Your clothes have an interesting backstory — have you ever thought about where they come from? If so, you probably started with the retailer where you purchased the item, but if you are a sustainable fashion fellow with loads of time to research, you might attempt to trace it back even further.
Still, very few people get to the true origins behind their wardrobe which is likely made from toxic chemicals and materials that persist in the environment. The principal source of these materials is crude oil, a thick-tar-like substance found belowground. Here at EARTHDAY.ORG, we understand that making this connection is nowhere near obvious without prior knowledge of how the garment manufacturing industry works.
So, let’s start from the top.
What is crude oil? Like coal and natural gas, crude oil is a fossil fuel made of a naturally occurring mixture of unrefined hydrocarbons* underneath the earth’s surface and ocean floor in reservoirs. Crude oil, often referred to as petroleum, was formed by the remains of animals and plants, covered by layers of sand, silt, and rock creating intense heat and pressure that, over millions of years, have become a precious resource on which humanity is highly dependent. In the clothing industry, these petrochemical products are the driving forces behind the enterprise.
There are several steps to extracting oil, whether offshore or on land. First, the rig site must be prepared and brought to the desired location. Once the infrastructure is built, a well is drilled to about 1000 feet above the underground area where the oil is trapped. Once the desired distance is reached, the drill pipe is removed, and an impermeable steel pipe is pushed to the bottom. This “well casing” is cemented in place. Then a perforating gun is lowered into the ground and fired into the rock layers in the deepest part of the well, forming holes that expose and connect the rock holding the oil and the wellhead.
Using specialized instruments, fracking fluid, which is 99.5% water and sand, and 0.5% chemicals, is pumped through the perforating holes to create paper-thin cracks in the shale rock, releasing the oil. This process is repeated along with enhanced oil recovery techniques: thermal recovery, gas injection, or chemical flooding, all of which drive the remaining fluids to the surface. The crude oil is then refined into various components that are selectively reconfigured into new products for use as fuels and feedstocks for making materials and chemicals. The pathway starts with raw petroleum, ethane, ethene, and polyethylene terephthalate (PET) for clothing.
2. The Building Blocks: Monomers
Monomers are any class of compounds (or small molecules) that can react with other molecules to form large molecules called polymers. The compound ethane from refined petroleum is then turned into ethene; to give the monomers more functionality. For example, in the case of polyester**, the monomers are petroleum-based products, ethylene glycol, and dimethyl terephthalate (pictured above).
3. Creating a Polymer
The monomers are then reacted with each other, which are repeated to create long chains called polymers; for polyester, a very common polymer is polyethylene terephthalate (PET) (pictured above).
Once the high-functioning polymers are created, the molten plastic is fed through an extruder (depicted below), where heat, and pressure, squeeze the material through a die that creates thin strips of plastic. The strips are cooled, dried, and broken into small pieces.
The resulting chips are then melted again to create a honey-like substance, which is extruded again, but through a spinneret to produce wispy fibers.
The resulting polyester filaments may be cut or reacted with various chemicals to achieve particular fabric properties; methods include but are not limited to pre-treatment, dyeing, printing patterns, weaving, etc. The results are fabric materials that produce varying desired colors and textures.
The fundamental relationship between raw materials and consumer products can and should be grasped by everyone, and this knowledge equips us to make conscious fashion decisions.
EARTHDAY.ORG’s mission is to help educate consumers and aid society as we demand transparency and accountability from fashion stakeholders. It is time for consumers to take matters into their own hands when fighting for the environment, garment workers, and our collective future. To learn more about sustainable fashion, test your knowledge, and find out what you can do to stand up to fast fashion, visit EARTHDAY.ORG’s Fashion for the Earth site.
* Hydrocarbon is any class of organic chemical compounds composed only of carbon (C) and hydrogen (H) elements.
** Polyester is used as an example for illustration purposes. There are other petroleum products that follow the same process.