Fashion footprint

A label won’t ever tell you how much energy, waste and water went into making an item of clothing.


The textile industry is the third largest consumer of water in the world – behind at paper and oil industries. Water consumption is a huge problem for growing fibres. Cotton accounts for 90% of all natural fibres used in the textile industry. It is used in 40% of all apparel produced globally, with synthetics accounting for 55%. Cotton farming is also the single largest water consumption factor in the apparel supply chain. The ever-thirsty cotton plant takes over 30,000 litres to create 1 kg of cotton. 1 cotton shirt uses approximately 2,700 litres of water.

China, for example, produces about 25% of global cotton production, with more than half of its cotton grown in 56% the high-water risk areas of the Yangtze and Yellow river basins. The dye process itself is also highly wasteful: in the worst instance up to 600 litres of water can be required to dye 1 kg of fabric.

“The fashion industry’s relationship with water goes beyond cotton. Some 14.4% of an apparel retailer’s total water footprint relates to manufacturing. An estimated 17 to 20% of industrial water pollution comes from textile dyeing and treatment and an estimated 8,000 synthetic chemicals are used throughout the world to turn raw materials into textiles, many of which will be released into freshwater sources … This all said, the fashion industry’s upstream supply chain is not solely responsible for its problematic relationship with water. The impact of people washing clothes at home is equally important: 40% of domestic water footprints stem from laundry, a significant proportion of which comes from washing clothes by hand in the developing world.” 

The Guardian

See Levi’s promo for their water reducing process


The ‘carbon footprint’ of that fancy T-shirt you are wearing is estimated to be around 6kg – i.e. around 20 times its own weight! 

It’s estimated that clothing and textiles account for about one ton of the 19.8 tons of total CO2 emissions produced by each person in the U.S. in 2006 (see Jurg Rupp, “Ecology and Economy in Textile Finishing”, Textile World, Nov/Dec 2008).

In the U.K., the Carbon Trust, working with Continental Clothing, has developed the world’s first carbon label for clothing. The new label will provide the carbon footprint of the garment, from raw materials and manufacture to use and disposal.

Based on estimated annual global textile production of 60 billion kilograms of fabric, the estimated energy and water needed to produce that 60 billion kgs of fabrics boggles the mind: 1,074 billion KWh of electricity (or 132 million metric tons of coal) and between 6 – 9 trillion liters of water.

Clothing purchases, accounting for about 10% of monetary expenditures, translated into nearly a quarter of total embodied energy consumption, in part owing to the high proportion of coal-based electricity in China’s textile industry fuel mix. 


The story doesn’t end when clothes reach the racks. It’s what we buy and how we care for and dispose of our clothes that can dictate a garment’s full environmental footprint.

Save energy and dollars. About 90 percent of the energy used for washing clothes is for heating the water, which means that only 10 percent of the electricity a washing machine consumes goes to run the motor. By doing four out of five loads in cold water, you’ll cut 72 pounds (32.5 kgs) of carbon dioxide emissions each month. 

  • For your interest here a a list of different carbon footprint calculators to try
  • See Eco-metrics – a simple tool to calculate the environmental impact of the different textile types and different production methods. It looks at the total life-cycle of a product and considers the impact on water, energy, use of non-renewable resources and pollution — and calculates and overall score for a particular product or process. Includes free Household calculator
  • See an example of the CO2 emissions generated during the complete life-cycle of an item of clothing, in The Product Carbon Footprint.
  • Great article from 2009: Carbon footprint of textiles


Donating your old clothes to charity is a wonderful way to recycle and stop clothes from going to waste. Reusing and recycling clothing saves natural resources, reduces pollution and waste, and helps people in need – or even those just looking for funky threads. Find out more on clothes recycling: