How Does the Fashion Industry Affect Our Freshwater?

Written by Kelsey Hellyer

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Posted on February 11 2021

One of the most important resources in the world, and one of the most threatened, is freshwater. Our economy, including the agriculture, forestry, energy, and transportation sectors, depends on freshwater systems just as much as our worldwide biodiversity depends on healthy freshwater ecosystems.

Although freshwater only covers 0.5% of the earth’s surface, nearly 10% of all known species find their home in freshwater. These ecosystems, even more than other vulnerable ecosystems such as coral reefs and rainforests, have been the most devastated by human activity. For various industries and purposes, we dam them up, extract water for irrigation, and pollute them with harmful chemicals. 

Many industries hurt freshwater ecosystems, but one you may not have thought of, and one of the most impactful, is the fashion industry.

In 2015, it was estimated that the fashion industry used 79 billion cubic meters (or 79 trillion L) of water. Thinking about this in smaller terms, it takes 2700 L of water to make 1 t-shirt, and 3700L for a single pair of jeans. In fact, for every kg of clothing we make, the World Wildlife Fund estimates we use 20,000L of freshwater. This sort of water abuse happens at every stage of clothes manufacturing, and even continues when we have the clothes at home. In the low-middle income countries that produce the bulk of our clothes, these effects are felt most strongly, because many of them already have limited freshwater.

So how does fashion influence freshwater resources all over the world? And what can we do to help as consumers? Read more to find out. 

 

Clothes Production and Water

Before any thread or fabrics are made, you have to make the fiber for textiles. These can be either natural, like cotton, or synthetic, like polyester. Making each of these types fibers impacts water differently.

For making natural fibers, the largest cost of water is the irrigation necessary to grow the plants. While there are many types of natural fibers, such as hemp and linen, the most common natural fiber is cotton, which is used in about 40% of all clothing produced worldwide. But cotton isn’t only the most widely used natural material; it also uses the most water. Most regions that produce cotton already have scarce fresh-water, but even still, to produce 1 ton of raw material, without any other processing, the average water consumption is 3,644,000 L. In total, 44 trillion L of water are used annually for irrigation of natural fibers, and 95% of this is used for cotton.

Next to cotton, polyester is the 2nd most used fiber in textiles, and with the growing demand of more and more clothing items in a fast-fashion business model, its production has risen. But just because polyester has increased in use and popularity doesn’t mean that it's a healthier option for our water sources. Depending on the type of polyester, the water footprint to make the fibers ranges from a minimum of 50,690,000 L /tonne (~1.10 tons) to 71,409,000 L /tonne. The use of this water is concentrated in grey water uses (i.e. using water to dilute the pollution) rather than blue water (i.e. the use of irrigation, like with cotton) but the numbers are still staggering, and don’t include anything more than making the raw material

These synthetic fibers are problematic for another reason too: the pollution of our oceans. Washing these synthetic materials is one of the main sources of microfiber pollution, as half a million tons of plastic microfibers – the equivalent of 50 million plastic bottles – are dumped into the oceans every year. Plastic microfibers can’t be removed from the oceans either; they are instead ingested unknowingly by wildlife, accumulating in their body tissue. These animals are also part of our food chain, so microfibers can end up in our food and even build up in our own bodies.

After the raw material has been made, many other processes turn this raw material into clothing. Manufacturers must make the thread, process the thread into fabric, and then make these fabrics into clothing items.

At this stage, the grey water waste impact is the most significant. Clothes undergo many processes, including dying, bleaching, and washing, all of which affect local water supplies. With these processes, the most damaging impact isn’t just the use of lots of water, but the pollution of local waterways. There are about 15,000 chemicals used in clothing manufacturing, beginning with the pesticides for fiber production, and many more chemicals for spinning, weaving, and wet processing the fabrics. In Europe, a textile finishing company uses over 466g of chemical for every kg of textile, but in other countries where the use of chemicals is unmoderated, it’s impossible to know how much they use or how much of the pollutants and untreated water waste they send back into the environment. When companies in developing nations send these chemicals out as waste water, they are threatening all groundwater, potentially causing serious harm to the entire ecosystem.

Finally, clothes are finished and shipped to the stores. We all buy them and bring them home. We’d like to think the waste of water ends here, but in reality, we play a role too. Every time we wash these clothes at home in the laundry, we contribute to water pollution; detergents are hard to remove from water, and laundering clothes uses on average 1650L of water per kilogram of clothing.

 

Conclusion

One of the costliest prices of an inflated fashion manufacturing industry is its effects on our freshwater resources. Clothing production uses up precious supplies of freshwater in places where water is already scarce, and with poorly treated water waste, it can damage the ecosystems of these nations by polluting groundwater and other water ecosystems. This is incredibly dangerous and unsustainable behaviour that must change. Even at home, buying lots of clothing produces more laundry, which causes pollution via detergent and excess water use.

It doesn’t have to be like this.

One of the most effective ways to combat such pollution is to change to more sustainable habits as consumers. The companies that produce exorbitant amounts of clothing are responding to consumer trends – changing these trends and demanding better from these companies is the best way forward.

So, let’s change our habits. At Closet From Hell, we’ve already started. Rather than buying lots of cheaply made, unsustainable polyester fashion pieces, we source premium, high-quality, vintage clothes. This helps all of us lower our water footprint and changes the business model by putting pressure on companies to adopt more sustainable manufacturing practices, especially as it pertains to water. It’s a simple way to do our part in conserving precious ecosystems and freshwater all around the world.

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