The impact of textile production and waste on the environment

Source: European parliment

Overconsumption of natural resources

It takes a lot of water to produce textile, plus land to grow cotton and other fibres. It is estimated that the global textile and clothing industry used 79 billion cubic metres of water in 2015, while the needs of the EU's whole economy amounted to 266 billion cubic metres in 2017. To make a single cotton t-shirt, 2,700 litres of fresh water are required according to estimates, enough to meet one person’s drinking needs for 2.5 years.

The textile sector was the third largest source of water degradation and land use in 2020. In that year, it took on average nine cubic metres of water, 400 square metres of land and 391 kilogrammes (kg) of raw materials to provide clothes and shoes for each EU citizen.


Water pollution

Textilproduktionen beräknas stå för omkring 20 procent av de globala rena vattenföroreningarna från färgning och appretering. Tvättning av syntetiskt material frigör uppskattningsvis 0,5 miljoner ton mikrofibrer i havet per år. Tvätt av syntetiska kläder står för 35 procent av de primära mikroplaster som släpps ut i miljön. En enda tvätt av polyesterkläder kan frigöra 700 000 mikroplastiska fibrer som sedan kan hamna i näringskedjan.

Majoriteten av mikroplasterna från textilier frigörs under de första tvättarna. Snabbmode bygger på massproduktion, låga priser och stora försäljningsvolymer, vilket leder till många första tvättar.

Tvättning av syntetiska produkter har lett till att mer än 14 miljoner ton mikroplast har samlats på havsbottnarna. Föroreningar som genereras av klädproduktionen har också en inverkan på hälsan hos lokalbefolkningen, djur och ekosystem där fabrikerna är belägna.

Greenhouse gas emissions

The fashion industry is estimated to be responsible for 10% of global carbon emissions – more than international flights and maritime shipping combined.

According to the European Environment Agency, textile purchases in the EU in 2020 generated about 270 kg of CO2 emissions per person. That means textile products consumed in the EU generated greenhouse gas emissions of 121 million tonnes.

 The environmental impact of textiles

Textile waste in landfills and low recycling rates

The way people get rid of unwanted clothes has also changed, with items being thrown away rather than donated. Less than half of used clothes are collected for reuse or recycling, and only 1% of used clothes are recycled into new clothes, since technologies that would enable clothes to be recycled into virgin fibres are only now starting to emerge.

Between 2000 and 2015, clothing production doubled, while the average use of an item of clothing has decreased.

Europeans use nearly 26 kilos of textiles and discard about 11 kilos of them every year. Used clothes can be exported outside the EU, but are mostly (87%) incinerated or landfilled.

The rise of fast fashion has been crucial in the increase in consumption, driven partly by social media and the industry bringing fashion trends to more consumers at a faster pace than in the past.

The new strategies to tackle this issue include developing new business models for clothing rental, designing products in a way that would make re-use and recycling easier (circular fashion), convincing consumers to buy clothes of better quality that last longer (slow fashion) and generally steering consumer behaviour towards more sustainable options.

Textile production