The bulk of production takes place in developing nations like India, China, and Indonesia, where entire regions are filled with factories producing clothing and other fabrics. These factories are usually unregulated, or at least poorly enforced. The working conditions are often harsh, with little protections and low pay, and the factories themselves emit highly toxic chemicals into the air and water.
Newsweek documents the city of Tirupur in India, a major producer of textiles sold around the world. “Between 2002 and 2012, U.S. knitwear imports from India jumped from $571 million to $1.25 billion, and an estimated 56 percent of those garments came from Tirupur.”1 This increase, while a boon for the local economy, has had devastating impacts on the local environment and community. Once an agricultural city, producing items like bananas, turmeric, coconut, and rice, now the parched red landscape is only sparsely dotted with brush, and the rivers run foamy and green, or red, or purple, or whatever colors the nearby textile mills are using to dye their clothes. “There were good jobs and good livelihood,” says Udayakumar, the leader of the Orathupalayam Farmers Association. Now, “there is no cultivation of the land, no income.” The small-scale agriculture lifestyle that characterized the region for centuries, he says, has “fully collapsed.”2
In 2002 and 2003, a local university conducted a study across three locations in Tirupur. In one of the locations, they found that ~30% of the villagers were experiencing symptoms connected to waterborne diseases. A 2007 study by a local NGO found that the textile mills in Tirupur were flushing nearly 23 million gallons of toxic water into the local waterways.3
India is not alone in this proliferation of toxic water. During the textile boom in Indonesia, little effort was made to improve its infrastructure and disposal services, and the resulting cocktail of mercury, lead, arsenic, and other toxic chemicals have turned many waterways into something akin to an open sewer. The Citarum River in Indonesia is considered one of the world’s most polluted waterways, primarily due to the immense textile industry along its banks. According to Greenpeace, 68% of the industrial buildings along the river are textile mills, and their pollution affects approximately 5 million people living in the river basin.4
Luckily, there is much that can be done to reduce this pollution and produce more eco-friendly textiles. The Natural Resource Defense Commission (NRDC), with the help of Linda Greer, began the “Clean by Design” program to address the textile industry’s environmental impact. To develop this program, experts spent a year investigating five typical Chinese mills to determine how they used water, chemicals, materials, and energy. In the end they developed a best practice manual [PDF] which includes suggestions like “capturing heat and recycling water from the final rinse cycles, insulating steam systems, and reducing leaks in equipment.”5
In addition to programs like these, new technologies are being developed that allow mills to reduce their impact; one such technology is waterless dyeing. The process of waterless dyeing, as the name implies, reduces water usage to (near) zero. Three companies have developed similar technologies: AirDye, ColorZen, and DyeCoo, which is currently in a partnership with Adidas. “Although the three processes are very different from each other, the results are much the same. The use of water is cut to near-zero, sharply diminishing pollution. The quantity of chemicals is drastically reduced, while faster dyeing cycles lead to a major drop in energy consumption.”6
At the end of most clothing’s linear life-cycle is its disposal. Especially with today’s ‘fast fashion’ trend, clothing that is cheap to purchase is easy to throw away. Prior to the 1920s, clothing was something that was carefully purchased, mended when worn or torn, handed down through generations, and loved for a lifetime. With the industrial revolution came the means for mass production, and mass consumption. Over the last 90 years, clothing and fabrics have become less of a family heirloom, and more of a seasonal item (if they even last that long). Today, Americans purchase nearly 1 billion articles of clothing, nearly 4 for every U.S. citizen, while throwing away 68 pounds of clothing and textiles per person per year, accounting for nearly 4% of all municipal waste.7
Luckily, some clothing is recycled, reused, or resold. Resale stores and thrift shops like Goodwill have experienced a 67% growth in its resale of clothing, with Goodwill’s sales reaching more than $1.8 billion in 2006. Through consignment, resale, and salvage, an estimated 2.5 billion pounds of textile waste is prevented from entering the waste stream, though this still only accounts for 15% of all textile waste;8 most will still end up in landfills and furnaces. Of the clothes donated to charities, only about 20% will be sold. The clothes that can’t be resold to consumers are sold to textile recyclers for 5-7 cents per pound. About 30% of these textiles are turned into industrial use rags, while another 25-30% are recycled into fibers to be used as stuffing in upholstery, insulation, or for paper products. The other 45% of these clothes are resold in foreign markets.9
Japan is the largest buyer of vintage and high-end American clothes, the rest is baled and shipped to developing nations, nearly 7 billions pounds per year as of 2003. In developing African countries, like Tanzania, these clothes are the number one import from the U.S.10
In the face of environmental damage at a scale like this, it seems hopeless that anything can be done, but the tide is turning. Programs like Clean by Design from the NRDC are helping large producers lessen their impact while saving money, while consignment and resale retailers, as well as the exportation of used clothing, helps to reduce the impact of consumer waste.
There is still much to be done, but there is hope.
(7,8,9,10) Claudio, Luz. “Waste Couture: Environmental Impact of the Clothing Industry.”Environmental Health Perspectives 115.9 (2007): A449–A454. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1964887/
(6) Heida, Lydia. “Can Waterless Dyeing Processes Clean Up the Clothing Industry?” Yale Environment 360. 12 June, 2014. http://e360.yale.edu/feature/can_waterless_dyeing_processes_clean_up_clothing_industry_pollution/2775/
(1,2,3) Matthews, Adam. “The Environmental Crisis in Your Closet.” Newsweek. 13 August, 2015. http://www.newsweek.com/2015/08/21/environmental-crisis-your-closet-362409.html
(5) Murray, Sarah. “Fixing the Fashion Industry.” NRDC. 5 January, 2015. https://www.nrdc.org/stories/fixing-fashion-industry
(4) Sweeny, Glynis. “It’s the Second Dirtiest Thing in the World - And You’re Wearing It.” Alternet. 13 August, 2015. http://www.alternet.org/environment/its-second-dirtiest-thing-world-and-youre-wearing-it
Jackson, Jacqueline. “Assessing the Environmental Impact of the Fashion World.” Environmental Leader. 6 October, 2014. http://www.environmentalleader.com/2014/10/06/assessing-the-environmental-impact-of-the-fashion-world/