Key issues, barriers & opportunities
Key issues – environmental
The manufacture of clothing has varying impacts on the environment, depending on factors like fabric type, or dyeing and finishing options. For example, if garments are made with natural fabrics, then the growing period of fibres and use of fertilisers, herbicides and insecticides may affect the soil, water and air.
The major environmental issues associated with clothing are as follows:
- Resource consumption. The key resources here are fossil fuels and water. The consumption includes use in growing or obtaining the raw materials, in producing the clothing, and in transporting the raw materials and final product.
- Greenhouse gas (GHG) emission. The UK clothing industry is responsible for the release of 3.1 million tonnes CO2 equivalent per year, or about 0.4% of total UK emissions. Again, the level of emissions depends on the fabric type and processing system involved. Polyester/cotton blend - often used for corporate clothing - is believed to have the highest GHG influence in the steaming process, with almost all the emissions being CO2. On the other hand, wool has a greater GHG impact earlier in the production, due to methane released by sheep before manufacture has even begun!
- Land Use. Particularly significant for natural fibre production, and especially with intensively grown monocultures, is the land degradation that can come from chemical pollution of soil and groundwater through use of herbicides, insecticides and fertilisers, and loss of biodiversity.
- Toxic production processes. Some manufacturing practices in the textile industry use hazardous or acidic chemicals, which can sometimes be released in effluent.
- Landfill. Most textiles in the UK (approximately 1.2m tonnes) end up in landfill. Not only are textiles pretty bulky compared with other household wastes, and quickly use up the limited space available, but also the (typically 50%) biodegradable fraction then breaks down, releasing GHG.
Key issues – social
The clothing industry impacts on people in many ways, from the labourers involved in collection of raw materials, to factory workers, to those affected by disposal and end-of-life garments. This website focuses on the recovery of clothing, but we recognise that the important matter of ethical production needs to be briefly addressed. (The issue of ethics is widely documented and covered elsewhere, such as through Defra’s Sustainable Clothing Roadmap and Oxfam’s Make Trade Fair Campaign.)
- Globalisation. Garments sold in the UK originate from all around the world, often from developing countries. This global trade can lead to improved economies, and creates employment for many people - often women - providing them with financial stability and a chance to escape poverty. But the process is not perfect, with low wages, poor worker’s rights (inadequate health and safety, long hours, no contracts) and child labour apparent in some countries.
- Workers rights. Falling clothing prices have put cheap production in demand all along the supply chain, from pickers and labourers on farms to factory workers. There is added pressure on producers to cut corners, and workshops with poor standards are seen as a ‘hidden’ way to do this . Much of the manufacture of garments employs unskilled - or low skilled – workers who lack of knowledge of rights, or are prevented from joining together in trade unions.
- Health and Safety. Workshops in developing countries can have less stringent restrictions through regulations than those apparent in the UK or more developed nations. Where working conditions are poor, workers’ health can suffer (with the likes of backache, eyestrain, burns and other injuries. There are even reports of restricted allowance of toilet breaks, leaving workers with severe kidney problems ). And when long hours - up to 16 hour days in some countries - are factored in, fatigue can compound the likelihood of accidents.
- Cultivation techniques. Crop cultivation can also impact on health. Pesticides used on cotton farms have been known to poison workers out in fields applying it to crops all day , and operating machinery always carries inherent risks.
- Animal Welfare. With materials such as wool, leather and fur, farming and handling of animals is an integral part of the production process. Poor farming practice can lead to neglect or mistreatment of animals, with malnutrition, infections and illness potential symptoms. Some countries have much less restrictive regulations to protect animal welfare, particularly in respect of transportation, slaughter and processes such as ‘tooth-grinding’ and ‘mulesing’.