Raw Cotton

Demand: ~26.0 million tonnes
Water use: Up to 3860** litres/kg
Energy use: 50 MJ/kg

Pesticides or chemicals
Heavy pesticide use leads to reduced soil fertility, loss of biodiversity and water pollution.

Effluent/pollution from manufacturing
Ecosystem contamination from pollutants in runoff. Toxic wastewater from manufacturing process (e.g., cleaning, dyeing).*

Look for organically grown cotton, drip-irrigated cotton, and substitute fibres (hemp, linen or flax).

Raw Wool

Demand: 1.01 million tonnes
Water use: 21.3 litres/kg
Energy use: 42.4 MJ/kg

Pesticides or chemicals
Pesticide used to control parasite infection in sheep. 

Effluent/pollution from manufacturing
Effluent (wool grease sludge) produced from scouring raw wool in order to remove impurities.

Buy wool scoured in factories with strict effluent treatment protocols or organically grown wool.


Demand: 1.69 million tonnes
Water use: 426.5 litres/kg
Energy use: 150 MJ/kg

Pesticides or chemicals
Chemicals used in the production process include hexamethylene diamine and adipic acid.

Effluent/pollution from manufacturing
Relies on petrochemical raw materials. Air emissions from the production process include nitrous oxide – a potent greenhouse gas.

Substitute alternative fibres such as wool, which is naturally sweat-wicking and odour-preventing.

For the full chart, including details on raw silk, polyester and acrylic, purchase the Fashion issue today.

**Water used for irrigation. Some sources report total water usage for cotton as high as 29,000 litres/kg, depending on location.

Making sustainable clothing choices requires investing a bit of time to get familiar with the industry and your eco-options. The Ethical Fashion Forum (EFF) maintains a database of fair trade, ethical and organic fabrics – and who’s using them – from all over the world.

Use tools like the EFF database and company websites – plus our suggestions throughout the Fasion issue – to find the alternatives suggested here.

Jessie O’Driscoll is a recent graduate from the Environment and Business program at the University of Waterloo. 

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