Retailers and brands do not always know where their garments are made. In common with other industries, global supply chains in clothing lack transparency.
The industry is comprised of growers (of cotton for example), the ginners, spinners, weavers, dyers, knitters, cutters, sewers, finishers, printers, ironers, packers and other factory workers, without whom the industry would not exist. Working conditions for labourers in the textile industry are of particular concern. You will have heard of the tragedy in the Rana Plaza in Bangladesh where a building housing five garment factories collapsed in April 2013, killing 1,138 people. At least 27 global garment brands had recent or current orders with these factories. Over and above health and safety concerns factory workers in Bangladesh, India, Indonesia, Cambodia and elsewhere usually earn just half of what they need to meet their basic needs and to care for their families.
Non-organic textile manufacture uses tens of thousands of toxic chemicals, many of which are classified as hazardous by the World Health Organisation (WHO) and have been associated with cancer, birth defects and hormonal and reproductive effects in wildlife and people. Hazardous chemicals are often discharged into the environment via waste water releases from textile manufacturing facilities. Children and babies are more vulnerable to chemical exposure in clothing due to their metabolism, delicate skin, their size and their behaviours, which can impact on their developing immune, respiratory, neurological and reproductive systems.
Cotton production uses 16% of all the world’s insecticides and 10% of pesticides. Three of the 10 most acutely hazardous insecticides are commonly used chemicals to grow cotton. Pesticides pose a risk to environmental and human health and their over-use has also led to pest resistance, disruption to populations of natural pest enemies and secondary pest outbreaks, all of which make crop protection more difficult and expensive. Conventionally-grown cotton also uses an immense amount of water and is often grown in countries with water shortages.
[See under ‘Mutton & lamb (and dairy)’ in the Food Issues section]
Aside from lambswool it is the mother sheep (ewes) that are shorn for ‘fleece’ wool (as opposed to skin wool). Sheep are kept for breeding but annual sheep shearing happens to almost all adult sheep. Concerns related to lamb and sheep wool are primarily welfare-related
[See under ‘Beef’ in the Food Issues section]
Commercial leather production has all the same issues associated with it as beef production, as well as concerns related to the chemicals used in processing the leather.
The most widely used wood-based fabric is rayon. There are three types; conventional viscose rayon, modal and Lyocell (Tencel), all of which are manufactured fibres derived from trees. Carbon disulfide, the most common solvent in typical viscose rayon production, is used during the refining process and is highly toxic to both humans and the environment; 50% of what is used released into the air. Forests in critical ecosystems in Indonesia, Canada, South Africa, Brazil, and other countries are being cleared for monocrop tree plantations, mostly eucalyptus and acacia. This has resulted in both critical habitat loss but has also impacted on local livelihoods.
Polyester is derived from petroleum and its production requires high energy inputs and attendant greenhouse gas emissions, and factories may leach potentially dangerous substances from processing into the environment. Recycled polyester, derived from PET, requires 70% less energy than virgin polyester.
The processing of raw materials into garments makes up 60% of a garment’s overall carbon impact; generating steam accounts for most of the fuel consumed and emits greenhouse gases, particulate matter, mercury, and sulphur dioxide into the atmosphere. Over 90% of the water footprint of UK clothing is overseas, often in countries which are experiencing water ‘stress’ or scarcity. Water recycling and reuse measures yield great savings and since the water recovered is often hot, these improvements save fuel costs too. More than 1/3 of the total waste footprint in clothing arises when the raw material is turned into a garment, so reducing textile waste during processing is vital.
The fashion industry is notoriously wasteful. Extending the life of clothing by an extra nine months of active use would reduce carbon and water footprints by 20-30%. Manufacturing clothes that are durable is a key part of this. Using reclaimed waste textiles and other waste materials, and looking at lower-impact fibres are other priority areas. Textile recycling has a major impact on reducing greenhouse gas emissions and water usage. It also generates income for charities as well as opportunities for businesses.
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