The Effects of the Textiles Industry on Ecology Worldwide


We wear, use, and decorate, with textiles, yet we know very little about them and further more we know very little about their impact on our very own bodies when we use them. Further more we know very little about the impact they make on the ecology of our valuable Earth.

The textile industry encompasses many different types of fabrics shared between natural fibers such as wool, silk, linen, cotton, or hemp and then man-made fibers, the most common ones would be synthetic fibers namely polyamide, acrylic, polyester, elastane, or lycra. Most of these synthetic fabrics are made from petrochemicals, these are cheap and easy to care for, which is why they are becoming the industries miracle drug. The textile industry is becoming more and more divers due fabric process and means of employment. Most synthetic fibers are hard to recycle, (nylon takes 30-40 years to decompose) and they create heavy pollution.

Chemical Based Procedures of Textile Manufacturing

There are eight basic steps when producing textiles to be sold. The first step is called Scouring.  This is when the raw textile materials in the natural form (dirt, pesticides, fungicides etc. are in the material) undergo a pretreatment to ready them to be worked on at a factory level. This includes wetting agents and peroxides stabilizers. Bleaching is the decolonization of the fabric; on natural fibers using Oxidative bleaching or reductive bleaching completes this process. These steps contain sodium, hypochlorite, sodium hydrosulphite, and hydrogen peroxide. Desizing is the third step in the process. During weaving sizing agents are added to the fabric, after weaving the material is treated with chemicals such as acids, alkalis, or oxidizing agents in a proses called desizing. Fabric softening is designed to prevent static cling and make the fabric softer to the touch by coating the fabric outsides with a thin layer of chemicals These chemicals contain lubricating properties and eclectically conductive properties. Mercerization is the step where fabric is treated with a caustic solution to making the fibers stronger, prevent shrinkage, improve luster and so on. High-end fabrics may undergo this process twice. The Dyeing process includes large amounts of dyestuff, thinking agents, water, dispersing agents, leveling agents, acid buffs etc. are used in the step of the process; most dyes are water soluble and applied as an aqueous solution. Lastly is the Printing step, this is when color is imparted onto the fabric. In this step different dyes and agents are added to the fabric along with various chemicals and acids.

Why this is Important and what Effect does it have on Humans?

            It is found that 70% of the problems with manufactured fabrics occur in the finishing steps. The problems being with the fabric themselves, discoloration and so on, but also this step have the largest effect on humans. These chemicals used in the steps above impact us directly when we put these products on our bodies, causing unknown chemical seepage and allergies as well as known problems like rashes and so on. A majority of these chemicals have been known to cause cancer, genetic mutation and be generally toxic. Chemicals such as

• Alkylphenolethoxylates (APEOs)
• Pentachlorophenols (PCP)
• Toluene and other aromatic amines
• Dichloromethane (DCM)
• Formaldehyde
• Phthalates
• Polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDE’s)
• Perfluorooctane sulfonates (PFOS)
• Heavy metals – copper, cadmium, lead, antimony, mercury among others

These chemicals provide a massive problem for humans, but also the environment.

The Impact on the Ecology and Economy

While the factory portion of the industry produces waste and pollution very seldom do we think of the raw fiber- agricultural side of the industry. For example, cotton is the most pesticide invasive crop worldwide. This crop also undergoes herbicide as well as often times chemical defoliants, these chemicals remain with the fabric even after finishing and release throughout the life span of that fabric. Another astonishing factor is how much water is used in growing cotton alone, for example it takes 257 gallons of water to create just a t-shirt from the growing process up to the finishing process. There are many other problems with the agricultural side of textiles. The UK is known for having agricultural as well as craft workers suffer from high exposure to organophosphate sheep drip problem from the wool industry located in those regions. Another example is that many synthetic fibers don’t biodegrade at all (nylon and polyester). A different synthetic fiber known as Rayon is actually made from wood pulp that undergoes heavy acid treatments and plays a large role in the lumber industry.  The last example from an agricultural stand point is the leather industry that is suffering heavily from a lack in supply with solutions that are controversial to animal rights as well as the tanning and dyeing process causing pollution.

When textile manufacturers start producing, they often use massive amounts of water as ever step in the finishing process is treated in water, this creates to problems: Attaining so much water and second what happens to the water after it has been mixed with chemicals? Another problem is the disposal of used chemicals and waste, because many countries have strict pollution regulations (how to dispose of water, chemicals, regulations on water and types of chemicals etc.) and the coast to follow these regulations a common trend is to “outsource manufacturing”.  The side effect of this procedure is that while manufacturing and its pollution is in and affects every country more countries with less strict regulations are taking the brunt of the manufacturing work and there for pollution. Countries in east Asian who do the most manufacturing due to lax government regulations, seem to have the highest amount of textile population and child labor as well as poorer working conditions given the higher demand, to serve the world market, thought this is a huge money maker for those countries, their ecosystem and nation suffers for it. 

In conclusion the impact of textiles is massive to the environment including chemical dumping in the world’s water supply, agricultural problems and then impairments to human bodies as well as human rights. However with more research done on the topic many organizations are creating more “eco” friendly ways of manufacturing. Where there is a will there is a way.



Environmental and social impact of textiles - presentation in Spain, January 2016

Today we face many challenges, like the environmental and social cost of producing textiles. According to Amigos da Terra Ourense-Friends of the Earth, the obsolescence of textiles poses the problem of two collections being presented each year, with the psychological pressure on consumers, who want to be in fashion, and an impact on resources. They give us the example of T-shirts, with over 2 billion sold every year worldwide, each person in Spain buying 8-9 Kg of clothes per year and 390,000 tons of textiles being trashed in Spain alone. 

As for the environmental impact, they explain that in order to produce one cotton T-shirt we need 3,900 litres of water, which means about 26 bathtubs. Additionally, 125 grammes of fertilizers are needed, along with chemicals like insecticides, or those used in dyeing.

The social impact is also high because, of the total price a customer pays for a piece of clothing, very little goes to the person who actually sewed it The fact that some factories are in Asian countries, where labour laws are very lax, is also a risk of child labour or difficult working conditions in some cases. There is a social challenge, as in many other sectors. 

What can we do?

Fortunately, by recycling one ton of textile, we save 7 tons of CO2. They also suggest repairing and with their project, they intend to extend the lives of our possessions. They recommend shops where we can rent, exchange, repair or adapt anything we need, before buying a new one without thinking of these possibilities.


From flax to fabric 

The traditional linen process

With highlighted special terms - for more translations please visit Glossary


The flaxseed/liñaza is cultivated at the end of April, or in May. From seed planting, it is ready to be harvested in about a hundred days. The plant is not cut, but uprooted/arrigado.

Then the flax undergoes the removal of seeds or threshing/ripado with a ripple/ripo. Flax stalks/marrucos are then immersed in stagnant or slowly-moving waters, like ponds, bogs and streams for some weeks.  This process is called water retting/embriar  and it produces the highest quality fibers.

The retted stalks, called straw, are dried mechanically or in natural air, and are then usually stored for anywhere from a few weeks to months in order to allow curing to take place. After curing, the woody stalks that still cling to the bast fibers are further broken, a process called scutching/mazar o liño , using a break/tascón  and later on a scutching sword/espadela.

The small pieces of leftover bark that remain after scutching are called shive/ casca, and are sometimes used as a filler in thermoplastic composites.

The separated bast fibers are next heckled/anciñado, or combed with heckling combs/rastros through a bed of nails that splits and polishes the fibers, and removes the shorter tow fibers from the mix. These tow fibers/ estopa can then be spun into a coarse yarn from which low-quality linen products are made. The longer fibers are then ready for spinning/fiar.

Two tools are used for spinning, the distaff or rock/roca and the spindle/fuso, fom which the fibers are hung. Flax is always spun very finely-especially the longest of the fibers-resulting in a thin yarn/fío, then winding the yarn onto a bobbin/mazaroca. The yarn is often slightly dampened during spinning, which helps prevent fly-away strands from escaping the twist and creates an especially-smooth yarn.

Bleaching/branqueo is the next step. The resulting yarn is typically finished by boiling for several hours in soapy water, sometimes with oakwood ashes, which gives it a nice shine. Yarns are then wound onto spools/ novelos  by using a winder/sarillo. The resulting spools can already be used by the weaver/tecelá. Linen yarn is generally woven into sheets-a process in which multiple threads are interlaced both horizontally and vertically on a loom/tear.




Colouring with natural plans


Plant dyes are used for colouring wool, linen, cotton, semi-synthetic fibre, leather, wicker wood and roots.

Natural dyecolour is durable and does not fade when washed. (Resistant to alkaline liquids and the sun.) Especially resistant to fading are colours, which are obtained from a plant or its bark infusion. Only materials coloured by flower infusions are more affected by sunlight.

Dyeing with natural dyes formed as an independent branch of folk art in which each master shows his/her craft, traditional and newly acquired different work techniques.

In Latvia dye is made from nearly all wild and many cultivated plants. By using a variety of colouring techniques and mordant, from a single plant you can get a number of different colours and tones.

Plants can be collected, crushed, boiled and fibres coloured are allowed only if the hands are without injuries and inflammations. This is especially important when working with plants containing poisonous substances.

The plants are collected in a dry, sunny mornings, when the dew has dried off. In rainy weather you can collect lichens, roots and rhizomes, because they are washed before drying. They are collected in autumn or before blooming.

Plant collection ought to adhere to wildlife protection. The plants cannot be collected in reserves, protected areas, national and natural parks, and in the green areas around cities. Protected plants recorded in the Red Data Book should not be used for colouring.

Colour tones depend on whether the dye is made from fresh or dried plants. Taking larger quantities of plants the colouration will be darker and more permanent.

Fresh herbs give brighter and more intense colour. Dried plants will result in more greyish and paler colours.

For plants to give more intense tones, plant are processed - dried in the sun and wind, occasionally sprinkling with water until they become pink. Fermentation also can be used to make plants give more striking colour.

Fermentation is performed by soaking plants and fibre in a pot that is closely sealed with a thick cloth or polythene film and left untilit ferments.

The first rule of painting: good, clean, high-quality colouring material. To achieve maximally even coloration the fibre must be clean. It can only be washed with unscented soap.

In order to make the dyes more durable they must be treated with mordant. This can be done by natural or chemical materials. The quality of fibres processed with natural mordantis less affected.

If the yarn is treated with mordant before dyeing chemicals affect the fibreless. Longer maceration in strong alkalis will make the fibre brighter.