An average conventional cotton t-shirt requires about 12 kWh of energy to produce, enough to power an LED bulb for 50 days straight and has a CO2 footprint which is 12 times its own weight.
In general, the energy used in textile industry comes in the form of electricity (used to power machinery and lighting), oil, natural gas and coal (for steam and heat). While each stage may use small amounts of energy separately, it adds up to create a large energy footprint for every product made.
Let’s break this down, stage by stage:
Dyeing takes up almost half of the total energy used in the production of a t-shirt with fiber production following as a close second.
Now, the problem here is that this high energy use leads to higher amounts of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. Why? Because in most countries, fossil fuels are used for energy production. In fact, in a lot of countries which are textile hubs, coal is predominantly used.
Here’s a mini snapshot of how much coal is used at each stage:
Source: Quantis. “Measuring Fashion. Environmental Impact of the Global Apparel and Footwear Industries Study. Full report and methodological considerations.” 2018
Pretty scary! In fact, almost all of the fiber, yarn, fabric, and dyeing processes globally are done through factories that use hard coal as the main energy source. Burning hard coal releases sulfur dioxide emissions, which contribute to acid rain and creating harmful particulate matter. On top of this, sulfur dioxide is one of the main culprits of air pollution and can exacerbate respiratory ailments such as asthma, nasal congestion and inflammation.
Similarly, electricity grids globally are still using coal as their main energy source by converting it into steam through turbines. It is estimated that 38% of global electricity is still fuelled by coal-based power plants and in 2018, coal was the 2nd largest energy source of US electricity generation. Not only does coal release harmful toxins into the environment, it also degrades surrounding landscapes and places heavy demands on water resources.
How can we change in the supply chain processes itself to reduce this energy usage? Some of the measures include analyzing the types of fuels used, handling and storing the fuels properly, utilizing and distributing steam, maintenance of the machines, recovering the wasted heat, and incorporating alternative sources of fuel.
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What are some ways to improve energy efficiency?
Location location location! Moving the supply chain stages of spinning, fabric making, and dyeing (which are energy intensive but can be highly automated) to areas with greener grids. Countries like India, China and Vietnam are more reliant on coal compared to most of Europe and South America. Countries such as Canada, Sweden, and France tend to have less carbon intensive grids as they don’t use much coal.
Renewable is the way to go. Use renewable energy whenever possible in the supply chain, from the manufacturing facilities to the dyeing processes. This is more achievable for assembly factories in places such as India, Bangladesh, Vietnam for example, as they are smaller scale and have less energy requirements. Brands have a direct connection with assembly plants and can influence the use of renewable energy like solar. A good example of a brand that is incorporating renewable energy is Lenzing, which incorporates energy from its renewable raw material wood.
Vertical integration. Combining the processes of spinning, fabric making, and dyeing can also have economies of scale and reduce overall energy consumption.
Selecting the right weaving/knitting patterns. Clothing with patterns or that utilize multi-colored pieces require more energy to create. Sticking to simple, one-toned clothing will not only reduce the amount of energy needed, but will also create timeless pieces.
Do it by hand. Handwoven items do not use electric energy since they aren’t fed through any machines. While it may be time consuming and on the pricier end, these items have a significantly less total ecological footprint and are one of a kind. However, this is not a scalable solution for making larger quantities and meeting higher demands.
Dye it right. In our previous blog, we discussed new dyeing processes, which are less energy intensive. These include using low-liquor ratios, incorporating air dyeing, using cold-pad batch systems, and cationic dyeing. Read more in our blog here.
The status quo of the textile industry is incredibly energy intensive. Each stage of the supply chain uses significant amounts of energy separately. On top of that, coal and non-renewable energy sources are still widely used globally.
However, there are many solutions to decreasing the industry’s energy footprint. From vertically integrating the production process to using renewable energy throughout, the sustainable options are readily available and easy to integrate. All that we need to do now is to actively choose them. Will you?