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Environmental Impacts of clothing manufacturing

As with all kinds of manufacturing, there are environmental impacts when making clothes. Everyone needs clothes. So some of these environmental impacts are unavoidable. However, there are things you can do to minimize the impact you have on the environment.

Today we will discuss what the environmental impacts of clothing manufacturing are. Then we will discuss some things you can do to lessen the impact you have.

Chemicals used in Clothing manufacturing

There are 11 categories of chemicals used in clothing manufacturing. Here is a quick summary:

  • Alkylphenols
  • Phthalates
  • Brominated and chlorinated flame retardants
  • Azo dyes
  • Organotin compounds
  • Perfluorinated chemicals
  • Chlorobenzenes
  • Chlorinated solvents
  • Chlorophenols
  • Short-chain chlorinated paraffins
  • Heavy metals: cadmium, lead, mercury and chromium (VI)

Ever wonder why your clothes sometimes have a strong chemical smell when you first open the bag? It is one or more of the chemicals above that are responsible. These chemicals are why it is also a good idea to wash your new clothes when you first get them from the store. These chemicals can irritate your skin.

Most of these chemicals are easily removed from the clothes when you wash them. So it is not necessarily a danger for you to wear the clothes. However, both in the manufacturing process, and when you wash your clothes, these chemicals are sent down the drain and out into rivers, streams, and the ocean. These chemicals are toxic and are dangerous for sealife.

Amount of water used in clothing manufacturing

Conventional cotton requires 290 gallons of water to make a single t-shirt. Organic cotton plants require a staggering 660 gallons of water to produce a single t-shirt.

These numbers are merely looking at the water consumed in growing the cotton. It does not take into consideration the manufacturing process.

Does this mean that organic cotton t-shirts are worse for the environment than conventional t-shirts? That really depends on how you measure the environmental impact.

Conventional cotton has been genetically altered to require less water. So in areas where water is very scarce, you can make the argument that conventional cotton has less of an impact on the environment than organic cotton.

However, organic cotton does not use the same chemical pesticides as conventional cotton. Either way, it takes a lot of water to produce enough cotton for a single t-shirt.

How far does clothing travel?

Unless you live in the garment district in New York or Los Angeles, or in one of the major manufacturing centers in China, the clothes you wear were probably not made in your back yard.

This means that the clothes had to be loaded onto a boat or a truck, potentially shipped halfway around the world to a clothing store or online retailer. You then drove to the store or purchased it online where it is then shipped to you via FedEx, USPS, etc…

That is a lot of miles your clothing has driven before you get to see it for the first time. It is 6,250 miles from Beijing China to Los Angeles, CA. China accounts for 43% of all clothing exports. Meaning there is a good chance that shirt you are wearing right now came from China.

This shipping traffic accounts for 2% of total air pollutants including huge amounts of carbon dioxide. Apparel accounts for ~2% of all US imports. So it is a major contributor to these emissions.

How clothing is disposed of

The average American owns 60-70 items of clothing. This is up from 40 items of clothing back in 1991. The growth of this has flattened out and even decreased a little in recent years, which is good for the environment. But it is still a lot of clothing.

Americans throw away 70 pounds of clothing every year. The average article of women’s clothing weights 1.75 pounds. And the average for men is 2.5 pounds. Let’s call it an average of 2 pounds per article of clothing. That means that if we are throwing away 70 pounds of clothing every year, we are disposing of 35 articles of clothing. That is roughly half of our wardrobes every year.

Roughly 9% of all trash in landfills is old clothing. That means that a lot of these clothes we are throwing away are filling up our landfills, which is not a benefit to the environment. A good amount of the donated clothes are shipped off to other countries to be re-used or recycled.

This is a good use for these clothes. But it also means we are suffering the environmental impacts of shipping them halfway around the world to India and Africa. Still probably better than throwing them in the landfill.

What can we do to have less of an impact on the environment?

So far we have been focused on the environmental problems caused by clothing manufacturing. But, everyone needs clothes. We can’t just stop buying clothes. Here are a few tips on how we can minimize our environmental impact

Donate or sell used clothes

When you are done with your clothes, don’t throw them in the trash. Instead, make sure you donate them. Even if the clothes are “defective” there are still ways they can be recycled. For example, your old pants can be turned into home insulation.

If the clothes are in good condition, they can be re-worn by someone else. By letting someone else wear your used clothes, we don’t have to ship clothes halfway around the world after using 600 gallons of water to make a single shirt. Instead, we only incur the environmental impact of washing the clothes and maybe shipping it across the state you live in.

Buy used/recycled clothes

If you can buy the clothes you want to wear used, that is the perfect way to do it. Not only are you going to get your clothes for less money, but you are not adding all those extra chemicals to the environment that it takes to make a new shirt.

You can also sleep well knowing that you are not using all that extra water to grow that small amount of cotton. You might also find that the clothes you are wearing are more unique since you will have more options that are not part of the latest fad.

Buy clothes made in your country

If you live in the United States, try to favor clothes made in the USA. If you are from India, try to buy clothes made in India. This will cut down on the shipping of clothing around the world. It will also help with stimulating your local economy, which is a win for wherever you live.

Buy Organic

If your primary concern is water consumption for the cotton used in your clothes, this one is not for you. However, if you want to avoid the harmful chemicals that are introduced into the environment as a result of making your clothes, stick with organic clothing.


As we have discussed, there are many environmental impacts to consider when purchasing new clothing. But there are also many things you can do to keep your impact to a minimum.

We said, you can have a positive impact on the environment by purchasing used clothing, donating/selling your used clothing, buying clothes from your home country, and finally buying clothes made from organic cotton.