Overconsumption of Clothes - Impact on the Environment

Every garment has an impact on resources, energy and pollution.  

This section is going to concentrate on the impact cotton has from the fibre and fabric processing, spinning and knitting, fabric finishing all the way up to the use phase and the cut make trim phase as cotton is one of the favourite fabrics consumed.

The total area dedicated to cotton growing (30 to 35 million hectares) has not changed significantly since the1950s but the output has nearly tripled during the same period. (1) This increase in output is largely due to pesticides and fertilizers used in conventional cotton production. “.. cotton is not the natural fibre we believe it to be, but rather one of the world´s most lethal and dirtiest crops" (2) causing a range of environmental and social impacts.


Pesticides are a group of chemicals that incorporate insecticides, herbicides, fungicides, defoliants and growth regulators. Before WW2 most cotton was organically grown, without the use of chemical pesticides etc. Only after World War two, chemicals were introduced mainly in order to save labour costs and machiner. (3)

Some pesticides are classified as `moderately hazardous´ and some as `highly hazardous´ by the World Health Organisation. These highly hazardous ones are acutely toxic nerve poisons and can contaminate ground water.

Besides this, conventional cotton farming can also reduce soil fertility, lead to soil salinisation and cause pest resistance, water pollution and presents a risk to biodiversity.


Most of the cotton farmers are part of the rural poor and experience 99 per cent of pesticide deaths. (4)    The figures on how many people die from pesticide poisoning vary from 20,000 to 40,000 per year. Pesticides can also cause chronic health problems like sexual dysfunction, headaches and convulsions.

Small scale cotton farmers in developing countries most of the time do not have any protective gear or the storage facilities to avoid poisoning.

Empty pesticide containers are also often used as plates or cups as plastic containers are not available in poor rural areas and therefore are precious objects.

Another huge impact conventional cotton farming has on the environment is its impact on the earth’s water balance.

“Water consumption – especially the extensive use of water in cotton crop cultivation – can also be a major environmental issue as seen dramatically in the Aral Sea region." (5)

The drying up of the Aral Sea is one of the biggest man made ecological disasters.

The Aral Sea has shrunk by three quarters over the past few decades after water was diverted from two feeding rivers to water cotton plantations.

imageSource: NASA´s Earth Observatory

If water is flowing back into the Aral Sea it is polluted by pesticides which has a huge impact on the livelihoods of the people relying on fishing and agriculture and on the Aral Sea as their access to water.(6)


The “spinning, weaving and knitting” stages use a lot of energy, produce solid waste and generate dust and noise and also involve the use of lubricants and oils to strengthen and protect the fibres from the stresses of processing. (7)

These substances are removed before the next production phase which involves a huge amount of water and the use of more chemicals, like pentachlorophenol, a rot-proofing agent added to cotton fabric to protect it in transport and storag. (8)


The fabric finishing stages prepare the fabric to be dyed and/or printed.

“Finishing is the chief cause of environmental impacts in the production phase, using significant quantities of water, energy and chemicals and producing substantial amounts of effluent". (9)

Chemicals used for finishing contain, amongst many others, heavy metals like copper, chromium and cobalt which are known hormone disrupters, and formaldehyde, a chemical.

Formaldehydes are used in wrinkle-free, non iron finishings but also as a fixing agent for cotton. (10) It is an irritant to the skin and also a hormone disrupter.


In order to achieve white fabrics, it is necessary to bleach fibres as natural fibres have an off white colour. Bleaching is also used prior to dying to achieve better colour results.

In Europe hydrogen peroxide is used for the bleaching stage as chlorine – based bleach is toxic and has negative effects on the immune system and reproductive system. (11) “ This kind of (chlorine – based) bleaching is not permitted in Germany and has largely been substituted by other methods throughout the rest of Europe, but the practice is still common worldwide." (12)

Bleaching with hydrogen peroxide is six times more expensive and is only active at temperatures above 60°C, which makes this bleaching process energy intensive.

After bleaching the fabrics or fibres are dyed.


Before 1956, the majority of clothes were dyed using natural dyes, “..but technological changes, industrialization and population growth brought about a rapid increase in textile production.." (13) Due to the amount of land needed to grow the dyes, natural dyes could no longer fulfill the demands.

Modern dyes are based on petrochemicals, a non renewable resource and there are many risks to human health and the environment from modern dyes.

The dye bath contains processing chemicals and dye. Different fibres need different dyes and chemicals so the amount of dye varies between 2 and 80g per kg of textile.


After dying the fabrics need to be washed, which requires large amounts of water, which then turns into a highly coloured and polluted effluent.

This effluent presents a great danger to the environment, as the global textile industry discharges 40,000 to 50,000 tons of dye into rivers etc annuall. (14)

There are measures being taken in Europe but developing countries like India etc are far behind and textile mills dispose of untreated waste directly into waterways, leading to polluted fresh water and alkaline soil. The picture below shows a garment factory in Bangladesh and it´s waste products spilling into a stagnant pond.

imageSource:Mike Donenfeld/Shutterstock; Zed Nelson/Panos Pictures

Now the fabric is ready to be made into garments and the next stage is the cut – make- trim stage where the impacts are mainly social and worker related. These impacts are explained here.


Due to the globalised supply chains we have in the fashion industry an “..average T-shirt travels the equivalent distance of once around the globe during its production" (15) due to transport between different processors. From cotton field to textile mill to the garment factory, each stage adds to the carbon emissions.


The use phase, meaning the phase when the garment finally reaches the consumer, is a phase with a high impact on the environment. The way we wash, dry and care for our clothes decides how high these impacts are. Most environmental impact comes from laundering and not from growing, processing and producing of the fabric or disposing of it at the end of its life. (16)

“..the major part of environmental impact in the lifecycle of a blouse arises from the consumer use phase..”, “as much as 82 per cent of energy use, 66 per cent of solid waste, over half of the emissions to air and large quantities of waterborne effluents are amassed during washing and drying." (17)


The use phase if followed by the end of life phase of a garment in which it is disposed of and not used any longer. There are different ways of disposing of old unwanted garments with different impacts on the environment which are explained here.

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(1) Kate Fletcher, Sustainable Fashion & Textiles p.8 & Matilda Lee Eco Chic, p.77

(2) Quote, Matilda Lee, Eco Chic, p.67

(3) Matilda Lee, Eco Chic, p.71

(4) Matilda Lee, Eco Chic, p.69

(5) Quote, University of Cambridge Institute for Manufacturing , Well dressed?, P.2

(6) University of Cambridge Institute for Manufacturing , Well dressed?, p.45 & Kate Fletcher, Sustainable Fashion & Textiles, p.9

(7) Kate Fletcher, Sustainable Fashion & Textiles, p.48

(8) Kate Fletcher, Sustainable Fashion & Textiles, p.4

(9) Quote, Kate Fletcher, Sustainable Fashion & Textiles, p.

(10) Matilda Lee, Eco Chic, p.84

(11) Kate Fletcher, Sustainable Fashion & Textiles, p.50 & Matilda Lee, Eco Chic, p.89

(12) Quote, Matilda Lee, Eco Chic p.89

(13) Quote, Matilda Lee, Eco Chic p.85

(14) Matilda Lee, Eco Chic, p.87

(15) Quote, Kate Fletcher, Sustainable Fashion & Textiles, p.139

(16) Kate Fletcher, Sustainable Fashion & Textiles, p.7

(17) Quote, Kate Fletcher, Sustainable Fashion & Textiles, p.78