Surprising hidden environmental costs of garment-making

I’m a strong advocate of shopping less and owning fewer, high-quality clothing. It’s good for your wallet, it’s easier to organize everything, and there’s a psychological freedom to owning less stuff in general. The normally touted benefits of minimalism. Lots of people seek to build a capsule wardrobe or something similar for these reasons.

But with clothing, there’s even more pressing concerns to be conscientious with purchases. Garment production is a very resource-heavy and highly polluting industry that’s having significant impacts on water quality in many parts of the world. And it’s not just fast fashion–any garment production that occurs at an industrial scale is bound to contribute to toxic chemical dumping, carbon emissions, and solid waste from fabric left over after making the garment. This also includes many brands that tout themselves as eco-friendly.

So what exactly happens between raw materials arriving at a factory and a shirt being created? You might be surprised by just how long the supply chain can be, and how resource-intensive garment making really is.

Raw materials for fabric require intensive use of water and pesticides

Growing and obtaining the raw materials that make up our clothes contribute a great deal to industrial pollution. Let’s take cotton as an example, since it’s the most-used material in the garment industry, at around 43%.

Cotton is a very resource-intensive crop that requires lots of water and pesticides. It takes 290 gallons of water to raise enough cotton for a single T-shirt–two and half years’ worth of drinking water for one person. And even though cotton is grown on only 2.4% of farmed land worldwide, it uses 24% of the insecticides sold globally. The excess insecticides sprayed on farms run off into local waterways, polluting water used by both humans and wildlife.

Organic cotton isn’t necessarily better. Growing organic cotton at an industrial scale still requires use of pesticides. It’s merely that organic growers use pesticides that are permitted for organic farming, and they may not even be less toxic than conventional ones. And organic certification requires using only non-GMO plants, which have a lower yield. So to get the same amount of cotton, more plants need to be grown, using more water and farmland–more than twice as much water by one estimate.

And even if the cotton were grown in the most chemical-free and water-efficient conditions possible, in the process of being made into fabric it almost always goes through a dyeing and finishing process that involves toxic chemicals. So the organic cotton label can be meaningless, in terms of environmental impact.

This is just one example of how obtaining the raw materials for garment-making requires heavy use of natural resources, while impacting the local environment. Other materials like petroleum-derived polyester all have their own environmental costs to obtain them.

 

Making fabric creates toxic chemical waste

Fabric production is a very chemical-dependent process. Factories use a variety of materials to give fabric desired finishes, performance abilities, and other features that make it good for use in garments. It’s a large part of why some say the garment industry in the second-highest polluter after the oil industry.

Making sure a fabric is clean of debris, feels nice to touch, and retains its color while being worn by sweaty humans and washed dozens of times, requires the use of strong chemicals that don’t break down easily. Let’s go over what’s probably the most toxic part, the dyeing process.

Dyeing is the process of taking freshly made and bleached fabric, and bathing it in a solution containing pigments that coat the individual strands of yarn in the fabric. Not all of the solution gets absorbed by the fabric, resulting in leftover dye waste that needs to be disposed. Up to 200,000 tons of dye are released into the environment annually, mostly untreated, into rivers and other waters.

Used dye, once it enters the environment, is hard to get rid of because it doesn’t break down easily. Many industrial chemicals are designed to disintegrate on their own when exposed to things like sunlight, high temperature, or detergents, in case they’re spilled or dumped without treatment. Not so with dyes–you can’t have dye breaking down when you’re wearing clothes in the sun, or wash out when exposed to soap. So dye meant for clothing is engineered to be very stable, making it much harder to get rid of once released into the environment.

Dye wastes are highly caustic (will burn skin) and contains contaminants like lead, mercury, and endocrine disruptors. They need to be specially treated before the fluid containing the waste can be released into the environment. Most developed countries consolidate textile dye wastes for proper treatment. But in countries with underdeveloped infrastructure, where much of garment production takes place today, these toxins are released without any treatment into rivers and other waterways where factories are located.

Dye chemicals are probably the most acute source of pollution from the garment industry. They have direct and immediate impacts on water, a natural resource that humans and wildlife depend on for survival. It should be the most pressing concern regarding the costs of fashion.

 

More than half of fabric goes directly from factory to landfill

Fabric is made into sheets with a rectangular shape, kind of like a very large scarf. The fabric for clothing is cut into shapes to fit on our bodies, which are not rectangular–we need oddly shaped and curved pieces to make clothes to fit us. Once the pieces needed are cut out from sheets of fabric, the leftover extra fabric, called cutting loss, goes directly into the garbage.

This is inevitable with garment making. But can you guess how much of fabric is discarded in this way?

More than half.

When things are really efficient, and factories can find ways to use smaller pieces of fabric like making pockets, it’s possible to reduce cutting loss to about 46% of fabric. But generally, over half of the fabric that goes into a cut-and-sew factory goes directly to a landfill.

 

An image showing the pieces of fabric that get used for pattern, and the rest showing cutting loss
The cutting loss is the part that gets thrown away, and the pattern piece is the part that eventually becomes a top.

 

Part of the reason for the inefficiency is that the fabric is cut by machine. Fabric is stacked into layers, then a jigsaw-like tool is used to cut many pieces all at once. It’s sort of like cutting a thousand-layer cake. This doesn’t allow for an even cut for all the pieces in the stack, so the cutting has to build in room for error.

In addition, each piece needs an inch or so of working area where the sewing will be done. So a top that is 18 inches at its widest point when complete will initially be cut into a piece that is a few inches wider than that, then a little more fabric will be taken off bit by bit until it’s complete. The cut off bits all become unusable garbage.

In some places like the U.S., cutting loss is reused in other ways, like as mattress stuffing. But once you learn about the toxic chemicals that are used for producing fabric, it makes you hesitant about sleeping on mattresses off-gassing fumes from leftover fabric every night. It’s why there are so many ostensibly organic mattresses being marketed today.

And again, this happens whether or not what we’re buying is fast or regular fashion. It’s almost inevitable when you’re making clothes at such a large scale.

 

Long, global supply chain creates emissions from worldwide shipping

Let’s discuss the example of making a cotton knit top with an embroidered trim. How exactly is this top made made? Does cotton arrive at a factory and get spun into a top there, to be shipped off?

We follow it along the journey from raw cotton to completed shirt, through a long supply chain including five factories, scattered in three countries, before we arrive in America, destined for our stores and our mailboxes.

The first step is a cotton field in China–currently the largest producer in the world. The cotton is harvested and ginned to separate the fibers from the seeds (remember Eli Whitney and the cotton gin?). Then it’s sent to the first factory to be spun into yarn.

Factory One: yarn. The cotton fiber is sent to be spun into a yarn at a factory, also in China. This can be done in any country, but these days China does most of this type of work.

Factory Two: knit. The yarn is shipped to a factory in Vietnam to be knit into fabric. Today Vietnamese factories do much of the knitting and other garment work in the world–especially as labor costs in other parts of Asia (especially China) have risen.

Factory Three: dye. The knit fabric is an off-white that doesn’t feel very smooth to touch. It’s sent to another factory, usually nearby, to be bleached, dyed and finished to make it usable and feel nice.

Factory Four: cut. The fabric is folded up and shipped to the next factory, this one in Honduras. It’s cut into patterns, or the pieces of the fabric to be sewn together (this step was discussed in a bit more detail above).

Factory Five: embroider. Before sewing, the embroidery needs to be placed on the pieces that will have the embroidered trim. The pieces that need embroidering are sent to a nearby factory that specializes in embroidering, so the trim can be placed.

Factory Four again: sew. The embroidered pieces are brought back to the cut and sew factory. The pieces are assembled and sewn together. Finally it’s complete! Now it’s ready to be shipped by cargo ship (or by air, if there is a rush on the order) to the U.S. retailer’s warehouses.

So from raw cotton to completed top, this garment traveled through five factories in three countries. It made at least three trips by cargo ship (unless it had to be sent on a plane at any point, which means even more emissions) and spent many truck rides being shuttled between factories, ships, warehouses, and stores, using up large amounts of fossil fuels and creating emissions. If the item is sent to us by mail, it’ll spend even more time on trucks.

This is not rare at all for fashion items produced at a large scale, fast fashion or not. It’s how large-scale production of goods takes place today in our globalized economy. Our clothes are probably better-traveled than many of us consumers. But this worldwide traversing of our garments, circumnavigating the globe, results in huge amounts of carbon emissions. The more unnecessary clothes we buy, the worse the problem gets.

 

So what? I can’t walk around naked!

I agree! Clothes are a necessity for human survival. They protect our skin from scratches and the sun, insulate us from the cold, and prevent bugbites. They also serve secondary uses like signaling personality, likes, and preferences. All this is important.

But clothes have served this purpose for a long time for humans, all throughout our history, without us consuming quite as much resources as we do now. And I think we can do much better in terms of reducing pollution while building a wardrobe that makes us happy, all at once. Here’s some ideas for what we can do:

  • Buy less clothes. It’s bizarre how all of this effort to create garments can just end up with…even more waste, if the item goes unworn. So much of the clothing our society makes ends up unwanted in our closets, or never even see the inside of a home–going straight to secondary uses like being recycled or becoming cushion stuffing. All at a huge cost to the environment and the human workers exposed to toxic chemicals. A lot of this is totally unnecessary and could be avoided if we just bought less clothes, resulting in reduced demand and less clothing being made.
  • Buy clothes that are durable. This is another reason to avoid very thin, delicate clothes. They won’t survive through many cycles in a washing machine or the tugging on your clothes from bag handles or children’s hands. I’ll go over how to buy durable clothes more thoroughly in another post, but in general, buy thicker fabric and buy woven fabrics over knits.
  • Seek out clothing made with natural dyes by small producers. It’s very difficult to make large lots of clothing using natural dyes (i.e. indigo), because natural dyes do not perform as consistently as synthetic dyes. A large retailer like Macy’s will demand that all colors in a style have the exact same color, and it’s hard to have the quality control required for industrial-scale garment production when using natural dyes. We as individual consumers tend to be a little more forgiving than corporate buyers regarding color consistency, plus this is a good way to support smaller local businesses. We might even be able to shift the garment industry culture by creating demand for clothing made with natural dyes, and then industry might work to develop natural dyes that perform more consistently.
  • Stop making or accepting promotional T-shirts. I can’t count how many free t-shirts I’ve acquired over the years. These days I just refuse them because it will 100% never be worn. It might be a good marketing tool for a day’s worth of events, but we should all think about how we can just come up with something else for a souvenir–stickers? Food? Something that’s not clothing. And if you’re usually on the receiving end, don’t accept them. If everyone stopped accepting souvenir t-shirts they wouldn’t be made anymore.
  • End consumerism. Well, this is a little more abstract, but we could certainly do with reducing our focus on clothes and other stuff as status symbols, and eliminate the whole trends thing that’s part of the endless cycle of capitalist consumerism. Probably no easy way out of this, but hey, millenials! I believe in us!

Our current model of industrial garment production is directly and acutely impacting the health of factory workers, and the people and creatures that depend on drinking water near factories. Often the focus regarding fashion is on us, the first-world end consumers, having to deal with garments that break down after one wash or the impacts on our wallets. But there are real human workers and other creatures whose health is suffering directly, right now, because of the way we currently consume fashion. They should really be the pressing reasons to shop less than our personal, financial or convenience-based ones. It’s something we should all realize and keep in mind when we’re building and maintaining a thoughtful wardrobe.

 

 

4 thoughts on “Surprising hidden environmental costs of garment-making

  1. Thank you for the so what? bullets — definitely was feeling like “okay, so no new clothes FOREVER” at that point in the post… and they’re good ones! The promotional t-shirt one is so true – I hate all the random t-shirts I get for running events or from work or whatever.

    • Recently I’ve taken to cutting them up to use as cotton swabs for taking off makeup and putting on toner, they seem to creep into my home on their own…

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