A Thirsty Industry: Fashion's Colossal Water Footprint

  Photo: apparelresources.com

Photo: apparelresources.com

On any fast fashion impulse buy, or really any garment in general, the tag hidden in the seam or just under the brand label will list where it was made, how to clean it, and the principal fabric. For a good basic, this often means a stitched “100% cotton” followed by the encouragement of nothing more complicated than a cold wash or rinse. But what if these labels, once so reassuring that our quick fix was of somewhat decent quality, also listed the water wasted, chemicals used, and lives affected?


The Data

A little under half of all apparel is made of cotton, adding up to 90% of the natural fibers used in the textile industry. And while cotton sounds like a safer alternative to polyesters and pollutive microfibers, it’s still extremely harmful to the water supply. For a single t-shirt or pair of jeans, whether it be a $19 steal or a $95 splurge, the environmental cost of cotton processing is roughly 2,700 liters of water – equivalent to three years’ worth of drinking water. To treat the fabric, water is exploited at every step, first to mix in chemicals and dyes, and then to rinse and set them. Additives from bleaches to brighteners saturate freshwater, which, having become a chemical cocktail, is then discarded as waste. So, to put that in perspective, if the average woman owns 7 pairs of jeans and only wears 4 on a regular basis, she has an estimated 8,100 liters of wastewater sitting in her closet – and that’s not even counting the t-shirts and sweatshirts hanging nearby.


The Jeans Problem

While some of us love the ease with which fast fashion lets us accumulate the trends, it turns out that some of our favorite copycats, from distressed to acid-washed jeans, are the most water consuming. In fact, the steps needed to make our jeans look naturally damaged are quite water-dependent and require several rinses, after which our jeans emerge distressed and the water indigestible.

Smaller brands like Jeanologia slow fashion down, making the process more sustainable. Instead of rinsing in harmful additives that contaminate freshwater, Jeanologia uses laser technology to mimic naturally distressed denim. Likewise, the process where cotton threads weave to form denim, warping, can use up to 300 liters of water per kilogram of fabric. Italdenim, a Lombardy-based manufacturer, uses biodegradable polymers in its warping process, helping minimize needless water waste.

These companies are contributing to the solution, but to really tackle fashion’s water footprint you need larger corporations to lead by example, says Alejandra Pollak, operations and merchandise  manager at ethical consumerism e-commerce company Zady. “You need big brands,” she said. “You can’t just have these smaller brands coming in. You have to show how these measures can be implemented at a larger scale.”

And Levi’s is actually leading the charge. The 501s flying out the door at Urban Outfitters and flooding high streets once demanded 3,781 liters of water per product lifecycle, but in 2005, the company co-founded the Better Cotton Initiative to minimize the environmental effects of cotton and reduce its water impact. As part of this effort, the brand introduced a clothing recycling buyback program, encouraging customers to bring back old jeans to reuse and repurpose them.  This fits into a larger transition toward a circular economy where waste is reduced through the use of reprocessed materials. By 2020, the brand hopes to use 100 percent sustainable sources, including recycled cotton.

  Photo: abcnews.com

Photo: abcnews.com

The Big Picture

Others, fast fashion brands in particular, need to follow suit - some larger textile mills discard as much as 2 million gallons of wastewater per day, most of which flows untreated into surrounding freshwater sources. Even before processing begins, cotton farming requires the application of pesticides and fertilizers, with runoff drifting downstream into local rivers, lakes, and wetlands.

In India’s Punjab region, the world’s second-largest producer and exporter of cotton, heavy pesticide pollution led to a rise in birth defects, cancers, and mental illness. Dr. Pritpal Singh, featured in the 2015 documentary The True Cost, explained to photographer Sean Gallagher how pesticides and chemical runoff poisons the local population. “They are drinking very polluted water. We can say it is a toxic cocktail in our food chain,” he said. Similar damage occurs in Bangladesh and China.

But the harm isn’t just limited to cotton production. Leather tanneries in Bangladesh require workers to submerge animal hides in chromium, sulfur, and other chemical by-products, the leftovers of which contaminate local freshwater.  In Dhaka, the center of Bangladesh’s booming textile industry, roughly 22,000 cubic meters of liquid waste flows into the city’s main river, the Buriganga. As a result, ground water used to grow crops is contaminated with chemicals and produce becomes infested with toxic additives.

  Photo: Greenpeace Asia

Photo: Greenpeace Asia

The Alternatives

At People Tree, a UK-based brand producing sustainable and Fairtrade fashion, over 80% of their collections are made with 100% certified organic cotton. Unlike the chemical cloud lingering over cotton on most large-scale farms, organic cotton is grown without harmful fertilizers or pesticides. The soil and ground water aren’t contaminated by toxic runoff, and instead are safe enough to grow alternative crops.

Still, cotton is one of the most parched plants, so alternative fibers can help alleviate water waste. Tencel, a fiber made from wood pulp cellulose, is produced in what manufacturers call a closed-loop system where the chemicals and solvents used to break down the wood pulp are recycled. When produced industrially, it uses up to 20 times less water than cotton. Monocel fiber is bamboo based and processed with a similar lyocell loop where the solution and water involved is recycled and reused.

Whether we choose to check the tag for organic or alternative fibers, or recycle our worn cotton favorites through buyback programs, reducing water waste and pollution starts with us, the consumers. Even a gesture as simple as keeping last season’s cropped tee and reworking it for summer could help – research from WRAP says extending a product’s active lifespan by just three months could reduce its water and waste footprint by 5-10%. Minimal efforts can contribute to a larger movement. And while there’s no concrete solution for an industry-wide water crisis, awareness and the action that follows go a long way – streams, rivers, and oceans, to be exact.


Key Takeaways

  •  Cotton accounts for 90% of the natural fibers used in the textile industry.
  • To process the cotton needed for a single t-shirt or pair of jeans requires 2,700 liters of water, or up to three years’ worth of drinking water.
  • The average woman only wears 4 out of 7 of her pairs of jeans, accumulating roughly 8,100  liters of wastewater.
  • Distressed and acid-washed jeans are the most consuming.
  • Levi’s 501s needed 3,781 liters of water per product lifecycle, so the brand introduced the Better Cotton Initiative, buyback programs, and a circular economy to cut back on waste.
  • Larger textile mills expel as much as 2 million gallons of wastewater per day.
  • Wood pulp and bamboo-based fibres like Tencel and Monocel can help lessen water waste.
  • Extending a garment’s lifecycle by a mere three months can reduce its water and waste footprint by 5-10%.