Cotton is the single most highly used fibre in the garment industry (Approximately 20 million tons of cotton are produced yearly). This cash crop not only requires a high volume of water, but is also highly dependent on pesticides and fertilisers to increase its harvest. Despite cotton crops covering less than 3% of the world’s cropland, they use about 10% of the agricultural chemicals and 25% of the insecticides used for farming in the world.These chemicals lead to the pollution of groundwater and air, and the reduction of soil fertility. It also accounts for 2.6-6% of global water use where 73% of the world’s cotton harvest grows on irrigated land. On average, it takes around 10,000 litres of water to produce 1 kilogram of cotton, however, in some regions, the inefficient water use and high prevalence of water pollution can expedite this use to 20,500 litres per kilogram of cotton. Furthermore, it is not just the production of raw material that is water-intensive but also the wet processing of the material (see: Production). With the upscale consumption of water and use of pesticides and other chemicals, damage to the environment is bound to follow.
RayonViscose is a semi-synthetic fibre made from wood pulp. Trees are often cleared to start pulpwood plantations (ironic, no?) and the wood pulp is then processed with chemicals such as sulfuric acid.
Animals are also used for a variety of products in the fashion industry— e.g. wool, fur, cashmere, angora, silk or feathers. Besides the large amounts of energy and water that goes into harvesting feed, the use animals for materials breed other devastating outcomes. Some of these animals are bred for the sole purpose of their skin and may be placed in ill living conditions and mistreated. 85% of the fur industry comes from animals bred on ‘fur farms’, which are often disease laden, where animals are often found in tight cages their whole lives only to be killed inhumanely for the skin on their backs (e.g. neck breaking, electrocution, poison, in some cases animals are skinned alive). For example, in China, there are no laws against animal abuse on farms. Angora rabbits are kept in small, dirty cages with their feet tethered. They have short life expectancies, their lives spent waiting for their fur to be ripped off their skin every few months.
The leather and wool industry are no better. The animals are treated harshly with no concern for their welfare. Yearly, hundreds of lambs die within 8 weeks due to starvation or exposure and mature sheep die of disease, lack of shelter and neglect. Within weeks from being born, lambs are made to undergo the process of mulesing and have their tails cut off, all without the use of painkillers. Millions of cows are put through similar conditions for their skin. Furthermore the processing of skin into leather requires much energy and releases tons of hazardous chemicals like formaldehyde, coal-tar derivatives, chromium (e.g. Ganges river in India) and arsenic. This process also releases immense amounts of pollutant such as sulfides and acids.
Even the tiniest silkworm is not free from the human grasp. An estimated 3,000 silkworms die per pound of silk manufactures. Because silk is spun from the cocoons of the worm, they become useless after this stage and are steamed or gassed alive inside their cocoons.
Even animals bred in organic settings can have an impact on the environment. The demand for cashmere, mostly from the goats in the Gobi dessert, has resulted in an overbreeding of these animals, which ultimately has an impact the ecosystem there by reducing the food available.
Polyester and nylon are also highly used fabrics in the garment industry. Unlike cotton, they are man-made from petrochemicals. Along with the growth of the fashion industry, the demand for man-made fibres has doubled (in the last 15 years). The production of synthetic materials requires large amounts of chemicals, energy and water. (It takes an estimated 70 million barrels of oil to produce polyester yearly.) It also leads to the emission of pollutive particles, volatile organic compounds and acid gasses in the process. Nylon emits nitrous oxide (a greenhouse gas that is 310x more potent than carbon dioxide) while polyester production emits microplastics and by-products that pollute the water. Furthermore, these materials are non-biodegradable, causing build up in landfills.