Impact of Fashion

It’s often said fashion is the second or third most polluting industry in the world, but no matter the ranking there is no doubt that the fashion industry is a major contributor in the climate crisis. Making fabric uses water, energy, chemicals, and other resources that most people don’t think about, or ever see. We think knowledge is power, so we talk about resource use, climate change, and other impacts of fashion.


We all know that the world is facing extreme freshwater scarcity - in fact over a billion people don’t have access to safe water.(1) Fashion is the second largest consumer and polluter of water due to the processing of raw materials, the amount of water used to manufacture clothes, and the microfibers that synthetics shed.(2)


Manufacturing textiles is extremely water intensive. For example, producing one pair of denim jeans uses over 9,000 gallons of water.(3) Not to mention that approximately 450 million pairs of jeans are sold in the U.S. alone.(4) The typical pair of Ref Jeans uses approximately 1,500 gallons of water.


After the water is used in the manufacturing process, this often-polluted water is then sent back to our rivers, lakes and oceans. The World Bank estimates almost 20% of global industrial water pollution comes from the treatment and dyeing of textiles.(5)


Synthetic clothes are made with plastic and when you wash synthetics they shed small plastic pieces called microfibers. Microfibers are too small to be filtered out by waste treatment plants, so they end up in our waterways and oceans by the billions. Once in the ocean, they act as pollution magnets that marine animals mistake for food, and which can eventually end up in our food.

Climate change
Contrary to what some of those crazies say, we think climate change is real and fashion is not making it better. From growing textile fibers to moving fabrics around the world, making clothes sadly fuels this global climate crisis.

Production Emissions
Production processes emit CO2 and other greenhouse gases which pollute our atmosphere and contribute to climate change. Fashion production makes up 10% of humanity's carbon emissions.(6) For example, conventional cotton, leather and other raw materials grown in industrial farming operations create huge energy footprints. Also, polyester, nylon, and other petroleum-based materials emit harmful volatile organic compounds (VOCs) and nitrous oxide, a greenhouse gas almost 300 times more potent than CO2.(7)

Chemicals & Pollution
The production of textile fibers requires an intensive use of chemicals. Approximately 43 million tonnes of chemicals are used annually to produce textiles.(8)

Runoff from these dye houses can contain heavy metals, alkali salts, toxic solids, and harmful pigments. About 40% of colorants used around the world contain organically bound chlorine, a known carcinogen.(9) It can cause cancer like tobacco, asbestos and DDT. What a nightmare-factory.

Trashed clothes
Americans throw away over 16 million tons of textiles a year.(10) Over 95% of the clothing thrown away in the US can be recycled or reused, but sadly more than 85% ends up in landfills.(11)(12) Even in a landfill, these materials don’t just go away—nylon takes 30 to 40 years to biodegrade, while polyester requires more than 200 years.(13) Talk about a hand me down.

We do not think conventional cotton is awesome. It has some of the most harmful environmental impacts of all fabric. Yet cotton made up about 25% of global fiber production in 2019.(14)

According to the World Wildlife Foundation, conventional cotton consumes 11% of the world’s pesticide sales and 24% of the world’s insecticide sales, despite the fact that cotton only uses 2.4% of total arable land. Terrible ratio if you ask us.

Most cotton requires high levels of irrigation and water-intensive processing. A cotton t-shirt can use up to 2,000 gallons of water to make (that’s close to 48 full bathtubs’ worth).(3) Irrigation systems input and circulate chemicals into the groundwater, making cotton production the largest textile contributor to freshwater and soil toxicity in the world.

Other not awesome fabrics
Did you know most fast fashion is actually made out of oil? We were shocked when we found out, too. Polyester, acrylic, nylon, spandex, and acetate are all made from nonrenewable fossil fuels, which require a bunch of energy to produce and emit gross stuff from the landfill.

Footwear represents about 1/5 of the total impact of the apparel industry and nearly 1/4 of the climate impacts.(15) 97% of the impact of shoes happens during material processing and manufacturing, so that's where we focused our attention with Ref Shoes.(16)

The manufacturing process emits pollution into the air and waterways harming environmental and human health. For every ton of polyester, manufacturers emit over five tons of carbon dioxide.

These textiles take anywhere from 20 to 200 years to biodegrade.(12) When they do, they release chemicals like formaldehyde, heavy metals, BPA, and PFCs into the environment. So basically you wear it twice and it lives in a landfill with its formaldehyde and BPA buddies for 200 years.



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5 Kant, R., Textile dyeing industry: An environmental hazard, Natural Science, Vol. 4, 1 (2012), p.23



8 For every kilogram of fabric, an estimated 0.58kg of various chemicals are used. Between 0.35 and 1.5kg of chemicals go into the production of 1kg of cotton textile (see Bluesign, Environmental Health & Safety (EHS) guidelines for brands and retailers (2011)).

9 Kant, R. (2011). Textile dyeing industry an environmental hazard.





14 Textile Exchange. 2020 Preferred Fiber & Materials Market Report.


16 Cheah, L., Ciceri, N. D., Olivetti, E., Matsumura, S., Forterre, D., Roth, R., & Kirchain, R. (2013). Manufacturing-focused emissions reductions in footwear production. Journal of cleaner production, 44, 18-29.