The Elephant in the Room: Sustainability and Garment Manufacturing

Leanne Luce
Sep 1, 2016 · 7 min read
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The clothing industry is the second largest industrial polluter in the world…second only to oil.

The manufacturing of garments and soft goods has worldwide social, environmental, and economic impact. It is an industry in dire need of change. The good news is, it is changing. There is no industry un-effected by the evolution of technology and how technology can improve efficiency. Major brands are looking at metrics like these to create manufacturing solutions for the future. Those who do not participate in this change will struggle to stay competitive.

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Many reports and articles choose to take an overview approach of this problem, weighing in on the bad and the worse solutions. This post is going to take a specific look at US grown cotton and the jeans industry. Nearly half of all textiles are made of cotton. How much does the process cost us? What is the scale?

Sparking change often requires convincing people that the change will benefit the business economically. Hopefully, some of these metrics can help.

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How much waste is there from the manufacturing a pair of jeans?

Basic Product Manufacturing Lifecycle

The basic production cycle is roughly like this:

Growth of Cotton Crop → Cotton Ginning → Fiber to Yarn → Yarn to textile → Textile to garment → QC → Retail → Returns→End of Season Sales → End of Season Waste→Second hand retail

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Growth of Cotton

The United States is the world’s largest cotton producer, generating about 18.4 million bales (4.6 million tons) of cotton annually. That’s approximately enough cotton to manufacture 4.6 billion pairs of jeans. Or you could think of more than 1.5 million elephants.

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(Each Elephant = 1,000 Elephants or 3,000 tons)

To grow a single 1lb of cotton, it takes around 2,000 gallons of water. That’s enough cotton to maybe make a single pair of jeans. At a rate of 8 glasses of 8 fluid ounces per day, it would take you 10 years to drink 2,000 gallons of water!

Cotton Ginning

At the Cotton Gin, debris is removed from the cotton fibers. The waste from the process of is a mixture of stems, leaves, soils, and lint. In North Carolina alone, the ginning of the crop generates 28,600 tons of waste annually. In the weight comparison to elephants, that’s approximately 9,500 elephants.

The cost of disposal is also high. Estimated at $35 per ton, $1 million is spent annually on the disposal of this waste.

Video of the Industrial Cotton Ginning Process

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Fiber to Yarn

5% fiber waste is 230,000 tons.

In the process of turning the cotton fibers to yarns, the fibers are first aligned to prepare them for spinning in a method called carding. Most of the waste in this step of the process comes from carding and combing the fibers. They then go through the process of being spun into yarns. There are several methods for spinning yarns.

It’s unclear just how much waste is created in the process of spinning yarns. I have read claims that report anywhere between 5% and 20% waste. Let’s say it’s safe to assume 5% fiber waste. In terms of US produced cotton, 5% is 230,000 tons or the weight equivalent of over 76,000 elephants.

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Yarn to Textiles

There are several processes to turn yarns into textiles. In this article, I will be exemplifying only a few of the processes.

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The textiles industry mostly left the United States in the mid-21st century when most of the yarn spinning and textiles mill work went overseas. This has been increasingly true especially over the past 20 years. Being that the United States is the largest cotton producer in the world, the cotton must be exported to other countries to be converted into usable goods. 85%+ of American-grown cotton is exported for textiles production. That’s 15.6 million bales of cotton.

The greatest percentage of this cotton is sent across the Pacific in shipping containers. To create a hypothetic shipping cost, let’s imagine that all the exported cotton went in shipping containers across the Pacific. Even cotton that isn’t shipped across the Pacific accounts for comparable shipping costs.

We can estimate that 80 bales of cotton will fit into a 40 ft shipping container. It would take 195,500 shipping containers to export cotton. With shipping rates around $3k per container, that’s $586.5 million dollars in shipping costs industry wide.

Making Textiles

There are a number of different waste-generating activities in textiles manufacturing. This includes everything washing and drying, warp preparation, weaving, dyeing, printing, and finishing. The biggest waste in textiles manufacturing has to do with water consumption. Wet finishing processes alone use up to 53 gallons of water per lb of fiber. Again, 1 lb might be enough fiber to make 1 pair of jeans. Share this post on Facebook.

450 million pairs of jeans are sold in the US alone each year. That’s over 23 billion gallons of water. In the US, water costs $1.50 per 1000 gallons. By that metric, that’s a cost of $35.75 million in wet finishing. This is including only denim. If all cotton products are considered. That number is much higher. Wet finishing costs would be over $731 million dollars under US water costs.

The cost of water is different depending on geographic location. In the US, water costs approximately $1.50 per 1000 liters (1000 liters is equivalent to 1 cubic meter of water). In China, the same amount of water could cost only 46 cents. This would reduce that wet finishing cost to $225 million across all cotton products and in denim reduce costs to $10.9 million.

Textiles to Garment

At least $337.5 million dollars of denim is thrown away every year from the cutting process alone.

Of all textiles, 45% go on to become clothing. The cut and sew process is the most popular manufacturing process for garment making. Of all rolled goods, 20% or more are thrown away in the manufacturing process. To reiterate, 20% of 45% of all rolled goods are thrown away.

Rolled goods is a term used to describe rolls of fabric.

We have been talking in terms of cotton. I do not know what percentage of cotton goes into the manufacturing of jeans specifically. However, I do know that 450 million pairs of jeans sold in the US every year. On average, 1 pair of jeans consumer 1.5 yards of 60″ wide goods.

Wide goods are rolled goods that are approximately 60″ in width. For comparison, Selvedge is usually approximately half that!

Based on this basic information, 675 million yards of denim are consumed annually for making jeans. Of those rolled goods, 20% is thrown away. The reason is because as the fabric is cut into curved pieces, the shapes do not fit perfectly onto a rectangular piece of fabrics. The spaces in between that are cut away are usually not usable. Using 80% of the fabric is considered to be good yield.

That’s 135 million yards of denim on the cutting room floor. Inexpensive denim at wholesale costs somewhere around $2.50 per yard. Meaning that each year, $337.5 million worth of denim is thrown away just in this step of the process.

Quality Control

Across the jeans market, 1% means a $90 million in revenue lost!

Quality control (QC) standards are dependent on the manufacturer’s requirements. Depending on the brand, 1% to 4% or more of their garments can be rejected at quality control. If they cannot be repaired easily, those garments will often be disposed at that point in the process. Of 450 million pairs of jeans made, even a loss of 1% is 4.5 million pairs of jeans! If all jeans retailed at $20 per pair, $90 million in revenue is lost in the jeans market.

End of Season Waste

Tons (literally) of clothing is left at the end of the season that could not be sold. Brands could do lots of different things with those garments. They could be donated, resold, recycled, shipped to third-world countries. Yet, most brands prefer to maintain their brand image and keep the market from flooding with discounted product. So, they send end of season garments to an industrial shredded and dump it in a landfill.

In America alone, we throw away 10.5 million tons of clothing every year. According to our Python algorithm here, that’s the weight equivalent of 3.5 million elephants! (Note: this includes other fibers, not just cotton.)

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(Each Elephant = 1,000 Elephants or 3,000 tons)

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