ENVIRONMENTALLY speaking, American consumers demand a lot from textile manufacturers: Clothes should be colorful (and colorfast), comfortable, stylish, resistant to shrinkage and wrinkles - and affordable.
In the United States, annual per capita consumption of fiber is 60 pounds (which includes industrial textiles for carpet, upholstery, and rope), compared to 4 to 5 pounds per person worldwide. Every year, the world uses 30 million tons of textiles and 700,000 tons of dye. The US produces 80 percent of its own textiles.
With the environment in mind, some companies have begun environmental audits and investigative surveys of suppliers' practices as well as life-cycle analysis of their products.
Last year, the American Fiber Manufacturer Association (AFMA) commissioned an environmental inventory of a typical polyester blouse.
"One of the conclusions that surprised us was that most of environmental emissions are coming from consumer use - 80 percent," says Zafar Kahn, spokesperson for AFMA. Consumer emissions would include the energy needed to heat water and run a washer and dryer, for example.
But even such life-cycle analysis may not be an appropriate comparison between specific fibers and fabrics. "The results are complex," says Bob Hunt, principal advisor for the environmental-consulting company that conducted the test. "In [comparing] almost any pair of products, one product is better in one way, the other product is better in other ways."
AS far as the future, industry observers see a small but continuing niche for companies that can manufacture fabric using processes that have a low impact on the environment. "I can imagine lots of incremental change that would let us do things essentially the same way, but in an environmentally clean way," says Martin Bide, textile scientist with the University of Rhode Island.
So is "green" cotton the eco-fiber of the future? Owen Cercus, a professor of textile science at the Fashion Institute in New York, says organic cotton may have a small market niche, but at the moment there is no way consumer demand for cotton could be met without pesticides.
Christine Pratt, also a professor of textiles at the Fashion Institute of Technology, observes that "there's nothing that is totally environmentally compatible." Consumers should probably examine their consumption habits if they want to make an environmental impact. "Buy fewer clothes, that's the ultimate," she says.