Climate Change and textiles the implications of different materials

‘Cotton is king’ and cotton framed as ‘White Gold’ seemed apt sobriquets in the late 18th early 19th Century as cotton superseded wool exports for the first time in the United Kingdom in 1803. New advances in transportation links such as steamboats, canals and railroads lowered shipping costs which opened up trade opportunities for people to buy cheaper goods produced elsewhere instead of more expensive goods that were produced locally. This was still at a time when man-made fabrics had not come to the fore. However, by the end of the 19th Century Joseph Swan was unveiling synthetic fabrics at the International Inventions Exhibition in London and Hilaire de Chardonnet’s was displaying his serendipitous discovery of artificial silk at the Paris Exhibition of 1889.

By the mid-1950s there had been a proliferation of synthetic materials to accompany a host of established natural fabrics. In the 1930s Nylon was introduced to the market this was soon followed by acrylic and polyester fibres manufactured by DuPont. Their main attraction was the durable, wrinkle free, water resistant qualities of the textiles. These three along with polyolefin currently account for approximately 98 percent by volume of synthetic fibre, with polyester alone accounting for 60 percent.

Synthetic materials were predominantly developed to have qualities natural materials lacked as well as having unique characteristics and suitability for certain situations. The evolution of the swimming costume exemplifies this. Before 1928 swimming costumes were predominantly made from wool which was very problematic given the absorbent and coarse nature of the material. The development by DuPont and Joseph Shivers in the 1950s of Spandex – from polyurethane – revolutionised the swimwear industry, as it created a more durable and comfortable swimsuit.

However, for all these fabrics – natural and synthetic – environmental implications are not neutral. They all have different implications in terms of their ecological footprint, especially synthetics.  Not only is the quantity of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions of concern, so too are the kinds of gases produced during the production of synthetic fibres. Nylon, for example, is responsible for nitrous oxide (N2O) emissions. N2O is 300 times more damaging than carbon dioxide (CO2 ) and because of its long life – 120 years -can reach the upper atmosphere and deplete the layer of stratospheric ozone, which is an important filter of UV radiation. During the 1990s, N2O emissions from a single nylon plant in the UK were thought to have a global warming impact equivalent to 3% of the UK’s entire CO2  emissions. Other materials such as polyester and acrylic are made from crude oil, which both release CO2  during the manufacturing process and upon disposal. When destroyed by incineration these materials pollute the atmosphere or alternatively – which is the more frequent occurrence – when they are thrown into landfill sites or left discarded, they pollute the environment as synthetic plastic doesn’t biodegrade.

Production of textiles is just one of the human activities which, since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, have produced a 40% increase in the atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide, from 280 ppm in 1750 to 406 ppm in early 2017. Today, the stock of carbon in the atmosphere increases by more than 3 million tonnes per annum (0.04%) compared with the existing stock. This increase is the result of human activities by burning fossil fuels, deforestation and forest degradation in tropical and boreal regions. “Globally averaged concentrations of CO2 reached 403.3 parts per million (ppm) in 2016, up from 400.00 ppm in 2015 because of a combination of human activities and a strong El Niño event,” according to The Greenhouse Gas Bulletin, the UN weather agency’s annual flagship report. The acceleration occurred despite a slowdown – and perhaps even a plateauing – of emissions because the El Niño effect – refers to the cycle of warm and cold temperatures, as measured by sea surface temperature, SST, of the tropical central and eastern Pacific Ocean, – intensified droughts and weakened the ability of vegetation to absorb carbon dioxide. The World Meteorological Organisation (WMO) predicted 2017 will again break records for concentrations of carbon dioxide and methane, but the growth rate will not be as fast because there is no El Niño effect. Furthermore, the WMO report points to a mysterious rise in the levels of methane in the atmosphere, which was higher than the 10-year average. Speaking to BBC News, Professor Euan Nisbet from Royal Holloway University of London said, “We do not understand why methane is rising… It is very worrying.” So where does methane come from? If no oxygen is present but carbon is able to combine with hydrogen, and methane is formed. Since all living things, past and present, contain carbon, there are many possible sources, in particular, any situation relating to fossil fuels. Hence, since many synthetic fibres come from petroleum based chemicals or petrochemicals, in all the stages from extracting the fossil fuel from the ground through manufacture and even as far as landfill – if that’s where the product ends up – methane could be formed.

Considering these figures, what part of these changes is due to the textile industry? In September 2017, Nate Aden, a Senior Fellow at the World Resources Institute said, “The apparel sector is one where there’s a lot of uncertainty about what exactly the impacts are ….The best number we have now is about five percent of [global] greenhouse gas emissions [come from] this sector. To give you some sense of perspective, that’s about equivalent to the impact from the aviation sector, so all the planes flying in the world. Or in country terms, that’s about equal to Russia. So it’s pretty significant.” In July 2017 Lucy Siegle in the Guardian described the fashion industry is “now rated as the fifth-most polluting on the planet”. More specifically, a study done by the Stockholm Institute – on behalf of the BioRegional Development Group looked at the amount of carbon dioxide produced in the production of 1 ton of spun fibre. The results are below but one major conclusion was that the energy used (and therefore the CO2 emitted) to create 1 ton of spun fibre is much higher for synthetics than for hemp or cotton:

KG of CO2 emissions per ton of spun fibre:



Crop Cultivation

Fibre Production







Cotton, conventional





Hemp, conventional




Cotton, organic





Cotton, organic





Climate change is not just an observable piece of scientific phenomena. There are severe consequences for ecosystems and people as a result of increasingly erratic weather patterns. The extreme heat waves in India and Pakistan in May and June 2015 led to the deaths of approximately 3,600 people. Whilst this was also due to other contributory factors such as Pakistan’s infrastructure which results in electricity supplies often being under severe strain during hot weather, leaving people without fans, refrigerators and air-conditioning units. Climate change has also affected the Philippines. Each year an average of 20 tropical cyclones enter their surrounding waters, with about eight or nine making landfall. However, over the past decade, these tropical storms have struck the nation more often and more severely, scientists believe, due to climate change. Yolanda (international name Haiyan), which was the strongest typhoon to make landfall at that time, left the Philippines with more 7,000 people dead in November 2013. This was an exceptional situation; however, higher sea levels contribute to storm surges that can rise upwards of 15-20 feet, displacing thousands or even millions of citizens in coastal communities. Another area of the world where climate change is a problem is Alaska. Oliver Milman in the Guardian in August said “According to the Army Corps of Engineers, 31 Alaskan communities faceimminent” existential threats from coastline erosion, flooding and other consequences of temperatures that are rising twice as quickly in the state as the global average.” In Europe, deaths due to extreme weather could increase 50-fold from an estimated 3,000 a year recently to 152,000 by the century’s end if global warming is not reined in, researchers from the Lancet Planetary Health have warned.

All of these factors have brought about discussions on a worldwide basis resulting in various international treaties to attempt to limit CO2  and other harmful emissions. The latest of these is the Paris Agreement which came into force for the countries which signed it in November 2017. However, a number of people have serious concerns. For example, James Hansen, a former NASA scientist and a climate change expert, voiced anger that most of the agreement consists of “promises” or aims and not firm commitments.[1] He called the Paris talks a fraud with ‘no action, just promises’ and feels that only an across the board tax on CO2  emissions, something not part of the Paris Agreement, would force CO2  emissions down fast enough to avoid the worst effects of global warming. While this reading of the situation is, sadly, probably correct, hope has come from a very different direction. World Pensions Council Director-General Nicolas J. Firzli [2] insisted that, in reality, the role of government signatories would be limited in most instances and that private sector asset owners would take the lead by expanding massively their investment in “cleantech, low-carbon ventures” and innovative companies which pursue socially and environmentally sound corporate strategies, regardless of whether the new US Administration or other governments renege on their commitments.

The inevitable nature of the secular trend towards divestment from polluting fossil fuels was re-confirmed at the 6th annual World Pensions Forum held in Greenwich in February 2017[3]. All institutional investors in attendance, including U.S. and Canadian pension funds, agreed that climate-change conscious, responsible investments “constitute a [real,] rising trend: [they’re] here to stay”.

[taken from]

  1.  Milman, Oliver (12 December 2015). “James Hansen, father of climate change awareness, calls Paris talks ‘a fraud'”. The Guardian. London, England. Retrieved 14 December 2015.
  2. Jump up to:a b M. Nicolas J. Firzli (25 January 2016). “Investment Governance: The Real Fight against Emissions is Being Waged by Markets” (PDF). Dow Jones Financial News.
  3. Jump up^ Nicolas Firzli and David Weeks (April 2017). “6th World Pensions Forum held in London: Greening, Governance and Asset Ownership” (PDF). REVUE ANALYSE FINANCIÈRE. Retrieved 1 June 2017.

All those of us who buy clothes do play some part in the negative effects production can have on the planet. Who would have thought that checking how your pension provider invests could be part of the solution? If saving for a pension is just a dream for you at the moment if you are struggling to pay off student debt or just struggling, you can encourage your local council to invest ethically. It is staggering to think how much goes into the production of just one item of clothing. You might be pleasantly surprised to find how much an email from you to your council or pension provider could achieve.

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  1.  Milman, Oliver (12 December 2015). “James Hansen, father of climate change awareness, calls Paris talks ‘a fraud'”. The Guardian. London, England. Retrieved 14 December 2015.
  2. Jump up to:a b M. Nicolas J. Firzli (25 January 2016). “Investment Governance: The Real Fight against Emissions is Being Waged by Markets” (PDF). Dow Jones Financial News.

Jump up^ Nicolas Firzli and David Weeks (April 2017). “6th World Pensions Forum held in London: Greening, Governance and Asset Ownership” (PDF). REVUE ANALYSE FINANCIÈRE. Retrieved 1 June 2017.