic Consumers Association cotton uses only 2.4% or the world’s agricultural acreage while its cultivation involves up to 25% of the world’s pesticide use. Most are insecticides but fungicides take another portion. Harvesting those crops take another dose of herbicides to ease pickings. Producing the spool of cotton spool takes in more chemicals for its creation – process of bleaching, color dying, straightening etc. It doesn’t end there. Creating the fabric and ultimately the clothes itself will go through several washing steps including softeners and detergents that may leave a residue. Fluorescent whitening agents are only one of many agents put into clothing products. FWAs are practically harmless compared to the other chemicals used to treat clothes. Chances are that if you find FWAs in your clothes there are definitely other chemicals lurking in your clothes. Finishing chemicals most commonly include formaldehyde, caustic soda, sulfuric acids, bromines, urea resins etc. Flame retardants (antimony) another controversial chemical are commonly found in children clothing, crib linens and don’t forget your carpet contains a large dose too.
Each chemical used are not without reason. Some chemicals are used to prevent mildew and mold from growing during the long shipping routes from far away countries. Therefore some clothing tags advise people to wash before wearing – but for safe practicing purposes wash all new clothes before wearing (especially clothes for children and babies). Other signals for chemical use can be identified through common “catch” phrases found in clothing tags – wrinkle free technology, no-iron shirts, antimicrobial technology, flame retarding material, waterproof/ water repellant and advanced cooling technology.
On a separate note, dry cleaning your clothes is another way to bring lovely chemicals to your clothes. For those who can’t help but to dry clean their clothes, it is best to take off the clear plastic as soon as possible so that the residual chemicals used in the clothes (perchloroethylene aka. perc) can evaporate.
For those who are confused about “organic” dry cleaners, there is no such thing. It is only a marketing gimmick. I would like to re-edit this portion of the piece noting that there ARE organic dry cleaners out in the world. There are two main “green” methods – the wet cleaning method and the carbon dioxide cleaning method. With this said, “non-perc” cleaners using the hydrocarbon method (which releases organic compounds irritiating to our eyes and skin) and Siloxane D5, technically speaking should not be advertised as organic. There is also a report by the EPA that “there may be a cancer hazard with Siloxane D5” but risk assesment studies need to be conducted.
Most if not all of the chemicals used in our clothing are toxic. Some in fact are carcinogens – cancer causing agents. For example, formaldehyde, a well-known carcinogen, is used in wrinkle free technology. It is a well-known cause of contact dermatitis.
With increasing cases of skin irritations and allergies, those affected are particularly becoming more aware of the importance of the kinds of dyes and chemicals used in our clothing. More importantly there is an increasing push for “organic” clothing thanks to all who care about the future for our kids and the environment.
The definition of organic clothing has come along a long way with the US government taking strides with the National Organic Program. “Organic agriculture is an ecological production management system that promotes and enhances biodiversity, biological cycles and soil biological activity. It is based on minimal use of off-farm inputs and on management practices that restore, maintain , and enhance ecological harmony.”
So who is to blame for the wolf in sheep’s clothing? Everyone. There are many contributors but ultimately it is the consumers responsibility to make the effort to be informed and provide the initiative for change.