• Sybill Chen

You are What You Wear; Or, How Your Cotton Pyjamas Affect the Environment

This Christmas, my cousin was kind enough to help me clean out the closet. We were trying to donate clothes that I no longer needed, or fit into, or liked. Most of them were fairly worn-out, but quite a few were brand new. We dug out 22 pyjama shirts dated from grade 9 (hoarder!), and obviously I was only wearing two of them. Now, if you check the label of your PJS - as I did - you would see that the majority of T-shirts are is made of cotton. And cotton, my friends, is the arch-nemesis textile of the environment.

Each textile has its own supply chain, whose impacts - depending on its life cycle - vary. Additionally, consumers use and discard textile products at different times based on their habits, purchasing power, and needs. That is to say, when we measure the environmental impact of textile products, we have to consider factors such as raw material preparation, fibre conversion, yarn preparation, textile manufacture, transportation, recycling and lastly, the prospect of landfill. Many studies have suggested that the production of conventional cotton is seen as environmentally and socially hazardous [1], as it demands a higher usage of water, pesticides and fertilizers., to make ONE cotton T-shirt, it will take [2]:

  1. Over 700 gallons of water (enough to fill 22 bathtubs);

  2. 1/3 pounds of pesticides;

  3. Pollution--If it is coloured, according to the World Bank [3], 17-20% industrial pollution is due to textile dyeing and treatment, so a yellow cotton shirt has its fair share.

Water You Mean?

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), one fifth of the entire population of the world, which is more than 1.1 billion people, live in the water-depleted areas [4]. The UN further predicates that by 2025, around 1.8 billion people will suffer from water scarcity. Uzbekistan - to put cotton industry in perspective - is a good example of how cotton (a water thirsty plant) can severely change the region. In the 1950s, the Uzbek government diverted two major rivers in Central Asia, the Amu Darya and the Syr Darya, from the Aral sea to provide for cotton productions. At the time of writing, water level in the Aral sea is less than ten percent of that fifty years ago [5]. Consequently, the local fisheries and farm lands have suffered tremendously, and over time, the Aral sea has become over-salinated and burdened with fertilizers and pesticide from the nearby fields [6]. Untreated waste water disperses not only saline and metallic chemicals, but also produces residues of highly carcinogenic chemical used throughout various stage of production [7]. An environmental crisis quickly and inevitably morphs into a human health crisis. As the sea dries up, air contaminated by chemicals further causes huge respiratory problems for the nearby communities. Lung cancer and cardiovascular diseases ensue.

The concept of water footprint was first introduced in 2002 by Hoekstra and Hung [8], and was further researched by Chapagain and Hoekstra in 2004 [9]. It quantifies direct and indirect water consumption by the manufacture of products and/or services. According to Muthu [10], it can be measured for a business, a community or an individual. There are three kinds of water footprints:

  • Blue water footprint: the volume of surface and ground water consumed during production

  • Green water footprint: the volume of rainwater consumed

  • Grey water footprint: the volume of fresh water needed to mix with desirable pollutants and maintain the required water quality as regulated by agreed water quality standards

In countries such as Uzbekistan, the blue water footprint amounts as high as 88 percent of the whole freshwater consumption [11]. Within the period of 1996-2005, global cotton production alone takes 3 percent of the total water footprint of crop production [12]. The extent of impact of cotton industry does not end there, as the most ecologically damaging industrial production is expelled by runoff liquid effluents during the production and transportation [13]. The largest cotton exporter in the world is, surprisingly, the United States, yet it exports the raw material offshore for processing, and in effect, more than 80% of exported US cotton ends up returning to the United States as ready-made garments [14].

Is it Only Cotton?

Of course not, nor is water the only resource that is being depleted. When it comes to energy consumption and globalization, the thought that your yoga pants are probably more well-travelled and multicultural than you are, would not be that surprising, either. (FYI: active wear fabrics, such as polyester and nylon, are petroleum based plastic polymers, which are non-renewable and non-biodegradable. Furthermore, the energy consumption multiplies if the fabrics are tar-sand or shale based. That is to say, that when we are wearing our favourite yoga pants, there is essentially about a gallon of crude oil wrapping between our legs [15].) This generation is the prime contributor of the “toss-away” culture, yet at the same time, people are more aware of the environment than ever. The problem is not that people don’t care, but that they don’t care to know the link between fashion and environmental deterioration. At least next time I will probably think twice before buying an H&M polo skirt.



1. Muthu, Subramanian S, Handbook of Life Cycle Assessment (lca) of Textiles and Clothing, 2015.

2. Infographic: The Environmental Impact of a T-shirt. 2014, available at http://www.ecouterre.com/infographic-whats-the-environmental-impact-of-a-t-shirt/.

3. "Dye Manufacturing". Pollution Prevent and Abatement Handbook. World Bank Group. 1998.

4. “Projected Water Scarcity in 2025”, available at: http://peakwater.org/2010/02/projected-water-scarcity-in-2025/.

5. “Fast Fashion Is the Second Dirties Industry in the World, Next to Big Oil”, available at http://www.ecowatch.com/fast-fashion-is-the-second-dirtiest-industry-in-the-world-next-to-big--1882083445.html.

6. ibid.

7. Lavergne, Michael, Fixing Fashion: Rethinking the Way We Make, Market and Buy Our Clothes, 2015, 114.

8. A.Y. Hoekstra, P.Q. Hung, “Virtual water trade: a quantification of virtual water flows between nations in relation to international crop trade”. From Value of Water Research Report Series, vol. 11, UNESCO-IHE, Delft, the Netherlands, 2002.

9. A.K. Chapagain, A.Y. Hoekstra, “Virtual water flows between nations in relation to trade in livestock and livestock products”. From Value of Water Research Report Series, vol. 13, UNESCO-IHE, Delft, the Netherlands, 2003.

10. Subramanian Senthikanan Muthu, “Calculating the Water and Energy Footprints of Textile Products”. From Assessing the Environmental Impact of Textiles and the Clothing Supply Chain, [Oxford: Woodhead Publishing, 2014], 81-85.

11. ibid.

12. “Water Footprint – Concepts and Definitions”, available at: http://www.gracelinks.org/1336/water-footprint-concepts-and-definitions.

13. M.M. Mekonnen, A.Y. Hoekstra, The green, blue and grey water footprint of crops and derived crop products. From Value of Water Research Report Series No. 47, UNESCO-IHE, 2010.

14. Anguelov, Nikolay. The Dirty Side of the Garment Industry: Fast Fashion and Its Negative Impact on Environment and Society, 2016. 78.

15. Lavergne, Michael. Fixing Fashion: Rethinking the Way We Make, Market and Buy Our Clothes, 2015, 140.

Image from http://www.ecouterre.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/06/environmental-impact-of-a-t-shirt-2.jpg

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