Textile Pollution

*A textile can include clothing, carpet, upholstery, drapes, linens, cleaning rags, and backpacks among other things. Clothing represent 60% of all textiles. In the statistics I will indicate if I'm talking about textiles as a whole, clothing, or clothing made from polyester.  

Fast Fashion is a term used to describe inexpensive clothing produced rapidly by mass-market retailers in response to the latest trends. It began in the 80s and has led to increased numbers of new fashion collections every year, quick turnarounds and lower prices.

As seen in the below figure from A New Textiles Economy The amount of garments purchased has doubled in the last 15 years and the number of wears per garment has declined. 

Unfortunately mass production has now turned into overproduction.

How Big is it?

  • Globally, clothing is a $1.3 trillion dollar industry.
  • 150 billion garments are manufactured every year.
  • By 2030 global apparel consumption could rise 63% from 62 million tons to 102 million tons (that the equivalent of an additional 500 billion t-shirts).
  • The average American throws away 70 pounds of textiles a year, and only 15% is donated or recycled. Sustainable Fashion: What's Next, page 207
  • A UK survey found that items were worn just 7 times before discarded.
  • Globally, we lose out on $460 billion a year by throwing out clothes that we could continue to wear.
  • 84% of unwanted clothes went into a landfill or incinerator (this included garment samples, dead stock and fabric samples).
  • 1 garbage truck of textiles is being sent to the landfill or incinerated every second.
  • Landfills received 10.5 million tons of textiles in 2015, representing 7.6% of US landfills. An additional 2.45 million tons were recycled and 3.05 million were incinerated.

 How pollutant is it?

  • Textiles use 98 million tons of non-renewable sources a year (this includes oil for synthetics, fertilizers to grow cotton, and chemicals to produce, dye and finish fibers and textiles).
  • 25% of the world's chemicals are used for textile production, it is estimated that over 8,000 different chemicals are used to turn raw material into textiles. 
  • 20% of industrial water pollution is presumed to be derived from the textile industry.
  • The purchase and use of clothing contributes about 3% to the global production of CO2 emissions. That is over 850 million tons of CO2 a year, from manufacturing, logistics and laundering clothes.
  • 70 million barrels of oil are used every year to produce polyester clothing.

What can be done?

The end goal would be for fashion (and our economy) to be more circular. This type of economy is aimed at minimizing waste and making the most of our resources. 

Currently the textile system operates in an almost completely linear way. Large amounts of non-renewable resources are extracted to produce clothes that are often used for only a short time, after which the materials are mostly sent to a landfill or incinerated. 

As awareness, participation, and technology improve we can now move into a more recycling economy. According to the Secondary Materials and Recycled Textiles Association 95% of clothes can be recycled. The other 5% can not be recycled due to mildew or other contamination. 

Donating and Recycling are the two things that consumers can do now with unwanted clothing. Globally only 20% of clothing is collected for reuse or recycling, and 80% is sent directly to landfills or incinerated.  

The Pulse of the Industry (pg. 61) lists the below diagram showing where our clothing waste will end up.


Donated textiles:

  • Each year, 2 million tons of textiles are recovered from individuals (postconsumer) and manufacturers (pre-consumer).
  • The used-textile market is estimated to be about $4 billion.
  • 50% of donated clothing will make it onto charity shop shelves, but only 50% of that will sell.
  • Globally 80% of the excess inventory from charity shops are sold to textile graders (also called rag dealers, rage sorters or rag graders).
    • 40% of the clothes received by textile graders are saleable as clothing.
    • 29% are made into lesser quality products, like cleaning wipes.
  • The United States exported $667 million of used textiles and clothing in 2017.
  • To protect local garment industries 42 countries have some kind of restriction or ban for used clothing imports.

Textile-to-Textile Recycling:

 There are two types of textile recycling:

Most textiles that are recycled use the mechanical process. During the shredding process the fibers are shortened, which decrease the fiber quality. Because of the resulting lower quality of fabric the recycled fabrics are usually made into lower value items, such as cleaning cloths, insulation materials, carpet underlays and the like.  Recycling a product into a lower quality product is called "downcycling". 

Less than 1% of material used to produce clothing is used to make new clothing. This 1% includes the off cuts (scrap pieces) created when making garments. 

What are additional difficulties for textile-to-textile recycling?

  • Blended fabrics - resources and energy are needed to separate different fibers.
  • Sewing threads and trims with different fibers than the garment must be separated.
  • Rigid parts like buttons and zippers have to be removed.
  • Dyes, pigments, coatings, and toxic chemicals can also increase the difficulty in recycling.

How can we make fashion more circular?

Full transparency and trace-ability is needed to move to a more circular economy. Change must happen at all levels.

  • Government/Policy Makers:
    • Fund grant research and technology to improve textile recycling
    • Create waste regulations and require more responsibility from manufacturers, designers and stores
    • Increase public communication and information campaigns
    • Invest in textile procurement and recycling infrastructure spending
    • Tax reductions for circular products and services
  • Research Level:
    • Improve chemical recycling 
    • Develop new types of polyester. For example, polyester that does not need non renewable resources or are compostable
  • Fabric Manufacture Level:
    • Use quality fabrics that are more durable
    • Use less chemicals, dyes, additives
  • Garment Designer Level:
    • Mono-materiality of garment design (avoid blended fabrics) 
    • Easy disassembly of garments (avoid zippers, buttons)
    • Reduce the off cuts created (scraps) 
  • Retail level:
    • Increase collection of clothing
      • Brand take back
      • Store repair or take back
      • Textile recycling centers or bins
    • Reduce overstock
    • Made to order clothes - manufacture clothing after customer has ordered
    • Rent clothes
    • Subscription type service
  • Consumer level:
    • Extending the life of existing cloths
      • Learning to repair your clothes
      • Washing with care
      • Repurposing clothes into new clothes
      • Clothing swaps
    • Shop quality over quantity
    • Shop secondhand
    • Shop items made with recycled materials
Currently there is still a low demand for recycled textiles. A survey done by Fashion Revolution showed that just 37% of people believe it is important that the clothing they buy is produced in a way that is not harmful to the environment, and only 6% of people said it's important that their clothing is made using recycled materials. Consumers are the agent of change. By creating a demand at the consumer level, that will in turn make the retail and designer level more aware. 


"Fashion is about change. If sustainable design and development are our goals, then let us engage thoughtfully and intelligently as we participate in changing what is considered fashionable."

Connie Ulasewicz, PHD Co-Arthur of Sustainable Fashion: What's Next?

 Favorite resources: