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Textile Production & the Environment: Impact & Issues

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  • 0:04 Textiles
  • 0:40 Environmental Impact
  • 2:19 Factory Conditions &…
  • 2:54 Consumer Roles
  • 3:27 Eco-Fashion
  • 4:08 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Stephanie Przybylek

Stephanie has taught studio art and art history classes to audiences of all ages. She holds a master's degree in Art History.

Do you always wear the latest fashions? Ever thought about how many people it takes to make the clothes you wear? In this lesson, explore how textile production impacts the environment and learn about the issues related to it.

Textiles

Take a look around. Chances are, you're wearing something made out of fabric. You might also be sitting or standing in a place surrounded by carpets, curtains, and other textile goods. Fabrics are an important part of our lives, and people use them for many things. Textiles and clothing are made all over the world in an industry that not only has great economic impact, but also affects our natural resources.

We all love a warm blanket or a favorite sweater. But did you know that the ways in which textiles are made and printed sometimes negatively impact the environment?

Environmental Impact

Let's start at the beginning. The farms that grow raw materials used to make fabrics, including crops like cotton, flax, and hemp, require a lot of water. In fact, cotton is an especially thirsty plant. In addition, to protect these valuable crops, some farmers use lots of pesticides and herbicides that end up in the environment. Again, cotton is a big culprit, being one of the most pesticide-intensive crops in the world.

Other types of textiles also use up a lot of natural resources. Manufacturing rayon, an artificial fabric made from wood pulp, has resulted in the loss of many old-growth forests. During the process that transforms it into fabric, the pulp is treated with dangerous chemicals that eventually find their way into the environment.

Now consider synthetic fabrics, or man-made fabrics like nylon and polyester. These textiles are made from petrochemicals and fossil fuels, and manufacturing them requires lots of water and energy. Nylon manufacturing also creates greenhouse gasses that harm the air we breathe. Additionally, synthetic fabrics are not biodegradable, which means that something made of nylon can take decades to decompose.

Making textiles also involves activities like bleaching, dyeing, and washing that use lots of water. Such processes produce salts, surfactants, which help dyes penetrate fabrics, and other surface-active agents, like detergent, that don't decompose, so they end up in our water. Dyeing and printing also sometimes involve dangerous chemicals and substances like arsenic, lead, and mercury.

Factory Conditions & Emissions

It's estimated that more than 60 million people work in the textile industry worldwide, many for long hours at low wages. Working conditions in textile factories can be very poor and include overcrowded spaces, lack of safety considerations, continuous loud noise, and constant exposure to pollutants. In places around the globe, many of these factories are major contributors to air pollution, belching out harmful gases like carbon monoxide and sulphur dioxide. Even finishing processes for fabrics allow substances like formaldehyde into our atmosphere.

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