WOW! I started looking into the cost/environmental impact for producing textiles and all I can say is I am absolutely dumbfounded! I looked at both cotton and polyester. In this blog post I will look at the resources required to produce 1kg of cotton fiber and 1kg of polyester fiber.
Depending on the growing area 1-3 bales of cotton can be produced per acre of land, a bale weighs approximately 500lbs. One bale of cotton can make approximately 1200 men's t-shirts (you can see more bale to item conversions here). Cotton is harvested with modern cotton picking machines, these machines use rotating spindle to harvest cotton and then pass it along via a conveying system to a second machine that then remove the open bolls from the plant and finally a third machine receives the separated seed cotton and stores it until it is transferred to a separate storage container or vehicle.
Growing cotton uses a LOT of water. 20,000 liters (approximately 5300 gallons) or more is used to produce (from seed) 1kg of cotton fiber as well as approximately 450g of fertilizers, 16g of pesticides and approx 60MJ (16.67kWh approx.) of energy to create. You also have to consider the fuel used sowing and harvesting the cotton as well as transporting the cotton to a factory and the kWh used to process and spin the cotton into fibers. You then have to take the fiber and manufacture a finished textile which will likely involve more water (dyeing) and electricity in several steps of the process (automated cutting, automated sewing, conveyance between these processes etc) and the shipping costs to get the good from a factory -> shipper -> warehouse -> store -> you. Just creating 1kg of cotton fiber generates 10-15kg of carbon dioxide emissions.
Polyester requires far fewer resources but is still mind boggling. Polyester is synthetic, it's produced from fossil fuels. Forgetting the amount of energy required to get oil out of the ground and refine it for use: 1kg of polyester requires approximately 1.5kg of oil, 17 liters of water and just shy of 100MJ (27.75kWh approx.) of energy to create. Creating 1kg of polyester generates approximately 2.3kg of carbon dioxide emissions.
Guys! This is insane! I love cotton clothes but WOW I'm going to focus on mostly synthetic fiber clothing going forward and even then the resource usage is just mind boggling to produce a synthetic textile garment! I like 100% cotton because when a garment is no longer wearable I could cut it up and compost it but my research shows me most cotton growing operations use absurd amounts of irrigation which is just disruptive to the local environment as well as wherever the water is being trucked or piped in from.
Some of my sources: