Curbing carbon emissions

The carbon emissions from the textile industry occur at just about every phase of the life-cycle, from the cotton field and the production of fertilizers through to our washing the garments (using loads of energy) and burning our waste. But you'll be surprised at what actually makes a difference.

Material choice is a key driver of carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions in a garment's lifecycle. Cultivation of cotton and wool, and fossil fuel extraction for synthetic material significantly contributes to a product’s overall carbon footprint. The sourcing region and cultivation practices can make a difference—cotton from the US, for example, has a lower footprint than Egyptian or Turkish cotton. Leather also presents a serious challenge to CO2 emissions. According to the Brazilian government, “Cattle are responsible for about 80% of all deforestation” in the Amazon region, and deforestation is a primary cause of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. According to a study in 2009, on average one hectare of Amazon rainforest has been lost to cattle ranchers every 18 seconds.

While the energy efficiency of processing, production, transportation, and retail also affect a garment’s footprint, a garment’s carbon impacts are most significant during consumer use. The daily acts of washing, drying, and ironing garments over their lifespan are responsible for a notable portion of household emissions and can contribute more than a third of the total CO2 emissions associated with a garment. Similar to water, consumers are unaware of these impacts or the opportunities to reduce emissions through simple steps like line drying or cold-water wash.

A German study found that the heat need in the final ironing of a long-sleeved white 100 % cotton shirt in the factory was the source of one-fifth of the CO2 in the manufacturing phase.

If garments are transported by sea and land, even though the distances are great, the impact is not that big. But a re-order by air-freigth will could raise the carbon-footprint from 290 grams to 4 kilos CO2.

If the same white shirt is tumble-dryed and ironed as well as washed (the assumption being about 55 times in its life), the carbon footprint triples from 3,3 kg to 10.7.

Short term goals
Adopt “cold water wash” and “line dry” instructions on garments.

Medium term goals
Develop a design checklist or guidelines to integrate CO² considerations into product design processes.

Long term goals
Commit to minimizing the carbon footprint of garments and develop a holistic climate strategy to support this.