Environmental Impact of Clothes

Written by nana@lovehatechange 
Published 28 Feb 2020

If the fashion industry were a country, its emissions would rank almost as highly as the entire European continent, when textile production, clothes washing and their end-of-life is accounted for.

UK Parliament Report February 2019
Photo by freestocks on Unsplash 

Did you know that …

More about drastic impacts of clothing here.

Environmental impact of fabric production

Production of leather, silk, wool and cotton have the highest negative impact on environment

Sustainable Apparel Coalition has created the Higg Material Sustainability Index which provides a common scoring system for product sustainability assessment to allow manufacturers and retailers to measure and compare the environmental impacts of different processes for the full life-cycle of products (cradle-to-grave). The company-specific data is (unfortunately) not publicly available but The Pulse Report provides some very interesting insights for us end users as well, including below graph, which covers the impacts of fabric production phase (cradle-to-gate).

Pulse of the Fashion Industry, 2017 by Global Fashion Agenda and Boston Consulting Group (Footnote 5)
 

Perhaps surprisingly, the results show that of the benchmarked materials

Cow leather, silk and wool have the most negative impact overall
The carbon-footprint of non-organic cotton is smaller than most synthetic materials, but it causes significant damage through its water use in arid areas
Silk is very damaging in several areas: abiotic resource depletion, eutrophication and water use

(Eutrophication: excessive richness of nutrients in a body of water.)

Note 1. The chemistry assessment is less mature than that of other areas.  This may be the reason that the fact that viscose is not a closed-loop production and releases more chemicals to the environment than e.g. polyester is not shown in this data.

Note 2. Since this data does not include the impact from the clothing use, it doesn’t show the impact of micro-plastics from petrol-based materials like polyester – more about that further down.

Recycling is rudimentary

More than 300,000 tonnes of used clothing goes to landfill in the UK every year, according to Wrap, the waste charity.

In a nutshell: we buy a lot of clothes, and most of them end up in landfill.

Recycling could be used much more widely, and significantly reduce the environmental impact. Reasons why this isn’t done include4:

  • Current technology can cause a 75% loss of value in just the first cycle
  • It is cheaper for manufacturers to use virgin materials, e.g. recycled polyester is 10% more expensive

As mentioned in the fact box on the top of the page: 73% of clothing we take to charities and collection boxes end up to landfill.


Synthetic materials

Below a very brief summary of synthetic materials. A longer version is available here.

Petrol-based synthetic materials (e.g. polyester, acrylic, nylon)

The petrol-based materials are problematic because their use releases micro plastics and recycling is minimal. 

The petrol-based materials include polyester, acrylic and nylon. Polyester is used in ~60% of garments. 

Plant-based synthetic materials (e.g. modal, cupro, viscose)

Synthetic textiles can also be produced from plant materials that are chemically dissolved and then spun into fibres, such as rayon (viscose), lyocell, modal and cupro.  They all have slightly different processes.

Tencel, Cupro, Modal and Lyocell are produced in a 'closed loop' which means the chemicals used can be extracted after and the water reused. They have therefore a lower environmental impact than viscose.

 


Footnotes
1 UK Parliament, Fixing fashion: clothing consumption and sustainability. February 2019. (link
2 Other number are from the above UK Parliament report, but I have not found a reliable source for the number of textiles bought by Finns. There have been tweets by a Finnish minister quoting 20kg but e.g.  Martat state only 13kg.
3 Unearthed, A monstrous disposable industry. Fast facts about fast fashion. Sep 2019. (link)
3 United Nations, UN Helps Fashion Industry Shift to Low Carbon. 06 Sep 2018 (link)
4 Global Fashion Agenda and Boston Consulting Group, Pulse of the Fashion Industry. 2017. (link)
5 The Guardian, How worried should we be about micro plastics? Oct 2019. (link)