The Manufacture of Garments and Textiles Environmental Impact
Updated: May 30, 2022
The dress you're wearing right now: Where was it made? What is it made of? It was once growing in a field, on a sheep's back, or sloshing at the bottom of an oil well in its rawest form.
We wear clothes every day, but only a few of us give much thought to reflect on what goes into manufacturing the textiles used and their environmental impacts.
This is interesting considering how much we think about our food or daily skincare products.
Most of us fail to realize how environmentally intensive it is to make a single garment.
Textile supply chains are some of the most complex and multi-layered in any manufacturing sector.
The first step is fiber harvesting which, whether it comes from a plant, animal, or crude oil, is almost always an energy and pollutant-intensive process.
The fiber is processed until it can be spun into a yarn and then woven or knitted into a fabric roll. During that process, several bleaching and dyeing methods are used to develop the final color during that process. Finally, the fabric is transformed into a garment.
Those steps probably happen in different factories, possibly in other countries, resulting in many additional chances of polluting our environment.
All of these stages have an environmental impact.
We know that the making of textiles, generally speaking, uses a considerable amount of water because all of this yarn has to be constantly washed, again and again. It's going through all these chemical processes to turn it into this high-quality, delicate material to arrive at the final desired color of the fabric eventually.
Apparel and footwear industries currently account for roughly 8% of the global greenhouse gas emissions, nearly as much as that of the whole European Union combined.
By 2030, the climate impact of the apparel industry alone is estimated to become nearly a match of today's total annual US greenhouse gas emissions.
But here's an introduction to what goes into manufacturing some of the fabrics that makes some of the garments you may have hanging in your wardrobe.
Cotton fabric is made from yarn spun from the fibers of the cotton seedpod, which is called a boll. Most of the world's cotton is grown in India and China, usually on farms that rely heavily on pesticides, fertilizers, and intensive irrigation leading to heavy water use.
Growing 1 kilogram of non-organic cotton lint (the raw cotton fiber) can use over 2 liters of clean water for irrigation which becomes dirty grey water and is costly to process back into clean water.
Cotton is generally harvested by machine, then undergoes ginning, a mechanical process that removes the fibers from their seeds.
These fluffy fibers are then subject to various processes, such as carding and combing, to smooth and refine them until they are ready to be spun into yarn.
Australia shares a small piece of the pie in the global cotton production, with around 2 million bales a year compared to China and India, the largest player in the industry, with close to 33 million and 27 million cotton bales, respectively.
Synthetic fabrics such as acrylics, polyester, and nylon are generally made using fossil fuels.
Polyester is by far the most used type of fiber in clothing, accounting for nearly half of all the fiber production, adding up to 63 million bale a year.
Chemicals from petroleum are liquefied under high pressure and forced through tiny holes to make polyester. As the liquid is squeezed out of the holes, it solidifies into fibers and becomes polyester.
These fibers are then drawn out to make them longer and thinner to be usable for garment manufacturing and then spun into a yarn. Sometimes other processes, such as dyeing, crimping, or dulling the fiber's natural luster, are involved and often have a negative impact.
While synthetics are usually made from non-renewable resources, a few options are now available from recycled materials, such as polyester made from recycled bottles, which greatly reduces the need for fossil fuel use.
Such synthetics are often made out of plastic bottles from landfills. As technology continues to advance, the polyester textile industry could eventually become a closed-loop system.
But beyond the manufacturing phase, all synthetics, recycled or not, have a longer-term environmental impact while you are using them, the consumer.
Every time a polyester fabric is washed, it sheds some microscopic fibers that end up in the waterways, ultimately causing harm to our oceans and rivers.
Man-made cellulosic fabrics involve taking a renewable material like eucalyptus or bamboo and breaking it down with various processes until it can be spun into a fiber in a similar approach to synthetic fabrics, such as polyester.
Viscose, rayon, Lyocell or TENCEL are all types of cellulosic fabric.
Positively speaking, they use renewable materials instead of non-renewable fossil fuels, and crops, such as bamboo, don't require as much water volume or pesticides as cotton farming.
However, just because a material is renewable doesn't make it the best for the environment. Some farming is still done to the detriment of ancient or endangered forests and species habitats or is otherwise illegal or unethical.
After the wood has been acquired, the process involved in breaking down the raw material usually involves toxic chemicals that can affect the surrounding environment and the workers and their families who work and lives in the area.
Because cellulosic fabrics' safety standards and environmental impacts vary so widely, consumers should seek transparent manufacturers about their processes before choosing.
No, not a textile, but together with methods used to complete the process of a specific fabric, dyeing is the most energy-consuming part of the garment manufacturing process, which can account for as much as 36% of the greenhouse gas emissions of the whole process.
There's a zero-discharge initiative that many brands realize that they need to put pressure on suppliers in China and other major Asian suppliers around hazardous chemical waste into our waterways.
So, what are the best fibers? Is there one better or worse for the environment? Should we altogether boycott regular cotton, for example, because of the water use issue and the pesticides used to grow it?
Many factors go towards how much impact the production phase can have on the environment. But then the material's made up, and the customer uses the garment, which has environmental impacts.
With that said, knowing what goes into manufacturing a textile can help you understand what you're buying a bit better. For example, choosing recycled polyester, local and organic cotton, or water-saving fibers such as hemp will likely have a lower environmental impact. They also send a message to producers and manufacturers that there is a demand for a more eco-friendly product.
To make a considerable difference in the environmental impact, fabric producers are instructed to recycle more and lean more towards renewable energy, more efficient processes, and better innovative design.
Choose Wisely, Quality Over Quantity
If buying clothes with an environment-friendly mindset is important to you, knowing where to shop can be challenging.
While some brands boast extensive environmental credentials, many don't provide information about where their fabric is sourced.
Some smaller manufacturers just can't get access to those better materials sourced ethically.
If you're really trying to limit your wardrobe's impact on the environment, it is best to do what you can to limit buying new and treasure what you have.
Be conscious. Take care of it and cherish it.
It is a very complex situation, but It’s inspiring to explore different brands and open yourself to new, more sustainable options. In recent years, we’ve been exposed to these amazing new processes. The unique materials are now more readily available, and the latest innovations that are opening up are really exciting.
I think as consumers, we're ready for it. We're hungry for it, especially the younger generation.