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A Glimpse Into Textile Manufacturing and the Environmental Impact of the Industry

A Glimpse Into Textile Manufacturing and the Environmental Impact of the Industry

Posted by : Mary Wutz   /  

Our population spends so much time thinking about the food that nourishes our bodies, but very few stop to think about where the clothes we wear on our backs come from.

Textile supply chains are oftentimes the most complex out of any manufacturing sector. This is because there are so many steps between making a fiber into a garment, and all of these steps have an environmental impact.

“By 2030, the climate impact of the apparel industry alone is forecast to nearly match today's total annual US greenhouse gas emissions, emitting 4.9 gigatonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent.”

Here is what you may not know about some of the most common textile fabrics you can find in your closet:


  • Cotton fibers from a cotton seed (also called a boil) are spun into yarn that then creates cotton fabric
  • Growing one 1kg of non-organic cotton fiber uses around 2,120 liters of water
  • Organic cotton can greatly reduce the the potential for global warming, acidification, soil erosion, and nonrenewable energy as opposed to non-organic cotton. This is largely due to to the fact that organic cotton production does not use pesticides or fertilizers, and uses a fraction of the amount of water that non organic cotton uses.


  • Examples of common synthetics include polyester, acrylic, nylon and elastane
  • Synthetics are made from fossil fuels, a nonrenewable resource; however, some synthetic fibers can also be made from recycled materials such as recycled plastics
  • Polyester is produced by liquefying petroleum at high pressure and forcing it through small holes. When the substance emerges from the other side, it solidifies into polyester fibers.
  • Research shows that recycled polyester could eventually become a closed-loop system, thus greatly reducing the amount of pollution created in the fiber production process
  • Washing polyester clothing sheds microscopic fibers, which then travel into our oceans and waterways


  • Examples of man-made cellulosics include viscose, rayon, Lyocell and bamboo
  • Man-made cellulosic are created by breaking down renewable materials (such as bamboo or eucalyptus) and transforming them into fibers using a process similar to that of producing polyester
  • Although producing this fabric uses renewable resources, it is important to insure that logging for these fibers is not being done in ancient or endangered forests
  • Breaking down the raw wood material often involves toxic chemicals that can affect surrounding human and environmental health and have the potential to remain in the fabric during dyeing and finishing.
  • If purchasing man-made cellulosic fabric, be sure to seek out manufacturers who are transparent about their processes.


  • The wool production process, similar to that of cotton, is water and energy intensive
  • Wool has an environmental impact at the farming level in the form of land degradation due to overgrazing, deforestation, soil compaction, erosion and loss or organic matter from the soil
  • Reclaimed wool can still be sustainable - the Bureau of International Recycling estimated if each person in the UK bought one reclaimed wool garment, it would save almost 1,700 million liters of water and 480 tons of dyeing chemicals


  • Linen is produced from fibers made from bast fibers, or fibers that are made from  the stalk of a plant such as flax or hemp
  • The linen production still process uses a lot of water and pesticides, but is not as harmful as producing cotton
  • Linen is created by water retting. The plant stalk is broken down into fiber bundles and then mechanically refined and spun into yarn.


  • Although dyeing is not a textile, it is the most energy consuming segment of the garment production process – it is responsible for 36 percent of greenhouse gas emissions of the entire process
  • Dyes can get into our waterways and negatively impact aquatic life, plant life and human health

Almost every fiber has its own negative factors that come along with it, but it is important to take into account the life cycle of the garment. Choosing local or organic cotton, recycled polyester or water-saving fibers like hemp are typically the most sustainable option when it comes to purchasing fabric or gamernets.

Consumer that want to be informed on the origin of their textiles can use apps like Good On You, which rates brands based on their environmental impact, animal welfare and labor practices. However, if you're really trying to limit your wardrobe's effect on the environment, Dr. Vuletich said the best thing you could do was to limit buying new, and to treasure what you have.

Click here to learn more about the environmental impact of textiles and how to shop ethically.

Image by Melissa Pool

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