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The environmental impact of the textile sector

This article explores the key environmental effects arising from the production and use of textiles. We do this by examining the three phases in the "lifecycle" of textiles: the production phase, the use phase, and the post-use phase of clothing, also known as the end-of-life phase.

Sustainability is an ongoing challenge in the textile sector, one of the world's largest industries. Before a garment ends up in your closet, it goes through numerous steps: from sourcing raw materials to spinning yarn and assembling the final product. Due to the long and complex production chains and various stages involved in making a garment, it is often challenging to gain a clear understanding of the overall environmental impact.

This article explores the key environmental effects arising from the production and use of textiles. We do this by examining the three phases in the "lifecycle" of textiles: the production phase, the use phase, and the post-use phase of clothing, also known as the end-of-life phase

The textile sector – what are we talking about?

Every year, the global clothing and footwear industry contributes to an emission of 3.9 billion tons of CO2 equivalent, representing eight to ten percent of the total global CO2 emissions. To put it in perspective, this is more than the global emissions from aviation. European textile consumption significantly contributes to environmental pollution and climate change. After the food industry, construction, and transportation sectors, the textile sector is the most polluting industry in Europe.

Moreover, textile production consumes an incredible amount of clean water, land, and raw materials. As a result, it causes water shortages and displaces valuable agricultural land designated for food production.

The explanation for these figures lies in the immense scale of the clothing industry – a substantial amount of clothing is produced every year. And the annual production continues to rise. Between 2000 and 2015, global production doubled to approximately 100 billion items per year, with a projected increase of 63% by 2030. 

Global textile production

According to research by the European Union, the average European consumes 15 kilograms of textiles per year. The consumption is distributed as follows:

  • 6.0 kg clothing
  • 6.1 kg household textiles such as hand and dish towels
  • 2.7 kg shoes

This explosive growth in textile production is mainly attributed to the emergence of "Fast Fashion" over the last two decades. This is a trend in the clothing industry that focuses on producing as much cheap, trendy clothing as possible. Fast fashion brands continuously release new collections that align with current fashion trends, enticing consumers to make frequent new purchases. This mass production of clothing and textiles has severe consequences for climate and the environment, as explained further below.

Source: https://www.statista.com/statistics/263154/worldwide-production-volume-of-textile-fibers-since-1975

Impact in the three different phases of the Life Cycle

The impact of the clothing industry is best described by dividing the entire process, from raw material to waste processing, into three phases: the production phase, the use phase, and the post-use phase of clothing, also known as the end-of-life phase. We will delve into the key climate and environmental impacts in each phase.

1. Textile production

First, let's address the phase with the most environmental impact – the production phase. This phase contributes to fifty to eighty percent of all environmental impact throughout the entire lifecycle of clothing.

But what does the production phase entail? We break down the production phase into various steps, each with a different degree of environmental impact. It all begins with the extraction of raw materials such as cotton, wool, wood, petroleum (for plastics), and other materials. These raw materials are transformed into fibers, spun into yarn at a spinning factory, and eventually as material for making fabrics in a factory, where fabrics are sewn, dyed, and processed into clothing. 

A significant issue is that many links in the clothing production phase are often scattered across different countries or regions. For instance, cotton fields may be in Central Asia, spinning mills in China, clothing factories in Bangladesh, ultimately sold in Europe. Raw and processed materials are transported over long distances, contributing to CO2 emissions.

Raw materials

Raw materials for textiles can be made of renewable fibers and fossil fibers. Examples of renewable fibers are cotton, wool, leather, bamboo, and wood (viscose). The fossil fibers are made of petroleum, and are used for synthetic fabrics such as nylon, polyester, acrylic, and fleece.

The complexity of sustainability in the textile chain already becomes evident in this phase. While fabrics from renewable sources have more impact on land use, the CO2 emissions from the production of synthetic garments are significantly higher. The textile industry thus impacts the environment in various ways, as we further explore below.

Cotton plants

Water usage

After agriculture, the textile industry uses the most water of all sectors. The global textile production is estimated to have consumed 79 billion cubic meters of water in 2015.

Textile production often poses a problem in dry areas by putting immense pressure on local water supplies. This can lead to water shortages and pollution, resulting in a lack of clean drinking water for local populations.

Cotton cultivation, in particular, demands a substantial amount of water, and cotton plantations are often located in water-scarce regions. An estimated 2,700 liters of freshwater are needed to produce one cotton T-shirt, equivalent to enough drinking water for one person for 2.5 years.

Moreover, the use of fertilizers and pesticides in agriculture contaminates a significant amount of groundwater. Cotton cultivation employs more pesticides than any other crop. Water pollution is, therefore, a significant issue in the production of our fashion.

The production of other materials, such as viscose (often called rayon or artificial silk, made from wood), also requires a considerable amount of water, especially for diluting waste generated during the processing.

Apart from crop cultivation, factories also require substantial water. Production processes like yarn spinning and the washing and dyeing of fabrics impose significant pressure on local water supplies.

Land use

Arable land is scarce, and the fertile land used for growing crops for clothing often comes at the expense of food production or nature conservation. Therefore, we must consider the impact of the textile sector on land use.

Land use primarily plays a role in cultivating natural fibers. Both plant-based and animal-based fibers require agricultural land, pastures, or plantations.

The amount of land used in clothing production depends on the type of fiber used. We compare the land use of cotton, wool, viscose, and synthetic fabrics.

  • The FAO (2015) estimates that globally, 2.3% to 3% of total agricultural land is used for cotton production. According to CE Delft (2015), 12 - 24 square meters are needed to produce one kilogram of woven cotton fabric, slightly less for linen and hemp.

  • Wool comes from sheep, and sheep need pastures for grazing, space that could also be used for nature or food production. The keeping of sheep affects the ecosystem and land use. A large number of sheep on extensive, non-fertile pastures have less impact on the environment than sheep grazing on fertile land.

Overall, sheep are often kept in small herds on land unsuitable for agriculture. The land use for wool production varies by region and season, ranging from 0.03 – 53 square meters per kilogram of raw wool for fertile land and 92-9000 square meters per kilogram of raw fiber in infertile areas.

  • Viscose is a fiber derived from processing hardwood and softwood, eventually used to make clothing. The amount of woven fabric produced per hectare is 1.4 m2 per kilogram in Asia and 2.6 m2 per kilogram in Europe. Compared to cotton, linen, or hemp, viscose requires relatively little agricultural land.

Bamboo can also be used to make viscose. The land use for bamboo is even lower than for other wood types because bamboo can grow almost anywhere, including poor agricultural land. Additionally, bamboo is a type of grass and regrows directly after being cut.

  • For synthetic fibers, land use is much lower because they do not require agriculture or animals. 

The exact amount of land use per garment varies significantly, but on average, 5.1 to 27 square meters per kilogram of textile is needed.

Greenhouse gases

As already mentioned in the introduction, the textile industry is responsible for over 8% of the total global CO2 emissions.

The transformation of raw materials into garments takes place in factories that consume enormous amounts of energy. Many of these factories are located in countries in the 'Global South,' such as China (35%), India (5%), and Bangladesh (5%). However, these countries are still in the early stages of transitioning to cleaner energy sources, making the factories highly dependent on energy from heavily polluting coal and gas power plants.

When comparing the CO2 emissions of different fabrics, synthetic fabrics stand out above all. Especially during the extraction, refining, and generation of petroleum, many greenhouse gasses are emitted. Burning and recycling discarded synthetic clothing also generate significant CO2 emissions.

For plant-based fabrics like cotton, viscose, or bamboo the amount of CO2-emissions differs between production methods used in the factories. Certain weaving or knitting techniques have more impact than others. For example, using thin threads requires more energy than using thick threads, as there are many more operations involved in creating a garment with thin threads.

The increase in synthetic clothing production is associated with the rise of Fast Fashion. Synthetic clothing is often cheaper to produce, and the processing of fabrics is easy. This allows for the production of large quantities of clothing for various applications.

Chemicals and pigments

The massive use of various chemicals in textile production is one of the biggest environmental problems in the sector. About 20% of all pollution of clean water worldwide is attributed to dyes and finishing agents leaking into the environment from the textile industry.

Throughout the entire production process, chemicals are used that harm the environment if they leak into it. For example, during crop cultivation, fertilizers, and pesticides are used, which can contaminate groundwater in the surrounding area. In fabric processing, pigments, bleach, and other chemical products are used to make clothing water-resistant, antibacterial, or wrinkle-resistant.

Chemicals don't necessarily have to be harmful if they do not leak into the environment and are decomposed properly. Unfortunately, in many countries control and legislation are not yet stringent enough, leading to many chemicals ending up in nature.

2. Use phase

The environmental impact of textiles doesn't end once the garment leaves the factory. On average, a Dutch person buys fifty items of clothing per year, and even after purchase, the environmental impact remains significant.

“On average, a Dutch person buys fifty items of clothing per year, and even after purchase, the environmental impact remains significant.”

The use phase begins when you receive a garment from the seller in the store or upon receiving your package from the delivery person. In this phase, actions such as washing, ironing, using a dryer, and transportation play a role.

Studies show that this use phase accounts for a quarter to a third of the total environmental impact of a piece of clothing. As a consumer you have a large influence in this phase so, it is worthwhile zooming in on this topic. Your behavior plays a crucial role; for example, regularly washing clothes after wearing them once or using a dryer are choices that directly contribute to the lifespan and environmental impact of your clothing.

The impact during this phase is largely determined by the quality and type of textile. Materials that are durable contribute to a longer lifespan for clothing items, reducing the need to buy new items frequently.

Washing machine and dryer

An average Dutch household washes about 220 times a year. Washing your textiles and clothing less often immediately reduces your ecological footprint. Depending on the energy label of your washing machine (ranging from A to F), a washing machine consumes between 105 to 195 kWh annually. Additionally, a washing machine uses an average of 40-50 liters of water per wash, which can add up to almost 15,000 liters of water per year. Studies show that, for example, washing in cold water can reduce energy consumption during this phase by 80% without compromising washing results.

Moreover, laundry detergent is one of the most toxic household liquids. Often, only a third or even a quarter of the recommended amount is sufficient for effective washing. Natural detergents, such as soap nuts from the soapberry tree, provide an excellent alternative to chemical detergents.

“Natural detergents, such as soap nuts from the soapberry tree, provide an excellent alternative to chemical detergents.”

Furthermore, the dryer is a significant energy consumer. Although there are differences in consumption between dryers, one drying cycle can easily consume 2 kWh of energy. Letting your  laundry dry on a clothesline saves energy and money (between 25 and 85 euros per year) but is also better for your clothes. Drying your new items on the clothesline makes them last much longer.

Microplastics & their impact

During the production, processing, as well as wearing, washing, and drying of synthetic clothing, microplastics are released—microscopic particles of plastic that ultimately end up in seawater. Nature cannot break down microplastics, so they accumulate in the environment, leaving behind toxic substances. Interestingly, most microplastics are released during the first wash; afterward, the release of microplastics decreases. Purchasing new clothing inevitably contributes to the increase of microplastics in the environment.

Lifetime & quality of the products

Sustainable textile production goes beyond using environmentally friendly materials; it also involves the sustainability of the product itself. High-quality clothing lasts longer, reducing the need for frequent replacements.

Moreover, high-quality clothing brings benefits to the consumer. Quality clothing is more comfortable, remains beautiful and in shape for a longer time. As a result, high-quality clothing can change owners several times, making reuse much easier.

In summary, the importance of quality in textiles extends beyond sustainable production methods; it also influences consumer behavior and contributes to a more circular and conscious approach to clothing use.

3. End-of-life-phase

We enter the End-of-Life phase when your clothing is worn out and no longer used. Between 2000 and 2015, clothing production doubled, while the average use of clothing items decreased. Basically, we dispose of clothing more quickly than ever. Once again, the rise of Fast Fashion plays a crucial role. But what exactly happens to that old, discarded festive blouse, and what impact does this phase have on the environment?

The average European discards 26 kg of textiles annually. To put it in perspective: globally, a truckload of clothing is burned or dumped on a landfill every second. The vast majority (87%) of used clothing ends up in an incinerator or landfill, often in countries outside the EU. The incineration or dumping of clothing has significant consequences for the environment, as chemicals and greenhouse gasses enter the environment in large quantities.

“To put it in perspective: globally, a truckload of clothing is burned or dumped on a landfill every second.”

A mere 1% of all discarded textiles are actually recycled into new clothing. The challenge partly lies in the fact that technologies to recycle old clothing into new, usable fibers, have only recently emerged. This process proves to be particularly challenging for synthetic fibers. While natural fibers, such as cotton, can be reused reasonably well, synthetic materials, like polyester, still pose an obstacle to a successful transition to a circular fashion industry.

Furthermore, garments often consist of different types of materials, making recycling nearly impossible. Just check the label of your shirt or sweater; it often lists more than three materials. All these materials must be individually extracted from the garment before something can be done with them. To date, this is not applicable on a large scale.

Towards a sustainable fashion industry

Whether a designer, producer, or consumer, everyone must contribute to making the textile sector more sustainable. An indispensable step is transitioning to a circular production chain where textiles can be easily reused, recycled, and have a longer lifespan. Additionally, more effective systems for collecting clothing must be developed to facilitate recycling.

Fortunately, reforming the textile industry is a top priority for the European Union on the path to a circular economy. Various obligations and legislations are intended to guide producers toward sustainable and circular production methods and ecologically sound design.

One of the measures is the introduction of the Digital Product Passport. Clothing manufacturers must provide unique digital information per product, including details about sustainability and the origin of materials. This measure is part of a broader initiative, the Eco Design for Product (ESRS), aiming to make various production chains more sustainable.

Furthermore, textile producers will also need to focus on extending the lifespan of their products. In the Netherlands, since the summer of 2023, producers are responsible for the collection, recycling, reuse, and waste phase of the products they bring to the market, and they must also cover the costs. These obligations (UPV textiles) aim to encourage producers to use more recycled textiles in their products.

The sustainability of the textile industry is also a priority for Hedgehog. We collaborate with various companies in the garment supply chain, and through a Life Cycle Assessment (LCA), we provide profound insights into the total environmental impact of the product in every stage of its lifecycle. Because you don't know what you don't measure. 

Sources:
1: https://quantis.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/03/measuringfashion_globalimpactstudy_full-report_quantis_cwf_2018a.pdf

2: https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fenvs.2022.973102/full#B6

3: https://ec.europa.eu/commission/presscorner/detail/en/QANDA_22_2015

4: https://ec.europa.eu/commission/presscorner/detail/en/qanda_22_2015

5: https://www.eea.europa.eu/publications/textiles-and-the-environment-the/textiles-and-the-environment-the

6:https://www.europarl.europa.eu/news/nl/headlines/society/20201208STO93327/de-gevolgen-van-textielproductie-en-afval-voor-het-milieu-infografieken

7:https://www.tex-tracer.com/2023/02/14/the-new-set-of-global-esg-rules-to-future-proof-your-business/

8: https://ce.nl/wp-content/uploads/2021/03/CE_Delft_2F45_Milieu-informatie_textiel_Def_aug2015.pdf

9: https://www.europarl.europa.eu/news/nl/headlines/society/20201208STO93327/de-gevolgen-van-textielproductie-en-afval-voor-het-milieu-infografieken

10: https://www.milieucentraal.nl/media/yuvg3d3p/factsheet-milieu-impact-kleding-milieu-centraal.pdf

11: https://www.europarl.europa.eu/news/nl/headlines/society/20201208STO93327/de-gevolgen-van-textielproductie-en-afval-voor-het-milieu-infografieken

12: https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fenvs.2022.973102/full

13: Milieucentraal, 2022

14: https://www.unitedconsumers.com/blog/energie/verbruik-wasmachine.jsp& Milieucentraal

15: https://ec.europa.eu/commission/presscorner/detail/en/QANDA_22_2015

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