Kompass Nachhaltigkeit

Öffentliche Beschaffung

Apparel and Textiles

Social and ecological risks in the supply chain of apparel and textiles

Short overview (in German)

What you should take into consideration when purchasing apparel and textiles

Public sector purchasing accounts for a high proportion of overall sales of textiles and apparel – from functional and representative workwear to protective clothing. Indeed, Germany’s workwear industry generated a total turnover of 650 million euros in 2019 (Statista 2020, in German).

The textile chain is highly globalised and some production steps are extremely labour intensive, resulting in high social and environmental costs in places. Millions of people are involved in production across many different countries. To avoid such pitfalls, it is important to leverage the public sector's enormous market clout to demand proof of compliance with environmental and social criteria at as many levels as possible. 

A wide range of labels already exists for textiles and garments. These address many different requirements (environmental and/or social) at various levels of the production chain. Some focus on raw materials, others on production while others cover all stages. For more information, click here.

Learn more about the social and environmental risks in clothing and textile production. You can help make production processes more sustainable by making more informed purchasing decisions.

Further Information

For general information on integrating sustainability into the procurement process, see here.

An online tool to assess the local human rights situation by "Helpdesk Business & Human Rights" is available here.

Municipal best practice examples of sustainable procurements of apparel and textiles, see here (German only).

Fürther information on apparel and textiles (Germany only):

Supply chain risks of apparel and textiles in detail

Supply chain in detail

Click on the individual stages in the information graphic on the left to learn more about the ecological and social challenges when procuring apparel and textiles.

01 Extraction

Textile production begins with the extraction of crude fibres. Synthetic fibres are the most important raw material in the global textile industry, accounting for 64 %. Cotton makes up 24 %. The production of both natural and synthetic fibres raises some environmental and social challenges.

Environmental risks in the production of natural fibres (e.g. cotton growing)

  • Massive use of chemical pesticides and fertilisers (which contaminate water) 
  • Land usage 
  • Soil degradation e.g. through monocultures (which can lead to erosion, soil salinisationand loss of soil fertility and biodiversity)
  • Use of genetically modified seed
  • High levels of water usage (resulting in water shortages) and high energy consumption/CO2 emissions

Social risks – natural fibres (in the crop enterprises)

  • Workers not paid a living wage
  • Lack of social security and irregular income owing to fluctuating prices on world market
  • Workers not adequately protected against harmful pesticides (e.g. no protective breathing equipment) 
  • Health problems due to a lack of safety precautions when handling machines 
  • Widespread child and forced labour
  • Overtime is disproportionate and often unpaid
  • Gender-specific discrimination and violence
  • Corruption and workers' weak legal status

Environmental risks in the production of synthetic fibres

  • Use of chemicals (water contamination, hazardous waste and air pollution)
  • Use of crude oil (fossil fuel) 
  • High energy consumption/CO2 emissions

Social risks in the production of synthetic fibres 

  • Workers not paid a living wage
  • Workers not adequately protected against harmful chemicals
  • Overtime is disproportionate 
  • Gender-specific discrimination

Further reading (in German)

02 Production

In textile production, raw fibres are spun to make threads and then woven into fabrics. Examples of the environmental and social challenges that can ensue include:

Environmental risks

  • High and often improper use of chemicals (no environmental regulations on hand and/or lack of oversight)
  • Water management (warm runoff water upsets ecological balance, chemicals contaminate rivers and lakes)
  • High energy consumption/CO2 emissions

Social risks

  • Workers not paid a living wage
  • Health problems due to a lack of safety precautions when handling chemicals and machines
  • Child and forced labour
  • Overtime is disproportionate and often unpaid 
  • Gender-specific discrimination and violence
  • Disregard for workers' freedom of association
  • Corruption and workers' weak legal status
  • Discharge of contaminated wastewater harms local population's health

03 Processing – Cut, Make, Trim

Once the fabrics have been made, the textiles are cut, sewn and refined. This stage of processing can lead to the following environmental and social risks:

Environmental risks

  • Use of toxic dyes and chemicals for specific fabric properties (e.g. water-proofing)  
  • Water management (high water consumption and toxic wastewater)
  • High energy consumption/high CO2 emissions due to use of fossil fuels
  • Release of microplastics 

Social risks

  • Workers not paid a living wage
  • Safety precautions inadequate for handling chemicals and machines 
  • Child and forced labour
  • Corruption and workers' weak legal status
  • Overtime is disproportionate and often unpaid
  • Gender-specific discrimination and violence
  • Disregard for workers' freedom of association 
  • No or very limited-term employment contracts
  • Health problems due to unsafe working conditions (e.g. lack of lighting and ventilation in production rooms, in some cases poor building safety)
  • Discharge of contaminated wastewater harms local population's health

04 Consumption

Textile consumption also has its environmental and social risks:

Environmental risks

  • Excessive use of environmentally noxious cleaning agents and laundry detergents
  • High water and energy consumption for cleaning 
  • Microplastics released into rivers and lakes 

Social risk

  • Health hazards from vapours and contact with chemical residues in textiles

05 Disposal

To date, only 1 % of all textiles are recycled. This is due to the lack of technologies for separating blended fabrics and stripping chemicals or dyes. Disposing of textiles in landfills or through incineration creates environmental risks:

Environmental risks

  • Disposing of synthetic fibres in landfills releases heavy metals, microplastics and other noxious substances into the soil and groundwater
  • Incineration pollutes the air
  • Loss of raw materials

Social risk

  • Exports of used clothing to Africa, for example, creates a dependency on imports and undermines any new local textile production efforts

06 Transport

Cotton farming in the United States, fabric production in India and refining in Tunisia: Before workwear is sold in Germany, it has to travel a long distance. Related fuel consumption and emissions impact the environment and climate and are also harmful to human health – but account for only 2 % of the textile supply chain's total energy consumption. The Euro 6 emission standard (Commission Regulation EU/582/2011) applies to transport with heavy-duty vehicles such as trucks and buyers should demand compliance.

Furthermore, this stage in the supply chain involves a high volume of waste caused by packaging, labelling and clothes hangers as well as the destruction of products that do not get sold. 

Textiles are sometimes treated with anti-mould and preservative agents for transport purposes.