The production of garments requires 4 billion tonnes of water per year to dye about 30 billion kilos of fabric. According to the World Bank, the textile industry is estimated to be responsible for 20% of industrial wastewater pollution worldwide. These polluted waters end up in rivers, lakes and other waterways near textile factories and contaminate local communities. At home, washing clothes is also a source of exacerbated water pollution: textiles contain microplastics that come from the synthetic fibres they are made from (polyester or acrylic polymers). During the washing process, these particles, that are mostly invisible to the naked eye, are released into the water and take decades to degrade.
In 2015, the greenhouse gas emissions from the textile industry were approximately 1.2 billion tonnes of CO₂, which represents more than the combined annual emissions of civil aviation and maritime shipping. These emissions are mainly related to the production of raw materials, e.g. the rearing of cows for leather or sheep for wool, but also the manufacture of cotton and artificial and natural synthetic materials. Today, 70% of the synthetic fibres produced in the world come from oil, a non-renewable fossil fuel. The transport of finished products is also very demanding in CO₂ as it is mostly done by plane and over long distances.
In 2013, more than 1,100 textile workers lost their lives in the collapse of the Rana Plaza industrial complex in Bangladesh, where many textile companies had their garments made. This was the deadliest tragedy in the textile world. Worldwide, nearly 75 million people work in the garment, leather and footwear industries, most of whom do not earn enough to live on. A female textile worker in Bangladesh earns on average 0.32 US cents/hour, the lowest average wage in the world, while the textile sector accounts for 17% of the country’s GDP. The safety and health of garment workers is also not ensured, with fires and fatal accidents regularly occuring in textile factories in the global South.
The production of a standard jeans/t-shirt type outfit has significant environmental and health impacts. The textile sector is a major consumer of chemical products. 3500 chemical substances are used in the textile sector, 1000 of which are subject to industrial secrecy. Of the remaining 2500, 350 have particularly dangerous properties. These include endocrine disruptors which are persistent, toxic and accumulate in the body; as well as flame retardants such as brominated, halogenated etc. The manufacture of jeans can also cost the lives of garment workers: for example, the technique of sandblasting to wash jeans, although less widely used today, is known to be harmful to health because of the presence of silica in the sand, which can cause lung disorders with prolonged exposure, such as silicosis.
In the last 15 years, textile production has almost doubled. Nowadays, more than 100 billion clothing items are produced every year. The textile industry also generates 2,1 billion tonnes of waste annually. About 87% of this textile waste ends up in landfills or incinerated, which is equal to one garbage truck full of clothing wasted every second of every day of the year around the world. Clothing is also tremendously underutilised: globally, the average number of times a garment is worn before it ceases to be used has decreased by 36% compared to 15 years ago. As a result, customers all over the world miss out on USD 460 billion dollars of value each year just by throwing away clothes that could be worn longer.
While buying less clothing remains the most accessible solution, recycling is also a good alternative to reduce textile waste. Since 2007, the textile eco-contribution, a compulsory financial contribution to the collection and treatment of waste, has been imposed by French law on textile producers as part of Extended Producer Responsibility. These companies must either set up an individual system for recycling and treating their waste or make a financial contribution to a body set up for this purpose and to which they belong. In France, there are more than 45,614 voluntary contribution points and 52 sorting centres. In 2018, 187,000 tonnes of textiles were sorted in France and Europe, of which 58.6% were reused and 32.6% were recycled. Only 0.4% was not recoverable.
Through the washing of clothes, thousands of plastic fibres and toxic products related to the dyeing process are discharged into the oceans. In fact, a single wash is equivalent to 1900 microfibers in wastewater. Washing clothes less often reduces the amount of microplastics released in the water that endanger the marine ecosystem. Laundry detergents can also be very polluting when they contain non-biodegradable substances. To limit the impact of each wash, it is preferable to use detergents with the European Ecolabel, which guarantees strict specifications.
In February 2020, the French law against waste and for the circular economy was published in the Official Journal. This law provides particularly to prohibit the destruction of unsold textiles by 2021 in order to encourage their reuse or recycling. From 2025, all new washing machines sold in France will have to be equipped with a microfiber filter. At the European level, within the framework of the “European Green Deal” set up by the European Commission, a Circular Economy action plan was unveiled in March 2020. A European strategy for textiles should be proposed soon. This strategy plans to boost the sector of “circular” and eco-friendly textiles and to improve the textile recycling industry in the European Union.
Since the Rana Plaza tragedy in 2013, an Agreement on Industrial Building Safety and Fire Protection, signed by nearly 200 textile companies from around the world, has been implemented in Bangladesh. Renewed for another year in 2019, it has improved safety in thousands of factories, thanks to the installation of fire alarms and emergency exits, among other things. Wages have also slightly increased following employee strikes, and workers’ rights are better respected. But while these tangible improvements are important, they are also compromised by the lack of commitment from too many companies. Much remains to be done, especially on the part of those who have not signed the Agreement, but it proves that respecting workers’ rights and their safety does not hinder the productivity of companies.
With regards to new clothes, the most important thing is to buy less and better. For this, one can rely on certain labels that guarantee more environmentally friendly production conditions and sometimes also respect for fundamental rights in the workplace. The most reliable labels are the European Ecolabel, GOTS, a private international label that bans toxic substances in the manufacture of textiles and ensures basic respect for decent working conditions, or Oeko-Tex, which guarantees that labelled fabrics respect the regulatory threshold of polluting, carcinogenic and allergenic substances. To avoid buying clothes that have been around the world, you can rely on the Origine France Garantie label. You can also choose recycled fibres, organic materials or materials that use less water and fertilisers such as flax or hemp. Turning to second-hand clothes is also a good alternative. For jeans, it is better if they are raw, unwashed, and not torn.