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The environmental impact of putting that shirt on your back
The shirt you’re wearing right now: what’s it made from? In its rawest form, was it once growing in a field, on a sheep’s back or sloshing at the bottom of an oil well?
We wear clothes literally every day, but few of us spend much time reflecting on what goes into manufacturing various textiles and their environmental impacts.
This is interesting considering how much we think about the food we eat or the skin care products we use.
Most of us don’t realise how environmentally intensive it is to make a single article of clothing, says fashion sustainability expert Clara Vuletich, whose PhD research focuses on sustainable textiles.
“Textile supply chains are some of the most complex of any manufacturing sector,” she said.
First comes the fibre, which, whether it comes from a plant, animal or crude oil, is almost always an energy and pollutant-intensive process.
The fibre is processed until it can be spun into a yarn, which, in turn, is woven or knitted into a fabric. Somewhere in there bleaches and dyes are usually involved.
Finally, the fabric is made into a garment.
Each of these steps probably happens in different factories, possibly in different countries.
“All of these stages have environmental impact,” Dr Vuletich said.
“And we know that the making of textiles, generally speaking, uses huge amounts of water because all of this yarn has to be constantly washed, it’s going through all these chemical processes to turn it into this high quality, very delicate material, and then it becomes a different colour to what it is naturally.
Apparel and footwear industries currently account for 8 per cent of global greenhouse gas emissions, nearly as much as that of the whole European Union, according to a recent industry report, Measuring Fashion.
By 2030, the climate impact of the apparel industry alone is forecast to nearly match today’s total annual US greenhouse gas emissions, emitting 4.9 gigatonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent.
RMIT textile technologist Mac Fergusson said textiles made in Australia were setting a good example for the rest of the world, and the global industry was making strides to be more environmentally friendly.
“We’ve got a lot of recycling going on that a lot of people don’t realise,” he said, such as a Victorian operation recycling plastic bottles into polyester that would be opening soon.
Because manufacturing processes are so complicated and varied, exactly how much of an environmental effect they impart is difficult to quantify.
But here’s an introduction to what goes into manufacturing some of the fabrics you may have hanging in your wardrobe.
Cotton fabric is made from yarn spun from the fibres of the cotton seedpod, called a boll. Most of the world’s cotton is grown in India and China, usually on farms that rely heavily on pesticides, fertilisers and intensive irrigation.
Growing 1 kilogram of non-organic cotton lint (the raw cotton fibre) uses about 2,120 litres of water from irrigation, according to Textile Exchange, a not-for-profit group promoting sustainable practices within the industry.
Cotton is generally harvested by machine, then undergoes ginning, a mechanical process that removes the fibres from their seeds.
These fluffy fibres are then subject to a series of processes, such as carding and combing, to smooth and refine them until they are ready to be spun into yarn.
A Textile Exchange life cycle analysis published last year found organic cotton — which is usually grown using water-conserving practices and without pesticides and fertilisers — had reduced potential for global warming, acidification, soil erosion, water consumption and non-renewable energy compared with conventional cotton production.
Australia holds a relatively small piece of the global cotton pie, producing about 2 million bales a year compared to China and India’s 33 million and 27 million respectively, but it punches above its weight in the environmental stakes, contributing less than a third of a per cent to the country’s agricultural greenhouse gas emissions, according to Cotton Australia.
A 2014 industry report found Australian cotton had increased its water efficiency by 40 per cent over the previous decade and had reduced insecticide use by 89 per cent since the late 90s.
So, are some fibres better or worse for the environment than others? Should we all completely eschew cotton, for example, because of the water and pesticides growing it uses?
It’s not quite as simple as that, Dr Vuletich pointed out: cotton could be knitted into a jersey t-shirt, which would be washed frequently and perhaps wear out quickly.
Or it could be turned into a finely woven specialty fabric that’s sewn into a kimono jacket to be washed sparingly and carefully maintained.
“We talk about life cycles,” she said.
“You’ve got the impacts of the production phase, but then the material’s made up and the garment is used by the customer, and that has environmental impacts as well.”
Having said that, knowing what goes into manufacturing a textile can help you know what you’re buying. Choosing recycled polyester, local or organic cotton or water-saving fibres like hemp will likely have a lower environmental impact. They also send a message to producers there is a demand for more eco-friendly products.
To make a real environmental difference, Measuring Fashion recommended recycling be combined with a shift to renewable energy, more efficient processes, smarter design and different consumption models — by you, the consumer.
Mr Fergusson said local wool and cotton growers wanted to see more textile manufacturing happen here in Australia, but local energy costs were prohibitive.
“I know that several cotton farmers have looked at the problem but our energy costs are too high. Textile manufacture is not a labour-intensive industry — it is capital intensive,” he said.
Shop sparingly, treasure what you have
If buying clothes with the environment in mind is important to you, it can be tough to know where to shop.
While some brands spruik their environmental credentials, many don’t provide information about how their fabric is sourced.
In fact, Dr Vuletich said, sometimes even the brand did not have much control over the origins of their textiles, especially smaller Australian brands that did not have the economic clout of a big global chain.
“Obviously the big players, it’s easier for them, the H&Ms, they’ve got huge scale,” she said.
“Some of these smaller players just can’t get access to that better material.
Consumers wanting to be informed can use apps like Good On You, which rates brands based on their environmental impact, as well as their labour and animal welfare practices. But such apps rely on brands being transparent about their processes in the first place.
If you’re really trying to limit your wardrobe’s effect on the environment, Dr Vuletich said the best thing you could do was to limit buying new, and to treasure what you have.
“Be conscious. Take care of it and cherish it. Each garment has had this journey,” she said.
“It is really complex but I find it really exciting. Our eyes have been opened to these amazing processes and the amazing materials we have. The new innovations that are opening up that are really exciting.
“I think as consumers we’re ready for it, we’re hungry for it, especially the younger generation.”
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