The real price of the clothes. Which fabrics are the most harmful to the environment?

    16 May 2021

    Fast fashion threatens the future of the planet. The Independent journalist Sara Young talked to industry experts to learn how different fabrics affect the environment.

    Let’s check what they propose.

    Oversized leather jackets and light cotton dresses are the staple of many wardrobes. But do we really know how our favorite fashions affect the environment?

    When the prosperity of an industry is based on the fact that consumers receive more and more products, because more and more trends are emerging, the scale of consumption becomes enormous. We consume about 80 billion garments every year. And they all affect the state of the planet.

    The Waste and Resources Action Program (WRAP), is a British charitable organization that works with governments, businesses and communities to improve resource efficiency. This NGO reports that about €162 million worth of clothing people throw away every year.

    Alice Wilby, a sustainable fashion consultant and spokesperson for Extinction Rebellion, a campaign group that urges governments to act urgently on climate change, says this attitude toward clothing “results in the loss of perfectly usable textiles, slow release of toxins into the ground, microfibers in the waterways and contributes to additional methane emissions”.

    And that is not all. The fashion industry is expected to use 25% of the world’s carbon budget by 2050, making it one of the most polluting industries, second only to the oil industry in disaster.

    What can we, as consumers, change in this situation?

    When it comes to protecting the environment, one of the most effective ways to positively impact the planet individually is by choosing sustainable fabrics.

    But he associates different fabrics with different environmental and social consequences, so choosing which materials to buy clothes from can be very difficult. Wilby explains that there are many factors that affect a fabric’s sustainability, including:

    how much water or energy is required to produce;

    where in the world it’s produced;

    how its production affects biodiversity.

    To make a more informed decision, Fashion For Good, a global platform for sustainable fashion innovation, recommends evaluating the impact of materials based on the Five Benefits from Threshold to Threshold concept, which looks at how sustainability is integrated across the entire supply chain of a product or product. The concept includes the following aspects:

    Good materials are safe and recyclable. Materials are returned to the biosphere in the form of compost or other nutrients from which new items can be created.

    A good economy is growing, circular, shared and benefiting everyone.

    Good energy is renewable and clean. Decrease in energy consumption MWh. Increase in MWh of energy from renewable sources. Concomitant reduction in CO2 emissions.

    Good water is clean and accessible to everyone. Reduction of H2O consumption in cubic meters

    A good life means fair, safe and dignified living and working conditions. Fair jobs have been created, workers are paid a living wage, and empowerment training has been provided

    Which fabrics have the greatest impact on the environment?


    Although cotton is a natural fiber that can degrade at the end of its life cycle, it’s also one of the most environmentally “demanding” crops. Wilby explains that cotton “requires a lot of water to grow and process”: making one pair of jeans requires between 45,000 and 90,000 liters of water, and up to 14,000 liters for a T-shirt.

    The fashion consultant adds that the cotton industry also uses a lot of pesticides and toxic chemicals that seep into the land and water. “Cotton as a plant has been damaging people and the planet even before it even became clothing,” says Wilby.

    According to Fashion For Good, cotton production accounts for one-sixth of all pesticides used in the world, and this poisons farmers and local communities with harmful chemicals. This claim is corroborated by the World Health Organization publication. It demonstrates that in developing countries, approximately 20,000 people die of cancer and suffer miscarriages due to the treatment of cotton with hazardous chemicals.

    Peter Maddox, director of WRAP, states that cotton production should be as sustainable as possible. We can limit the environmental impact of this process by using less pesticides, less water and taking into account working conditions. “Producers, brands and retailers must use sustainable cotton,” says Maddox.

    Synthetics (polyester, nylon and acrylic)

    Laura Balmon from Ellen MacArthur Foundation (EMF), the Make Fashion Circular project leader, claims synthetic fabrics are usually made from petroleum and make up 63% of the materials used for production in the textile industry. The most common materials in this sector are polyester (55%), followed by nylon (5%) and acrylic (2%).

    While plastic fibers do not require agricultural land and use little water in production and processing, they have a negative impact on the environment. They just do it differently. Not only are synthetic materials not biodegradable, they all depend on the petrochemical industry as feedstock, which means that this staple of the fashion industry is dependent on fossil fuels.

    In addition to the environmental impacts of extracting, manufacturing and transporting synthetic clothing and materials, Wilby said, “the use of fossil fuels brings with it other pernicious problems, including oil spills, methane emissions, wildlife destruction and loss of biodiversity.”

    Materials of animal origin (wool, leather, fur)

    According to Balmond, protein-based materials such as wool make up less than 2% of all fabrics used, and if manufactured without the use or any problematic substances, they can safely degrade.

    However, materials such as leather are responsible for massive amounts of methane, which Wilby says is rarely mentioned in conversations about sustainable fabric production. Methane’s effects on the environment are at least 20 times stronger than CO2, and the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) estimates that livestock is responsible for approximately 14.5% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions.

    Aside from the carbon footprint associated with raising cattle and transporting materials, the impact of the leather industry on livestock and workers is enormous.

    Extinction Rebellion claims one billion animals die each year due to leather, while 85 % of the world’s leather is tanned using chromium, an extremely toxic substance that often leaves tannery workers with cancer and skin conditions.

    Balmond adds that toxic chemicals are often used to preserve wool and fur. If mishandled or simply discharged, these substances can pollute waterways and further affect the health of people living along the coast.

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