The Issues

Whilst the fashion industry is loved for its creativity and, in some parts of the world, for its freedom of expression, it causes negative environmental impacts. Over recent years, the fashion industry has itself been refashioned. With the emergence of ‘fast fashion’ in the mid 90s, unsustainable design, low cost and low quality clothing flooded the market. This increases the speed of the fashion production cycle and gives consumers the opportunity to buy the current season’s trends at low prices.

At first glance this may seem like a victory for fashion because everyone can love and enjoy it.

However, such rapid fashion production and consumption has led to increasing amounts of textile waste generated along the fashion supply chain from production, consumption to disposal. As a result, there is a wall of textile waste being built around the world that is fed from textile waste that flows from factories and cascades from closets.

In addition to generating textile waste, the fashion and textiles industries use extensive amounts of water, energy, chemicals and raw materials throughout the supply chain, placing vast demands on natural resources. During this process, vast amounts of chemical pollutants, carbon dioxide and other toxic substances are released.

But the fashion industry’s negative environmental impacts continue beyond the production phase. The consumer-use phase also produces environmental impacts, from washing, drying and ironing to the end of life disposal.

Despite the fashion and textile industries’ complex challenges, we believe in the positive power of fashion. We believe that sustainable fashion can be a norm, not a niche.


Textile waste

Textile waste is increasingly becoming a serious environmental threat. The increased speed of the fashion supply chain and consumer’s throwaway attitude towards fashion has contributed to the large increase in textile waste generated worldwide.Textiles are considered to be almost 100% reusable or recyclable, but textile recovery rates remain relatively low. Reducing textile waste is becoming an increased focus around the world as waste management systems and limited landfill space become a global environmental concern.

In China, the total annual production of textile waste is estimated to be over 20 million tonnes. The market for the recycling of secondhand clothes has huge potential; the maximum revenue could be as high as RMB60 billion. (China Association of Resource Comprehensive Utilization, 2013).

In Hong Kong, approximately 79,205 tonnes of textiles were sent to landfills in 2011. (Hong Kong Environment Protection Agency, 2012)

In the UK, an estimated 0.8 to 1 million tonnes of all textiles are sent to landfill each year. (WRAP Textile Flow & Market Opportunities Report, 2013)

In the UK, used clothing accounts for approximately 350,000 tonnes of landfilled textiles, an estimated £140 million worth (WRAP Valuing Our Clothes, 2012).


Natural resources

The fashion and textile industry uses vast amounts of natural resources, such as water, oil and land. The World Bank estimates that textile dyeing and treatment contribute up to 17-20 percent of total industrial water pollution. In addition, the production of garments requiring approximately one third of the world’s water resources.The fashion and textile industry is one of the world’s major energy consumers. Fuel consumption in textile mills is almost directly proportional to the amount of water consumed.But natural resource depletion does not finish when the textiles and clothes are completed. When consumers wash, dry and iron their clothes at home, vast amounts of natural resources continue to be used.

Textile dyeing and treatment contribute up to 17-20 percent of total industrial water pollution. (Word Bank).

The natural resources that go into fibre production every year demand approximately 132 million tonnes of coal and between six and nine trillion litres of water. (Rupp, Jurg, “Ecology and Economy in Textile Finishing”, Textile World, Nov/Dec 2008)

Cotton accounts for 90% of all natural fibres used in the textile industry. The cultivation of cotton relies on heavy consumption of freshwater and it can take around 2,700 liters of water to make the cotton needed to produce a single t-shirt (WWF, 2013).

1 trillion kilowatt hours are used every year by the global textile industry, which equals 10% of the total carbon impact. (Textile Exchange 2010 Global Market Report on Sustainable Textiles).

The textile dyeing process is highly wasteful; between 70 and 150 liters of water may be required to dye 1kg of textiles. (Chakraborty et al., 2005; Babu et al, 2007)
Washing a partial load of clothing uses about the same amount of electricity as a full load and, if you do it habitually, this wastes as much as 12,870 liters of water per year. (How to Save the Most Electricity When You Do Laundry”. National Geographic. Green Living on National Geographic. Web. 30 May 2013.)

Chemicals and pollution

Textile production is a major contributor of today’s environmental pollution through its high greenhouse gas emissions and its contamination of air and fresh water supplies. In addition, textile and clothing transportation in today’s global fashion supply chains leads to increased pollution. It does not end here, because when consumers wash their clothes, chemicals continue to be released into the water system.

The carbon footprint of a t-shirt is estimated to be approximately 6kg. This means its carbon footprint is approximately 20 times its own weight. (Carbon Trust, Working with Conventional Clothing: Product Carbon Footprinting in Practice, 2008).

Many industry chemicals, such as azo dyes, phalates, (NPEs) nonylphenol and ethoxylates, are persistent bio-accumulative chemicals that can be toxic to the aquatic environment. There is potential for these chemicals to build up over the years in sediment or aquatic life, which then may pass through the food chain. (Toxic Threads Greenpeace)

Conventionally grown cotton uses more insecticides than any other single crop. Nearly $2.6 billion worth of pesticides are sprayed on cotton fields each year, accounting for more than 10% of total pesticide use and nearly 25% of insecticides use worldwide. (Pesticide Action Network)


Check out our industry and consumer resources to get informed.