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Fashion’s waste problem: a sea of synthetic fibres & chemicals

November 25, 2020By Flora Beverley

The source of water pollution and waste in the fashion industry is threefold – large amounts of fertiliser to grow crops for clothes, chemicals used to treat clothes and microfibres released once those clothes are washed.

Recently we delved into fashion’s waste problem and the innovators looking to change it. We have seen that the fashion industry has exploded in recent decades, and demand for new clothes has led to a surplus of waste fabrics at every stage of production, from factory offcuts to post-consumer waste in landfills.

However, waste comes in many forms, and the process of producing clothes leads to a lot of it in every conceivable manner. The source of water pollution and waste in the fashion industry is threefold – large amounts of fertiliser to grow crops for clothes, chemicals used to treat clothes and microfibres released once those clothes are washed. The textiles industry relies mostly on non-renewable resources – 98 million tonnes in total per year – including oil to produce synthetic fibres, fertilisers to grow cotton, and chemicals to produce, dye, and finish fibres and textiles. The fashion industry also contributes to 20% of wastewater production globally, polluting waterways and damaging ecosystems.

This extensive use of hazardous substances in textile production has negative effects not only on local wildlife but also the farmers that harvest the raw materials, factory workers who work them, and locals whose environments are permanently polluted. Unfortunately, there is a lack of knowledge or research into the sheer volume of hazardous chemicals that are used in the textile industry. Sadly, as with so many industries where labour is outsourced to other countries, especially the Global South, out of sight really does mean out of mind. Despite growing concerns raised by NGOs, the public, policymakers, and across the textiles value chain itself, there is very low transparency on the chemicals used across the industry, making the true scale of the pollution – and its associated economic, environmental, and societal impacts – difficult to evaluate. Improving knowledge of what goes into our clothes and how we can better choose what we buy is vital to changing this.


Annually, 43 million tonnes of 8000 different types of chemical are used to produce textiles. However, there is a remarkable lack of understanding about the chemicals that go into textile production and the effects they have. Despite this, many have been found to be carcinogenic or hormone-disrupting, likely harmful to the factory workers who are in contact with them on a daily basis and the waterways into which they are disposed. Many of the chemicals are also known to bio-accumulate: they become more concentrated over time in the environment, posing increasingly greater risks the longer they are in the environment.

Substances used in the production of clothes often stay in the clothes after they are made and sold, meaning that they work their way to the consumer too. Not only does this spread the issue of water contamination far and wide, but also has led to reports of allergic reactions, respiratory diseases and loss of aquatic life. Needless to say, it is in everyone’s best interest to better understand and then better control what substances are used in the making of our clothes. A 2017 report estimates that eliminating today’s negative health impacts due to poor chemicals management in the industry would have an economic benefit of EUR 7 billion (USD 8 billion) annually.


Synthetic clothes also release microfibres when they are washed and as we buy an increasing volume of synthetic fibres, this issue intensifies. It has been estimated that around half a million tonnes of microfibres are released into waterways during the washing of plastic-based textiles each year. This is a preventable problem – filters built in to washing machines could trap the majority of these, to be disposed of safely – but this would take legislative change that governments don’t seem willing to make.

As the use of synthetic fibres such as polyester (which currently makes up 60% of fibres used in clothing) grows, not only will we perpetuate the demand for fossil fuels and other non-renewable resources, we will also contribute increasingly to a non-biodegradable environmental disaster in our oceans and waterways. As with many chemicals, microplastics such as these are persistent in the environment (they take a long time to break down), and accumulate up the food chain, leading to deaths of animals such as seabirds, whales and dolphins by starvation – they fill the stomach but provide no actual nutrients, leading to death or severe illness.


Buy less, buy better
The best thing to do to reduce your contribution to fashion waste is to buy as infrequently as possible and use what you already have. Buy second-hand and from sustainable brands, or swap clothes with friends. Only by reducing the demand for clothes can we reduce the amount created.

Look for accreditations such as OEKO-TEX and GOTS
There are some accreditations that offer third-party auditing of supply chains to ensure only non-harmful dyes and treatments are used. Two of the best known are OEKO-TEX and GOTS. These often also look as social criteria and set ethical standards too, so you know clothes with these are likely made with ethics and sustainability in mind.

Avoid synthetic clothing
Organic cotton and linen are not without their own issues, but these products avoid the use of excessive chemicals in their production and have the added benefit of not releasing microfibres when placed in the wash.

Use a Guppyfriend bag
If you have a lot of synthetic clothing, such as sportswear, that you wash regularly, invest in a filter for your washing machine. One of the most effective is Guppyfriend, a bag to place your laundry in that will collect microfibres released from your clothes to be safely disposed on in landfill, instead of being released into waterways.

Campaign and lobby brands
Many brands get away with having no transparency and poor working conditions. Campaigners and groups such as Fashion Revolution have forced brands to improve transparency and have led to changes in the clothing production process. Use your voice on social media and via letters and petitions to force brands to be open about who their workers are, how they’re treated and what working conditions are like. Avoid brands that are resistant.

There is a lot we can do individually, but without legislative changes (e.g. banning the use of certain chemicals, introducing filters on washing machines etc), there’s only so much that will happen. Many of us are privileged enough to spend more to shop with sustainable brands, but that isn’t the case for everyone. Voting for a government who will hold brands and businesses to account when it comes to their environmental footprint will have far more impact than individual action.