By Mike Ayeni
Sustainable Fashion Writer
First, let’s get this question out of the way. What is the textile industry?
The textile industry which is referred to as the rag trade in Australia and the UK, encompasses all the firms, factories, and companies that are involved in the design, manufacturing, and of course the distribution of fabric, textiles, and clothing.
It supplies us with an extensive range of goods that possess an even greater series of uses. The diverse functionality contained within this industry is one of the biggest reasons it is as large as it is. Worth an estimated 3 trillion USD, it plays a vital role in the economic welfare of millions around the world.
Somewhere between 20-60 million people are employees of the global textile industry, this factor is particularly apparent in developing countries such as India, Bangladesh, and Pakistan. The textile industry accounts for an estimated 2% of the Gross Domestic Product of the entire world and makes up a significant part of the GDP for the top manufacturers and exporters of textiles and garments worldwide.
So you see, the textile industry is a pretty big deal, and confirming the significance of this industry in all of our lives is as simple as taking one look around you. From our clothing and footwear to our furniture and interior decorations, we are surrounded by items that were made using products of the textile industry but here’s another super important question that needs to be asked; what exactly goes into the manufacture of all of these items which are extremely relevant to our everyday affairs?
Perhaps because of how commonplace textiles seem most of the time, it is pretty easy to overlook all of what the production entails.
Sometime during the industrial revolution, the textile industry experienced massive growth as a result of the increase in demand for textile during that period, it led to the development of all sorts of manufacturing processes to help producers meet the continuous rise in demand. Since then, various changes have come to the textile industry and it should come as no surprise that the entire system of production and distribution is now vastly different from the methods used in the past.
Since the industrial revolution, the textile industry has seen a lot of improvement due to technological advancements especially in terms of efficiency, machines that help to raise productivity, and equipment for better pattern making and design.
However, every system comes with its peculiar assemblage of disadvantages and the modernized textile industry is no different. A major problem that is currently being faced in the production of textiles is the negative impact the entire process has on the environment.
Greenhouse Gas Emissions
As a result of textile production, 1.2 billion tonnes of greenhouse gas is released into the atmosphere every year. According to research carried out by the United Nations, the textile industry can be held responsible for an estimated 10% of total emissions around the world. This places the fashion industry above the aviation and shipping industries combined in terms of harmful gas emissions.
Global warming effect environmental conservation vector
Another study, this time by the European Environment Agency revealed that in 2017, textile purchases in the European Union accounted for around 654 kg of CO2 emissions for each individual. And it extends beyond emissions.
Deforestation And Water Pollution
To begin the process of textile production, first, the raw material or fibre is obtained from either a plant, an animal, or crude oil. Collecting material for a wood-based fabric such as rayon or viscose contributes massively to deforestation. The technique for collecting other forms of fibre takes a huge amount of energy and requires major pollutants, following this, the fibre undergoes a series of steps to refine it so that it can be spun into a yarn.
Once this has been done it is then woven or knitted into fabric. Eventually, dyes as well as bleaches which are composed of toxic chemicals are utilized. Textile production accounts for 20% of the pollution of clean water globally due to the use of dyes and various other products in the finishing of textiles.
Washing a synthetic fabric such as polyester in domestic washing machines leads to the release of approximately 0.5 million tonnes of microfibres into the ocean and various bodies of water each year, drinking water included. 35% of microplastics released into the environment come from synthetic clothes which have been laundered. A single load of laundry produces 700,000 microplastic fibres.
This affects aquatic food chains as well as human beings.
Another notable way in which textile production causes harm to the environment, still centred around our aquatic resources, is the amount of water needed for the completion of these processes. This is referred to as freshwater withdrawal and is concerned with fresh water which has been removed either permanently or temporarily from surface or groundwater sources to be used for processes such as farming, washing, and many more.
In every major stage of manufacturing textiles, fibre production, dyeing, finishing everything leading up to the preparation of yarn, huge amounts of water are used up. The volume of water required to produce one cotton t-shirt is equivalent to the amount one person drinks in two and a half years.
With more people opting to simply buy new cheaper clothing rather than repair old ones or simply to keep up with the trending fashions, the volume of clothing being produced continues to increase exponentially year after year leading to freshwater being withdrawn and used up faster than the supply can be refilled.
As shown before, textiles are a necessary part of all of our lives, a part that cannot be eliminated; however, several things can be done to reduce the harmful effects of these materials and their respective production processes. The measures range from learning to reuse clothes and maintaining them properly to buying second-hand and shopping at local stores to reduce the damages incurred by packaging and shipping when online purchases are made.
While all of these are good, applicable solutions, a more effective and sustainable method is switching to organic textiles. The aforementioned measures do not deal directly with the roots of the problem, but organic clothing eliminates it by bringing pivotal alterations to the entirety of the production process.
Natural fibres take up a huge portion of agricultural land, land which could be used to source food locally. They are also grown with the use of pesticides and herbicides, which remain in a material after finishing to be released throughout its lifetime. However, with the use of organic textiles, this can be avoided.
If you are wondering, what is organic clothing anyway? That is perfectly fine; it means you are about to learn about one of the best ways in which you can help to reduce the negative impact of textile production on our environment. Organic fabric is clothing that is made from materials grown and harvested according to the requirements of the Global Organic Textile Standard, which was established to ensure that from start to finish, the process of creating textiles is completed with environmental and social responsibility.
Organic clothing can include cotton, jute, silk, and various others. They are grown in controlled environments without the use of pesticides, herbicides, and any other chemicals. All the fertilizers used are natural and the soil and water are regulated.
Common Types Of Organic Clothing And Their Varying Properties
Cotton is one of the most extensively grown plants in the world and is known to be extremely chemically intensive, with conventional cotton growing practices requiring 16-25% of the pesticides produced worldwide.
Knowing these numbers, it is impossible to deny that an organic variant to curb the use of harmful practices is an absolute necessity. Less fuel and energy goes into the production of organic cotton, and this, in turn, results in the use of less carbon. It costs less to make, and only natural cotton seeds are utilized instead of the more expensive genetically modified seeds.
An added benefit is that people with allergies or people who are sensitive to certain chemicals are spared from exposure to their allergens. Organic cotton is just better overall, it feels much less harsh on the skin, and the removal of toxic chemicals means the health of farmworkers and factory employees is not endangered.
Another great choice of fabric is organic hemp. Hemp is one of the best fibres to cultivate for the production of sustainable clothing due to its many advantages, which include a natural resistance to several insect pests and its consumption of minimal water. It grows swiftly and can be ready for harvest up to 3 times a year, and it is a long-lasting material that some claim possesses three times the tensile strength of cotton.
Obtained from flax, the second most highly productive crop right after hemp, the functionally and aesthetically appealing organic linen also requires very little water to be produced. The entire process is simple and chemical-free as all it requires is that the cellulose fibres be taken from the flax stem and spun into threads.
All of these fabrics have their advantages and disadvantages; being prone to wrinkles, initial stiffness, and sensitivity in some cases, compared to artificial fibres they are the much better choice for the world with their low environmental impact. As more companies and individuals concerned with our environmental footprint bend towards organic materials, we can only hope this is a trend we will see continue.