The textile and fashion industry is one of the most polluting on the planet, but what is the environmental impact it generates? The main effects of this sector on the environment are detailed below.
It needs a lot of water to produce textiles, as well as land to grow cotton and other fibers. The global textile and fashion industry used an estimated 79 billion cubic meters of water in 2015, while the needs of the entire EU economy amounted to 266 billion cubic meters in 2017. To make a single T-shirt of Cotton requires an estimated 2,700 liters of fresh water, enough to meet a person’s drinking water needs for two and a half years.
Textile production is estimated to be responsible for around 20% of the world’s clean water pollution from dyeing and finishing products.
On the other hand, it is estimated that washing synthetics releases approximately 0.5 million tons of microfibers into the ocean each year.
Synthetic laundry washing accounts for 35% of primary microplastics released into the environment. A single load of polyester clothing can discharge 700,000 microplastic fibers that can end up in the food chain.
GREENHOUSE GAS EMISSIONS
The fashion industry is estimated to be responsible for 10% of global carbon emissions, more than all international flights and shipping combined.
According to the European Environment Agency, purchases of textiles in the EU in 2017 generated around 654 kg of CO2 emissions per person.
TEXTILE WASTE IN LANDFILLS
The way people dispose of unwanted clothing has also changed, with items thrown away rather than donated.
Since 1996, the amount of clothing purchased in the EU per person has increased by 40% following a sharp drop in prices, which has shortened the useful life of clothing. Europeans use almost 26 kilos of textiles and discard about 11 kilos of them each year. Used clothing can be exported outside the EU, but the most part (87%) is incinerated or disposed of in landfills.
Globally, less than 1% of clothing is recycled as new clothing, in part due to inappropriate technology.
ADDRESSING TEXTILE WASTE IN THE EU
The new EU strategy aims to address fast fashion and provide guidelines for achieving high levels of selective collection of textile waste.
Under the Directive of the European Parliament adopted in 2018, EU countries will be obliged to collect textiles separately by 2025. The new Commission strategy includes also measures to support circular material and production processes, address the presence of hazardous chemicals and help consumers to choose sustainable textiles.
The European Union has an eco-label that producers who respect certain environmental criteria can apply to their articles, which guarantees a limited use of harmful substances and a reduction in water and air pollution.
The EU has also introduced some measures to mitigate the effects of textile waste on the environment. For instance, the RESYNTEX project, funded under the Horizon 2020 program, addresses the chemical recycling of certain products and could provide a circular economy business model for the textile industry.