Indulgent yet responsible fabrics

We’re starting a series of blogs on the carbon footprint of textiles.    Because it’s such a complex subject we’re breaking it into smaller portions, beginning with looking at the textile industry as a whole.   In other words, why the fuss over textiles?

Fabrics, believe it or not, have a large carbon footprint.  In other words, it takes a lot of energy to produce fabrics.  According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, the U.S. textile industry is the 5th largest contributor to CO2 emissioins in the United States (after primary metals, nonmetallic mineral products, petroleum and chemicals).  In the developing world, where the textile industry represents a larger percentage of GDP and mills are often antiquated, the CO2 emissions are greater.

In fact, today’s textile industry is one of the biggest sources of greenhouse gasses on Earth, due to the huge size and scope of the industry as well as the many processes and products that go into the making of textiles and finished textile products. (See Vivek Dev, “Carbon Footprint of Textiles”, April 3, 2009, http://www.domain-b.com/environment/20090403_carbon_footprint.html)

Based on estimated annual global textile production of 60 billion kilogrms (KG) 0f fabric, the estimated energy and water needed to produce that 60 billion KG of fabrics boggles the mind:  1,074 billion KWh of electricity (or 132 million metric tons of coal) and between 6 – 9 trillion liters of water.

Fabrics have been the elephant in the room for too long.  Do we overlook them because they are almost always used as a part of a finished product, such as sheets, blankets, sofas, curtains, and of course clothing?  It’s estimated that clothing and textiles account for about one ton of the 19.8 tons of total CO2 emissions produced by each person in the U.S. in 2006 (see Jurg Rupp, “Ecology and Economy in Textile Finishing”, Textile World, Nov/Dec 2008).

In the U.K., the Carbon Trust, working with Continental Clothing, has developed the world’s first carbon label for clothing (http://www.environmentalleader.com/2009/03/27/uk-launches-first-carbon-footprint-label-for-retail-clothing/)  The new label will provide the carbon footprint of the garment, from raw materials and  manufacture to use and disposal.

carbon footprint label

carbon footprint label

The first point we want you to keep in mind is that the industry is huge, and because of its size it’s impacts are profound.  There is more to think about when buying a fabric than thread counts or abrasion ratings.

7 thoughts on “Carbon footprint of the textile industry

  1. I think this article is great! We just launched Blissful Seed, a small business that provides 100% organic cotton to eco-minded individuals in Chicago. This would be a great tool for my business. We try to maintain the carbon footprint as minimal as possible and we aim to use all green materials down to the handtag!

    This is very inspiring for me to see as a small business because we want to create a truly sustainable company. Hopefully, the U.S. can begin to use tools like this carbon tracker label like in the U.K.

    1. oecotextiles says:

      Hi Elizabeth: Great news that you’re looking at the carbon footprint! I just want to put my two cents in that these calculations are all really complex and it sure is easy to miscalculate. For example, in one study from the Stockholm Environment Institute, they found that the embodied energy of organic cotton from India was greater than conventionally produced cotton from the USA (Why? The yields are much less in India, requiring more land to grow the same amount, and much of India’s energy is generated by coal.) Peter Tydemers, who is an ecological economist at Dalhousie University in Nova Scotia, has warned that many of the energy calculators we see should be taken with a pinch of salt – because every detail of where and how something is produced can change and therefore affect the outcome. For example, simply changing an animals feed can have an influence on its CO2 footprint. “It’s all very fluid”, he says, “There’s a tremendous hunger for these sorts of numbers and this has created the assumption that any existing figures are robust. They’re not.”

  2. Lainie says:

    Glad to have found this post. . . looking forward to more. Great to go beyond “eco-chic” and have a serious, relevant discussion of changes needed in designing and producing textiles and clothing.

  3. Excellent article! I have been working in the apparel industry as a designer for over a decade and once you start questioning practices it is like opening up a can of worms. Especially when it comes to carbon footprint/emission calculations. Thanks for the link and will be watching out for more from you in seeking out to integrate into my own endeavors. Thanks!

  4. Thank you for this post! We are two Seattle-based mompreneurs who have just launched our sustainable business: handcrafted artisan “savvywrap — sustainable gift wrap + carry-all” (inspired by the Japanese furoshiki). We use only sustainable crop fabrics and eco-embellishments in our designs. We are not the only company offering furoshikis or fabric gift wrap, however, we believe that we are the only company that offers a bona fide sustainable option (others use non-organic and synthetic textiles and harmful dyes and embellishments). We may never be able to compete on a large scale as these other companies, however, we do see the greater need to help educate consumers about the huge carbon footprint mainstream textiles have and to help inspire consumers to change their habits (furoshiki vs. single-use wrapping paper & shopping bags as well as natural & sustainable-crop fibers vs. synthetic textiles). Thank you for sharing your eco-insights and this series! Cheers!

Leave a Reply to oecotextiles Cancel reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: