The textile and apparel industry affects the global water crisis in multiple ways. It pollutes rivers and oceans massively all over the world with plastics and toxic chemicals. And so much water is consumed in creating clothing.
The fashion industry is the second-largest polluter of clean water after agriculture globally. It takes 2,700 liters of water to make a conventional cotton t-shirt and tons of toxic chemicals in dyes, fertilizers, and pesticides.
The fashion industry is responsible for the massive consumption of water, energy, and natural resources. It also produces large amounts of pollution, textile waste, and greenhouse gas emissions.
Hazardous chemicals are used in farming, washing, bleaching, dyeing, and treatment of textiles. They cause pollute the air, water, and soils, endangering the lives of workers, ecosystems, and animals.
Sustainability is now more important than ever for the apparel and footwear industry. It's time to use eco-friendly fabrics made from renewable resources, and manufacturing processes that save water, energy, and reduce carbon emissions.
McKinsey reports that excessive clothing consumption led by fast fashion has a catastrophic impact on the environment. Water consumption is expected to increase by 20% from 2015 to 2025 due to the fast-growing fashion industry.
In 2017, the Ellen MacArthur Foundation reported that all textile and apparel production worldwide, including cotton farming, uses almost 100 billion cubic meters of water annually. That huge amount of water is enough to meet the needs of five million people.
Cotton farming is by far one of the most impactful on the global water crisis. The Higg Materials Sustainability Index (MSI) gives conventional cotton fiber production a huge water scarcity score of 47.6 points.
Using life-cycle impact assessment (LCIA) methods, the MSI measures potential environmental damages of water use for three areas: human health, ecosystem quality, and resources.
According to the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), 20,000 liters of water are needed to produce one kilogram of cotton.
Read up my article on the case for organic cotton to understand how it fares against regular cotton, especially how it can save lots of water.
Water scarcity is a huge issue. It already affects every continent. According to the United Nations, agriculture uses 70% of all irrigation water globally. Global cotton production accounts for 3% of total agricultural water.
Nearly two-thirds of the world population, about 4 billion people,
experience severe water scarcity during at least one month every year. By 2030, water scarcity is expected to displace between 24 million and 700 million people with the existing climate change scenario.
Luckily, new irrigation systems and strategies are used today. They allow farming with the water of natural rainfall. Sustainable fiber production is possible in many areas of the world with minimal environmental impact by using existing natural water resources.
Check out my list of the top 10 most eco-friendly and sustainable fabrics to learn about the best textile options to protect the environment.
Cotton farming uses tons of chemicals that pollute the nearby environment. Up to 3 kilograms of chemicals are required to produce 1 kilogram of raw cotton fibers.
Cotton farming consumes 4% of worldwide of nitrogen and phosphorous fertilizers, 16% of all insecticides, and 7% of all herbicides, as reported by the Global Fashion Agenda.
The fashion industry creates 17-20% of all wastewater worldwide today, according to the World Bank. And UNESCO reports that only 20% of globally produced wastewater receives proper treatment.
Even if the COVID-19 crisis decreased global clothing consumption at the beginning of 2020, consumers' shopping habits didn't change a lot. Fast fashion is still very popular.
Read up my article on the top 10 reasons why fast fashion is so popular to learn about the causes of the rapidly growing industry.
The rise of fast fashion over the last 20 years pushed us to consider clothing as a disposable commodity. The overproduction and overconsumption of cheaply made clothing have a catastrophic social and environmental impact.
Textile wastes are piling up in landfills, animals, and people are dying from health problems due to hazardous chemicals and plastic microfibers that contaminate water sources.
The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that three million cases of pesticide poisoning occur annually, resulting in an excess of 250,000 deaths. This mortality accounts for a substantial fraction of the almost 900,000 people worldwide who die by suicide every year.
Even clothes we wash at home release a lot of microfibers in the water system. A liter of wastewater from a washing machine could contain 200,000 fibers.
Everyone has a role to play. As consumers, we can adopt more sustainable practices to help save water and protect the planet.
World Water Day, which takes place on March 22nd, exists to raise awareness of water scarcity and climate change. We must find solutions to adapt, use water more efficiently, protect human health, and save lives.
Conversations around ocean plastics, water pollution, what we can do as individuals have been around for a long time. The fashion industry is one of the largest contributors.
Growing fiber crops, textile processing, dyeing, treatment, and laundry habits at home produce enormous amounts of wastewater.
"An estimated 8,000 synthetic chemicals are used throughout the world to turn raw materials into textiles, many of which will be released into freshwater sources. Worse: the industry is rampant with players that don't respect the citizen's right to safe water."
- Pamela Ravasio, Corporate Responsibility Executive and Shirahime Founder
Apparel and textile manufacturers discharge millions of gallons of chemically infected water into our waterways every year. A single fabric mill can use up to 200 tons of freshwater to dye a ton of fabric.
Particularly in Asian countries like India, China, and Bangladesh, wastewater charged with harmful chemicals is often released untreated into nearby rivers eventually spreading into the sea.
Water pollution causes both environmental damage and diseases throughout local communities in developing countries. Many rivers are too polluted for any direct human contact.
The fast fashion industry encourages an increasing and unnecessary demand for new styles and trends. It supports excessive clothing production and abusive water consumption.
The social and environmental impact of fast fashion is truly frightening. It's one of the most polluting industries in the world and uses tremendous amounts of water compared to other industries.
Luckily, decreasing individual consumption can solve these issues. Buying fewer clothes and higher-quality is one of the best ways to promote a sustainable fashion industry.
About the Author: Alex Assoune
Alex Assoune (MS) is a global health and environmental advocate. He founded Panaprium to inspire others with conscious living, ethical, and sustainable fashion. Alex has worked in many countries to address social and environmental issues. He speaks four languages and holds two Master of Science degrees in Engineering from SIGMA and IFPEN schools.