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The Sustainability of Clothing Manufacturing

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The clothing and textile manufacturing industry is a sector that has existed to some capacity for hundreds of years. Over time the manufacturing process has been streamlined and made highly cost-efficient to improve production rates and profit margins. However, these changes have exuded various health and environmental concerns worldwide.

It is cited that the clothing and textile industry is one of the most ecologically damaging globally. The industry is continuously growing and developing at an annual growth rate of approximately 3.3%, with 113,600 metric tons produced globally in 2021. This growth is threatening human health and the environment’s health because of this industry’s manufacturing processes. The large consumption of natural resources, along with the excess waste production and lack of treatment, threatens the natural environment while simultaneously threatening the well-being of local residents. These residents now lack substantial access to these natural resources, such as water, and are actively threatened by the harmful chemicals used and discarded in clothing manufacturing. 

Sustainable Solutions for Clothing & Textile Manufacturing

There are various areas in which the manufacturing process for clothing and textiles currently needs to be revised. Adopting more sustainable efforts and methods in these seven areas would astronomically benefit the industry and avoid further degradation of the environment and human health.

Toxic Chemicals

The textile industry has been a significant pollution producer for centuries; however, the increasing use of hazardous chemicals threatens natural systems and human health. The United Nations Environment Program estimates that the clothing and textile “industry is responsible for dumping 300–500 million tons of heavy metals, solvents, toxic sludge and other waste into waters each year”. Though these chemicals exist in most textile production, leather tanning is a particularly harmful practice.

The dyeing process of textiles is another significant catalyst of this chemical secretion. The introduction of “mauvine” back in 1856 kick-started the use of synthetic dyes, which the industry seldom strays from to this day. The clothing manufacturing industry currently utilizes 1.3 million tons of dyes and pigments annually, but up to 25% of these chemicals are wasted, with 20% often released as aqueous effluent. These chemicals go on to destroy the natural ecosystems, local water supplies as well as human health. 

These chemicals become a notable threat because of three factors: 

  1. Their inability to break down in the natural environment.
  2. Bio-accumulation as they accumulate in organisms and often increase in concentration through the food chain.
  3. Toxicity threatens the health of the ecosystems and the health of those exposed to polluted effluent.

These chemicals have not always been entwined with textile manufacturing, and many clothes were naturally dyed, and leather was naturally tanned. These chemicals were thrown in to cut corners and improve profit margins at the expense of people and the environment. Altering processes back to more natural methods can aid in the remediation of chemical pollution.

Water Use

Using freshwater in textile manufacturing is often an integral part of the processes; however, the disregard for caution reveals the inconsiderate actions of those controlling the industry. Clean water is a critical resource quickly becoming scarce, so the use of 200 tons of water for every ton of textile produced is less than palatable. This water consumption is used at every production stage and rarely treated, let alone reused. This production of polluted water is then often released back into the environment, contributing to the pollution of harmful chemicals.

Water use becomes a threat when:

  • Water is used in excess
  • Poor quality or broken washing equipment leading to excess water use and water loss from leaks
  • Excessively long wash cycles
  • Use of fresh water at every stage

Improvements in water use in the textile manufacturing industry include upgraded and maintained equipment (ideally energy efficient), and the use of treated recycled water in  stages of the processes that allow it.

Energy Use

Energy is another essential contribution to the production stages of textiles and clothes. Though, some considerations should be taken into account throughout the processes. Energy is used at various stages of the manufacturing process, including heating water for washing, drying, spinning and weaving. Energy is one of the main costs involved in the manufacturing process. So improvements in this area would not only be beneficial to the local area but can also improve profit margins. 

Switching to renewable energy sources would offer numerous improvements in this sector. These renewable energy sources can include:

  1. Installation of wind turbines on or around factory plants
  2. Installation of solar panels for various energy needs
  3. Use solar energy for water heating
  4. Use solar energy to naturally dry garments

Waste Generation

Industrial waste can be generated in various forms, including liquids, solids, and gases. Liquid waste is often excreted along with wastewater, and gaseous waste is entwined with air emissions which is later discussed. To improve sustainability concerns about solid waste in the textile manufacturing industry, non-renewable waste should be recycled properly to mitigate pollutant excretion, and renewable waste should be properly composted if recycling or reuse is impossible.

Solid waste that is likely produced in this industry includes

  • Ashes and sludge
  • Cardboard and paper waste, such as paper cones and tubes
  • Plastic waste, including bale-wrapping film, and plastic bags
  • Textile waste, including unused yarn; fabric; and fiber scraps, and soiled fabric

Most unmanaged solid waste finds its way to landfills. To avoid this, proper recycling measures should be implemented for every form of waste produced.

Air Emissions

The clothing and textile industry is no exception to air emissions. As previously mentioned, one of the waste streams for industrial waste in this sector includes the secretion of gaseous pollutants, which contribute to air emissions. Using fossil fuels for energy has led the clothing and textile industry to be projected to produce 26% of global carbon emissions by 2050. The release of carbon and other greenhouse gases (GHGs) are the leading cause of the declining global state of the environment, including accelerating the effects of climate change. Having  this industry be such a leading cause of these emissions and, subsequently, this environmental degradation is highly concerning. Reducing emissions by switching to renewable energy, properly recycling waste, and using adequate equipment would dramatically improve the sustainability of this industry. 

Packaging

Packaging is a critical component of clothing and textile manufacturing, but there is always room for improvement. Standard packaging used to present products in stores often consists of plastic, paper, metal, and aluminum. To improve this step in the manufacturing process, using natural, biodegradable, or recycled materials can make the final product more sustainable. Using products such as; recycled paper, metal, and plastic (if necessary); cotton; hemp; wood; and jute would offer a solution to improving the sustainability of packaging.

About Post Author

Sarah Lawless

Sarah graduated from Ryerson University (now Toronto Metropolitan University) in 2022. She holds an Honours Bachelors degree in Environment and Urban Sustainability with a minor in Geographic Analysis. With a professional background in urban sustainability, Sarah is passionate about education, food security, and green development and aspires to use and share her knowledge to help cities become more accessible and sustainable.
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