Because so many of our clothes have labels that say "Made in Bangladesh" or "Made in China," we often picture the textile industry taking place elsewhere, not in our country. You might be surprised to learn that in 2017, the U.S. textile industry supplied 500,550 jobs and the country's textile and apparel exports totaled $78 billion.
However, most of the jobs in this industry have been exported to cheaper, overseas labor. Many of the industry's issues have arisen because of this shift, but some of the problems affect U.S. workers as well.
Exposure to Toxic Chemicals
Workers in the textile industry are exposed to dangerous chemicals. It's part of the business if you work in the dyeing, printing or finishing sector of textiles. Employees work with solvents and fixatives, crease-resistance agents that release formaldehyde, flame retardants with toxic compounds, and antimicrobial agents. Exposure to formaldehyde has been linked to various types of cancer, including thyroid, nasal, stomach and esophageal cancers. The chemical can also cause eczema and dermatitis.
High Noise Levels
Exposure to high levels of noise is common in textile factories, particularly those in developing countries where the machines are older are not as well maintained. This has caused hearing loss in many textile workers, and can also cause sleep disorders, changes in blood pressure, anxiety and other ailments. A study of textile workers in Nagpur India, revealed that 76.6 percent of them were at risk for hearing loss caused by noise in their work environment.
Poor Working Conditions
Egregious garment factory conditions have been detailed in the news. In 2012, a fire in a Bangladesh garment factory that killed 112 workers tragically highlighted the terrible conditions of the industry. Eventually, the factory's owners were charged with homicide for their culpability. The next year, an entire building collapsed, killing 1,100 workers in Bangladesh.
Smaller scale issues include cramped work environments with poor lighting and ventilation. Problems in garment factories run the gamut from uncomfortable to extremely unsafe.
Many garment workers suffer from musculoskeletal disorders like carpal tunnel syndrome, and are also often affected by ailments including forearm tendinitis, lower back pain, neck pain, shoulder pain, and osteoarthritis of the knees. All of these conditions are caused by repetitive movements and poor ergonomic conditions. These issues are more common in developing nations but can also occur in the U.S. garment industry.
Cotton Dust Can Cause Breathing Problems
Employees who work with cotton have a problem of their own: exposure to significant amounts of cotton dust along with particles of pesticides and soil. This exposure can lead to respiratory disorders and the fatal disease of byssinosis, commonly known as brown lung, which causes tightening of the chest, coughing, wheezing and shortness of breath.
Fabric Dumped in Landfills
In addition to poor working conditions, the textile industry has an environmental problem as well: waste. We buy clothes and get rid of them, and most are not recycled. In fact, the average American throws out 68 items of clothing each year.
New ideas are on the horizon to solve this problem and close the clothing loop. The goal is to create new clothes with discarded items in order to decrease the fashion footprint.