A Thirsty Business
The fashion industry is comprised of one thirsty business after another. With summer in full swing I can’t drive through a single town without seeing a water restriction or ban sign. As individuals we are all told to do our part in helping to conserve water but what about corporations? What about the fashion industry? Just how much water does it really take to produce our clothing?
By now you may have seen the statistical number 2,700 litres (approximately 714 gallons) floating around. This is the amount of water used to produce just one T-Shirt! You read that right, a single shirt! But, being American I don’t exactly have an idea of what a litre is nor does such a large number really mean anything, so let’s break it down.
2,700 Litres for One Shirt is the equivalent to:
1,350 Days of Recommended Drinking Water Per Person (8, 8oz glasses per day)
569 Bottles of Wine
178 Weeks of Watering a Rose Bush Every Day
119 Dishwasher Cycles
I’m not sure what to be more shocked at, the fact that one shirt uses about three and a half years of personal drinking water or that 569 bottles of wine will never get produced because that water is going to a single shirt.
Now I know this seems a bit too simple and sure you don’t trade one product for another in production, that’s just not how things work, but fresh water is a finite source and sooner or later we will run out (sorry to burst your bubble climate change deniers) so, let’s take a closer look at exactly how much water one industry, fashion, really uses and consider if it is really worth buying one more article of clothing or not.
In 2015 Eileen Fisher told a crowd at a Chelsea Pier Ballroom that “the clothing industry was the second largest polluter in the world…second only to oil.” Whoa there Eileen, aren’t you a clothing designer? And how do you know that? Indeed, Fisher is a prominent designer whose clothing you have no doubt seen but she is also a sustainability advocate and is doing her part to help overhaul the industry. To the second point we don’t really know just how toxic the fashion industry has become because surprise, surprise companies don’t really like to tell us about the downsides of their businesses. Shocking, I know! But, the fact remains, as one of the most prominent industries the rapid consumption of clothing and accessories has contributed to astounding water pollution and mind boggling water consumption.
In order to make traditional clothing, the first thing that needs to happen is to grow the raw materials. This is most often cotton – remember it is the fabric of our lives. Approximately 20 million tons of cotton are produced each year spanning a total of 90 countries. It takes 20,000 litres of water to produce 1kg of cotton – about one t-shirt and a single pair of jeans. If you thought that was a lot of water just wait until the next phases of production. Cotton has to be harvested, spun, and dyed. It is estimated by Cotton Inc. that 85% of water usage in the fashion industry is directly associated with the dyeing process.
Okay, so at this point you are probably thinking about all the alternatives to cotton and you would be right to know that clothing is made from more than one material. Each of those substitutes show promise in helping to minimize the industries water footprint but with cotton accounting for about half our clothes and other textiles it is unavoidable.
Water consumption isn’t the only problem with the fashion industries footprint. Water pollution is what we can only guess Fisher was hinting at when she said it was the second dirtiest industry. Being as prevalent a crop as it is, some clever manufactures have come up with bug resistant and drought resistant cotton crops. But, this means pesticides and lots of them and guess where those pesticides end up – in the soil – and what does the soil come into contact with? Aquafers! It’s one big closed loop system. Pesticides seep into the soil which run into the water ways, eventually down-stream and into oceans. There is no escaping the pollutants even if the crops are grown half way around the world. Those nasty side effects will eventually come right back to you. “Unsustainable cotton farming, with massive inputs of water and pesticides, has already been responsible for the destruction of large-scale ecosystems such as the Aral Sea in central Asia and the deteriorating health and livelihoods of the people living there.”
The dyeing process is no kinder to the environment. Many of the dyes still used in mass production are toxic. I could get all technical here and talk about low dissolve oxygen concentrations and biochemical oxygen demand (you can read more about that in this very technical report) but let’s just say adding toxic dyes to the water system isn’t good for anyone. From endocrine disruption to preventing sunlight from penetrating the surface of the water, and lastly this scary little piece of information “studies have shown that some classes of dye… may be carcinogenic and / or mutagenic, endangering human health, since the wastewater treatment systems and water treatment plants are ineffective in removing the color and the mutagenic properties of some dyes.”
Now sounds like a good time to get a glass of water and mull this one over. Thanks but no thanks. Luckily for us, there are quite a few companies and corporations out there that have recognized the problems associated with water usage in the fashion industry and are making HUUUUGE changes.
So what can you do?
Obvious I know. But just remember for every t-shirt you buy you are possibly sacrificing 569 bottles of wine, or 41 showers.
Wash Less, Wear More:
Seriously! We live in a disposable culture and that includes our clothing. Stop this habit right now. Livia Firth brought us the #30Wears challenge. Buy higher quality clothing that you can wear over and over again. The first step in a sustainable closet is wearing what you already have and then incorporate new pieces that will stand the test of time. Also, wash your clothes less. You don’t need to wash a shirt every time you wear it unless you are a professional mud wrestler.
Mud wrestling and wine aside it all starts with us, the consumers. Choose wisely and demand companies do their part. I for one enjoy showering in clean water and don’t want to see that go away anytime soon.