March 2024

Clothing industry (Part 2)

Choice of fibre affects environmental impact.

–       Polyester is made from fossil fuels, is non-biodegradable and is widely used in the fashion industry as it uses less water than natural fibres in its production, can be washed at lower temperatures, dries quickly and doesn’t need ironing, reducing the environmental impact for the user. Apart from the fossil fuels used in production, polyester releases hundreds of thousands of microfibres when washed, which release toxins into the environment and can enter the human food chain. Efforts are under way to make biobased polyester, but these use starches and lipids from corn, sugar cane, beet or plant oils, thus competing with human food.

–       Natural fibres, perhaps surprisingly, often have a big environmental impact. Cotton uses vast areas of land, much water, fertilisers and pesticides. A better option is to buy bio-cotton, which uses much less water and creates less pollution than conventional cotton. Silk and wool also need water and sometimes dyes for processing. Trials are underway to test other natural fibres that may require less water, fertilisers and pesticides, for example hemp, flax, linen and nettles.

–       Manmade cellulosics (MMCs) are renewable and biodegradable, being made from cellulose from dissolved wood pulp and are used in viscose and rayon. As their use increases, so the problem of sustainable sourcing increases; their use more than doubled in the last thirty years. Other sources of material are being tested – lyocell from eucalyptus, which is a fast-growing tree that does not need much water or pesticide use. Bemberg uses cotton linter that cannot be used in spun yarn. Pinatex is made from pineapple leaves. This innovative list will continue to increase.


The consumer has the potential to reduce their environmental impact:

–       Reduce washing temperature.

–       Wash full loads in the washing machine.

–       Do not tumble dry (better for clothes anyway).

–       Use natural fibres and eco-friendly washing products, not detergents.

–       Wash less frequently – often clothes just need an airing to freshen them up.

–       Give clothes away or do clothes swaps when no longer in use.

–       Do not buy more clothes than you need and do not view them as disposable, to be dumped after a few uses.

–       Mend clothes, rather than throw them out unnecessarily.

–       Upcycle clothes or give to someone who can do so.


Disposal of clothes is a problem in Europe as we produce more than we can re-sell for second hand use. Much is dumped. Some is exported overseas. Widespread production of new clothes from recycled clothing is more a future prospect than a present reality. Dyes used, mixtures of fibres etc all means that producing good quality clothing out of recycled clothes is difficult, but future improvements in technology should overcome some of these obstacles. Currently, recycled cloth materials are used in coarser products, for example, mattress stuffing.

We can all play our part by following some of the above advice.