The clothing and textile industry is the second largest polluter of clean water in the world, after agriculture. Globally textile production produces 1.2 billion tonnes of greenhouse gas every year. The UN estimates 10 percent of total global emissions come from the fashion industry.
The textile industry’s excessive use of pesticides, herbicides and fertilisers harms both the environment and the workers. Take Cotton for example: conventionally grown cotton makes up half global textile production in world and accounts for 25 percent of world insecticide use, whereby, in some cases, the crop is sprayed up to ten times per season. Cotton farm workers suffer from more chemical-related illnesses than any other occupational group. Adding to this disgrace, conventional cultivation depletes the soil and requires disproportionate quantities of water for irrigation, in some cases over 10 tonnes of water are used to grow enough cotton to make 1 pair of jeans – or 6 litres per cotton bud!
The problems are not confined to cotton, chemicals used in all fibre and textile production can be toxic with potential to harm workers and cause irreversible damage to the environment. Workers in dye factories are most at risk. Dyestuff contains carcinogenic aniline dye and aromatic amines, which cause bladder cancer – the most common cancer in the clothing production workforce.
The global textile industry discharges 40,000 to 50,000 tonnes of bleach and dyes into rivers annually. When combined with the disproportionate removal of water to process fibres this threatens the world’s supply of drinking water.
And then there's the huge environmental problem of textile waste. Textile products are now everywhere - from covering our bodies to populating our homes and workplaces. They are perpetually manufactured for newness and unfortunately in this throwaway society – are being treated like consumables: consumed in their very first short life from fibre through to disposal.
Millions of tonnes of textile are landfilled annually throughout the world. International studies indicate textile waste amounts to between 3 to 5% of total municipal waste in landfill (Fraser, 2018). “While these may seem to be a small percentage of total wastes discarded, the quantity per person is far more alarming: 28kg per person per year in the UK, 65lbs or 29kg in USA, and 23kg in New Zealand. To put this further into perspective, 23kg of textile is equivalent to approximately 116 adult sized T-shirts (based on an average T-shirt weight of 200 grams) thrown to landfill by each and every New Zealand resident in 2010. In terms of total landfill that would be equivalent to 505 million T-shirts disposed in New Zealand annually, within a total population size of less than 5 million” (Fraser, 2018).
And if that’s not disturbing enough, textile products create environmental hazards for landfill that have an adverse effect on humans. Synthetic fibres take hundreds of years to decay and the large items behave like pool liners, causing water to pool and stagnate, and problematic surface water run-off. Simultaneously the decaying fibres produce toxic gases and leachate which contaminates both surface and groundwater sources. And while, organic fibres may decay at a faster rate, if they’ve had any kind of finishing or surface treatment it will likely pause the process and just prolong the adverse effects.