Whether natural, artificial or synthetic fibres, the raw materials of the fashion industry ask a high price of the planet. Starting with the 4% of the world’s drinking water that’s used to produce clothing.
If you look at the production chain of a garment, almost all of its stages are a source of pollution: production of natural fibres through livestock farming or crop cultivation, production of synthetic fibres, processing of the raw material into thread (spinning), weaving, garment production, distribution via freight transport and garment care. So one of the phases contributing the most towards global warming via CO² emissions is the production of raw materials, which on average accounts for 35% of emissions (8% for wool and 72% for an anorak). Textile dyeing and processing account for 20% of water pollution worldwide
Cotton: a scourge for water
Cotton accounts for a quarter of the raw materials used to produce textiles, amounting to 17.7 million tons in 2015. And the environmental impact of standard cotton cultivation is alarming. It covers around 2.5% of the world’s farmland surface area, and as of 2016, 64% of the cotton cultivated worldwide was genetically modified. But most importantly, cotton cultivation uses phenomenal amounts of water.
Cotton swallows up water
Cotton cultivation takes a lot of time, a lot of sunshine, 120 days’ watering to ensure that it grows, then a dry spell at the end of the crop cycle. These weather conditions are generally found in tropical and subtropical latitudes. To make up shortfalls in precipitation and its haphazard distribution, growers resort to irrigation. Some 50% of the farmland surface area is irrigated. This makes cotton the planet’s third-biggest irrigation water crop, behind rice and wheat and ahead of maize and fruit and vegetables. Depending on the techniques used, it takes between 5,000 and 17,000 litres of water to produce 1 kg of cotton.
To source this irrigation water, water from rivers, lakes and water tables has been diverted. That’s how intensive cotton cultivation came to cause one of the biggest environmental catastrophes of the 20th century. In the 1960s, the Soviet Union led countries in central Asia (present-day Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan) to be turned into cotton fields. Since there was not enough precipitation, the water of the Aral Sea’s main tributaries was diverted. Between 1960 and 2005 the Aral Sea lost 75% of its surface area and 90% of its volume. This made the water more salty, destroyed almost all life forms in it and prompted a rise in rates of child mortality, cancer, anaemia and respiratory illnesses in the surrounding populations.
Moreover, water is needed for every production step, not least to apply dyes and chemicals. The World Wide Fund For Nature (WWF) has devised an indicator, the “water footprint”, to indicate the volume of freshwater used to manufacture a product. This index, which takes every stage of the production process into account, has made it possible to estimate 2,720 litres (or more than 13 bathtubs full) of freshwater for the manufacturing of a 250-gram cotton T-shirt and 7,500 litres for that of a pair of jeans.
Cotton pollutes water
Cotton cultivation requires an enormous amount of water, and also of pesticides. According to the World Health Organisation, it accounts for 25% of insecticides, 10% of weedkillers and 4% of nitrogen and phosphorus fertilisers used worldwide. All substances that end up in drinking water, trickling down from the cotton fields into rivers and/or water tables. Cotton is also polluting when being spun. The threads are coated in oil or wax to stand up to rough treatment from factory looms. The fabric must then be washed to remove these lubricants. This very polluting step discharges a lot of nitrates and phosphates into the water, and so destroys ecosystems.
Organic cotton – better but not perfect
The Max Havelaar association launched organic cotton in 2005. It makes it possible to better protect those parts of the world that have not been depleted by intensive crop farming. However, for the cotton to be less polluting it has to be grown with as little irrigation as possible, while ensuring that any dyeing processes do not use heavy metals or azoic compounds. A white hue must be achieved using oxygenated water rather than chlorine, but this is not always the case.
Wool – the most polluting of fabrics
Who would have thought that their jumper that’s so soft and warm, made from fully biodegradable natural fibres, is in fact catastrophic for the environment? It is though! The Global Fashion Agenda report showed that when it comes to the production process, sheep’s wool is among the world’s five most polluting fabrics.
The sheep – a big methane producer
Each day, each sheep produces some 30 litres of methane that gets let out into the atmosphere. That’s far more than that produced by their much-vilified bovine friends. Especially if you consider that it takes a billion of them to produce 2 million tons of wool! And the impact of methane on global warming is 28 times greater than that of carbon dioxide. In New Zealand, the 3rd biggest wool-producing country after China and Australia, 90% of greenhouse gas emissions are caused by sheep farming. Plus, livestock manure pollutes the air, ground and water. Not to mention that cattle farming is a cause of deforestation (not least in England and Wales, where fields get cleared and trees felled), and soil depletion (as animals graze).
Wool processing – highly polluting
After shearing, the wool is cleaned. Because raw wool is heavily loaded with impurities (250 to 600 kg per ton): organic salts, earth, oil. Wool washing also sheds organic matter and polluting pesticides carried by sheep. This process generates so much pollution that the biggest wool producers prefer to send this raw material to Asia for washing. Lastly, whitening, dyeing, screen printing and priming also require the use of chemicals that get discharged into waste water. Thankfully, in the EU (unlike in Asian countries), producers are obliged to treat their waste water before discharging it.
Synthetic fabrics – a major source of microplastics
Since 2006, in off-the-peg fashion the use of synthetic fibres (chiefly polyester, but also polyamide, nylon and Lycra®) has overtaken that of cotton. This is because such fibres are cheap and more hardwearing than cotton. Production exceeds 40 million tons per year.
Made from petrochemical oil
Polyester is the top synthetic fabric in terms of production quantities. But 70% of its composition is derived from petrochemical oil, a non-renewable fossil resource. This accounts for some 40% of the textile industry’s greenhouse gas emissions, not least gases released during the oil extraction and processing processes.
Laundering – a source of microplastics
The fashion industry’s biggest environmental impact is made not by raw materials, production or freight transport, but by garment laundering, not least when it comes to synthetic fabric. As well as the amount of water and energy used and detergents shed, these fibres release plastic microparticles. They then get discharged into the sea where they take decades to break down. More than a third (35%) of the microplastics shed into the sea are said to come from textile laundering, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). This amounts to 500,000 tonnes, the equivalent of 50 billion plastic bottles.
Artificial fabrics – an alternative with room for improvement
The term artificial fabrics refers to the various types of viscose made from natural resources such as wood cellulose (bamboo, maize, soya, beech or eucalyptus). Bamboo, eucalyptus and wood viscose (sold under the name Modal) are portrayed as sustainable, biodegradable alternatives to cotton and polyester. They are promising, but their production processes have detrimental effects on the environment.
They promote deforestation
To supply the wood needed to produce these artificial fabrics (5 million tons), 70 million trees are felled each year – spanning 140,000 hectares on average – just to meet the needs of the textile industry. Plus, farmers who engage in monoculture destroy biodiversity. Because these monocultures, which always draw the same nutrients from the soil and leave it depleted, push farmers to use pesticides and fertilisers.
Processing that’s polluting
The viscose production process uses a lot of water: 400 to 11,000 litres of water to produce 1 kg of viscose. Wood pulp, dissolved in a caustic soda bath to yield a fluffy mass, is mixed with carbon disulphide to make a paste that’s put through a die. Lastly, the resulting filaments are cooled in a sulphate and sulphuric acid bath. These corrosive chemicals, which despite processing (dyeing, screen printing, trimming, laundering, etc.) are partly retained in fabrics made from viscose, are toxic for the workers and the consumer.
Le Tencel, la fibre écologique
Lyocell, which originated in the USA in the 1970s, is now known by the name of Tencel (as trademarked by Lenzing AG of Germany). This eco-friendly fibre is made from eucalyptus, bamboo or hardwood pulp. It’s made from wood fibres from sustainably-managed forests (certified PEFC-FSC) made up of trees requiring little water. Unlike cotton, eucalyptus only needs rainfall to grow, without pesticides and without an intensive irrigation system. Plus, Tencel offers a yield that’s ten times greater than that of cotton for the same farmland surface area. Its patented production process is also cleaner than that of viscose. Cellulose is dissolved in a non-toxic solvent (amine oxide), recovered and 99.77% recycled. Lyocell’s environmental impact is slight, thanks to its being produced in an almost-closed circuit.
Three environmentally-responsible solutions
How do you opt for cleaner fashion?
1- Go for linen, hemp or Tencel
Linen is biodegradable, a crop that needs very little water and can easily be cultivated organically. Plus, every part of the plant is useful and gets used. Lastly, it’s a crop that can be grown locally to French consumers, since France is one of the world’s biggest linen producers.
Hemp, which is as yet little used in textile applications, is a very hardwearing fibre which generates next to no pollution. Cultivating it even has beneficial effects on soil.
As for Tencel, it’s a fairly virtuous alternative to cotton or viscose.
2- Favour organic textiles
There’s only one label for organic textiles: GOTS. The very stringent criteria attached to this label mean the following: that the cotton, linen or hemp used are cultivated without insecticides or pesticides; that 91% less water is used for organic cotton compared to standard cotton throughout the production chain (artisan rather than systematic irrigation, no spreading of pesticides, which reduces water use, etc.); decent working conditions and salaries for farmers and employees (fairtrade); eco-friendly dyeing – no bleaching with heavy metals, but with oxygenated water instead.
Be wary of the Oeko-tex label. It’s very often promoted, certifying that the finished product (garment or fabric sold by the metre) has been tested in a laboratory to check that it is non-toxic. But it does not certify fabric as organic, and the eco-friendly and ethical aspects are not checked on. Standard cotton can secure Oeko-Tex certification whereas it has been cultivated using pesticides, potentially made under dubious conditions, etc..
3- Switch to recycled, upcycled and second-hand clothes
The use of recycled cotton makes it possible to reduce all these types of environmental impact (compared to new cotton): global warming, water use and pollution, energy consumption, effects on the respiratory tract…
The same goes for synthetic fibres recovered from worn-out clothes.
But this industry is still in its infancy. At the moment, an emerging trend among young consumers is buying second-hand clothes in thrift shops and on platforms like Vinted…
As we have seen, buying a garment made from a natural and noble fabric, like cotton or wool, does not necessarily make your purchase ethically sound or eco-friendly.
One thing’s for sure: we’ve got to forget synthetic fabrics which, as well as often being of poor quality, are extremely polluting when it comes to both the production process and garment care.
It’s high time we studied clothing labels like we do the labels on food products. Although this approach takes time and is a learning curve, it’s the only way to prick people’s consciences and make for a more pared-down textile industry.