You do not have to be a mythological creature to produce a huge carbon footprint. Carbon footprints are determined by how much of the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide (CO2) is emitted by a specific activity or the use of a particular item. Carbon dioxide is one of the main greenhouse gases which contribute to global climate change. Many modern manufacturing operations and personal individual lifestyles contribute to global CO2 emissions. Among them are the production and use of clothing which produces an enormous carbon footprint. It is important to be apprised of relevant facts and statistics in order to understand the effects of the apparel industry on climate change. This knowledge will help you to make informed decisions about your wardrobe.
According to the US Energy Information Administration, the textile industry is the fifth largest producer of carbon dioxide in the United States. Textiles are materials made from fiber, yarn or fabric. The use of textiles is responsible for about one ton of the 19.8 tons of total emissions produced by each American in 2006. When writing about clothing, some sources use the term textiles for clothing and some use the word clothing. Americans currently buy more clothing than they did in the past, adding to their carbon footprint. In 2011 the average American purchased 68 new articles of clothing.
The vast amount of textiles purchased by Americans originate from countries all over the globe, and this contributes to global climate change. Textiles account for ten percent of the world’s total carbon dioxide impact. Annual global textile production in 2008 was estimated at 60 billion kilograms (over 66 million US tons), and one trillion kilowatt hours (kWh) of electricity were used. This was the equivalent of burning 132 metric tons of coal. The carbon footprint of textiles includes the amount of energy used in the total life cycle of the fabric. All stages in the life cycle of fabric involve transportation to the next phase of the cycle. A vast amount of clothing is manufactured from cotton. Even though less energy is used in the production of cotton than in polyester, it nevertheless uses massive amounts of energy. Cotton production contributes between 0.3 and 1% of the total annual global greenhouse gases.
In the US, 7,600 BTUs of energy are used to produce one pound of cotton. Cotton farming uses quite a bit of energy, especially with the use of fertilizers. Petroleum is one of the ingredients in nitrogen fertilizers, and ten percent of the world’s fertilizers is used on the cotton crop. In the US, one third of a pound of fertilizer is used to produce each t-shirt. The production of one kilogram (kg) of nitrogen for fertilizer requires the energy equivalent of from 1.4 to 1.8 liters of diesel fuel. This does not include the natural gas that is used. Making one ton of fertilizer uses around 33,000 cubic feet of natural gas.
Two thirds of natural gas comes from fracking. Methane leaks occur during the process of fracking and also when it is transported through pipelines. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, methane has twenty one times the global warming potential of CO2. Producing one ton of nitrogen fertilizer emits nearly seven tons of CO2 equivalent greenhouse gases. Fertilizers applied to the soil emit nitrogen dioxide (NO2), and NO2 has 300 times the effect of CO2 as a greenhouse gas. Petroleum is also an ingredient of pesticides. 25% of the world’s insecticides are used on the cotton crop. One-third of a pound of pesticides is used for each t-shirt. Cotton grown with fertilizers and pesticides produce 5.89 kg CO2 per ton of fiber while organic cotton produces 2.35 kg CO2 per ton. The use of polyester produces 9.52 kg CO2 per ton of fiber. There are many more phases in cotton farming that produce CO2. Irrigation uses a lot of energy and thus contributes greatly to global climate change.
The World Wildlife Fund states that 73% of global cotton harvest comes from irrigated land. Before cotton seeds are planted, the soil is frequently tilled to remove weeds and prepare the soil, and this process also results in CO2 emissions. Before the crop is harvested, defoliants are often applied to the crop. The seeds within the harvested cotton bolls are removed, which uses electricity, and thus produces CO2. The cotton is then baled before it is sent on to the next phase of the process. The manufacturing of polyester fabric also consumes a great deal of energy. Nearly 70 million barrels of oil are used globally each year to make polyester. Synthetic fibers are manufactured with high temperatures, using even more electricity. Spandex, Lycra, and Pleather contain petroleum products. Nylon manufacturing creates NO2. carbon footprints
The electrical energy used for each meter of cloth produced averages 0.45-0.55 kWh. Manufacturing stages include the spinning of yarn, bleaching and dyeing, and the weaving and knitting of yarn into material. Approximately 15% of the total fabric is wasted when the various pieces are cut out of the fabric. Still more operations such as the sewing together of the parts of the clothing and removing excess dye also contribute to global climate change. Millions of tons of unused fabric at Chinese factories go to waste each year when dyed the wrong color. The many finishing stages of clothing, including making the fabric stain and wrinkle resistant, also consume electricity. The packaging and delivery phase of distribution also uses vast amounts of energy. Plastic packaging is derived from petroleum, and energy is used both to manufacture and transport the plastic. Likewise, paper bags and cardboard involve energy usage in their manufacturing and transportation. A shipping box equal to 0.25 pounds of cardboard produces 0.2 pounds of CO2. In 2002, the Timberland company found that the apparel and footwear shipped by ocean freight from Asia to the US produced 17,000 tons of CO2. Even the shape and routes of delivery vehicles
The many finishing stages of clothing, including making the fabric stain and wrinkle resistant, also consume electricity. The packaging and delivery phase of distribution also uses vast amounts of energy. Plastic packaging is derived from petroleum, and energy is used both to manufacture and transport the plastic. Likewise, paper bags and cardboard involve energy usage in their manufacturing and transportation. A shipping box equal to 0.25 pounds of cardboard produces 0.2 pounds of CO2. In 2002, the Timberland company found that the apparel and footwear shipped by ocean freight from Asia to the US produced 17,000 tons of CO2. Even the shape and routes of delivery vehicles effects the amount of CO2 produced. The use phase of apparel occurs when clothes are actually worn and is a very important contribution to one’s carbon footprint. Lifestyle decisions can raise or lower our carbon footprint. For example, ties, business jackets, long sleeves, and polyester make consumers feel warmer and therefore increase the use of air conditioning. In Japan, a program called Cool Biz was introduced and it included changes in business attire.
The Cool Biz program decreased greenhouse emissions by around two million tons in 2010 along with reduced emissions of 7.92 million tons in the previous five years. Fast fashion is a major component of the apparel industry. Crops used to make fabric, animal fibers, and synthetic fabrics may be produced in one country. Then the fabric or partially sewn articles of clothing are transported repeatedly to different countries in the various phases of production usually depending on where the cheapest labor is found. Clothes are manufactured quickly and designed to have a short life. Many fast fashion garments are worn less than five times and are frequently kept for only 35 days. These garments produce over 400% more carbon emissions per item per year than those worn 50 times and kept for a full year. Washing and drying clothes add a large amount of CO2 to the atmosphere. Machine washing and drying lead to 75 to 80% of a t-shirt’s carbon footprint One load of washing uses 40 gallons of water. Energy is used in pumping that water to the residence and within the home. Almost 90% of the energy consumed by a washing machine is due to heating the water. Washing clothes at 30 degrees Celsius will have a carbon footprint of 0.6 kilograms compared to a carbon footprint of 3.3 kilograms if clothes are washed at 60 degrees Celsius.
Almost 90% of the energy consumed by a washing machine is due to heating the water. Washing clothes at 30 degrees Celsius will have a carbon footprint of 0.6 kilograms compared to a carbon footprint of 3.3 kilograms if clothes are washed at 60 degrees Celsius. Twenty nine billion loads of laundry are washed each year in the US. The manufacture and delivery of appliances also raise the total carbon footprint of each wash. A lot of energy is used to manufacture and transport detergents, bleach, and fabric softeners. Transporting detergent in the US produces 422 million pounds of CO2. The average American family’s carbon footprint for the detergent that they use is about 600 pounds of CO2 each year. Clothes dryers use a tremendous amount of energy and thus make a sizable contribution to climate change. A load of clothing in the dryer uses five times more energy than washing. The Environmental Protection Agency found that dryers emit 32 million metric tons of CO2 each year. Consumers frequently use fabric softeners and dryer sheets which consume energy and contribute to global climate change in their manufacture, transportation, and disposal. Most dryer sheets are made from a non woven polyester material, and that polyester comes from petroleum which must be extracted and transported to the factory that produces the dryer sheets.
The brand Kleen Test, by itself manufactures a billion dryer sheets per year, and that is only one company. The final step of the carbon footprint occurs during waste removal and processing. However, by extending the average lifespan of an item of clothing by as little as three months, we can reduce the carbon footprint by 5 to 10%. Americans recycle or donate only 15% of their used clothing. Studies show that 90% of clothing is thrown away long before the end of its useful life. Recycling one kilogram of used apparel will help to reduce up to 3.6 kilograms of CO2 emissions. According to the EPA, in 2013 Americans sent 14.3 million tons of clothing to landfills. Textiles that are sent to landfills require years to decompose, and during the process methane will be released. Thus, our purchase and use of clothing significantly adds to our carbon footprint. However, there are things that individual consumers can do to lower their individual carbon footprint. Purchase only items that you really need and will wear for a longer period of time. And be sure to use cloth bags to bring your purchases home. Wash clothes at cooler temperatures and hang them up to dry. Never throw out unwanted clothing. Discarded clothing should be given away or donated to charities.
Lenore M. Hitchler