Cottoning onto the Environmental Impact of Fashion


The word “fashion” can conjure up many different images and feelings. Take a moment to think about what springs to your mind. Do you think of glossy magazines and catwalks? Or do you immediately think about your favourite jeans and perhaps a cosy cable knit jumper? Maybe the word makes you roll your eyes. Whether you like fashion or not, we are all affected by it, we all consume it. In fact, chances are high that either you or someone you know has a job in the textile industry, and it is worth assessing the environmental impact of fashion.


The Environmental Impact of Fashion


Guest post by Fiona Murphy

The process to create a single t-shirt is a complex series of steps, which is captured in the report Pulse of the Fashion Industry:

“There is not a standard path for the cotton produced in one country, spun in another, dyed and processed in a different one and converted into a garment in a factory far away from the store.”

Because of this segmentation of labour, some 60 million people are employed by the industry. It also means that the impact of textile creation is happening in all corners of the world. Fashion has been described as the second-largest polluter after the oil industry. This $2.2 trillion industry has experienced exponential growth because of disposable fashion. The USA tosses 10.5million tonnes of clothes into landfill each year. Australians buy on average 27kg of textiles, including new clothes, each year. This is almost twice the global average.

Fast fashion giant H&M admits that the clothes manufacturing is having a devastating impact on the environment. The brand, which produces 600 million garments annually, launched the Conscious Exclusive Collection in 2012. It looked like a signal the fashion industry was starting to redeem itself.

The cornerstone of the first collection was to provide consumers with clothes made from organic cotton. H&M’s move to organic cotton appeared to be a huge win. Standard cotton production is one of the largest sources of pollution in most countries. According to the World Wildlife Fund cotton agriculture accounts for 24% of the annual worldwide sales of insecticides. Organic cotton would have an immediate impact on reducing the amount of toxins released into an ecosystem.

Cotton; the Thirsty Crop

However, cotton is a thirsty crop. It takes 2700 litres of water to produce one t-shirt. In fact, the textile industry is the third largest consumer of water. Water diverted for agriculture causes enormous environmental strain. The fourth largest lake in the world, the Aral Sea in Uzbekistan, has been rapidly shrinking due to irrigation projects. With only 1% of the earth’s fresh drinking water, readily accessible, cultivating cotton is an unsustainable option for manufacturing clothes. We need to be conserving water. For more information about why conserving water is so important, check out our article ‘Blue Gold: What does investing in water mean for the planet?’

Thankfully producing clothes made from organic cotton is no longer the focus of H&M’s sustainability strategy. In their sixth Conscious Collection they have started producing clothes made from Bionic Yarn, which is made from plastic bottles and bags recovered from waterways and shorelines.

This new approach to sustainability could be because as of April 2017, the brand joined Climate Savers — a climate leadership program for businesses developed by the World Wildlife Fund. While H&M has only committed to the program until 2020, in the next three years the company plans to focus on tightening up on emissions in its entire value chain. H&M have pledged that this is part of a longer-term strategy to become:

“climate positive by 2040 throughout the entire value chain – all the way from raw material extraction to products’ end of life. This means we will go beyond minimising the negative consequences of our business to create a positive impact on climate.”

H&M is the first fashion brand to join Climate Savers, hopefully, more textile businesses follow suit. One of the key features of the partnership between H&M and WWF is the “strategic dialogue” they are having about creating sustainability. According to the WWF they “will explore H&M’s and the textile industry’s broader sustainability challenges and possibilities. This could involve topics like a renewable materials or circular fashion models, aiming to bring sustainable and science-based solutions to both H&M and the fashion industry.”

This open conversation between industry and conservationists is crucial for fashion to make responsible, informed decisions. As opposed to solutions, like organic cotton, which sounds great in theory but in practice contribute to wide-scale environmental destruction.

As consumers of fashion, we need to follow suit. We fuel the growth of fashion. What we choose to buy informs the decision makers of an industry. By choosing sustainable clothing, we can fast-track positive change. We can do this by being conscious consumers and becoming educated about alternative fibres to cotton. Here are some options to consider:

Nettle Fibre

You will not forget the burning sensation if you accidentally brush past a stinging nettle. You also will not forget how incredible soft clothing made from nettles can be. Unlike cotton, nettles grow rampant in even the most challenging environments. Nettle plants enrich the soil that it grows in and boosts an area’s biodiversity by attracting wildlife.


Linen is derived from the flax. Flax requires far less water to cultivate than cotton. It also doesn’t require any chemical fertilisers. As a textile, linen is extremely quick-drying making it ideal for travelling. It is one of the strongest plant fibres so clothing made out of linen can last for years. It gets even better — linen gets softer with every wash. Just make sure you use earth-friendly soap-nuts in your machine.


Hemp is a hardy plant; it is naturally disease resistant so it does not need nasty chemicals to thrive. Hemp clothing is ideal for hot and humid environments as not only does it breathe well, it resists damp and bacteria. The only problem is that it is illegal to grow hemp in many countries. Here in Australia Tasmania have led the charge allowing farmers to produce commercial hemp in the early 1990s. NSW followed suit in 2008.


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