Carbon Footprint of Apparel

A Carbon Footprint You May Never Have Considered: Your Apparel

Jane Marsh - August 14, 2017

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You’re well aware of the usual suspects that cause your carbon footprint to grow — driving a gas-guzzling car, eating imported produce and tossing recyclables in the trash can all come to mind. But you might not realize you’re hurting the earth by building your wardrobe without considering the carbon footprint of apparel. On the list of products most often purchased by consumers — and most often replaced by them, too — clothing and accessories come just after food and beverages on the list.

This means the apparel industry has had to figure out how to produce products as quickly and as cheaply as possible. It’s no surprise, then, that their methods end up taking the planet and its resources for granted.

Clothing Production Wastes and Pollutes Water

Look at the tag in the back of your shirt or in your favorite pair of slacks. What was the main ingredient used to create the garment? It’s likely you will find it’s made of cotton, which means you’re wearing a not-so-eco-friendly fabric unknowingly.

To successfully grow enough cotton to produce a single shirt, farmers need around 2,700 liters of water to properly irrigate the crop. This is more than two times what an average person drinks in a year. As you can imagine, this means cotton production in places where people already struggle to get the water they need to drink puts quite the strain on the environment.

Clothing manufacturers notoriously pollute water during production. On top of that, lots of water is required to dye fabrics. This water, of course, becomes waste afterward.

Manufacturing Uses Fossil Fuels and Chemicals

Cotton isn’t the only offender when it comes to non-eco-friendly practices. Digging deeper into clothing production reveals just how dependent some fabrics are on the most notorious materials. Take polyester, for example. In order to produce the most commonly used clothing fiber in the world, manufacturers use 70 million barrels of oil every year.

Many other synthetic fibers emit extremely damaging gases. For instance, N2O is 300 times worse for the atmosphere than CO2. The textile industry also uses 25% of the world’s chemicals. These decisions clearly come back to hurt the earth in the long run.

It’s easy to see how the atmosphere suffers and how such reliance on non-sustainable fossil fuels can quickly deplete the planet’s resources. But it’s not just production that makes a big difference to the earth around us. For example, plastic fibers shed from our clothing make up 85% of the man-made material found on the U.S. coastline.

Cleaning Out Your Closet Can Make Waste

The average American discards around 70 pounds of clothing per year. What do you do with clothes you no longer want? If you said, “Throw them in the trash,” there’s work to be done to shrink your carbon footprint further.

Clothing still in good condition can have a second life if you donate it to a non-profit organization that sells secondhand goods for cheaper prices or gives items to the less-fortunate for free. The garments that aren’t in resale condition might still have a bit of value if you can get a bit creative:

  • Use holey old T-shirts to create dust rags for your house
  • Let your kids turn old socks into puppets the next time you’re stuck inside on a rainy day

Some companies will even recycle the most down-and-out textiles in your home in order to create industrial rags or other useful products. The possibilities are endless, so do your research before you toss fabric into the trash.

It’s a Joint Effort to Get Greener

Now that you know the clothing industry’s secrets — and have improved your own methods for cleaning out your closets — you are better prepared for shrinking the carbon footprint you leave behind. You should feel good about your efforts to learn and do more. You’re working toward the greater good and safeguarding the earth for generations to come.

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About the author

Jane Marsh

Starting from an early age, Jane Marsh loved all animals and became a budding environmentalist. Now, Jane works as the Editor-in-Chief of where she covers topics related to climate policy, renewable energy, the food industry, and more.