What a Thirsty Industry Fashion Is!

It’s easy to see the fashion industry as depicted in the cover picture. After all, it produces some of the most crucial and exquisite items we’ve come to know and love. But it’s been contributing to some of the world’s worst levels of pollution.

Jian River, China
Jian River, China
The rivers around Tirupur are often red or purple with runoff from nearby factories such as those in the Netaji Apparel Park
The rivers around Tirupur are often red or purple with runoff from nearby factories such as those in the Netaji Apparel Park
Toxic River in the Phillipines
Toxic River in the Philippines

Yes, the shirt or jeans you’re wearing right now played a part in what you see above. This is because the textile industry uses a vast amount of water in most of its processing operations. That’s everything from the dying process to fabric preparation such as bleaching. In addition, they need to rinse the fabric after each step to remove all the chemicals present before moving onto the next step. Most of this waste water is returned to the ecosystem without being treated, leading to pollution of water bodies; including underground water.

A wastewater discharge pipe for the Youngor textiles factory in the Yinzhou district near Ningbo in China. A Greenpeace investigation into the company, which supplies to Zara, Addidas & Top Shop, revealed severe negligence and malpractice. [Image: Souvid Datta]
A wastewater discharge pipe for the Youngor textiles factory in the Yinzhou district near Ningbo in China. A Greenpeace investigation into the company, which supplies to Zara, Adidas & Top Shop, revealed severe negligence and malpractice. [Image: Souvid Datta]

Let’s put this into context. Water just so happens to be that elixir that keeps us alive. By 2030, the global population is expected to hit nine billion, with developing and developed countries increasing their water use by 50% and 18% by 2025.  Water use is predicted to increase by 50% between 2007 and 2025 in developing countries and 18% in developed ones. As the world has developed, the water constraints have increased; increasing competition for supply. Take for example the fashion staple – Jeans. Two Billion pairs are made annually and just one pair needs 7,000 litres of water towards its production. And the t-shirt you’ll wear with those jeans? It takes 2,700 litres of water to make just one. Don’t get us started on how water is affected by cotton alone in the textile industry (we’ve dedicated a whole blog post later in the series for that)!

[Image: Fashion Revolution]
[Image: Fashion Revolution]

According to The Global Leadership Award in Sustainable Apparel (GLASA), one kilogram of textile material requires approximately 100 – 150 litres of water. (That’s over 600 glasses of water). As if those facts weren’t damning enough, GLASA also released in their 2015 report that each year the apparel industry dyes around 28 billion kilograms of textiles. In order to do this, they use over five trillion litres of water, which is the equivalent of two million Olympic-sized swimming pools. Then you have to take into consideration that consumers will have to launder all this apparel, which varies across the globe. However, GLASA estimates it’s about 1650 litres of water per one kilogram washed.

River Pollution in West Java: Industrial wastewater containing hazardous chemicals discharged into the Cihaur River.
River Pollution in West Java: Industrial wastewater containing hazardous chemicals discharged into the Cihaur River.

But that’s not the only thing that has increased. The pollution rate continues to increase and thus, the number of usable water sources are on the decline. In fact, The World Bank estimates that 20% of freshwater pollution has been linked to textile treatment and dyeing. That effectively puts the health of the entire ecosystem at risk. So much so, bodies such as The World Economic Forum (this independent Swiss non-profit foundation started in 1971 is the International Organization for Public-Private Cooperation committed to improving world’s current state) has identified that over the next 10 years, water scarcity will be one of the major global risks.

[Image: Alissa Krumlauf]
[Image: Alissa Krumlauf]

The facts are that the Earth’s freshwater only counts for a mere 2.5%; and of that human’s only access 0.3%. By 2030, the human race’s water footprint is expected to go 40% above reliable, accessible water supplies. With all that in mind, we can’t deny certain truths. Fashion is not only one of the biggest users of water but also contributes a massive amount to the pollution of this resource. In addition, that water scarcity is a reality and we all need to play a part in to re-evaluate how we impact this precious resource. This all includes the legislation decisions made at government levels, to the textile industry’s water impact and dependency areas in the supply chain such as dyeing and finishing, as well as, consumer laundering.

United Nations Conference on Climate Change - COP21 in Paris. [Image: Huffington Post]
United Nations Conference on Climate Change – COP21 in Paris. [Image: Huffington Post]

But is it enough to take the ‘doing less bad’ approach. Where companies and brands volunteer to do a token good to the environment for CSR points? Or do the expected minimum but still incurs a water footprint? With the conversation switching from ‘reduction’ to ‘zero’ chemical and pollution impact for the textile industry, how will the fashion industry ensure it adjusts its business operations to enhance the society and environment? Especially in working to reduce the reliance on water aspect? With governments under the spotlight post COP21 (The 2015 United Nations Climate Change Conference), we can only wait and see if the fashion industry will see the water reform it so desperately needs.

 

 

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