Choosing Sustainable Clothes – The Impact of Fabric Manufacturing

Fashion is terrible for the environment. There is no denying it, so if you’re a fashionista prepare yourself for a huge feeling of guilt when you read this, as there are probably some truths about how clothes are made that will make you feel really uncomfortable.

Fabric manufacture

To produce fabrics, they have to be made out of yarn. Yarn is produced from organic materials that are grown like Cotton, Jute or Hemp, from artificial fibres made in laboratories or chemical works like Nylon, Acrylic and Polyester or harvested from organic sources like wool and silk. Yarns are then woven or knitted into fabrics. They are then put through various processes including scouring, bleaching, mercerisation raising, dying and printing. These processes all use chemicals treatments that are harmful to the environment. They also mainly happen in countries with little to no regulations on pollution, meaning these chemicals and dyes usually make their way into local rivers and fields.

Cotton is a hugely environmentally hazardous crop to grow. It uses huge quantities of water and fertilizers – to produce one cotton T-shirt it takes 20000 litres of water. The cotton plant also drains all nutrients from the soil. Despite being only 2.4% of the world’s agriculture, it uses 24% of the world’s insecticides and 11% of the world’s pesticides. Hemp can be used for everything cotton is, is harder wearing and uses half on the amount of water to create 1kg of finished product. Hemp was at one time the world’s most important crop, making sack, sails and paper – The constitution of the United States of America is written on hemp paper which lasts longer than paper made from trees.


Synthetic fibres

Synthetic fibres are polymers made from oil. Currently, around 70 million barrels of oil are used to create virgin polyester alone. There has also been an increase in the number of synthetic fibres used because they work out cheaper than cotton or other organic fabrics. Synthetic fabrics shed what is called microfibers at every stage of their life from manufacture to after they are disposed of.


What are microfibers? You’ve probably heard and read lots about microbeads – small pieces of plastics found in cosmetic products including face washes and toothpastes. Microfibres are the fabric equivalent of these. These tiny fibres are shed when fabrics are produced and washed. Researchers at the University of California found that in just one wash, a synthetic fleece jacket shed 1.7 grams of microfibers. Where do these go? They go directly from your washing machine into the waste water system and from there into rivers and eventually the sea. The same research showed that microfibers are working their way into fish, where they wind themselves around the gastrointestinal tract. The researchers also found that as clothes age they shed up to 1.8 as many fibres. Production of synthetic fibres also produces high amounts of Nitrous Oxide, which is 310 times more damaging to the environment than Carbon Dioxide.

The process of producing fabrics uses huge amounts of energy, chemicals and water. Most fabric producing countries do not have stringent environmental or health and safety laws, meaning that for example in the Citarum River in Indonesia, where 68% of the factories produce textiles is an environmental disaster. Textile manufacturers dump their chemicals into the river, creating high levels of lead, mercury, arsenic and Nonylphenol. Nonlyphenol is so hazardous clothing containing it is banned from the EU member states.

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