Fashion and Water Pollution: Is it a big deal?

Water. One of life’s necessities. We are always hearing about how there is a shortage of it, be it the farmers or regular shoppers panic buying in fear of Coronavirus. And we know that big agricultural and industrial producers pollute our precious resource. But did you know that fashion has a profound influence on water? A huge influence! In fact, it is the second largest polluter of clean water in the world. How on earth does something as inane as fashion affect water? It so many ways! From irrigation of crops to textile dying to washing garments at home, the industry uses a lot of water, around 79 billion cubic metres per year to be exact. That is 2 per cent of all freshwater extraction globally and is only expected to increase exponentially in the coming years.

At present, It takes around 7,000 litres of water to produce one single pair of jeans and 2720 litres of water to make a t-shirt. How is that even possible? Cotton. Sure it might seem like a great natural fibre and quite innocuous but growing cotton has a huge impact on the environment. It is the second most popular fibre for fabrics (polyester being the most popular) and has the single largest water consumption factor in the garment supply chain. Why? Because the areas where most cotton is grown is dry, therefore needing significant irrigation such as the southern US, India, Mali and the Aral Lake area in central Asia. Even here, in drought stricken Australian, cotton is grown. The actual amount of water used is insane. 70% of the Earth’s freshwater that is readily accessible by humans is used for irrigation. It takes on average 10,000 litres of water to cultivate just one kilogram of raw cotton.

It’s not just the irrigation that is affecting the water. Agricultural chemicals and insecticides are a major problem as well. Why? Because these chemicals enter the soil, contaminate fresh water and destabilize ecosystems. They heavily pollute run off waters and evaporation waters. These in turn make it in to fresh water supplies and the ocean, having a disastrous effect on humans and wildlife. In addition, these chemicals are directly shown to cause disease, birth defects and premature death in cotton farmers and their families.

Once the fibre has been grown, a whole new set of problems emerge. The actual production of fibres in to fabric and garments is disastrous to the environment. It is estimated that 20% of the world’s industrial water pollution is a result of textile treatment and dying. The dyeing process uses enough water to fill 2 million Olympic-sized swimming pools each year. In addition, it is thought that 8000 synthetic chemicals are used in the process. So how does this affect water? The dying and treatment process produces toxic wastewater and effluents containing many harmful chemicals such as lead, mercury, arsenic, chrome and bleach.

Sadly, in most countries, these untreated toxic wastewaters are dumped directly into rivers, ditches and streams. In developing countries, it’s a staggering 90% of wastewater that is dumped. This water eventually spreads to the sea, endangering marine life as well as the millions of people that live and rely on those water sources. In India and Bangladesh, chrome poisoning as result of contaminated water has been widespread, whilst in China, the world’s largest clothes exporter, the government has stated that nearly a third of it’s rivers are too polluted for any direct human contact.

Contaminated waterway from dying

So there is a lot of water pollution in the production phase, but water pollution is not limited to this. A lot of the pollution comes from washing the garments at home. 40% of domestic water usage comes from laundry with a large majority comes from hand washing in the developing world. In developed countries, its estimated that 20 billion cubic metres of water is used for this purpose. Although largely ignored in the water pollution debate, detergents play a significant role in pollution. In Europe, it was found that 16% of the phosphate found in the Danube river was from detergents, leading to an EU ban on the use of phosphates in detergents.

Yes, these issues are big concerns when it comes to water pollution domestically. But by far, the biggest concern has to be the use of polyester. It is the most popular fabric used in the fashion industry and sadly, when washed by domestic machines, the fabric sheds microfibers. Approximately 1900. How is this a problem? These microfibers are minute and pass through sewage and wastewater treatment plants into our waterways, especially the ocean. As they do not biodegrade (they are plastic after all), they become a threat to aquatic life. They are eaten by plankton and other small fish, which in turn are eaten by bigger fish and shellfish, making their way in to the food chain. Humans are eating plastics without even realizing.

So how do we combat an increasing water shortage with a finite supplies when we are consuming resources 1.6 times the planet’s capacity? Well one suggestion has been desalinization. Given that 97.5% of water available on Earth is saltwater, it seems like a logical solution. In fact some countries are already using this such as United Arab Emirates and Israel, but this is as freshwater isn’t readily available. But, the costs for desalinization are double the costs of processing freshwater, therefore it is not viable for many developing countries. It is hoped with time that renewable energies and desalinization will become cheaper and the technology uptaken by more countries but a timeframe has not been established.

Sure this would move away from using up the limited freshwater available, but it fundamentally ignores the water pollution that is occurring as a result of the fashion industry. How do we combat that?

Firstly, a switch to to the use of organic cotton and natural fibers. Organic cottons don’t use chemicals and pesticides, it doesn’t damage the soil, has less impact on the air, and uses 88% less water and 62% less energy. However, organic cotton still requires irrigation and is still subjected to dying, so it will still pollute waterways. In fact, dying organic cotton has more of an impact on the environment than dying polyesters. However, overall, organic cotton is better for the environment than typical cotton.

Switching to other natural fibers that have less of an environment impact is a positive step. Fibres such as hemp, flax, nettle, lyocell and bamboo are much better for the environment. They all require less land and water than cotton. Hemp especially. Cotton uses approximately 4 times the amount of water and twice the amount of land.

In addition to natural fibers, there has been a quest for new, more sustainable synthetic, renewable and recycled fibres. Perhaps the most exciting is the use of recycled fibres and fabrics. Not only does it have limited effect on virgin resources, it also limits the problem of waste management. Companies such as Patagonia and Nike have been making clothes out of recycled water bottles for years with many high-end and high street stores following suit.

The issue of dying is a big one. Fortunately, many governments have laws in place preventing the dumping of contaminated wastewater into waterways. But what about the dyes themselves? There has been a move towards the use of water-less dyes, low-impact dyes, the use of pigments over dyes and even digital printing (sublimation printing has a zero waste output). A lot of brands are moving towards this including the high-street stores but this is an uphill battle, as changing the way textile manufacturing has been done for years is no easy task.

Digital fabric printing

So these changes are made by manufacturers in the production phase, but what can consumers do? Become informed about what you are buying. Consciously buy organic, research in to labels and production processes, support labels that focus on sustainability. Of course, these labels and garments can end up being more expensive, but buying better will pay off on the long term. Paying a bit more for something that lasts longer is a no brainer, especially when it has a smaller effect on the environment.

With fast fashion constantly churning out new collections (in 2014, Zara brought out 52 micro-collections), there is a need and want to be on trend. Being in fashion and on trend fulfils the need for certainty, consistency and belonging. However, once we have these needs met, we need variety and that’s where new trends are invented and followed, created a sense of variety and consistency. It is well established that fast fashion brands are one of the biggest polluters on the planet, using up huge resources in production and once bought, the vast majority of it is worn a couple of times before going into landfill. So the solution? Buy less. Again, invest in higher quality pieces that will stand the test of time in terms of quality and not dating. This is much smarter than buying something that will be something you get sick of quickly and disposing of. This requires a bit of creativity in terms of styling, but mix up pieces of different ages, experiment with accessories and develop your own personal style.

Another popular alternative that has seen a resurgence in recent years has been secondhand clothing. Be it from fabulous vintage stores, consignment stores or even groups on Facebook, secondhand clothing has been proving popular. Buying secondhand creates a lower demand for new clothes thus decreasing new production. However, I feel the greatest benefit is that you are able to breathe new life in to pre-loved clothing, and more often than not, scoring yourself an outfit that no-one else will have. Again, this is building upon developing your own personal style, but that’s what fashion is all about; a valid form of self-expression.

Finally, one of my favourite options that significantly reduces water pollution is hiring your clothes. You can access the latest trends of designer labels at a fraction of the retail price. Often when we buy trend based pieces, we only wear the item a few times before it sits at the back of our wardrobe. Especially for special occasion items like dresses worn to weddings and cocktail parties. You can avoid this wastage issue by hiring an outfit when you need. This way, you ensure you are up to date with the latest trends without worrying if you are ever going to wear it again. By hiring out your fashionable pieces of clothing that people will love, you are preventing items going to landfill. Other people get use out of it. Its a win win for you and the environment.

Here at The Volte, we have over 20,000 listings of dresses for all occasions, skirts, pants, tops, jumpsuits, jackets, jewellery, bags, hats & millinery and belts, all available to hire from 4 days, up to 8 days. Have a browse today and you are guaranteed to find something you love!



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