The textile industry has a significant carbon footprint. But changing what our clothes are made of can make a big difference in cutting climate pollution.

cotton growing

Finding solutions to address the climate emergency means tackling the biggest sources of greenhouse gas emissions — those coming from the transportation, food and energy sectors. We’re learning to make more climate-friendly decisions about what we eat, how we power our homes and how we get around.

We don’t often look at what we’re wearing, though. And we should.

The textile industry pumps between 1.22 and 2.93 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere every year. The result is that, by some estimates, the life cycle of textiles (including laundering) accounts for 6.7% of all global greenhouse gas emissions. That’s the equivalent of every person on the planet taking a 2,500-mile flight every year.

And the problem is poised to get worse, as both textile production and consumption are increasing drastically.

Since 1975 the global production of textile fibers has almost tripled: 107 million metric tons were produced in 2018, a figure that’s expected to reach 145 million tons by 2030.

And the “churn” of fast fashion gets quicker each year. Some labels now release as many as 24 collections in a 12-month period, and clothes are often sold at pocket-money prices. Outsourcing labor to countries where wages are pitifully low yields cheap finished products.

This has triggered huge consumption. In the United States consumers make at least one purchase every week, which means they’re buying five times more clothing than they did in 1980. The United States has the highest demand for textiles, followed closely by Europe and then China.

The vast majority of textiles consumed in Europe and the United States are also imported. That makes clothing a key component of “carbon leakage,” in which the benefit of emissions-reductions in one country is offset by the tendency to burn hydrocarbons in another. In China 43% of greenhouse gas emissions from apparel production are induced by foreign final demand. Similarly, supplying overseas clothing markets accounts for 44% of India’s cotton-related emissions. We’re importing pollution when we purchase so many clothes.

sweatshirts on clothes rack
Clothes for sale. Photo: byronv2 (CC BY-NC 2.0)

Materials Matter

The quantity of textile production isn’t the only problem. What clothes are made out of matters, too.

Unfortunately the use of unsustainable fabrics is on the rise.

The quantity of polyester in our garments has doubled since 2000, and now over half of all global fiber production is made from petroleum. It takes around 342 million barrels of oil every year to meet demand for plastic-based fibers. When those clothes are laundered or tossed, it results in even more pollution. The disintegration of synthetic fibers like polyester, nylon and acrylic is responsible for between 20% and 35% of all microplastics in the marine environment.

Another increasingly common fiber is viscose, which is derived from wood pulp. But that too is problematic: 150 million trees are cleared annually to produce the wood pulp required to manufacture viscose. With 138 million acres of forest lost in the last two decades, a fiber based on felling trees hardly seems sustainable.

Natural fibers, biodegradable as they are, would seem a better option. Hemp, jute and flax (linen) are all an improvement and have important environmental advantages. But they make much less versatile fabrics. Hemp is considered “scratchy” by many consumers, and jute is mainly used only for twines, packaging and carpets. There’s also a problem of scaling up those fibers to make any difference. Hemp, for example, currently accounts for a tiny 0.06% of global fiber production.

The best option may in fact be the one that’s right in front of us: cotton. Although it too has problems.

About three-quarters of cotton is now genetically modified and farmed using industrial quantities of pesticides and fertilizers. Cotton accounts for only around 2.3% of the world’s arable land, but it uses over 16% of global insecticides and relies on a higher percentage than any other agricultural crop of what the World Health Organization considers “highly hazardous pesticides.”

Between pesticides and synthetic fertilizers, the global cotton crop uses 8.2 million metric tons of chemicals. Those inputs impoverish the soil, pollute waterways, decimate biodiversity and often poison people, too. They also mean that the carbon footprint of cotton is extraordinarily high. Globally cotton cultivation accounts for 220 million metric tons of CO2 per year. It’s also a fiber that’s notoriously thirsty. The global water footprint of cotton is around 8.2 trillion cubic feet a year, the same as 238 bathtubs of water per person annually.

ships in sand
Cotton farming has helped shrink the Aral Sea in Uzbekistan 90% in 50 years. Photo: Anton Ruiter (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Go Organic

There is, however, a way of cultivating cotton which drastically reduces its environmental harm. Compared to conventionally cultivated cotton, organic cotton has 40% less “global warming potential” and offers a 91% reduction in freshwater withdrawal from lakes, rivers and aquifers. The yields of organic cotton tend to be marginally smaller, but because the input costs are far lower, profit margins are actually greater — between 4% and 30%.

This form of cultivation has repeatedly been shown to promote gender equality, community bonds, biodiversity, improved soils and human health. Rather than becoming individually indebted to corporations for seeds and chemicals, organic farmers form cooperatives and “buying clubs.” The long and opaque supply chains of conventional cotton become short and transparent, with cutthroat practices replaced by a sense of common purpose.

Organic cotton cultivation makes cotton farmers resilient rather than vulnerable. There’s safety in relationships that are based on reputation, trust and longevity. The practice of crop rotation and diversification offers insulation against fluctuating cotton prices. Farmers’ soils, too, are more resilient in the face of the climate crisis — not immune to drought, but far better placed to survive it because healthy soils retain water and nutrients.

These advantages explain why organic cotton is rapidly growing. Production increased by 56% in the 2017-18 growing season, and by 31% — to 239,787 metric tons of fiber — in 2018-19. Globally there are now a million acres of land dedicated to organic cotton, with another 138,000 acres in conversion. The two major certification bodies for organic textiles — the Organic Contents Standard and the Global Organic Textile Standard — increased their number of recognized organic facilities by 48% and 35% respectively between 2018 and 2019. Farmers, retailers and consumers are all realizing that, in an industry marked by environmental degradation, organic cotton is the moral fiber.

But even that ethical choice is insufficient, by itself, to make a significant dent in the greenhouse gas emissions related to textiles. Cotton now has only a 24.4% share the global fiber market. Most of us are wearing clothes made from trees and, predominantly, petrol. Those clothes are invariably produced in factories, and transported thousands of miles by sea and air, using fossil fuels.

Buying products made with organic cotton is part of the solution, but as consumers we can do more by choosing quality, throwing away less, repairing more and buying secondhand.

But it’s not just about consumer choices; the industry needs to do better, too.

We can pressure retailers to become signatories to the Fashion Industry Charter for Climate Action and demand to know what progress they are making toward net-zero emissions. The retailers themselves should read the writing on the wall and begin ridding their shelves and supply chains of polluting, carbon-intensive goods and practices.

Because until there’s a radical shift in how we clothe ourselves, we’ll keep on stripping the planet bare.

The opinions expressed above are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of The Revelator, the Center for Biological Diversity or their employees.

Steve Trent

is CEO and founder of the Environmental Justice Foundation and has more than 30 years' experience in environmental and human rights campaigning. He also cofounded WildAid, serving as president for over a decade and leading WildAid’s work in China and India.