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The fashion industry is a global, trend-setting pioneer. Such influence provides an opportunity to inspire shifts on the international scale as this industry leads a pervasive transition towards even more sustainable and socially responsible ways of conducting business. Thank you for reviewing this report that explores both the systemic issues, as well as the exciting solutions happening throughout the life cycle of this pioneering industry.

Please note: This first report focuses on the environmental impacts associated with this industry’s practices. A second report will highlight the equally complex social responsibility issues–and ensuing solutions–associated with apparel production.

Impacts and Concerns

The environmental footprint of creating apparel varies based on the methods used to produce and extract the resources; the process to create, dye and finish the materials; the steps to cut, sew and assemble the products, and the packaging and distribution systems to move and deliver the product. Examples of the environmental impacts of these steps are discussed below:

Conventional Cotton Farming

Conventional Cotton Farming

Cotton uses approximately 25% of the world’s insecticides and more than 10% of the pesticides (including herbicides, insecticides, and defoliants). Fifty-five million pounds of pesticides were sprayed on the 12.8 million acres of conventional cotton grown in the U.S. in 2003 (4.3 pounds/ acre), ranking cotton third behind corn and soybeans in total amount of pesticides sprayed.(USDA)

The Environmental Protection Agency considers seven of the top 15 pesticides used on cotton in 2000 in the United States as ‘possible,’ ‘likely,’ ‘probable,’ or ‘known’ human carcinogens (acephate, dichloropropene, diuron, fluometuron, pendimethalin, tribufos, and trifluralin).(EPA)2 Cotton is a very water intensive crop. Over fifty percent of cotton fields in the world require irrigation, and the majority of these crops are in regions where water is scarce.

These irrigated cotton fields produce over seventy percent of the total cotton grown in the world.3 It takes an average of 3,644 cubic meters of water to grow one ton of cotton in the top fifteen cotton producing countries 4. That equates to about 347 gallons of water to grow one pound of cotton. The impacts on the Aral Sea are a notorious example of the effects of water abstractions for irrigation. In the period 1960-2000, the Aral Sea in Central Asia lost approximately 70% of its volume as a result of diverting water from the rivers that ran to the sea in order to grow cotton in the desert.5

Synthetic Fibers (Polyester, Nylons and Acrylics)

Synthetic  Fibers (Polyester, Nylons and Acrylics)

The consumption of non-renewable resources (petrochemicals) is required to produce two very common synthetics used in the apparel industry, polyester and nylon. Relatively large amounts of energy are consumed in the production of synthetics, which has far-reaching environmental implications, including the release of green house gasses. Emissions to air and water that have a medium to high potential of causing environmental damage if discharged untreated including: heavy metal cobalt; manganese salts; sodium bromide and titanium dioxide. Rayon and Acetate represent an estimated 4 % of the market.

Rayon a cellulosic raw material is manufactured from sources such as bamboo or wood pulp, via a chemical-intensive process, and also contributes to deforestation and pollution in developing countries like Indonesia.6 The solvent used in the viscose rayon process called carbon disulfide is a toxic chemical that is a known human reproductive hazard posing dangers to factory workers, surrounding communities and the environment via air emissions and wastewater. Approximately half of the carbon disulfide solvent is recovered and half ends up in the environment. Sodium hydroxide and sulfuric acid are other potentially hazardous chemicals used in the viscose process.7

Conventional Wool

Conventional Wool

More than 14,000 pounds of insecticides were applied to sheep in the United States in 2000, the most recent year for which data is available (in the 22 states which have the highest sheep production). These pesticides are used to control mange, mites, lice, flies, and other pests. Some sheep and lambs receive multiple applications of several different chemicals. Pesticides used in sheep production can pose risks to human health and the environment. The top three insecticides used on sheep in 20005-fenvalerate, malathion and permethrin-are all slightly acutely toxic to humans, moderately to highly toxic to fish and amphibians, and suspect endocrine disruptors. Malathion is highly water soluble (can be easily transported from the application site by stormwater or irrigation water runoff) and the anaerobic half-life for fenvalerate in soil is potentially enabling it to cause more than 155 days, groundwater contamination.

Pesticides used in sheep dips have consistently been linked with damage to the nervous system in workers that have been exposed to them in the United Kingdom. Even low-dose exposure over the long term has been conclusively linked with reduced nerve fiber function,anxiety, and depression. Long-term exposure to sheep dip has also been linked to reduced bone formation. In addition, residues of diflubenzuron, an insecticide used in sheep dips, persist in the environment for more than a year. Two antibiotics, oxytetracycline and chlortetracycline, are approved for growth promotion in sheep. These antibiotic feed additives are used to promote slightly faster growth and to compensate for overcrowded and unhealthy conditions in concentrated animal feeding operations. Mounting evidence suggests that widespread use of agricultural antibiotics is contaminating surface waters and groundwater, including drinking water, in many rural areas as a result of their presence in animals waste. This non-human use of antibiotics is compromising medicine’s effectiveness in people as bacteria become resistant to antibiotics over time.8

Manufacturing Issues

Manufacturing Issues

Textile wet processes consume water, energy, dyes, auxiliaries, chemicals, detergents and finishing agents in the conversion of raw materials to finished product. According to an analysis done by Levis Strauss and Company it takes 3481 liters of water and 32 kg of CO2 to produce one pair of jeans.9 Generally, textile waste water effluents are highly colored, saline and contain non-biodegradable compounds. Approximately 65% of the chemicals used in the textile finishing process for cotton end up in the waste water and 55% of the chemicals used for synthetics end up in the wastewater. Up to 600 liters of waste water results from the creation of one kilogram of textile at a mill10. These factors combine to present numerous operational problems in municipal wastewater treatment works, which use biological systems to process sewage and not intended for the breakdown of complex organic molecules. The presence of metals and other dye compounds in waste water inhibits microbial activity and in some cases may cause failure of biological treatment systems. For instance, toxic runoff in China’s booming textile industry is one reason why many of the nation’s largest rivers resemble open sewers and 300 million people lack access to clean drinking water.11 The textile dyeing and finishing sector has identified environmental issues that need to be addressed as a result of the large volumes of wastewater generated by the industry.

High Impact Dyes

High Impact Dyes

Many dyes present health risks to those working with them as well as damaging the environment in a number of ways. The dyeing process generally involves a range of toxic chemicals such as dioxins, which are carcinogenic and possibly disrupt hormones; toxic heavy metals such as chrome, copper, and zinc ,which are known carcinogens; and formaldehyde, a suspected carcinogen. Other dyes or dye processes include heavy metals like copper, chromium or cobalt. Many dyes, including natural dyes, do not stick to the fabric well enough to prevent a large amount of colored water from being washed off the fabric right after it is dyed. For example, only about 80% of synthetic dyes called direct dye is retained by the fabric; the rest is flushed out from the garment. Each year, the global textile industry discharges 40,000-50,000 tons of dye into rivers and streams, and, in Europe alone, 1,000,000, tons of salt (used in the process to even out color) are discharged every year. Although this waste water can be treated to remove the dye, salt and other toxic chemicals such as heavy metals to make the water safe to return to water systems, this treatment process is expensive and does

not always happen. Finally, even when the water may seem clean, the temperature of the water can be an issue. The water used in the dye process is heated resulting in hot waste water discharged into river systems that can impact and harm the fish and ecosystem.12

Manufacturing of Conventional Dyes Limitations

Manufacturing of Conventional Dyes Limitations

Environmental concerns: The production of synthetic dyes requires strong acids, alkalis, solvents, high temperatures, and heavy metal catalysts. Increase in cost of energy: Petroleum is the starting material for all synthetic dyes and thus the price of dyes is sensitive to the price of petroleum. Producing synthesis is also very energy intensive (using super-heated steam, boiling acids, etc.), making the process very sensitive to energy prices, and creating greenhouse gases.Hazardous waste generation: The synthetic production of dyes generally requires very toxic and hazardous chemicals, generating hazardous waste, the disposal of which is a major environmental and economic challenge. Increasing Transportation Costs: Since dyes are a hazardous material and are produced in central facilities, transportation of dyes from manufacturing plants to textile dyeing and printing facilities is a major cost factor and a logistic challenge.


A great deal of packaging is used through the apparel industry. This includes the packaging to transport and distribute the products from the factories to distribution centers to retail stores as well as the retail packaging that goes to the consumer. Packaging is often the part of the product with the shortest span of use, typically ending up in a landfill, gutter, or ecosystem shortly after purchase. Furthermore, excess packaging materials are frequently used to enhance a product’s visibility, unnecessarily drawing on resources that do not affect the product’s serviceability.

2 Organic Trade Association. (2009) Cotton and the Environment.

3 Soth, J., Grasser, C., and Salerno, R. (1999) The impact of cotton on fresh water resources and ecosystems: A preliminary analysis, WWF, Gland, Switzerland.

4 A.K. Chapagain, A.Y. Hoekstra, H.H.G. Savenije, and Gautam, R. (2009, May 5) (Sept. 2005) The Water Footprint of Cotton Production

5 Loh, J. and Wackernagel, M. (2004) Living planet report 2005, WWF, Gland, Switzerland.

6 Retrived from:

7 Patagonia (2009, April) On Bamboo and Rayon. The Footprint Chronicles.

8 Organic Trade Association. (2005) Organic Wool Fact Sheet. Retrieved from:

9 LS&CO.’s Life Cycle Assessment on Levi’s®501®Jean for U.S. Market, 2006 production year.

10 Waber, P. (2009, May 5) Bluesign Presentation, Seattle, WA.

11 Spencer, J. (2007, August 26) China’s waterways pay price in textile boom. The Wall Street Journal.

12 Dyeing for a change: Current Conventions and New Futures in the Textile Color Industry (2006, July)

13 Massachusetts Toxics Use Reduction Institute (2003) Green Dyes for the Textile Industry. University of Massachusetts Lowell Natural Industry