Apparel industry has a significant impact on the environment. Making clothes uses earth’s resources such as land, water, energy and also causes pollution in the process. We think it is crucial to know the environmental effects of each and every ingredient going into making our clothes. Thus to offer guidance to ourselves and others interested on most and least sustainable materials we have created Amberoot Material Environmental Sustainability Ratings.
We measure each material based on how much water, land and energy they use. We also rank each material based on how much water, soil and air they pollute. In the ratings we also measure whether the ingredient is renewable and biodegradable.
Fashion industry is known for being the second most water thirsty industry. On earth only 2.5% of water is freshwater. Only 0.3% is accessible to us. This parameter measures fabrics on their use of water. Conventionally grown cotton, which is artificially irrigated in an increasingly more desert like regions is by far the largest consumer of water in the industry.
Cotton and farmed animal hair and skin get the worst land use scores. What is worth noting is that unlike other apparel sustainability tools we do not think that the considered panacea of using synthetic fibres in order to use less land has a deep enough understanding of the situation. In most cases due to the lack of data it may appear that fossil fuels do not use land – which is not representative of true situation. Coal and oil has to be dug of the ground, at the expense of substantial areas or forests, mountains, and prairies. To get an idea of just how much land a single coal mine can occupy, see CoalDiver’s comparison of the size of a mountaintop-removal mine to the size of various cities. Large amount of land is disturbed by the drilling wells, access roads, processing facilities, and pipelines associated with oil and gas drilling operations. In particular, noise and habitat fragmentation can harm wildlife populations. Thus we do think that synthetic fibres do worse on the amounts of land they use than most of the bast fibres. Generally all recycled fibres get best grades for the use of land. High yielding crop, such as hemp, linen, bamboo, lyocell does get top scores too.
Recycled fibres score most positively on the energy use parameter, since very little energy is needed to produce the fibres and prepare them for the spinning process. All man-made fibres both cellulosic and synthetic score poorly on energy use due to the high energy demands to turn these raw materials into fibres (refinery and polymerisation for synthetic fibres and pulping and spinning for cellulosic).
Water pollution in apparel industry comes from extracting fossil fuels for synthetic fabrics, agriculture, from treatment of textiles and from shedding microfibers.
In fossil fuels when oil and gas are extracted, water that had been trapped in the geological formation is brought to the surface. This “produced water” can carry with it naturally-occurring dissolved solids, heavy metals, hydrocarbons, and radioactive materials in concentrations that make it unsuitable for human consumption and difficult to dispose of safely. When “fracking” methods are used large amounts of water are used and lots of chemicals, many of which are undisclosed to Federal regulators. One study identified 632 chemicals contained in fracking products used in shale gas extraction and out of half of those researchers could track found that 25% of those chemicals cause cancer or other mutations, and about half could severely damage neurological, cardiovascular, endocrine and immune systems. Not to mention not uncommon oil leak accidents such as Deepwater Horizon.
In agriculture residues of chemical pesticides, insecticides, fertilizers and runoff from animal farms are polluting water. Cotton uses 24% of world’s total insecticides, which severely contribute to the pollution of water.
In treating of textiles the pollution of waters comes from dyes and finishing chemicals. Chemicals used to waterproof and windproof are highly toxic as notified in Greenpeace Detox campaign. Treatment of cellulosic fibres (Bamboo, Viscose, Rayon, Modal), cow leather industry also contribute to water toxicity.
Scientists agree that the largest source (35-85%) of plastic pollution in our oceans are microfibers shed from washing our synthetic clothing. Microfiber pollution is abundant in rivers, lakes, seas, soil and air, however the research about this is ongoing currently. In aquatic life profound hormonal, nerve and reproductive system consequences are seen, which should not differ too much from the findings of the currently ongoing research about the health effects of microfiber consumption on humans.
Fashion industry mainly causes soil pollution by the use of pesticides, insecticides, fertilizers and the pollution caused by farmed animals. As mentioned earlier the extraction of fossil fuels and especially their leaks can pollute soil heavily too. Landfills do occupy land too and preloved clothing keeps piling up there eventually leaking all sorts of chemicals into the soil.
For example cotton uses just 2.4% of the world’s cropland, but cotton accounts for huge 24% and 11% respectively of global insecticide and pesticide sales. Insecticides can be released into the ground and the water (through leaching) and are significant contributors to ecotoxicity. Phosphorus and phostphate compounds from the raw material production process are responsible for most of the potential freshwater eutrophication impacts.
Fossil fuel operations do leave soil with very poor quality too and usually the one which only supports exotic grasses.
As synthetic fibre, polyester requires large amounts of energy to be produced. Polyester therefore is an important contributor to energy-related indicators. The full life cycle of 1 kg of polyester fabric is responsible for the release of more than 30 kg CO2 equivalents to the atmosphere (around 20 kg are associated with cotton).
Cow leather and sheep wool scores poorly on GHG emission due to the belching of the sheep and cows. As sheep are ruminants, methane is expelled during their digestive process. Methane is a relatively potent green house gas with a global warming potential 25 times stronger than CO2.
Synthetic fibres have the highest impact, through a high use of fossil fuels, which contribute to at least half of global warming. Cotton and PLA have intermediate effects, including the impact of energy consumption in the production of inputs such as fuel, fertilisers and pesticides. Recycled materials and fastest growing plants (hemp, bamboo, seaweed, trees) score best at air pollution rating.
We currently use earth’s resources at a much larger extent than is sustainable. However, some resources can be replenished, regrow quite rapidly. Yet, some resources are finite, such as fossil fuels. Thus, an additional point is given to the resources which are not finite and thus are more sustainable.
In the last 40 years at best 14% of plastic is recycled. Currently less than 1% of apparel garments are recycled. Moreover, fossil fuels leaking into the environment, whether in their virgin form or as waste or microfibers has an incredibly harmful long term effects to the environment. Thus we think the material can only be called sustainable if it is biodegradable. We absolutely support, sell and love recycled natural fabrics, such as cotton, hemp, linen, etc., so we are definitely not against recycling industry. However, we think there are too many issues with fossil fuel based fabrics due to their non-biodegradability for hundreds of years in the environment. For these reasons biodegradable materials do get an additional point in our sustainability rating tool.