Water is a limited resource that we are quickly depleting. All of our clothing takes an astounding amount of water. One t-shirt (how many t-shirts do you have?) consumes about .25 kg of cotton: 1kg cotton takes 20,00 liters of water. 20,000! Just to be clear, 20,000 liters is equivalent to 1000 bathtubs of water! A pair of jeans requires about 1.5 pounds (.66 kg), which means those jeans took 3595 US gallons (13608 liters) of water. That's enough drinking water for the average American to last a year!
Not only are the production of natural fibers like cotton, linen, bamboo, hemp and more—take more water to grow, by they require a staggering amount of insecticides. Cotton accounts for 2.4% of the world's cropland, but it accounts for 25% of the insecticide and pesticide use. The pesticides get released into the environment and kill natural occurring, ecosystem balancing insects and pests.
Not only do natural fibers take a toll on the environment, but human-made fibers also tax the environment. For all the polyester made in 2015 produced 767 billion (767,000,000,000) kilograms of greenhouse gasses, which is the equivalent of 185 coal plants annual emissions. While polyester is the most popular and widely used synthetic textile impacting the environment, it indeed isn't the only: especially when you account for blends.
Producing textiles not only requires a lot of water and alters the ecosystem with a disproportionate amount of chemicals, but the process of dying textiles changes the environment. The traditional method of dyeing fabrics proves detrimental to local water systems. Due to the inefficiency of the primary dying practice, manufacturers release 10–50% of the dye used into local waterways. This 10–50% results in the local rivers turning into the hot color of the season with 200,000 tons of dye. This is the equivalent weight of 100 blue whales. Because of the antimicrobial qualities as well as other agents resistant to degradation by light, temperature, water, detergents, chemicals, soaps, bleach, and antiperspirants, these dyes can become a permanent fixture of the environment or cause other environmental distress. Some dyes are even endocrine disruptors of local species. Often the water source that the dyes dumped into is also the only (or at least primary) water source for the community.
While clothing is in our lives, we must consider how we wear and care for our garments, because its one of the biggest ways clothing effects the environment. Washing a load of laundry takes between 27 gallons for new, higher efficiency models to about 40 gallons for older standard models. Combat your water usage here is to only to wash your clothes as they need washing, not after each wear. Wash your clothes if they smell or if they have visible stains. Wash all undergarments and shirts after each wear, but all pants, skirts, dresses, and suits can go 3–4 wears between washings.
When you're washing your clothes, avoid the dry cleaners. Not only can the harsh chemicals degrade your clothes faster than ordinary home detergent, but the chemicals are often toxic, and work their ways into the water system. Instead, wash your clothes at home on a cold setting. Most clothes not only should be washed cold, but washing with cold water means that there was no energy wasted in heating up the water. Heating water is an energy-intensive activity, so avoid it if possible. Often, clothes tags even recommend or require washing the garment in cold water.
The final process of environmentally impactful care is drying your clothes. When at all possible, hang or lie clothing flat to dry. Drying is an energy-intensive process that, like washing with warm water, should be avoided if possible. How you wash your clothes also changes their longevity. Wash clothing with like objects when possible. Clothing made of super durable material, like jeans, which have a lot of hard zippers, snaps, and other hardware, beat lighter, less durable clothing up in the laundry. So only wash your jeans every 5-7 wears and wash them with your other jeans and items with metal hardwear. Also, when buy clothing made with material that prevent odor (like silver or wool) so they require less frequent washing. The less you wash your clothes, the more environmentally friendly you are. Stay dirty!
The average US citizen alone contributes 70 lbs of clothing waste per year.
The story of our clothing doesn’t stop when we stop wearing it. One of the most impactful parts of the clothing lifecycle is when we dispose of it. The average US citizen contributes 70 pounds of clothing waste per year. There are a few ways we get rid of clothing: donation, recycling, and trashing, each of which come with their own considerations regarding the environment. The first is donating clothing, which is one of the most environmentally friendly ways to get rid of clothing other than repurposing it into other household items you would buy. Since the donation of clothing has a more economic impact on other economies than it makes an environmental impact, to learn more about the effects of donating clothing, look it the economic section. As for its environmental considerations, it is a great way to sustainably dispose of clothing.
The next option to consider is recycling. Nearly all of our clothing can is recyclable, which is excellent! However, only about 15% of our clothing ends up in recycling systems, leaving the other 85% to end up in landfills at the end of its lifetime. The problem is that you cannot recycle textiles in curbside recycling because clothing consists of so many different materials, they have to be recycled in another way, although some cities are starting to, as a reaction to the textile waste epidemic. There are many local recycling organizations around the country and internationally, but they vary in what they can take and how to get the clothing to them. For your area, look up clothing recycling to see if there are resources near you.
85% of our clothing ends up in a landfill at the end of its lifetime, so it is worth understanding how long each game will be around when we’re finished with it. Clothing made of natural fibers like wool, cotton, bamboo, hemp, and jute will decompose in five years. Human-made natural fibers like rayon, and its more environmentally friendly derivative viscose, take even less than natural fibers at about three years. On the upper end, leather takes up to 40 years to decompose, and rubber shoe soles take up to 80. Synthetic textiles range is enormous; taking anywhere from 40 years for Nylon to up to 1000 years for some polyesters. Clothing with screen printing adds another factos, too. Water based screen printing is biodegradable and acceptable for the environment, but the cheaper petroleum based Plastisol paints biodegrade at the same rate as midrange plastics. So while that cotton t-shirt is gone, the words printed on it will live on past the end of our lifetimes. Consider the life of the clothing you own, and how energy intensive it was to get to your door before bring in new clothing into your life.