Fast fashion has disastrous impacts on the environment, including massive water pollution. Overproduction and overconsumption of cheaply made clothing affect the global water crisis in multiple ways.
Fast fashion heavily pollutes rivers and oceans all over the world with plastic wastes and toxic chemicals. And so much water is consumed in creating cheap clothing for high-street stores.
The fashion industry is the second-largest polluter of clean water globally. It's responsible for the massive consumption of water, energy, and natural resources.
Fast fashion produces large amounts of land pollution, air pollution, water pollution, textile waste, and greenhouse gas emissions.
The textile industry uses enormous amounts of hazardous chemicals for farming, washing, bleaching, dyeing, finishing, and treating fabrics. It pollutes the air we breathe, the water we drink, and the food we eat.
Here is how fast fashion affects water pollution and awful facts you need to know.
Cotton farming and water pollution
Cotton farming is by far one of the most impactful on the global water crisis. Cotton is the most used natural fiber in the global fast fashion industry.
About half of all textiles in the world contain cotton. It's the most widespread profitable non-food crop globally. Cotton has a low price because it's mass-produced globally.
30.3 million tons of cotton are produced each year worldwide, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO).
But cotton farming requires tons of chemicals that pollute nearby water sources. The mass production of conventional cotton is very wasteful and toxic.
Cotton farmers use highly toxic synthetic chemicals such as Glyphosate, Trifluralin, Diuron, and Parathion methyl. They pollute nearby water sources and have harmful effects on human health and ecosystems.
The Global Fashion Agenda reports that cotton farming utilizes 4% of worldwide nitrogen and phosphorous fertilizers, 16% of all insecticides, and 7% herbicides.
Up to 3 kilograms of chemicals are required to produce 1 kilogram of raw cotton fibers, as reported by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation.
The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) estimates that since 1990, farmers applied synthetic nitrogen fertilizers to 78% of planted acres, at an average rate of 94 pounds per acre, for a total of 821.5 million pounds.
Governments regulate hazardous chemicals used in cotton farming with usage restrictions in Europe and the United States. But in many East-Asian countries, their agricultural use continues.
China is the largest cotton producer worldwide, with 6.1 million tons of cotton produced in 2018, followed by India (4.69 million tons) and the United States (4 million tons).
Cotton farming reduces soil fertility and damages the environment. It contributes heavily to ocean acidification, water pollution and eutrophication, and climate change.
A better alternative is organic cotton. Organic cotton farming can potentially save 218 billion liters of water and 92.5 million kg of carbon dioxide.
About 80% of all organic cotton is grown with water from rainfalls, which reduces pressure on local water sources. It's non-GMO and grown without synthetic fertilizers, pesticides, and herbicides.
Textile production is polluting our water.
Fabric manufacturing involves chemical-intensive processes that pollute our water, including textile washing, bleaching, dyeing, finishing, and treatment.
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 fresh water 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 and 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 social and environmental impact of fast fashion is frightening. It's one of the most polluting industries and pollutes tremendous amounts of water compared to other industries.
According to the World Bank, the fast fashion industry creates 17-20% of worldwide wastewater. And UNESCO reports that only 20% of globally produced wastewater receives proper treatment.
The massive use of hazardous chemicals for cheap clothing production contaminates large amounts of water. Through water pollution, fast fashion endangers human health and ecosystems and destroys the planet.
Fast fashion requires chemical-intensive processes for textile manufacturing. It uses about 8,000 synthetic chemicals, as reported by The Guardian.
Apparel and textile products require 100 billion cubic meters of water annually for farming and manufacturing processes, as reported by the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE).
Industrial water pollution mainly comes from fabric manufacturing, including washing, bleaching, dyeing, finishing, and treatment.
Fast fashion is very damaging to the environment due to ever-increasing water pollution. McKinsey estimated in 2016 that carbon emissions will rise by 77% and water consumption by 20% from 2015 to 2025.
Fast fashion releases microfibers in the oceans.
The fast fashion industry is a leading cause of global plastic pollution, including microfibers in our oceans. It has a disastrous impact on the environment, on people, and on animals.
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.
Fast fashion widely uses synthetic textiles such as polyester, nylon, and acrylic to produce cheap clothes. Unfortunately, these fabrics contribute to plastic waste and microfiber pollution.
Polyester is the most used fabric in the fast fashion industry. Global polyester fiber production reached 55 million tons in 2018, as reported by Oerlikon. About 60% of today's clothing contains polyester, according to Greenpeace.
Half a million tons of plastic microfibers are dumped into the ocean every year, the equivalent of 50 billion plastic bottles. Plastic waste is deceptive for wildlife, who mistake it for food.
People working in garment factories in the fast fashion industry are particularly exposed to harmful pollutants in plastic microfibers by drinking polluted water or eating contaminated seafood.
Unfortunately, global plastic production is still increasing. It exceeds 300 million tons every year, as reported by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN).
And 8 million tons of plastic are dumped into the ocean. Only less than 10% of all plastic is recycled.
Plastic waste has a disastrous impact not only on the environment but also on people and animals. Plastic microfibers threaten human health, wildlife, and the planet by polluting the air, water, and entire food chains.
Even washing most synthetic clothes made from acrylic, polyester, or nylon at home releases microfibers in the water system. According to a recent press release, a liter of wastewater from a washing machine could contain 200,000 fibers.
They escape through our plumbing and sewage systems. The water expelled from our washing machines transports these fibers to rivers, lakes, and oceans.
The volume of textile microfibers entering the world's oceans is increasing at an alarming rate. Now is the time to act and stop fast fashion excessive water pollution.
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 three languages and holds two Master of Science degrees in Engineering from SIGMA and IFPEN schools.
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