Environmental Impacts of Textile and Fashion Industry

The textile and fashion industry takes second place in the lineup of largest polluters of the world; in case you’re wondering, the oil industry takes first place. Modern times have made fashion increasingly disposable, which has amplified cloth production by 50% in the last few decades. Population growth and the plethora of fashion brands have further elevated the demand for textiles. The consequences are disastrous effects on our environment, due to exploitation of natural resources and release of extremely harmful toxic matter. Textile and apparel industry have many negative environmental impacts. In this article I have tried my best to highlight focus points.

used cloth
Fig: Clothing waste

Water Consumption
The textile and fashion industry consumes about 1.5 trillion tons of water per year. Dyeing and finishing processes take up massive quantities of fresh water; on average, one ton of dyed fabric uses 200 tons of water. Moreover, cotton crops require plenty of water to grow. Around 20,000 liters of water yield only 1kg of cotton. The high rate of water consumption by cloth manufacturing businesses raises concerns about the 750 million people in the world who lack access to drinking water.

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Water Pollution
In most developed countries, draining untreated wastewater into rivers and oceans is a criminal offense. However, most textile manufacturing takes place in third world countries, where the rules and regulations regarding water pollution are not very effective. Wastewater released by textile industries is loaded with toxic substances; lead, arsenic, and mercury are a few to name. The contaminated water bodies are injurious to the health of aquatic life and human beings living nearby.

wastewater of textile industry
Fig: Wastewater of textile industry

Solid Waste
The average family in developed countries throws away at least 30kg of used clothes every year. Only 15% of discarded textiles are donated or recycled. Recycled clothing is not very popular, as industries that process old clothing to renew it are still rare. The remaining waste is a huge burden on our landfills, especially synthetic materials used in textiles; synthetic cloth fibers normally contain plastics, which take over 200 years to decompose. Every time we wash a synthetic garment, about 1900 microfibers are released into the water, which eventually make their way to the oceans. Almost 200,000 tons of these plastic microfibers accumulate in oceans every year; these are ingested by aquatic life, thereby introducing plastic into our food chain.

Use of Chemicals
A garment having a tag that says ‘100 natural fabric’ in fact contains 25% of chemicals by weight. Fashion industry processes like fiber production, dyeing, and bleaching utilize hefty amounts of chemicals. About one ton of chemicals go into manufacturing one ton of textiles. Moreover, cotton farms employ colossal amounts of chemical fertilizers to enrich soil used for growing the crop. The heavy dosage of chemicals damages the soil’s natural vigor. Rainfall carries the chemicals to nearby water bodies, creating water pollution. The fertilizers washed into lakes and rivers encourage abnormal growth of algae over the surface. The algae use up all the water’s oxygen and prevent sunlight from reaching the aquatic life underneath. The chemicals also have harmful effects on the farmers and consumers. Therefore, it is best to wash a newly bought garment before wearing it.

Contribution to Greenhouse Effect
The textile and fashion industry is responsible for 10% of global carbon emissions. Manufacturing and transportation generate tremendous amounts of greenhouse gases. Production of synthetic fibers like nylon, acrylic, and polyester is energy extensive, as it uses up substantial amount of fossil fuels. They emit greenhouse gases like di-nitrogen oxide, which is 300 times more dangerous for the environment as compared to carbon dioxide.

Most fashion and textile industries are set up in third world countries, where coal is utilized to power the factories. Coal is the worst kind of fossil fuel in terms of carbon emissions. Moreover, these countries lack sufficient greenery due to widespread deforestation. As a result, the greenhouse gases remained trapped in the atmosphere for a long time. Plants can absorb many harmful gases like carbon dioxide and methane, releasing oxygen into the surrounding air to purify it.

Soil Degradation
Agriculture, deforestation, and overgrazing together are responsible for at least 90% of earth’s soil degradation. The high demand of cotton crop throughout the year, cutting down of trees to manufacture clothing material like Rayon, and the raising of sheep to acquire wool is all connected to the fashion and textile industry. The roots of trees help hold the soil in place and the tree canopies shelter it from changing and adverse climatic conditions. Without the cover of trees, the earth’s surface is exposed to excessive wind and water, causing soil erosion. Erosion depletes the land of essential nutrients needed for plant growth, turning the soil barren over time.

When cotton crops are seeded and harvested on a piece of land without interval, the soil loses fertility. Farmers add artificial fertilizers to quickly replenish the soil; the chemicals in artificial fertilizers give rise to several other problems. Many of them are poisonous for farmers, consumers, useful pests, and other animal life in the surroundings. Flocks of sheep that are not confined roam across farmlands and eat all the foliage. Their overgrazing puts pressure on agriculture to grow more vegetation, thereby contributing to soil degradation. If soil degradation continues at current rates, food production will decrease by 30% in the next 30 years.

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