Carbon footprint of the textile industry

25 05 2009

We’re starting a series of blogs on the carbon footprint of textiles.    Because it’s such a complex subject we’re breaking it into smaller portions, beginning with looking at the textile industry as a whole.   In other words, why the fuss over textiles?

Fabrics, believe it or not, have a large carbon footprint.  In other words, it takes a lot of energy to produce fabrics.  According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, the U.S. textile industry is the 5th largest contributor to CO2 emissioins in the United States (after primary metals, nonmetallic mineral products, petroleum and chemicals).  In the developing world, where the textile industry represents a larger percentage of GDP and mills are often antiquated, the CO2 emissions are greater.

In fact, today’s textile industry is one of the biggest sources of greenhouse gasses on Earth, due to the huge size and scope of the industry as well as the many processes and products that go into the making of textiles and finished textile products. (See Vivek Dev, “Carbon Footprint of Textiles”, April 3, 2009, http://www.domain-b.com/environment/20090403_carbon_footprint.html)

Based on estimated annual global textile production of 60 billion kilogrms (KG) 0f fabric, the estimated energy and water needed to produce that 60 billion KG of fabrics boggles the mind:  1,074 billion KWh of electricity (or 132 million metric tons of coal) and between 6 – 9 trillion liters of water.

Fabrics have been the elephant in the room for too long.  Do we overlook them because they are almost always used as a part of a finished product, such as sheets, blankets, sofas, curtains, and of course clothing?  It’s estimated that clothing and textiles account for about one ton of the 19.8 tons of total CO2 emissions produced by each person in the U.S. in 2006 (see Jurg Rupp, “Ecology and Economy in Textile Finishing”, Textile World, Nov/Dec 2008).

In the U.K., the Carbon Trust, working with Continental Clothing, has developed the world’s first carbon label for clothing (http://www.environmentalleader.com/2009/03/27/uk-launches-first-carbon-footprint-label-for-retail-clothing/)  The new label will provide the carbon footprint of the garment, from raw materials and  manufacture to use and disposal.

carbon footprint label

carbon footprint label

The first point we want you to keep in mind is that the industry is huge, and because of its size it’s impacts are profound.  There is more to think about when buying a fabric than thread counts or abrasion ratings.

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