Textile Industry and Climate Change

26 02 2019

“I believe we stand at a turning point in history. For the first time, humans are no longer just affected by weather cycles, we are affecting those cycles—and suffering the consequences of doing so.”

Patricia Espinosa,  UN Climate Change Executive Secretary

Climate change is without a shadow of a doubt, one of the most pressing problems of the 21st century. It affects everything, from the air we breathe, to the water we drink, to the food we grow. And considering that natural fibers are the backbone of the textile industry, and climate change affects the growth and production of these natural fibers, it is only right that the textile industry makes this major global issue a priority.

Cotton production alone leaves a huge impact on the environment. According to Textile Today, a kilogram of cotton (the equivalent of one pair of jeans and one t-shirt) can take more than 20,000 liters of water to produce. Additionally, only 2.4% of the world’s crop land has cotton planted in it, yet it accounts for 24% of global sales of insecticide.

It’s not just the production of natural fibers that will affect the textile and apparel industry – the industry is known for being one of the most polluting industries of the modern world. The carbon footprint left behind by major textile operations is huge, and carbon is released throughout the supply chain,producing 1.3 billion tons of CO2 equivalent (CO2e) per year. Over 60% of textiles are used in the clothing industry and a large proportions of clothing manufacturing occurs in China and India, countries which rely on coal-fueled power plants, increasing the footprint of each garment. One way the industry can make positive changes is by switching to renewable energy, such as solar or wind power. This would drastically reduce the amount of energy consumed by factories and improve sustainability around the world.

“The apparel sector is one where there’s a lot of uncertainty about what exactly the impacts are,” said Nate Aden, senior fellow at the World Resources Institute, at a panel discussion on climate change in NYC.  “The best number we have now is about five percent of [global] greenhouse gas emissions [come from] the textile industry. To give you some sense of perspective, that’s about equivalent to the impact from the aviation sector, so all the planes flying in the world. Or in country terms, that’s about equal to Russia. So it’s pretty significant.”[1]

Fashion is one area in which consumerism has rapidly grown in recent years. Fast fashion has become more prevalent; clothing is produced on shorter timeframes with new designs appearing every few weeks to satisfy demand for the latest trends, but with this comes increased consumption and more waste. It has been estimated that there are 20 new garments manufactured per person each year[2] and we are buying 60% more than we were in 2000. Each garment is worn less before being disposed of and this shorter lifespan means higher relative manufacturing emissions.  Clothing costs have risen slower than those of other consumer goods, increasing their affordability, and there will be continued growth as the middle class expands and purchases increase to match this demographic shift. This combination of factors is expected to result in a tripling of resource consumption by 2050 (compared to 2000).

Synthetic fibers have seen rapid production growth since their introduction in the second half of the twentieth century. Polyester is now the most commonly used fabric in clothing, having overtaken cotton early in the twenty-first century. For polyester and other synthetic materials, the emissions for production are much higher as they are produced from fossil fuels such as crude oil. In 2015, production of polyester for textiles use results in more than 706 billion kg of CO2e. The authors of the study estimate a single polyester t-shirt has emissions of 5.5 kg CO2e, compared with 2.1 kg CO2e for one made from cotton. However cotton is a thirsty crop and its production has greater impacts on land and water.

With limited recycling options to recover reusable fibres, almost 60% of all clothing produced is disposed of within a year of production (ending in landfill or incineration)[3]. To put that into context, that is one rubbish truck per second to landfill[4]. It has been estimated that less than 1% of material used to produce clothing is recycled within the clothing industry, with around 13% recycled for use in other areas[5].

There is also a push to return to slow fashion, with higher quality garments with longer product life and utilization. The recent report from the Ellen Macarthur Foundation[6] advocates for a shift to a circular economy, where the value of products and materials is maintained for as long as possible and waste and resource use is minimized. This, alongside efforts to minimize negative environmental impacts from production, will create a more sustainable industry. For suggestions such as clothing rentals, and increased durability allowing reuse and resale, a shift in consumer behavior and attitude is required for them to gain traction.

A recent report by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation raised an alarm,pointing to an estimated USD 500 billion value lost every year due to clothing that is “barely worn and rarely recycled,” and which could lead to the industry accounting for a quarter of the world’s carbon budget by 2050.

Regarding cotton production, 1 kg of cotton production (equivalent to a pair of jeans and a t-shirt) can require nearly 5,500 gallons of water, 73% of global cotton harvest comes from irrigated land, 2.4% of the word’s crop land is planted with cotton and yet it accounts for 24% of sales 11% of insecticid and pesticides.(7)

The Aral Sea which was world’s fourth largest inland water lake has been reduced to 15% of its original size as a result of irrigation to cotton industry:

Aral Sea.jpg

     Source:  NASA 2010

Another major polluting subsector of the textile supply chain is dyeing operations. All synthetic dyes and chemicals are hazardous to the environment. The wastewater from the dyeing industry is considered to be the most polluting of all given its volume and composition. Up to 200,000 tons of dyes are expelled in the form of effluent from dyeing and finishing operations due to inefficient processes.(8)  It is estimated that 20% of industrial water pollution globally is attributable to the dyeing and treatment of textiles.(9)

 

(1)   Bauck, W., “The Fashion Industry Emits as much Greenhouse Gas as All of Russia”,  Sept.22, 2017 HTTPS://FASHIONISTA.COM/2017/09/FASHION-INDUSTRY-GREENHOUSE-GAS-CLIMATE-CHANGE-SUSTAINABILITY

(2) Kirchain, R., Olivetti, E., Reed Miller, T. & Greene, S. Sustainable Apparel Materials (Materials Systems Laboratory, 2015).

[3] Remy, N., Speelman, E. & Swartz, S. Style That’s Sustainable: A New Fast-Fashion Formula (McKinsey&Company, accessed 11 December 2017).

[4] A New Textiles Economy: Redesigning Fashion’s Future (Ellen MacArthur Foundation, 2017).

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

(7) Patwary, Sarif Ullah, Masters thesis, Kansas State University, “Global climate change   and the textile industry”, March 22, 2016

(8) Ibid.

(9) Ellen Macarthur Foundation, “A New Textiles Economy Summary of Findings”; https://www.ellenmacarthurfoundation.org/publications/a-new-textiles-economy-redesigning-fashions-future.

 

 

 

 

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The promise of biotechnology

4 05 2011

Plastics are a problem – and becoming more of a problem as time goes on because of our voracious appetite for the stuff: global plastic production grew by more than 500% over the past 30 years.  And we have limited fossil fuels available –  that fact alone dwarfs the plastics problem because we depend on fossil fuels for so much more than plastic.  So, many are looking to biotechnology as a solution.  Biotechnology can be defined as  a variety of techniques that involve the use and manipulation of living organisms to make commercial products.

According to David Garman, US Under Secretary for Energy, Science and Environment under George W. Bush,  “Many think of biomass mainly as a source for liquid fuel products such as ethanol and biodiesel. But biomass can also be converted to a multitude of products we use every day. In fact, there are very few products that are made today from a petroleum base, including paints, inks, adhesives, plastics and other value-added products, that cannot be produced from biomass.”  And J. Craig Venter, founder of Synthetic Genomics, Inc. (which, according to their website, was founded to commercialize genomic-driven technologies), said “We have modest goals of replacing the whole petrochemical industry and becoming a major source of energy.”

The ETC Group, which focuses on the social and economic impacts of new bio technologies,  has just published a new report, “The New Biomassters – Synthetic Biology and The Next Assault on Biodiversity and Livelihoods” (click here to download the report) in which they critique what the OECD countries are calling the “new bioeconomy”:   From generating electricity to producing fuels, fertilizers and chemicals,  they say that shifts are already underway to claim biomass as a critical component in the global industrial economy. But contrary to what I expected, it’s not a pretty picture.

According to The New Biomassters report:

“What is being sold as a benign and beneficial switch from black carbon to green carbon is in fact a red hot resource grab (from South to North) to capture a new source of wealth. If the grab succeeds, then plundering the biomass of the South to cheaply run the industrial economies of the North will be an act of 21st century imperialism that deepens injustice and worsens poverty and hunger. Moreover, pillaging fragile ecosystems for their carbon and sugar stocks is a murderous move on an already overstressed planet. Instead of embracing the false promises of a new clean green bioeconomy, civil society should reject the new biomassters and their latest assault on land, livelihoods and our living world.”

In the world of fabrics and furnishings, the new biotech products which are being heavily promoted now are PLA (DuPont’s Ingeo and Sorona fibers) and soy-based foam for upholstery.

A summary of the report is given in the Sustainable Plastics web site  which I’ve reproduced here:

  • Provides an overview of the bio-based economy being envisioned by many OECD countries and Fortune 500 corporations and being sold to the global South as “clean development,” as well as a comprehensive consideration of its wider implications — a first from civil society.
  • Analyzes the impact of next-generation biofuels, the production of bio-based chemicals and plastics and the industrial burning of biomass for electricity, arguing that civil society needs to critique and confront the combined threats arising from these developments.
  • Unmasks the industrial players intent on commodifying the 76% of terrestrial living material that is not yet incorporated into the global economy. Sectors with an interest in the new bioeconomy (energy, chemical, plastics, food , textiles, pharmaceuticals, carbon trade and forestry industries) flex a combined economic muscle of over US$17 trillion a year. Visible players in the new bioeconomy include BP, Shell, Total, Exxon, Cargill, ADM, Du Pont, BASF, Weyerhaeuser and Syngenta.
  • Explores the safety concerns and threats to livelihoods inherent in the high-risk, game-changing field of synthetic biology. Relying on synthetic biology to provide higher yields and transform sugars could open a Pandora’s box of consequences. See pages 36-41.
  • Surveys the industrial landscape of next generation biofuels, including cellulosic ethanol, algal biofuels, sugar cane, jatropha and synthetic hydrocarbon, and sets out the case for why this next generation may be as ecologically and socially dangerous as the first. See pages 43- 50.
  • Poses challenging questions about the ‘green’ credentials of bio-based plastics and chemicals and their future impact on food supplies and world hunger. See pages 50-56.
  • Raises important political questions about land grabbing: 86% of global biomass is located in the tropics and subtropics, a simple fact driving an industrial grab that threatens to accelerate the pace of forest destruction and land acquisition in the South in order to feed the economies of the North. See pages 15-18.
  • Tallies the investments, subsidies and financial promises being made for the biomass economy. Predictions for the market value of biomass-based goods and services total over five hundred billion dollars by 2020, with the biggest turnover expected in biofuels and biomass electricity. See pages 13-14.
  • Challenges common myths of industrial biomass use, including the claims that switching to biomass is carbon-neutral, renewable and green. In fact, burning biomass can even produce more CO2 per energy unit than burning coal. See pages 19-20.
  • Details how a key error in the UN climate convention is driving destructive policies. By considering biomass energy as ‘carbon neutral,’ the UN has enabled destructive national renewables policies, carbon trading, and technology transfer activities. This report also examines the new REDD+ provisions in the context of the biomass economy. See pages 20- 24.
  • Sets out why we cannot afford any increase in the amount of biomass taken from already overstressed ecosystems. Indeed, industrial civilization may already be taking too much biomass from the systems we depend upon. See pages 24- 26.
  • Explores the new suite of technological strategies being proposed by biomass advocates to boost global stocks of biomass, including the genetic engineering of crops, trees and algae. Meanwhile, the geoengineering agenda is increasingly converging on biomass. See pages 27-30.
  • Exposes the switch to algae, purported to be the next ‘clean green’ feedstock and argues the case against industrial algal production. See pages 47-50.

So here I was thinking that bio polymers would be the wave of the future.   Now I don’t know what to think!  Looks like I’m in for a lot of reading.  If any of you have insights into these issues, I’d love to hear them.