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Think of a circle. With no beginning and no end – it is the basis of sustainable fashion. Thinking about circles can help you understand how your outfit impacts your carbon footprint,and how eco fashion choices can help. The circle is an important shape in nature too, of course. Our world runs on cycles: the water cycle, the nitrogen cycle and, of course, the carbon cycle are just a few examples. Nature shows us how things should be.
But we humans have messed things up and circles have been broken. Carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases are belched into the atmosphere far faster than they can be absorbed. Fast fashion is one of the things to blame for this. It spews out new clothes that are simply used and thrown away, using up resources at a staggering rate and polluting our planet. It is easy to feel hopeless and sad. At times the problems we face seem overwhelming. But there is still a chance for us to change things for the better. We can fix the circles we have broken. Completing the circle -making it whole again, is what Reloop is all about. We can fix the wheel, and make sure it keeps on turning.
Understanding the life-cycle of your clothes is a great first step to take when considering how you can live in a more eco-conscious way and reduce your carbon footprint. Once you understand the true carbon cost of what you wear, you are sure to choose more environmentally friendly clothing.
The Carbon Footprint of Raw Clothing Materials
What are your clothes made of? All too often, we don't think about where the materials for our clothes come from. But which materials are used, and how these were made or grown, plays an important role in determining the carbon footprint of an outfit.
Photo by 🇸🇮 Janko Ferlič on Unsplash
Synthetic or Natural?
The first thing to consider is whether your clothes are made from synthetic materials, such as polyester, acrylic or nylon, semi-synthetic fabrics, like rayon or viscose, or natural materials like cotton, wool, linen or hemp.
Polyester is the most common textile globally. It makes up about 18% of world polymer production and more than 60% of global PET production is for synthetic fibres. Synthetic fabrics, of which polyester is the most common, are plastics (polymers), made from fossil fuels. Extracting these fossil fuels from the ground releases a vast quantity of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases into our atmosphere. Unfortunately, the process of creating synthetic fibres also requires a lot of energy – resulting in the use of yet more fossil fuels. More than 70 million barrels of oil are used to make polyester each year.  Though less intensive to produce than nylon, polyester still requires more than twice the energy of conventional cotton to produce.
Natural fibres, and the feedstock for rayon and viscose, are not made but rather grown. Outfits made with these materials will raise your carbon footprint less than synthetic fibres. But they do still carry a carbon cost.
Sustainable, Organic Fibres
Those looking for environmentally friendly clothing would do well to consider whether or not the natural fabrics they are considering were grown sustainably and organically. Most farms release carbon through the use of polluting farm machinery, and non-sustainable land management can also increase the carbon footprint of the industry by damaging environments that can draw carbon from the atmosphere.
Conventionally grown cotton has a higher carbon cost than other natural fibres – around 5.90 kg of CO2 per ton of spun fibre. This is largely down to the high number of pesticides and other chemicals used in growing it. Organic cotton grown in the US, by comparison, releases around 2.35 kg of CO2 for the same weight of spun fibre. Choosing sustainably grown, organic fabrics for your outfit can, therefore, significantly reduce your carbon footprint.
The Carbon Footprint of Textiles Processing
Unfortunately, the carbon footprint of an outfit does not end there. There is also a carbon cost involved in turning raw materials into finished fabrics, and finished fabrics into clothes. The machinery used, lighting, heating – all these things require energy, and that energy is often generated by burning fossil fuels.
At the processing stage, there is also a heavy carbon cost involved in sourcing and using the chemicals, heavy metals and other ingredients for dyes and other treatments for the clothes.
Sustainable fashion standards and certifications, such as the Oekotex standards, can help us avoid harmful, polluting chemicals and make eco-friendly and ethical choices. There is sometimes too little transparency in the fashion industry and it can difficult to determine exactly how much carbon was released during the processing and manufacture of clothes. That said, there is reason to hope. More and more consumers are realising the benefits of sustainable fashion and more companies are releasing information about their environmental footprint.
One way we can reduce the carbon cost of our clothes is by choosing recycled or second-hand options. That way, we can do away almost entirely with the carbon cost of creating new clothes.
Photo by chuttersnap on Unsplash
The Carbon Footprint of Distribution
Another element to consider when determining the carbon footprint of an outfit is how far it has had to travel. The travel industry is truly global, and raw materials often travel a long way to reach processing facilities, before travelling even further to reach us.
If your clothes have travelled by air, they will have a higher carbon cost than if they were transported by road or sea. Though however they reached you, the transportation makes up a considerable proportion of the overall carbon cost of your outfit. This is why it is important to consider choosing clothes that are as local as possible, and to always pay attention to where your clothes come from.
The Carbon Footprint of Thrown-Away Clothes
The final thing to think about is the carbon cost of waste. If we throw away our clothes, rather than recycling or donating them, they can often end up in landfill sites. These sites not only pollute surrounding land and water, they also release greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. This is just one more reason why it is so important that we complete the circle, and Reloop our clothes.
By working out how your outfit impacts your carbon footprint, you can better understand HOW and WHY the circle is broken, and how you can do your part to put it back together.
Text by Elizabeth Waddington
 Ji, Li Na (June 2013). "Study on Preparation Process and Properties of Polyethylene Terephthalate (PET)". Applied Mechanics and Materials. 312: 406–410.
 James Conca, Making Climate Change Fashionable – The Garment Industry Takes On Global Warming, Forbes, Dec. 3rd 2015