Textiles - Environment, society and safety

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Textiles and the environment

Here are the main environmental issues and some ways the textiles industry can reduce its impact:

  • Pollution and the use of resources - textiles production uses a lot of energy and most is from burning non-renewable resources (e.g. coal, oil). This uses up valuable resources, pollutes the air and releases carbon dioxide, causing global warming. Some fabrics are made from non-renewable resources, e.g. polyester is made from crude oil. Manufacturing processes use a lot of water.
  • To reduce this, they should use energy from renewable sources and be more energy efficient. Also, use fabrics made from biofibres. Use water more efficiently, e.g. reuse waste water in the dyeing process.
  • Disposal of waste materials - textile factories can generate a lot of waste fabric and other materials, e.g. packaging. This waste ends up in huge landfill sites and takes hundreds of years to decompose. Our old clothes are thrown away and end up in landfill too.
  • To reduce this, we should recycle textiles by reusing waste materials, breaking waste fabric back down into fibres that can be reused and recycling our old clothes. Also, reduce waste, e.g. by using less packaging and use biodegradable fabrics.
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Textiles and the environment

  • Transport pollution - textile factories are often in different countries from their products' markets, so a lot of fuel is burned in transporting products. Raw materials are also transported long distances.
  • To reduce this, they should use efficient distribution methods (e.g. trains not lorries) and get raw materials from local suppliers.
  • Problems caused by cotton farming - artificial fertilisers and pesticides are used to increase crop yields. These fertilisers can pollute rivers and harm wildlife. Pesticides can kill other creatures.
  • To reduce this, they should use organic cotton or other natural fibres grown organically.
  • Disposal of toxic chemicals - toxic chemicals are used in dyeing and finishing processes. These are contained in waste water that can end up in streams and rivers, and poison wildlife.
  • To reduce this, chemicals should be removed before the water leaves the factory. Also, use non-toxic dyes (made from natural substances) and unbleached fabrics.
  • Fashion trends - to keep up with rapid changes in fashion, manufacturers often make cheap, low quality textile products that don't last long. These are thrown away when fashions change. Throwaway products increase textiles production and all the problems mentioned.
  • To reduce this, designers and manufacturers could design and make better quality, longer lasting products, that are designed to be easily recyclable.
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Ethical and moral issues

Ethical concerns:

  • Textiles are often produced in poorer countries with less legislaton about ethical working practices. Often child labour and sweatshops (where conditions and pay are terrible) are used to produce products cheaply.
  • Toxic chemicals - pesticides, dyes and finishes can cause health problems for workers and for consumers.
  • Use of certain animal products, e.g. many people think animals shouldn't be killed for fur or are worried about animal cruelty.


  • Apply fair trade principals at all stages of the manufacturing process. This means farmers are paid a fair price and factory workers are given decent pay and working conditions.
  • Use fabrics made from organic fibres. Use non-toxic dyes and finishes.
  • Don't use certian animal products - things like artificial fur can be used instead.
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Environmentally friendly fabrics

  • Biodegradable fibres - these fibres can be broken down naturally by bacteria and other living organisms so fabrics made from them will break down quite quickly in landfill sites. E.g. plant-based fibres like cotton and Tencel.
  • Bio fibres - these come from biological sources (plants - e.g. cotton, flax and animals - e.g. wool, silk). Biological sources are renewable so bio fibres don't use up non-renewable resources.
  • Organic fibres - organic fibres (e.g. organic cotton) are grown without using artificial fertilisers, pesticides or herbicides. Farmers use natural fertilisers, such as manure. 
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Health and safety : consumer rights

Consumers need to be confident that a textile item is safe to use and meets required standards. There is legislation to protect consumer rights. Labelling on the product and its packaging will provide the relevant information about:

  • country of origin to say where the product was made
  • fibre content, which will affect care instructions
  • flammability - keep away from fire
  • choking hazards for small children
  • care and washing instructions
  • British and European standard symbols, such as the Kitemark and CE mark
  • trademarks to guarantee quality
  • size
  • environmental and ethical status

The Fire Safety Regulations apply home furnishings and say that all fabrics used to cover furniture must be resistant to catching fire from matches, and if flammable natural fibres are used then there must be a non-flammable layer beneath the cover fabric.

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Health and safety : risk assessments

  • The Health and Safety at Work Act means employers are legally responsible for the health and safety of their employees.
  • Employers must provide safety equipment and training, maintain machines, provide a safety policy and provide first aid facilities.
  • The act also makes employees responsible for using the safety equipment provided, as well as using safety guards on machines and wearing protective clothing.
  • The dangers, hazards and risks involved in making a product can be identified, described and listed. This is known as risk assessment.
  • When performing a risk assessment, you need to first identify any potential risks or hazards, and then put precautions in place to minimise the risk.
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Health and safety : risk assessments

  • Tools and equipment:
  • Sewing machines should be fitted with guards to minimise the risk of stitching fingers, eye injuries caused by broken needles, etc. They should also be fitted with dust extractors to minimise the inhalation of textile dust. They should have visible emergency stop buttons in case of electrocution or accidents.
  • When working with scissors or craft knives, take care when cutting. Use non-slip mats and steel safety rulers with craft knives. Avoid injury when carrying blades by pointing the blade away from your body and attaching blade covers on knives.
  • Wear a thimble when using pins and needles and store all sharp objects safely.
  • Materials and chemicals:
  • When using toxic chemicals such as dyes, finishes and solvents, you need adequate ventilation to avoid inhalation of vapours and protective clothing to protect the skin and eyes from splashes or spillages. Flammable solvents should be kept away from sources of ignition.
  • Protective clothing
  • When using cutting machines wear chain mail gloves to protect your hands.
  • When using chemicals wear rubber gloves and goggles.
  • When sewing wear a hair net or tie long hair back to stop it getting caught in the machine.
  • Workers using noisy machinery for a long time must wear ear protection.
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Health and safety : risk assessments

  • Working practices:
  • The layout of the room should be designed with safety in mind. There must be enough space around each machine. Walkways and exits must always be kept clear, and workspaces should be kept tidy, e.g. chemicals put away after use.
  • There must be enough light.
  • Safety notices should be displayed, and safety training given to employees.
  • Employees should take regular breaks so they don't get tired and lose concentration.
  • Machinery should be well maintained and checked regularly for safety.
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