Well, the reasons for screwing up the earth have to do with survival and comfort and ego and ignorance and greed and progress and habit, I suppose. Human nature being, by nature, antithetical to nature-nature. I will not claim that I tread lightly on the earth. No, I tread not lightly at all. But I try to tread lighter. I try to make an effort to understand my choices and how they effect the earth. Recently, I did some research into a topic near and dear to me: Textiles.
But let's say you don't care about pollution over there. Let's say we're a callous bunch and can live with cheap clothing and inexpensive fabric, because the pollution is all over there. Problem for the callous among us is still, is that the pollution is not all over there. It's over here: Some leading researchers claim to have traced one-third of the particulates in the smog in Los Angeles and other western cities to industry in Asia. In one particularly troubling incident in 1998, unhealthy pollution levels were measured in the American Northwest and Canadian Southwest, areas containing little industrial manufacturing. 75% of the pollution was traced to China. These researchers are studying airborne rivers of pollution wider than the Amazon and deeper than the Grand Canyon that span the entire Pacific Ocean which carry, among other pollutants, perhaps three-quarters of the black carbon in West Coast smog.
Satellite image of trans-contiental dust river via NASA.
Black carbon particulates are particularly nasty: They contributes to both lung disease and is very likely responsible for 50% of temperature increases in the Arctic regions.
"In a very real and immediate sense, you can look at a dust event you are breathing in China and look at this same dust as it tracks across the Pacific and reaches the United States," said climate analyst Jeff Stith at the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Colorado to the Wall Street Journal. "It is a remarkable mix of natural and man-made particles."
Textile production is recognized as a major polluter where regulation is not enforced. And, let's face it: There's a big difference between having a law and then enforcing that law. I find it noteworthy that while more attention is placed on the environmental damage the textile industry causes, less data is forthcoming from the textile producing nations. The big dog in the room, China, gave these figures in April: According to Ministry of Industry and Information, China's textile industry generated RMB812.6 billion of industrial value added in 2007, accounting for 6.9% of the country's total and 3.3% of GDP. Around 30% of the textile products were sold in the international market. In 2007, China's textile and garment exports amounted to US$175. That's not small potatoes. Since the global economic downturn, China has announced a five-point plan to boost the Chinese textile industry: This plan is focused on developing indigenous brands and updating technology. Not a word in there about actively reducing pollution, only as pollution relates to upgrading equipment for improved efficiencies. Just sayin'.
I figure, right now, before countries like China have developed independent brands, multinational companies based in the West, but manufacturing in China, will have the upper hand in discussing pollution. Once China has it's own viable brands, it may be a different story. And who has an upper hand with Western multinationals? Well, I do. Not as much as I'd like, but as a consumer, I determine in a very small way a company's viability. A very, very, very small way. Very, very, very, very, very small. But a way, nonetheless. No, I haven't had the nerve to ask a fabric maker, "So, what are the waste water management practices at your supplying mill in Zhangjiagang?" But I do think about it. By default, then, I like to take manufacturing standards, such as REACH, Öko-Tex, and ISO 9000 standards, the production location and manufacturing practices into consideration when I purchase each yard of my fabric. As a general rule of thumb, if I am unable to determine if the fabric was milled according to an international standard, I aim for fabrics milled and dyed in the United States and the European Union. While many popular makers of fabric, who mill outside the United States and European Union, make fabrics free of lead and harmful chemicals, I'm not entirely confident about the manufacturing practices and waste management. Most U.S. and E.U. mills adhere to international manufacturing standards and environmental laws are generally rigorously enforced in these countries. I figure, if you can determine if the fabric was milled and dyed in the United States or the European Union, it is very likely that the manufacturing practices involved were considerably less polluting. Yes, my fabric costs more. A lot more. Or am I just, in fact, paying the real price? We'll all end up paying the price one way or the other. “Prices in the U.S. are artificially low,” says Andy Xie, former chief economist for Morgan Stanley Asia, who now works independently, told the Wall Street Journal. “You’re not paying the costs of pollution, and that is why China is an environmental catastrophe.”
In President Obama's recent speech on climate change, he reminded us what President Kennedy once said, "