The environmental impact of the Textile and Fashion industries
Climate change, biodiversity loss, and resource consumption are the main examples of the environmental impact of the textile and fashion industries.
Indeed, the textile industry produces a value of 2.4 trillion dollars and employs about 50 million people in the world. But it is one of the most polluting human activities.
What Does ‘Environmental Impact’ Mean?
To understand how the textile industry affects the ecosystem we must first give a definition of ‘environmental impact’.
According to the Italian Legislative Decree 152/2006, it is:
"The alteration [...] resulting from the implementation, management, and discontinuation of plans, programs or projects on the territory, as well as any malfunctions."
An environmental impact can be small or large, temporary or long-lasting, positive or negative. However, when referring to the textile industry, it generally has a negative meaning.
What is the Environmental Impact of the Textile and Fashion Industries
On its website, the European Parliament has published an interesting infographic about the impact of textile production on the environment.
Here are some of the data.
Water consumption and water pollution
The textile industry needs a lot of water, both for the cultivation of cotton and other fibers, and for the production process. Added to these is the water that consumers use for washing their clothes.
- in 2015 the textile industry used 79 billion cubic meters of water,
- 2700 liters of water are needed to produce a T-shirt,
- 20% of global drinking water pollution comes from textile production,
- the washing of synthetic clothing accounts for 35% of the release of primary micro-plastics into the environment.
Greenhouse Gas Emissions
Like any industry, the textile industry needs fossil fuels to generate energy. The main consequence is the production of greenhouse gases that favor global warming.
- 10% of global carbon emissions come from the fashion industry (more than the total of all international flights and shipping combined),
- the purchasing of textile products in the EU in 2017 generated around 654 kg of CO2 emissions per person.
- the UN has estimated that between 80% and 90% of the water used in textile production goes back to the water system without verifying its healthiness (pesticides, other chemicals and fertilizers)
- each of us ingests at least 5 grams of plastic per week.
The Waste Problem
The environmental impact of the textile and fashion industries covers the entire life cycle of a product: from raw materials to production, from logistics to sales, and even disposal.
In fact, less than 1% of clothing is recycled and 87% ends up in landfills, abandoned or incinerated.
The effects of all this? Poisoned rivers, polluted soils, reduced soil fertility, biodiversity loss, and climate change. But also health risks, slavery and child labor, and destruction of local economies.
The Role of Fast Fashion
Fast Fashion is a term created in the 90s to describe a business model in which a large number of collections (up to 52 in one year) is continuously produced. Generally, these collections include poor quality garments at low prices. For this reason, Fast Fashion encourages the compulsive purchase of products which, however, is thrown away within a few months.
The infographic of the European Parliament says that since 1996 the amount of clothing purchased by each European citizen has increased by 40%. However, today they consume almost 26 kg of textile products every year and dispose of around 11 kg.
In its rating of the textile industry, the WWF Switzerland analyzed the ecological commitment of 12 textile brands. Apparently, more than half of them do not take any measures to limit environmental effects.
But what could they actually do?
WWF suggests companies improve their ecological efficiency by focusing on innovation and transformation. This means creating new business models and using innovative technologies to minimize resource consumption and the ecological footprint. These solutions would also guarantee economic growth. Indeed, the need for clothing will continue to grow, going from 62 million tons in 2015 to 102 million tons in 2030.
To address this, the EU intends to accelerate the transition to a circular economy, based on sustainability and transparency.
For this reason, in March 2020 the EU Commission adopted the New Circular Economy Action Plan (CEAP), which includes an EU strategy for textiles to support innovation and promote reuse in the sector. In addition, the introduction of a digital product passport will give consumers greater awareness when buying textile products.