Look around you — it is most likely what you wear is made out of fabric, so are the materials you use for interior home décors, such as your carpets, curtains, and similar materials. This underscores the importance of fabrics in our lives. But have you taken a few minutes to muse over what goes into producing different textiles and clothing that we use daily and how this affects our environment negatively?

Experts say textile supply chains are among some of the most complex in all manufacturing sectors around the world. For starters, we have the fibre, which is either obtained from a plant, animal or crude oil. The technique required to bring about fibre is both energy-demanding and pollutant-intensive. Then, the fibre undergoes processing until it can be spun into a yarn. Subsequently, this is knitted or woven into the fabric. Somewhere along the line, bleaches as well dyes are used. And the fabric is finally made into a garment, which could be your favourite shirt, sweater, blazer, suit, or other fancy wears you possess.

Every one of these stages possibly takes place in various factories and probably in various countries. And all of these steps have environmental impacts that should not be undermined. In the subsequent sections, we will be exploring how textile manufacturing affects our environment. This will help you understand how the production of those sets of fabrics hanging in your wardrobe might have caused some damage to the environment.

Freshwater Withdrawal

Water withdrawals refer to freshwater that is permanently or temporarily extracted from surface or groundwater sources and carried to an area to be used for various processes, such as farming, washing, and so on. In textile manufacturing, large amounts of water are used as the yarn must be washed constantly. This results in freshwater withdrawal. During this withdrawal process, key stages in the making of textiles involved are fibre production, dyeing and finishing, and yarn preparation. Since all supplies of usable fresh water are limited to a certain extent, withdrawing water at a faster rate than it can be refilled could result in a loss of capacity to meet our water needs now and in the future.

Climate Change

Seven different stages are involved in the life of a garment, and each of them contributes to the problem of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, which hurt the environment. In recent research on the environmental impact of the global apparel and footwear industries done by Quantis, it was reported that these industries, currently, are responsible for 8 per cent of global GHG emissions, almost as much as that of the EU as a whole. The apparel industry alone generates 6.7 per cent of global greenhouse gas emissions, which is equivalent to around 3.3 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide.

It is important to note that over 50 per cent of emissions are brought about by these 3 stages — dyeing and finishing, yarn preparation as well as fibre production. By the year 2030, the negative effects of the textile manufacturing process in the apparel industry alone have been predicted to be of nearly the same amount as the current total annual US GHG emissions (4.9 gigatonnes of carbon dioxide eq.).

With global manufacturing concentrated on the Asian continent, greenhouse gas emissions caused by these stages can be attributed to the reliance of apparel production on hard coal and natural gas for generating electricity and heat. To stem this ugly tide, it is important that the global apparel industries use more of the renewable sources of energy than fossil fuels for energy generation, and adopt the use of eco-friendly, sustainable materials for garment production, clothing labels, and clothing tags. Wunderlabel is an example of this. There’s been a gradual shift recently where we see people adopting more eco-friendly products for their laundry and bath uses. Such development should be shifted to textile production and use. People should feel more at ease with wearing clothes, clothing labels, and tags that cost the environment little or nothing.

Problems with Natural Fibres

Cotton represents the most pesticide-intensive crop globally, and pesticides bring harm to people and lead to the loss of many lives every year. Also, it makes use of a large proportion of agricultural land — much of that is required by local people for growing their own food. Herbicides, alongside the chemical defoliants occasionally used in aiding mechanical cotton harvesting, hurt the environment more and harm human health.  Even after finishing has been done, the chemicals often remain in the fabric and get released during the lifetime of the clothing items.

Adding to environmental issues at another level is the development of genetically modified cotton. Growing cotton makes use of 22.5 per cent of the overall volumes of insecticides used in the world. To grow enough cotton for just a t-shirt, you need 257 gallons of water. Also, bleaching and dyeing the resultant fabric produces harmful substances, which flow into our ecosystem.

In a Nutshell

The fashion world may be attractive, glamorous and fascinating. However, its impact on the environment exacerbates on a daily basis. It is common knowledge that all customer products affect the environment negatively in one way or the other. But an average consumer doesn’t have a precise idea as to which product brings about less or more impact compared with others. The various stages in textile manufacturing hurt the environment through the constant and relatively huge emissions of GHG, water withdrawal, the release of toxins into our ecosystem from pesticides and herbicides used in growing cotton, and many other effects.

To nip these problems in the bud, it is essential that global apparel industries use eco-friendly materials for garment production, ditch or reduce the use of fossil fuels for energy generation and adopt the use of renewable energy instead. Any product, manufactured, used or disposed of in a manner that reduces, significantly, the damage it would otherwise do to the environment, can be regarded as an eco-friendly product. Apart from helping to reduce the impact of textile manufacturing on the environment and making our world a better place to live in, the use of such materials will also prevent the adverse effects of harmful chemicals (pesticides, herbicides, etc.) on human health.