5. How to reduce water usage and pollution

Drinking water makes up only three percent of water on the planet. Water is becoming scarcer in many regions globally as a direct result of climate change. Climate scientists have concluded that human-induced climate change has contributed to increases in agricultural and ecological droughts. More than 2 billion people are already living in water-stressed countries, and this number is set to grow. As global warming continues, droughts will become increasingly common, compromising our ability to produce enough food for the world’s growing population. The fashion industry plays a dual role. First, it is a huge consumer of increasingly scarce water. Second, clothing manufacture pollutes waterways on a grand scale.
Row of women sitting next to a river facing a small structure.

According to Common Objective, the fashion industry is the third largest user of water globally, after oil and paper. The organisation estimates that the fashion industry currently uses around 93 billion cubic metres of water annually. Alarmingly, on current trends this is set to double by 2030.

The reason for the industry’s heavy demands on water?  Crops used in fashion, in particular cotton, use vast quantities of water for irrigation. Conventional cotton is a very thirsty crop, requiring 2,700 liters of water — what one person drinks in two-and-a-half years — to make one cotton shirt.
In areas already facing water stress, cotton production can be particularly damaging. Unfortunately, the regions where cotton is grown to make clothing are often also drought-prone.  In Central Asia the Aral Sea has nearly disappeared because cotton farmers draw excessively from the Amu Darya and Syr Darya rivers. Climate experts expect that soils in some cotton-producing areas such as central Asia will get drier as the world’s temperatures increase, as shown in the map at the bottom of this page.

The second way in which the fashion industry poses a threat to global water supplies is through pollution.  Conventional cotton uses large quantities of insecticides and pesticides which are toxic, as well as fertilisers which are rich in nitrogen and phosphorus.  When these chemicals get into bodies of water such as lakes or coastal areas, they can create “dead zones” where marine life cannot survive. Dyes used for clothing, unless natural, also contain toxic compounds and are often discharged untreated in countries with poor environmental standards, leading to further pollution of vital water supplies. This is a serious threat to biodiversity in areas of cotton production.

According to the European Parliament, exposure to chemicals including pesticides is associated with long-term health risks to farmers, their families and those living adjacent to farming areas.   These range from respiratory, integumentary, cardiovascular, gastrointestinal, and neurological problems – a huge problem when we consider that cotton production employs close to 7% of all workers in developing countries.

Conventional cotton is a very thirsty crop, requiring 2,700 liters of water to make one cotton shirt.

Fashion brands can take action in many different ways to reduce their water footprint. The industry should use natural materials produced through the principles of regenerative organic agriculture, favouring small scale and local producers. Organic cotton production is known to have lower water use because it uses no chemicals.  Changing the way cotton is grown will not only save water: It can also restore biodiversity and promote soil health, meaning that soils can absorb more of the carbon emissions that industrial processes release into the atmosphere.

All materials should be independently recognised or certified as meeting international standards, for example as organic or Fairtrade certification or, as a start, the Better Cotton Initiative

Brands should make a point of partnering with production sites that recycle or re-use treated water effluent from processing, according to Common Objective.  They must also work with industry partners to reduce and remove water use from dyeing, stone-washing and finishing processes. Reducing water usage within your company’s supply chain could also involve adding lines of low water usage handcraft textile production.

Finally, it’s vital that apparel companies educate their customers to reduce the amount of water and energy used in laundering their clothes.  This can be done by providing labels in clothes that discourage unnecessary washes and dry cleaning, which is used highly toxic chemicals.

Why fashion needs to act now

According to the World Bank, water pollution is an ‘invisible crisis’. Meanwhile UN estimates suggest that globally, 80-90 percent of wastewater is returned to the environment untreated.

Garment and textile production results in significant unabated pollution. Around 85 percent of water used in textile processing goes into dying the fabrics, which, in many cases, leads to run off, thereby polluting nearby water sources [LINK].

The average amount of global industrial water pollution that can be attributed to garment manufacturing is 20 percent [LINK] Most dyestuffs are synthetic containing toxic compounds. Conventional textile dyeing and finishing of the raw fibre is both a thirsty and polluting business. It’s estimated that processing (including spinning, dyeing, finishing) a kilogram of fibre (not just cotton, but also polyester and other materials) requires 100 to 150 litres of water.

Denim is a particularly significant issue. To get that ‘lived in’ look, denim is subjected to several chemical-intensive washes.” Those chemicals include cadmium, chromium, mercury, lead, copper, and manganese, which has been associated with brain damage.

Recently we have discovered that the fashion industry is a significant source of the plastic microfibres water pollution which are shed from synthetic clothing when washed.

However, fewer than half (62) of the 136 companies CDP asked to provide data did so, and of those that reported, only one in 10 (including Gap, H&M and Kering) were aware that water pollution is a risk across every stage of the apparel value chain. H&M was the only reporting company to mention microplastics or microfibers in their disclosure.

Who’s taking action?

Seven years after Greenpeace started the Detox My Fashion campaign, asking fashion companies to stop polluting waterways with hazardous chemicals from clothing production, the 80 companies that took the pledge to phase out these chemicals by 2020 have achieved significant progress.   Even so, many of these brands are only starting to recognise the need to establish long-term relationships with tier 2 and tier 3 suppliers in order to be able to implement Detox.

Bridge over polluted river

Human-induced climate change has contributed to increases in agricultural and ecological droughts.

Brands are starting to take action. Kering has developed an innovative tool for measuring and quantifying the environmental impact of its activities. The company has been working with its suppliers to improve processes, and implement programs to protect the environment all along the supply chain. After joining WRAP’s Sustainable Clothing Action Plan, Whistles switched BCI cotton, which contributed to a reduction of over 70% in water footprint. Gap has set a water reduction goal. The company has also committed to improving water access and quality in the regions where it operates. WRAP reports that Sustainable Clothing Action Plan (SCAP) signatories have made significant improvements reducing water by 13.5% per tonne of clothing since 2012.

Continental Clothing is a leader in this area: Their organic certified fabrics are dyed in a zero-discharge dyehouse, where all the water is recycled in a closed-loop system.  It recently passed the Detox to Zero audit in its dye house and printing works in India. It was very enlightening because it found some heavy metals in the sludge,

even though they had been certified under GOTS and OEKO-TEX® Standard 100 Annex 6, and run a zero-discharge operation. When it comes to jeans, major retailers have made significant changes. Levi’s® has developed more than 20 innovative techniques for finishing denim, all of which use less of the precious natural resource, water.  Meanwhile, Madewell’s Eco Collection uses less water, organic cotton, and sustainable dyes; and Gap has pledged to conserve 10 billion litres of water by 2020. AG Jeans, is working to create all of their products in a more sustainable way. The brand has installed more efficient machines designed to wash more product while consuming less water.

As things stand, there is no single way of measuring water usage that is used consistently within the fashion industry to measure water efficiency and conservation.  Ideally, brands would use a recognised methodology such as Water Footprint AssessmentThe Higg Index tool enables companies to assess a product’s environmental sustainability impacts, including water usage.

Sixth Assessment report