Wearing the Earth Down: Evaluating the Environmental Impact of the Apparel Supply Chain

When asked about environmental pollution it is easy to point the finger at the usual industry suspects such as oil and gas. But recently, the fashion industry has been under increasing scrutiny for its negative impact on the environment. In fact, many claim that the fashion industry is now the second most polluting in the world.
Why don’t more people know about the fashion industry’s dirty ways? Well, incredibly complex supply chains help the fashion industry to hide their involvement in the processes which cause such environmental harm. A supply chain consists of all the different stages needed to create and deliver a product to the customer. The apparel supply chain, from cotton farming to packaging, can be so complex that it becomes hard to even trace. Fashion Revolution published that of 219 brands polled, 91% of brands did not know where their cotton was grown, 75% did not know the source of their fabrics, and only 50% could accurately trace where their products where cut and sewn. The lack of visibility and understanding within the apparel supply chain directly translates to a lack of accountability. And this lack of accountability subsequently enables the extreme environmental disregard that we are witnessing today.
To better understand how the fashion industry is harming the planet, let’s break down their supply chain. While apparel supply chains can have hundreds of points of interest, for simplicity’s sake we will break it down into three main categories: Raw Material Extraction, Manufacturing, and Transportation.
Raw Material Extraction
Like the oil and gas industry, the fashion industry is dependent on natural resources for fabric material. Fabrics are generally categorised into natural fibres, such as farmed cotton, linen, or forestry pulp, and synthetic fibres that are man-made and largely petroleum based, such as polyester or nylon.
Each type of fibre, and the processes involved with turning it into fabric, has a different environmental cost. Since cotton represents between 30%-40% of all fibre used for textiles, let’s focus on this.
The apparel industry creates huge demand for cotton. In fact, cotton farms represent nearly 50% of all irrigated land, and are responsible for nearly 24% of all global insecticide use, and 11% of all pesticide use. The (non-organic) cotton industry is a serious contributor to local pollution as toxic chemicals from insecticides and pesticides seep into local groundwater. Contaminated water raises significant concerns for farm workers, nearby populations, and local biodiversity. While cotton farming is just one example of raw material extraction, there is a common theme of water-intensive, chemical-laden processes used to create the fabrics touching our skin.
Once a raw material is turned into fabric, it still needs to be processed and turned into a garment. Like raw material extraction, the processes involved in manufacturing can require large amounts of energy, water, and chemicals.
To keep the cost of manufacturing down, most large international brands outsource their production to lower-income countries like Bangladesh or Cambodia. These countries generally have less strict environmental regulations allowing factories to irresponsibly dispose of harmful wastewater without any significant consequence. In certain cases, toxic wastewater is dumped directly into local water supplies. One study found that in addition to contaminating drinking water supplies, many chemical dyes create oxygen deficiency in the water killing aquatic life and preventing photosynthesis.
 A new documentary, RiverBlue, takes a look at how large regions in China have become ‘dead zones’ from water pollution due to textile production. It is estimated that nearly 70% of rivers and lakes are contaminated by over 2.5 billion gallons of textile industry wastewater. Fashion designer and activist Orsola de Castro states that “there is a joke in China that you can tell the ‘it’ colour of the season by looking at the colour of the rivers.” While this is a joke, it certainly doesn’t seem funny.
Over the last twenty years, the fashion industry has become incredibly globalised. It is common to source raw materials on one continent, manufacture in a second, and sell in a third (and this is the ‘simple’ supply chain). This means that your shirt could have literally travelled around the world before landing on your shoulders.
The environmental costs of transportation are clear. While some methods of transportation are greener that others, the large majority rely of fossil fuel dependent transport such as cargo ships and freight planes. The use of fossil fuel based transport contributes to GHG emissions, and subsequently climate change. The environmental cost of apparel transport is multiplied when you consider how many different places are involved in production. Is such a carbon footprint really necessary?
Minimising the Environmental Impact of Supply Chains
The first step in pressuring change within the apparel industry is pressuring transparency of supply chains. The fashion industry has been able to hide behind convoluted supply chains that help to shift the blame down the line, and limit their responsibility for environmental harm. Not anymore. Taking a deeper look at all the steps involved in the apparel supply chain shows that the fashion industry is wreaking havoc on our environment without any consequence. We must demand greater transparency within the fashion industry so that companies are held accountable for all steps of production. Until the fashion industry feels a responsibility their entire supply chain, the environment will continue to pay the price.