Lifecycle Impact on the Environment of Textiles and Garments [Analysis]

Textiles are regarded as one of the more polluting industries. Businesses that manufacture products are progressively embracing lifecycle assessments as a way to understand their supply chains and products’ environmental impact. For EU importers in particular this is an especially important activity as sustainability legislation is coming into effect soon (by 2024 or 2025) that will specifically target textiles early on bearing in mind their negative environmental impact.

Here we’ve collected a number of resources from the web and put together a study into what the fully-loaded lifecycle impact on the environment of textiles and garments is, exploring textile production processes, materials used, forms of environmental impacts, and much more. We quote directly throughout and offer links to the resources.

So, if you’re ready to gain a better understanding of how textiles and garments affect the environment, keep reading…




The textile economic sector is considered one of the most polluting industries in the world and a substantial contributor to environmental issues through the production, processing, use, and end-of-life of garments. The main issues are the use of harmful chemicals, high consumption of water and energy, generation of large quantities of solid and gaseous wastes, huge fuel consumption for transportation to remote places where textile units are located, and use of non-biodegradable packaging materials. The overall impact on the environment by a textile product or process may be best assessed by life cycle assessment (LCA) which is a systematic approach to examine the environmental impacts of the entire life cycle of a product or service (Roy Choudhury, 2014).

The high environmental impact of clothing makes it a priority focus for the circular economy. Increasing opportunities to increase repair, reuse, and closed-loop recycling is an important part of the European Clothing Action Plan (ECAP). Much of the impact from clothing arises during production and processing. Work to improve the sustainability of clothing also targets improvements along the supply chain. Extending the life of clothing through more durable design, and enabling re-use, repair and recycling, helps to reduce this impact, since production from virgin raw materials has a higher environmental burden than re-use or repair, which helps to displace some of this primary production.

Calculating the carbon and water footprints of clothing in the EU (Example)

Figure 1 here shows results of calculating the EU carbon and water footprints of clothing (Gray, 2017; Wiedemann et al., 2020).

Carbon, water and waste footprints of clothing consumed in the EU (2015) Figure 1. Carbon, water and waste footprints of clothing consumed in the EU (2015)

Source: (Gray, 2017)

The carbon footprint of clothing consumed in one year, 2015, in the EU, was 195 million tonnes of CO2e. The total water footprint of clothing consumed in one year, 2015, in the EU was 46,400 million m3. The use phase is shown to have the largest carbon impact for the EU as a whole, although production also accounts for nearly a third of CO2e emissions. Production relates to the production of raw materials and includes embodied energy in processes from agriculture to polymer extrusion. Other fibre preparation and processing such as spinning to make yarn, fabric printing, and dyeing, all add to the carbon footprint. In particular, chemical and mechanical finishing heat settings have a significant effect. The high carbon impact associated with the use phase is mostly due to frequent washing, and carbon emissions from the use of energy for washing machines and tumble dryers (Gray, 2017).

EU clothing waste footprint

The waste footprint for the whole life cycle of clothing consumed in Europe is 11.1 million tonnes. This includes supply chain waste, as well as all garments disposed of at the end of their life. Disposal is, therefore, the most significant phase for the waste footprint, though processing is critically important when large quantities of supply chain waste are produced during the preparation of yarn and fabrics, and during garment assembly. A large quantity of fibre is lost during fibre and garment production due to the shedding of natural fibres. Garment construction, including cutting and making up, also produces large quantities of fabric waste. This fabric can be reused or recycled if it is taken into consideration by factories, and as long as suitable markets can be accessed. Existing routes to reuse and recycle ‘leftovers’ leave a lot of scope to capture more value and reduce waste from the production process, thus reducing the demand for primary resources (Gray, 2017).

Possible improvement actions

Improvement actions include the introduction of more sustainable fibres, including cotton produced under the Better Cotton Initiative, cotton that meets organic cotton standards under the Global Organic Trading Standard (GOTS), Cotton Made in Africa (CmiA), and cotton produced with the Cotton Reel programme. Other sustainable fibres include sustainably produced lyocell, modal, and the introduction of more recycled fibres, especially where possible providing a market for fibre-to-fibre technologies (Gray, 2017).

However, the retail and garment use phase was also a significant contributor to fossil fuel (30.4%), global warming (13.4%), and water stress (37.1%). Consumer transport and the retail of garments in stores contributed 12.6% fossil fuel, 5.2% global warming, and 3.6% water stress impacts across the value chain. Similarly, several other garment LCA studies have found the retail and garment care phase was a significant contributor to the total environmental impacts of garments  (Wiedemann et al., 2020).


Commonly Used Raw Materials and their Environmental Impacts

The environmental impacts placed by clothing’s raw materials production, especially cotton, are greater depending on where it is grown. Locations with water scarcity are not necessarily more careful with their water consumption, and the burden placed on natural resources is extreme due to the thirsty nature of the crop. This competes with other demands from drinking and sanitation, to the production of other crops e.g. rice, as there are often two cropping seasons during the year (Gray, 2017). Table 1 summarizes the environmental impact of various raw materials used in the clothing industry. 

Here is a breakdown of some of the key environmental impact of various raw materials used in the clothing industry:


Water scarcity. The greatest amount of water is used in agriculture (the ‘production’ phase) with cotton having the largest impact of crops grown for clothing production. The global average water footprint for one kilogram of cotton – equivalent to the weight of one man’s shirt and a pair of jeans – is 10,000 – 20,000 litres, depending on where it is grown and the production methods used. The high costs of producing cotton increase the pressure to maximise the yield per hectare for the volume of water available (Gray, 2017). The Global Fashion Agenda recommends reducing conventional cotton textile production by 30% and substituting the demand with polyester textiles to reduce impacts from water use (Watson & Wiedemann, 2019). 

Contamination from fertiliser and pesticides. Fertiliser and pesticide use in cotton agriculture further affects the water supply as the run-off pollutes local water sources (Gray, 2017).

Lifecycle system boundaries of cotton T-shirts (graphic)

cotton t-shirt lifecycle

Source: Baydar et al., 2015



Greenhouse Gas emissions. In wool production, emissions were dominated by enteric methane emitted as a by-product of ruminant digestion in sheep, while in the later stages of the value chain emissions were predominantly related to fossil fuel energy use. Enteric methane emissions are a unique feature of livestock fibre production systems and result in a substantially different emission profile to other natural and synthetic fibres. GHG and fossil fuel use impacts are high during the wool processing phase, which accounted for 23.5% of GHG and 47.7% of fossil fuel use across the whole wool value chain. Most of the emissions were from Chinese electricity and steam use.  In contrast to GHG emissions, fossil fuel use was low in the wool production phase and was much higher in the processing phase and the retail and garment care phase (Wiedemann et al., 2020). 

Energy-intensive processes. Fibre and fabric processing are mechanical processes driven primarily by electricity and energy for heat (steam) production, which contributed the highest requirement for fossil energy in the value chain. Similarly, garment washing and drying in the garment use phase were found to be energy-intensive, accounting for the high energy requirement from this stage (Wiedemann et al., 2020).

Wool’s lifecycle (graphic)

Wool's lifecycle Source: Wiedemann et al., 2020



Microplastic Pollutions. Secondary microplastics arising as fibers from washing clothes are mainly made of polyester, acrylic and polyamide. It has been reported that wastewater treatment facilities are unable to capture all microplastics and this contributes to their presence in freshwater bodies: there are higher microplastic densities downstream of wastewater treatment plants than at reference points upstream. Therefore, textile fibers will likely be one of the main microplastic sources to consider in domestic drainages in the future. While consumers can choose to buy clothing made from natural materials, synthetic fibers are entrenched in the clothing industry, either as pure polymers or as natural/polymer blends, and the global production of synthetic fibers (especially polyester) has surpassed the demand for natural alternatives (Hernandez et al., 2017).

The conventional value chain for polyester garments (graphic)

conventional value chain for polyester garments Source: Palacios-Mateo et al., 2021


Textile Production Process Risks

The global textile supply chain is complex, involving many different stages and people. Multinational brand owners may contract suppliers directly or indirectly, through agents or importers. Normally it is the brand owner who triggers the product development process, including research and design. Brand owners are therefore best placed to bring about change in the production of textiles and clothing through their choices of suppliers, the design of their products, and the control they can exert over the use of chemicals in the production process and the final product (Roy Choudhury, 2014).

The majority of chemical use in textile production occurs during ‘wet processing’, i.e., in dyeing, washing, printing, and fabric finishing. Textile dyeing and finishing mills use considerably more water—as much as 200 tons of water for every metric ton of textiles produced. On average, the production of 1 kg of textiles consumes 0.58 kg of chemicals. Many of the chemicals used in textile production are non-hazardous, and only a relatively small proportion are potentially hazardous. However, in absolute terms, quite a large number of hazardous chemicals are used in textile production because of the very large number of chemicals deployed (Roy Choudhury, 2014; Palacios-Mateo et al., 2021).

For example, the Swedish Chemical Agency has estimated that there are over 10,000 substances which can be used in dyeing and printing processes alone, about 3,000 of which are commonly used. The availability of such a large number of chemicals for use by industry poses obvious difficulties when it comes to sharing and maintaining information about them, as well as drawing up and enforcing regulations for their use. A simplified textile product chain is shown here:

simplified textile supply chain

Source: Roy Choudhury, 2014

Building upon investigations by Greenpeace International, the report ‘Dirty Laundry’ profiles the problem of toxic water pollution that results from the release of hazardous chemicals by the textile industry in China, water pollution which poses serious and immediate threats to both ecosystems and human health. The investigations forming the basis of this report focus on wastewater discharges from two facilities in China. Significantly, hazardous and persistent chemicals with hormone-disrupting properties were found in the samples (Roy Choudhury, 2014).

Alkylphenols, including nonylphenol (NP), were found in wastewater samples from both facilities and perfluorinated chemicals (PFCs), in particular perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) and perfluorooctane sulfonate, were present in the wastewater from the Youngor Textile Complex, despite the presence of a modern wastewater treatment plant. The two facilities have commercial relationships (as suppliers) with a number of other Chinese and international brands (Roy Choudhury, 2014).

New research commissioned by Greenpeace International shows that residues of the hazardous chemicals NP ethoxylates (NPEs)—used in textile manufacturing—remain in many clothing items sold by major international clothing brands and, when washed, a significant percentage of the chemicals in these clothes is released and subsequently discharged into rivers, lakes, and seas, where they turn into the even more toxic and hormone-disrupting chemical NP (Roy Choudhury, 2014).


Chemical Usage

The Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs, a leading environmental nongovernmental organization (NGO) in China, has released the second in a series of exposures about the severe water pollution problems caused by textile dyeing and finishing in China. The latest report criticizes brands such as Marks and Spencer, Disney, Polo Ralph Lauren, JC Penney, and Tommy Hilfiger, but also notes that H&M, Nike, Esquel, Levi’s, Adidas, Walmart, Burberry, and Gap have proactively followed up on its first report earlier this year and established regular screening mechanisms on textile dye house suppliers (Roy Choudhury, 2014).

About 25 % of the global production of chemicals is used in the textile industry globally. As many as 2000 different chemicals are used in textile processing, especially in textile wet processing, and many of these are known to be harmful to human (and animal) health. Some of these chemicals evaporate, some are dissolved in treatment water which is discharged into the environment, and some are retained in the fabric. The chemicals causing particular concern when released into the environment display one or more of the following properties (Roy Choudhury, 2014):

  • Persistence (they do not readily break down in the environment)
  • Bio-accumulation (they can accumulate in organisms, and even increase in concentration as they work their way up a food chain)
  • Toxicity

Some chemicals are carcinogenic or may cause harm to children, even before birth, while others may trigger allergic reactions in some people (Roy Choudhury, 2014). The table below shows several popular but toxic textile chemicals and their fields of application.

List of a few popular but toxic textile chemicals and their fields of application

list of toxic chemicals used in textile production
Roy Choudhury, 2014

Approaches for reducing or removing these toxic chemicals

  • Once identified, specific, identifiable compounds such as tributyltin oxide (TBTO), a biocidal preservative for cotton textiles, could be removed from the discharge waste stream or replaced with less toxic alternatives. Other, less specific compounds were more difficult to trace and eliminate.
  • Non-ionic surfactants pose a particular problem. Surfactants are slow to degrade and cause acute and chronic toxicity effects. Understanding their rate of biodegradability is a key factor in the treatment of effluents, as the only available options are either longer treatment times or substituting more rapidly degradable surfactants. 
  • Sodium chloride and sodium sulfate, which are used as exhausting agents in the direct dyeing of cotton, also present a particular problem. There still remains no practical treatment to remove these salts from textile wastewater and, thus far, the only way to resolve the issue has been to dilute the effluent. The problem can, however, be minimized by using low-salt reactive dyes or adopting pad application methods.
  • Copper was found to be present in many blue and black dyes with ‘free,’ noncomplexed copper acting as the immediate toxic agent; hence, their screening and the development of copper-free dyes was encouraged.

Wet-processing auxiliaries

Even after eliminating several specific toxic compounds, there still remain a large group of textile chemicals called wet-processing auxiliaries. These ‘namebrand’ products are composed of complex mixtures of surfactants, softening agents, solvents, chelating agents, and water-based polymers. Most of these products are mixtures designed to perform a certain task in the preparation, dyeing, or finishing of textiles. Because of both the huge variety and different concentrations of chemicals which can be used in these products, there are significant difficulties in identifying the components of these mixtures, a problem exaggerated as producers keep the ingredients a trade secret. The lingering question is how to determine the relative environmental impacts of these products so that the end user, the textile industry, can choose greener products and improve the environmental quality of the water being discharged from the textile facility? (Roy Choudhury, 2014)

Heavy metals

Heavy metals are inherently persistent and some of them (for example cadmium, lead, and mercury) are also able to bio-accumulate and/or are toxic. Although they occur naturally in rocks, their use by industry can release them into the environment in quantities that can damage ecosystems. Heavy metal compounds do not break down into harmless constituents but can react to form new compounds. The health hazards associated with some heavy metals and metalloids (e.g., arsenic) are listed in the table below (Roy Choudhury, 2014).

Some types of toxicity make it difficult to define ‘safe’ levels for substances, even at low doses, for example, substances may be (Roy Choudhury, 2014):

  • Carcinogenic (causing cancer), mutagenic (able to alter genes), and/or reprotoxic (harmful to reproduction)
  • Endocrine disruptors (interfering with hormone systems)

Health hazards associated with heavy metals and metalloids used in the textile industry

health hazards associated with heavy metals used in textiles
Roy Choudhury, 2014


Water Usage and Issues Caused by Wastewater

The textile and related industries are considered by some to be the second-highest consumers and polluters of clean water next to agriculture. Clean water is a finite resource which is becoming scarce, and it is used at every step of the wet-processing sequence both to convey the chemicals into the material and to wash them out before the beginning of the next step. In a traditional dyeing and finishing operation, for example, 1 ton of fabric could result in the pollution of up to 200 tons of water by a suite of harmful chemicals and, in the process, consumes large amounts of energy for steam and hot water (Blackburn, 2009). 

It takes approximately 2,500–3,000 L of water to manufacture a single cotton shirt. The bulk of this water is required to grow the cotton, followed in second place by the wet finishing process. The first consequences of water shortages and wastewater problems are already starting to be felt in the textile finishing industry. For example, new companies in China and India have not been granted approval to set up operations if they have not been able to present a convincing case to the authorities that their approach will help solve issues of water consumption and wastewater. In Europe, companies face closure for the same reason. Textile centers in Asia are reporting rapidly dwindling groundwater reserves and heavily salinated groundwater. As a result, many companies face challenges which threaten their very existence (Borneman, 2008).

Once charged with chemical additives, the water is expelled as wastewater, which, if untreated, may pollute the environment thermally by virtue of the high temperature of the effluent, extreme pH, and/or contamination with dyes, diluents of dyes, auxiliaries, bleaches, detergents, optical brighteners, and many other chemicals used during textile processing. Problems become worse when there is inappropriate or incomplete effluent treatment or a discharge of polluted water directly without treatment, leading to polluted surface waters and polluted aquifers, i.e., layers of earth or rock containing water. As a result, any heavy metal constituents in effluents lead to pollution with both negative ecological impacts on the water-body environment and deterioration of human health (Roy Choudhury, 2014). 

Some wastewater is still being disposed of in an environmentally unfriendly way, into the sewage networks where available, or else into cesspools, without regard to the biological oxygen demand (BOD), chemical oxygen demand (COD), and/or the heavy metal content of the wastewater. The untreated wastewater generated from textile production and processing can vary greatly depending on the chemicals and treatment processes involved and may include materials with a high BOD and COD, high total suspended solids (SS), oil and grease, sulfides, sulfates, phosphates, chromium, copper, and/or the salts of other heavy metals; of these, the most important are considered to be COD, BOD, pH, fats, oil, nitrogen, phosphorus, sulfates, and SS. Total SS levels are low in raw textile dyeing wastewater compared to wastewater from many other industries. On the other hand, BOD and COD are relatively high in effluents from sizing operations and wet processing and are therefore more important pollution-prevention targets. Sulfates and phosphates are toxic at very high concentrations. Problems caused by sulfates are most frequently related to their ability to form strong acids which change the pH, whereas, in surface waters, phosphates cause eutrophication (Tufekci et al., 2007; Roy Choudhury, 2014).

Some commonly observed routes of wastage of water are (Roy Choudhury, 2014):

  • Excessive use of water in washing
  • Poor housekeeping measures such as broken or missing valves
  • Unattended leaks through pipes and hoses
  • Instances when cooling waters are left running even after shutdown of the machinery
  • Use of inefficient washing equipment
  • Excessively long washing cycles
  • Use of fresh water at all points of water use

The reutilization of wastewater can present very important savings, namely in the reduction of water, energy, and chemical consumption. The recycling of wastewater is effected in process baths and rinsing waters before fresh water is taken for treatment for removal of remaining chemicals and other effluents generated. Steam condensate and cooling water are easily recoverable as they are clean and recovery of their thermal energy can very quickly pay back the investment (Roy Choudhury, 2014).


Energy Consumption

The textile industry is a major energy-consuming industry with low efficiency in energy utilization. About 23 % of the total energy used is consumed in weaving, 34 % in spinning, 38 % in chemical processing, and another 5 % for miscellaneous purposes. Thermal energy dominates in chemical processing, being used mainly for heating water and drying textile materials, whilst electrical power dominates the energy consumption pattern in spinning and weaving. A large quantity of non-renewable energy sources is eventually consumed in the form of electricity, not so much in the process of textile production (15–20 %) but mostly in subsequent laundering processes during consumer use (75–80 %). It is reported that the total thermal energy required per meter of cloth (including both production and consumer use) is 18.8–23MJ and the electrical energy required per meter of cloth is 0.45–0.55 kWh. Whilst data on energy usage for the textile industry are readily available, complications arise in estimating the associated CO2 emissions arising from the sources (coal, electricity, natural gas, or other sources) from which the energy is produced because the textile industry is a fragmented and heterogeneous sector dominated by small and medium-sized enterprises (Blackburn, 2009; Roy Choudhury, 2014).

Average thermal energy use in dyeing plants in Japan (graphic)

thermal energy use in dyeing plants in japan
Roy Choudhury, 2014


Waste Generation

As with any other industry, the textile industry generates all categories of industrial wastes, namely liquids, solids, and gases. Unmanaged solid waste is likely to be dumped in landfill. For greener processes, non-renewable wastes need to be recycled and renewable wastes need to be composted if recycling is not an option. Industrial solid wastes from textile production include the following (Roy Choudhury, 2014): 

  • Ashes and sludge
  • Cardboard boxes, bale wrapping film, or non-recyclable soiled fabric
  • Plastic bags containing chemical raw material
  • Non-reusable paper cones and tubes
  • Waste fabrics, scraps, yarns, and fibers from non-recyclable processing


Air Emissions

Burnt fossil fuels contribute to the emissions of carbon dioxide, a primary contributor to the greenhouse effect. Textile manufacturing is also responsible for the following emissions (Roy Choudhury, 2014):

  • Nitrogen oxides and sulfur oxides (from fossil-fuel-heated boilers) which create acidity in the natural environment (freshwater lakes, rivers, forests and soils) and lead to the deterioration of metal and building structures. They also contribute to smog formation in urban areas.
  • Solvent escaping into the air from drying ovens used in solvent coating operations.
  • Solvents released from cleaning activities (general facility clean-up and maintenance, print screen cleaning).
  • Emissions of volatile hydrocarbons which include non-methane hydrocarbons (NMHCs) and oxygenated NMHCs (e.g., alcohols, aldehydes, and organic acids).


Transportation and Packaging Materials

Long-distance transport is required to move the finished products from the factories located in low-labor-cost countries to the consumer in a developed country, thus adding to the overall quantity of non-renewable fuel consumed (Roy Choudhury, 2014).

For consumer packaging, the packaging used to present products in stores, materials often used are plastic, paper, metal, aluminum, cotton, hemp, and biodegradable materials. Companies implementing eco-friendly actions are reducing their carbon footprint by using more recycled materials, increasingly reusing packaging components for other purposes or products, and employing recycled materials (e.g., paper, cotton, jute, hemp, wood), biodegradable materials, natural products grown without the use of pesticides or artificial fertilizers, and reusable materials (e.g., cotton bags or hemp). Reducing packaging waste is one of the best ways to minimize environmental impact (Roy Choudhury, 2014). 



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  • Gray, S. (2017, 12). Technical report templates. European Clothing Action Plan. Retrieved November 1, 2022, from
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  • Wiedemann, S.G., Biggs, L., Nebel, B., Bauch, K., Laitala, K., Klepp, I.G., Swan, P.G., & Watson, K. (2020). Environmental impacts associated with the production, use, and end-of-life of a woollen garment. The International Journal of Life Cycle Assessment, 25, 1486–1499.

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