How Big is the Elephant?
According to the United Nations Industrial Development Organization, industrial manufacturing accounted for 18.5 percent of carbon dioxide emissions in 2004. The textile industry, which outputs 60 billion kg of fabric annually around the globe, is responsible for a significant portion of the industrial carbon footprint. Through the production of fibers, both natural and synthetic, dying, bleaching, and finishing, 132 million metric tons of coal are burned every year and six to nine trillion liters of water are used.
The textile carbon footprint is as enormous and overbearing as the elephant in the room. In the United States, textiles are the fifth largest contributor of CO2 emissions. In the rest of the world it is even worse. It is estimated that on average each person is responsible for 19.8 tons of carbon dioxide emissions during their lifetime. One of those tons is because of the clothes you wear. There are many factors contributing to this disastrous lack of efficiency, and just as many solutions.
Factors Behind Textile CO2 Emissions
There are many reasons that the environmental impact of the textile industry is such a problem.
- The vast majority of fibers produced are synthetic. These materials, such as petrochemical-based nylon and polyester, and chemical-treated rayon, use massive amounts of energy to create. Not only that, but the chemicals used during the manufacture of these materials end up as toxins polluting the air, soil, and water.
- Conventional cotton, which makes up the next largest percentage of worldwide fiber production, is also heavily detrimental to the environment. Cotton growth requires intensive use of pesticides, chemical fertilizers, and water. Cotton manufacturing also requires the heavy use of chemicals and energy.
- The dyeing and bleaching of fabrics involves chemicals, energy, and huge amounts of water. Approximately one million tons of chemical dyes are used every year.
- The wet finishing process uses huge amounts of water and energy.
Eco-Friendly Textile Progress
There is no question that the current state of the worldwide textile industry is unsustainable. Accounting for almost one-third of water usage and 4.3 percent of energy consumption, the present global production of fabrics needs to evolve. No one is more aware of this than the industry itself. Companies such as BASF Textile Chemicals have been developing economically and environmentally-efficient technologies.
Industry leaders, such as Bill Fong of Hong Kong based Fong’s Industries, have advocated massive strides towards greater energy efficiency in textile production, pointing out that making small changes will save money, resources, and the environment.
Environmental groups such as Ecotextile and Carbon Neutral Clothing are trying to raise awareness about the eco-effects of this industry. Ecotextile has a calculator for finding the carbon footprint of your wardrobe. Carbon Neutral Clothing is working with clothing companies to develop environmental certification standards. In 2009 the first carbon footprint label for clothing and other textile goods was released in the UK, giving consumers a way to compare not only the prices of different products, but the environmental impact as well.
Aside from the strides towards greater efficiency in the industry and the awareness-raising efforts of environmental groups, what can individuals do for the textile carbon footprint? As a consumer, you can make a difference by choosing eco-friendly textiles. Buy hemp, bamboo, and flax-based clothing and linens. Choose organic cotton over conventional cotton. Don’t buy products made from synthetic fibers. As the demand for sustainable, environmentally-sound textiles grows, the organic textile farmers, eco-friendly dye companies, and responsible producers will be able to thrive.
The carbon footprint of the textile industry is just as suffocating as the elephant in the room. This is a worldwide problem, that only a worldwide effort can solve.
"Carbon Neutral Clothing Certification Standards." <www.carbonneutralclothing.com/CNCStandards.pdf>
"UK Launches First Carbon Footprint Label for Retail Clothing." (Environmental Leader, March 27, 2009) <https://www.environmentalleader.com/2009/03/27/uk-launches-first-carbon-footprint-label-for-retail-clothing/>
"Market Emerging for Green Textile Chemicals." (Sustainable Plastics) <https://www.sustainableplastics.org/news/market-emerging-green-textile-chemicals>
Rupp, Jurg. "Ecology and Economy in Textile Finishing." (Textile World) <https://www.textileworld.com/Articles/2008/December_2008/Features/Ecology_And_Economy_In_Textile_Finishing.html>
photo by: Photo 8 (CC/flickr) <https://www.flickr.com/photos/publicdomainphotos/3406213238/>
photo by: Volantra (CC/flickr) <https://www.flickr.com/photos/volantra/3531586044/>