Textile production: The Industry's Unhealthy Practices

By Zenda Nel
Sustainable Fashion Writer

Most consumers love purchasing new pieces of clothing - especially those who follow fashion trends.

It seems like such a harmless pleasure, but if you often buy clothes you don’t really need, especially cheap clothes, you are part of the fast fashion consumer community and that’s a problem. According to Fashion Network, the fashion industry’s output has doubled since 2000, but consumers wear clothing items 15% shorter.

What is fast fashion, and is it a problem?

Fast fashion is the production of high quantities of low-quality clothing in several cycles every year. Instead of a style for every season, new styles are invented for every month of the year, or even every second week.

It’s a problem because fast fashion uses cheap materials, which have a negative impact on the environment. The negative impact comes from the production of the cheap, synthetic textiles that are used to make the clothes. It is also a problem because many of the clothes produced every year go unused and end up in landfills, contributing to the world’s waste problem.

The clothing and textile industry is the second-largest polluter in the world, second only to the oil industry. Consumers wearing a garment only once and then discarding it, create mountains of trash.

Between 2000 and 2014, clothing production doubled. H&M produces 12 to 16 new clothing collections each year; Zara takes it up a notch with 24 new cycles each year. In Europe, apparel companies doubled their clothing collections from two a year in 2000 to an average of five a year in 2011. 

A staggering number of clothing items currently exists. Picture it: 109.2 billion single pieces of clothing – 14 items for each of us on earth.

Every stage of textile production involves a process or chemicals that can be harmful to the environment. In this article, we’ll look at the different stages of textile production and aspects of it that is causing so much concern around the world.

Textile production and its chemical toll 

  • Fibre production
  • Chemicals are involved in all stages of textile processing. All textiles start life off as an arrangement of fibres. Textiles can be made from:

    • Plants like cotton or linen, which use pesticides, insecticides, and fertilizers. 
    • Animal fibres like wool and silk. Wool production uses pesticides to prevent disease. After shearing, the wool fibres are treated with chemicals.
    • Man-made fibres like viscose or rayon made from wood pulp are treated with hazardous chemicals.
    • Synthetic fibres like polyester made from chemical compounds in fossil fuels involve countless chemical processes.

    Cotton farming is a huge polluter. This practice contributes to 24% of the world’s insecticide use and 11% of its pesticide use, yet it only uses 3% of the world’s arable land.

    StartupStockPhotos from Pixabay

  • Yarn production
  • At this stage, spinning oils are added in the spinning process to strengthen the yarn.

  • Creating the fabric
  • Knitting and weaving to create the fabric also involve chemicals, solvents and adhesives, all of which are toxic.

  • Pre-treatments
  • All the above stages can involve a pre-treatment process, which means more chemicals. Pre-treatments can involve washing, scouring, bleaching, and carbonizing, which use detergents, solvents, acids, bleaches, and enzymes. 

  • Dying and printing
  • The previous stages only created the fabric and the fibres it’s made from; it contains no design yet. That involves dying and printing, which is achieved with dyes, pigments, polymeric binders, and plasticizers, none of which is environmentally friendly.

  • Washing
  • And at the end of all these chemical treatments, in order to get rid of all the smells, the fabric is washed with detergents or otherwise treated. By the time you wear it, a garment has gone through countless chemical processes, all harmful to the environment and billions of gallons of water were used in the process. 

    According to the World Economic Forum, it takes about 2,600 litres of water to produce one cotton shirt. That's eight cups of water for one person for three-and-a-half years.

    The accumulative water usage over all these textile-producing processes comes to 20,000 litres of water to make one kilogram of cotton – the amount necessary for one t-shirt and a pair of jeans. In China, the textile industry produces over 2.5 billion tons of wastewater every year. All in all, the fashion industry produces nearly 20% of global wastewater.

    Our love for fashion is polluting our skies

    It’s not something we think about when we buy a new pair of jeans, but that coveted fashion item has contributed considerably to air pollution by the time you buy it. Making that pair of jeans produced as much greenhouse gas as if you were driving a car more than 128 kilometers.

    The fashion industry produces 10% of all humanity’s carbon emissions – that is more emissions than all international flights and maritime shipping combined.

    The very process of creating textiles to make garments contribute directly to greenhouse gas formation. A 2018 Quantis report found that over 90% of the emissions related to apparel creation are caused by dyeing and finishing, fabric preparation, yarn preparation, and fibre production. The report found that combined, the footwear and clothing account for an estimated 8.1% of global climate impacts. The volume of emissions produced by the fashion industry is more than the combined emissions of two or three entire European countries.

    Miroslav Gecovic from Pixabay

    Our love for fashion is creating mountains of waste

    Everything about landfills is depressing, and the fashion industry is a huge contributor to these huge garbage dumps. Even before a strip of fabric is fashioned into a piece of clothing, a percentage of it becomes waste as about 15% of it lands on the cutting room floor. Anyone who has ever sewn a dress, has had to discard some of the cut-offs. 

    With every second person throwing their unwanted clothes straight in the trash, 64% of all garments produced each year end up in landfills. Tones of them land there every second of every day. According to the World Resource Institute, up to 85% of textiles go into landfills each year. That's enough to fill the Sydney harbour annually.

    Landfills themselves are a huge environmental problem, contributing significantly to global warming through the release of methane gasses.

    And for a world with a large economically vulnerable population, we are throwing away a lot of money. The value of the clothing that is thrown away every year amounts to more than $400 billion.

    Our love for fashion is contributing to the world’s plastics problems

    You didn’t know that, did you? Neither did I. But how?

    The textile and fashion industries rely heavily on synthetic materials like polyester, acrylic, and nylon. The most used one is polyester.

    During the manufacturing process, and when we wear and wash clothes made from these fabrics, tiny plastic fibres, called microfibres, are shed. These end up in the environment. Plastic particles that end up in the environment don’t degrade; they just become smaller and smaller until they are invisible to the naked eye.

    According to Greenpeace, one piece of clothing can release 700,000 fibres in a single wash. Every time someone runs a washing machine, hundreds of thousands of microfibres get dislodged and flushed down the drain. Eventually, their journey takes them down rivers to beaches and oceans, where they remain forever.

    According to a 2017 report from the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), 35% of all microplastics in the ocean came from the laundering of synthetic textiles like polyester. The fashion industry’s use of polyester is one of the reasons why it is such a damaging industry. Polyester textile production involves high emissions and creates microplastic waste.

    In the oceans, fish and other sea creatures inadvertently swallow the floating microplastics and we eventually end up eating them.  

    Concluding thoughts

    The textile and fashion industries as they are operated now, combined with untenable consumer habits, are unsustainable. The textile industry needs to rethink how it produces textiles; the fashion industry needs to rethink fashion cycles, and consumers must change their buying habits. 

    The textile industry must come up with a way to produce textiles without a cost to the environment. Clothes should be made to last, and consumers must be educated to buy less. If we can reduce consumption, we will start reducing waste. 

    There are many signs emerging of rising awareness of the enormity of the problem, but so far, change has been slow in coming.

     

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