How Does Clothing Harm the Environment?
Each piece of clothing that we wear is made from some kind of fabric. Some of the cloth is made from natural fibres such as cotton or wool. Others, such as polyester or nylon are synthetic, meaning they have been made using chemical processes and are made from types of plastic. Each of the materials used to make clothing goes through many different stages before it is ready to be worn, and these steps can have a big impact on the environment.
Producing the clothes we wear uses up huge amounts of water, for example. It can take around 7,500 to 10,000 litres of water to produce just one pair of denim jeans, partly because cotton plants used to make the fabric often grow in hot, dry countries and they need a lot of watering. That’s around 10 years’ worth of drinking water for one person! The fashion industry is the second largest consumer of clean water (after agriculture) in the world. Clothing production also uses electricity and produces waste gases and chemicals, while transporting the clothes around the world creates still more pollution. Most of the ‘fast fashion’ brands sold around the world are made in China, India and Bangladesh, where labour is cheap. These countries still use coal to generate the electricity that powers their factories, meaning that huge amounts of carbon dioxide gets pumped into the atmosphere.
When it comes to fast fashion, the demand for cheaper clothing that needs to be made ever more quickly tends to mean that corners are cut when it comes to safety. Cheaper, toxic textile dyes cause more pollution. In Bangladesh alone, 22,000 tons of toxic waste from tanneries (where animal skins are processed into leather) get released into the waterways each year. Cheap synthetic fabrics also release more tiny plastic fibres, known as ‘microfibres’ when they are washed. These microfibres find their way into the water system causing harm to creatures that ingest them and damaging whole ecosystems. Demand for wood-based fibres such as rayon and viscose to be planted causes deforestation as rainforests are cut down to make way for these crops.
Photo: Jay Phagan