The textile and fashion industry is a key contributor to global warming, accounting for 10% of global carbon emissions. This makes the industry the second largest industrial polluter after the oil and gas industry. Total emissions from textile production, at 1.2 billion tons annually, are more than those of all international flights and maritime shipping combined. And it is not getting better: the United Nations framework convention on climate change expects the sector’s emissions to rise by more than 60% by 2030.
But on the flipside, the textile and fashion industry holds immense potential for economic transformation. It is estimated that the industry today is worth around $1.3 trillion in retail sales. How can countries in Africa tap into this potential, while reducing the negative environmental and climate change impact?
The textile and fashion manufacturing sector is one of the oldest and most technologically complex industries. Its strength stems from its strong production base of a wide range of fibres and yarns, from natural fibres such as cotton, silk, and wool, to synthetic or man-made fibres such as polyester, viscose, nylon, and acrylic. However, every stage in a garment’s life threatens our planet – its resilience, its resources and its people.
First, the textile industry uses too much water. It can take more than 20,000 litres of water to produce one kilo of cotton, equivalent to a single T-shirt and pair of jeans. Second, up to 8,000 different chemicals are used to turn raw materials into clothes. Many of these chemicals cause environmental hazards, including water pollution, and health-related problems. The treatments rely heavily on energy consumption, further contributing to greenhouse gas emissions.
Also, the global textile industry is replete with cases of poor working conditions and inadequate compensation for garment workers. This threatens the health and safety of the workers, who are predominantly women.
An estimated $500 billion value is lost every year due to clothing that is barely worn and rarely recycled. The clothes are often used for only a short time, after which they are mostly sent to landfill or incinerated.
This linear take-make-dispose model has extensive negative environmental and societal impacts. With escalating demand for textile products and textile mills, there is an urgent need for the industry to adopt a circular model with more sustainable practices throughout the value chain.
Applying sustainable principles to the fashion industry means rethinking the lifecycle of clothes, bags and shoes from their creation, materials sourcing and product development to their transport, sale, reuse, recycling and ultimate disposal. The objective is to minimise waste and the reduction or reversal of their negative impact on the environment.
Many of the companies involved in light manufacturing industries currently rely on land-use activities to source raw materials, contributing to negative climate impacts such as drastic temperature changes, water scarcity, and prolonged droughts.
African economies cannot sidestep these critical concerns as they seek to build light manufacturing industries in a sustainable way while remaining innovative and competitive in the global market.
However, the scale of the problem is not known. There is very little data on the African textile and fashion industry’s impact on climate change, and hardly any research available on the emissions and pollution generated by the global textile and clothing industry activities in Africa, which mainly consist of cotton farming, fibre manufacturing, dyeing, printing and bleaching.