Environmental Impacts of Clothing Manufacture, Purchase, Use and Disposal

Lead Author: Dr. Jim Bowyer

Publish date: 11.11.2019

 

Dovetail Partners Consuming Responsibly Report No. 13
 

 

Clothing production is dominated by two types of fiber – synthetic (principally polyester) and cotton. These two types of fiber together account for over 80% of fiber used in clothing manufacture. 

 

Synthetics are derived from non-renewable petroleum, coal, and natural gas, are not recyclable, and are a major source of microplastics in the oceans. Cotton production, on the other hand, requires huge quantities of water, accounts for a significant portion of pesticide use globally, and requires greater use of both water and energy for laundering through its life cycle than do synthetics. Cotton fiber, however, can be recovered for a variety of uses after being made into textiles. Other natural fibers, which include both animal fiber (primarily wool) and fiber from a variety of crops, including flax, wood, and bamboo, account for 5-6% of clothing fiber.

 

A major clothing industry issue is the relatively recent practice of marketing low-cost, short-lived fashions, leading to rising rates of both per capita clothing consumption and discards. Coupled with the reality that countries that have long been outlets for used clothing are beginning to reject shipments, current apparel industry trends threaten to overwhelm used clothing outlets while also increasing landfill volume. 

 

Individual consumers can influence clothing industry trends in several ways:

 

  • Limiting clothing purchases.
  • Avoiding short-life fashion trends – rejecting this movement altogether or by taking advantage of rent-before-buying programs now offered by a number of retailers.
  • Informing others, especially adolescents, of impacts of frequent apparel purchases.
  • Checking out used clothing outlets before buying new.
  • When buying new, seeking recycled content items, or items containing Tencel®, BCI™, or organic cotton products whenever possible. Also look for Fairtrade Certified or other third-party verified labels regarding labor practices of clothing manufacturers.