The new figures from the European Environment Agency
The Market - MU Sustainable Innovation

The textile industry's impact on the environment

Textile materials are fundamental in modern societies. Transformed into clothing, carpets, curtains, and furniture, they are a vital component of daily life and the most purchased item by households after food. In both industry and agriculture, technical textiles enter as components in automotive and biomedical products, are essential for filtration and protection systems and as structural components in various sectors.


But what can we say about its impact on the environment?

The variety of products and technologies within the sector and the large differences among countries in the environmental efficiency of textile manufacturing make the measurement of the impact a complex task.


Information such as the statement that "fashion is the second most polluting sector in the world" has had wide circulation in recent years, but has eventually proved false, or at least inaccurate and with a very weak methodological basis. Nevertheless, the importance and size of the fashion industry in the economy and everyday life of households, inevitably leads to a significant environmental impact, in terms of natural resources, water, and land use, to the risk of chemicals and pollutants release, and substantial greenhouse gases emissions. Reliable and methodologically sound measurement of the impacts is, therefore, an important task to identify the environmental hot spots and take action to reduce the impacts through technological innovation. A task that the European Environment Agency - EEA, an agency of the European Union, whose aim is to provide in-depth and independent information on the environment - has undertaken by publishing, between the end of 2019 and the first months of 2020, new data about the environmental impact of the European textile industry. The calculations are about the year 2017 and offer an overall view of the situation.


Fashion and the consumption of natural  resources

EEA calculated the volume of resources consumed yearly by the European textile industry per inhabitant – a figure as impressive as rarely considered. In 2017, the European industry produced 7.4kg of textile goods per inhabitant, and a much larger volume, 27.9kg, was imported. Internal consumption was 25.9kg per inhabitant, and 11.2kg were exported outside the EU. The EEA also notes that every year, an amount of clothing (11kg per person) comparable to that of total exports becomes waste and rarely recycled.


The EEA also calculated the total volume of natural resources needed to produce the garments consumed by EU-28 citizens - the figure in this case also includes leather and footwear -, both directly and indirectly along the entire global supply chain. This number is also impressive. In 2017, the production and handling of all clothing, footwear, and home textiles purchased by EU-28 households used around 1.3 tonnes of raw materials and 104 thousand liters of water per inhabitant. 85% of raw materials and 92% of water were consumed outside Europe by the international component of the supply chain. Textiles rank fourth among the major resource-consuming sectors, after food, which consumes almost three times as much as textiles, household consumption, which is nearly double that of textiles, and transport whose consumption of resources is similar to that of textiles.