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LaDuke: Go naked or go hemp

Ever since Julia Roberts named it a muffin top in " Eat, Pray, Love," I've been conscious of mine. So, when I discovered spandex in jeans, wow, was I happy. They were more comfortable and fit better.

But, being a person who asks Mother Earth what I should wear, I did some research. I found the clothing industry to be pretty toxic. Consequently, I've made a choice—either go naked, try to buy used, or go hemp.

Allow me to explain. Pretty much all textiles that are not linen, hemp, silk or cotton are made from petrochemicals. All of these synthetics are non-biodegradable as well.

Sherri Mason, a researcher at SUNY in New York, recently talked about cutting open a Great Lakes fish. What she found inside were synthetic fibers, and they were everywhere. Under a microscope, they seemed to be "weaving themselves into the gastrointestinal tract." Studies indicate that the fibers in our clothes could be poisoning our waterways and food chain on a massive scale. Microfibers—tiny threads shed from fabric—have been found in abundance on shorelines where wastewater is released. In a 2016 study, researchers at the University of California at Santa Barbara found that, on average, synthetic fleece jackets release 1.7 grams of microfibers each wash. It also found that older jackets shed almost twice as many fibers as new jackets. "These microfibers then travel to your local wastewater treatment plant, where up to 40 percent of them enter rivers, lakes and oceans," according to findings published on the researchers' website.

Those fibers are bio-accumulating in the fish. Microbeads, recently banned in the U.S., are a better-known variety of microplastic, but recent studies have found microfibers to be even more pervasive.

In a groundbreaking 2011 paper, Mark Browne, now a senior research associate at the University of New South Wales, Australia, found that microfibers make up 85 percent of human-made debris on shorelines around the world. That's a pretty disgusting thought.

Add to that the problems with manufacturing. Nylon manufacturing creates nitrous oxide, a greenhouse gas 310 times more potent than carbon dioxide. Making polyester uses large amounts of water for cooling, along with lubricants which can become a source of contamination. Both processes are also very energy-hungry. Rayon, which is made from wood pulp, is treated with hazardous chemicals such as caustic soda and sulfuric acid. Cotton that would seem like the easiest answer, except it's drinking up our water and getting it contaminated. Half of the world's clothing is cotton. About 20 million tons are produced annually. It can take more than 5,283 gallons of water to make a single T-shirt and pair of jeans.

Seventy-three percent of global cotton harvest comes from irrigated land, and the groundwater is getting contaminated.

So, my answers are these: Buy used clothes. Maybe downsize your wardrobe as well.

Hemp is another option. It's about three times the tensile strength of cotton; mold and UV resistant; and uses very little water, pesticides or fertilizers. Until the 1920s, about 80 percent of the clothing in the U.S. was made from hemp. Minnesota had 11 hemp mills at one time. This year, I joined 26 other Minnesotans to secure a state of Minnesota permit to grow industrial hemp. I've got my first 15 acres in to produce hemp for fiber and for seed. I hope one day to produce hemp for fabric. I am growing hemp on tribal land in the middle of the Ponsford Prairie, where my organic hemp crop is surrounded by 11,000 acres of land leased or under production for potato farming by RDO Offutt. Rather ironic, to say the least. Some days I look across our prairie and say, "One Day this too will be Hemp". Well, I gotta start somewhere, and it's either hemp or go naked. And, that muffin top is staying put for now.

LaDuke is executive director, Honor the Earth, and an Ojibwe writer and economist on Minnesota’s White Earth Reservation.

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