Although green living has surged in popularity since the 1970s, the concept is nothing new. Sustainability has been a vital thread in American philosophy since the era of Henry David Thoreau. In recent decades, visible climate change, gas shortages, and a scientific consensus have legitimized the importance of environmentalism to both consumers and to manufacturers.
One of the most important steps that the individual can take to protect the environment is to live a plastic-free lifestyle. The leading discarded material in the world, plastic is not biodegradable, but rather is photodegradable. Plastic refuse ultimately breaks down to a long-lasting plastic dust, which can contaminate water and food sources. The death toll that plastic takes on aquatic life tallies to over a million sea birds, whales, seals, dolphins, sea turtles, and sharks. Perhaps most importantly, consumer reliance on plastic also sustains the petroleum industry -- The production of plastic for the U.S. alone uses 331 billion barrels of petroleum.
While awareness regarding the environmental peril of plastics has increased, many consumers are still not aware of one of the most prevalent sources of plastic in our environment: synthetic fabrics. Made from petro-chemicals, polyester and nylon textiles comprise a growing share of the clothing market, but the production of these fabrics is extremely unsustainable. Mining for coal and petroleum, which are non-renewable resources necessary in the production of virgin polyester and nylon, destroys natural habitats during the process. For years now industries manufacturing synthetic fabrics have been multiplying at a very fast rate, increasing pollution.
Fabrics made from petro-chemicals are also non-biodegradable.
Plant-based fibers are a sustainable alternative to polyester. Cotton has long been the favored fabric of choice, but what many do not realize is that cotton is the most pesticide intensive fabric in existence. The herbicides and chemical defoliants used in the mechanical harvesting of cotton linger in cotton fabrics and are released during the clothing's lifetime.
There are more sustainable and healthier attire alternatives out there that people should be aware of. Fast growing without the aid of pesticides, bamboo is a biodegradable alternative to synthetic fabrics and pesticide laden cotton. Bamboo also requires 10 percent of the landmass required by cotton to generate an equal amount of fiber, and since bamboo is a grass it can grow on land that would be unsuitable for other crops.
Currently, plant based alternatives to cotton such as flax, wood pulp, hemp, and bamboo comprise less than 2% of the fabrics market. This percentage is growing, however, due to consumer demand for eco-friendly clothing and technological advancements that are making natural fibers easier to transform into wearable fabrics.