Of all our human needs, water is the most basic. It sustains us on such a fundamental level that it’s perfectly reasonable to expect it to be treated as a precious resource; preserved as stringently as historical buildings and valued above even the most rare diamonds. Safeguarding one of the building blocks of existence should be a given, yet it’s not. Because in the fight between life and profit, profit always wins.
Even if you truly believe that water should be valued above commerce, there’s probably someone else making that decision for you. And often the people making those decisions are the people manufacturing your clothes. As they cultivate the raw materials, produce the fabric and chemically treat it and dye it, they not only use gallons upon gallons of fresh water, but they spew gallons upon gallons of waste water back into our waterways.
The fashion industry is using and abusing our water and we need to talk about it. It’s such a complex subject that I’d need thousands of words to truly cover all of the intricacies, so let this act as your beginner’s guide and let it make you angry, because it should.
High and Dry
In The Fluffy Stuff: A Closer Look at Cotton, I touched on the devastating desertification of the Aral Sea. By diverting its freshwater sources for cotton irrigation, the Government of Uzbekistan simply dried out one of the biggest lakes in the world. However, Uzbekistan isn’t alone in its startling use of water. Despite reports of water scarcity ‘spurring migration and sparking conflict’ if we follow the path we’re currently on, fashion at large fails to treat water as a finite resource. In 2015 alone the industry consumed nearly 79 billion cubic metres of water and, if it follows its current growth trajectory, usage is expected to increase by as much as 50% by 2030. Add into the equation that a disproportionate chunk of fashion production takes place in already water-poor countries and we’re heading towards a place where demand outstrips supply.
What’s Your Poison?
It’s estimated that around 8,000 synthetic chemicals are used throughout the world in the process of turning raw materials into textiles. On top of that, approximately 20% of industrial water pollution stems textile dyeing and treatment. But where does it all go? It’s almost fashion folklore now that people who live on the riverbanks under the shadow of textile factories know next season’s hottest colour before we do. Unfortunately it’s not an exaggeration or a cute tale. Rather, it’s a reality for many in China, India, Indonesia and many other countries, cities and communities that serve as the unfortunate homes of some of the fashion industry’s murkiest practices.
Lined up along the riverbanks for easy access, factories spew toxic waste out into the local water supply without any attempts at decontamination or treatment before unleashing it upon the local community. Deadly cocktails of chemicals render freshwater undrinkable, kill aquatic life and pose severe threats to human health. NPE, for example, is an endocrine disruptor which has also been linked to breast cancer. Its use is prohibited within the EU and yet it was found in disturbingly high concentration in Indonesia’s Citarum river, the banks of which are host to hundreds of textile factories. Another chemical found in samples taken by Greenpeace from the same river is so highly corrosive that it would burn any human skin that comes into contact with it.
Alongside the myriad other chemicals which flow from waste water pipes, heavy metals also flow freely into rivers, streams and other vital freshwater sources. Cadmium and mercury are present in certain dyes, despite restrictions, and chromium is used as a catalyst in the dyeing process as well as being integral in leather tanning.
Heavy metal poisoning can occur, among other circumstances, as a result of air and water pollution and from the ingestion of contaminated foods. So imagine that chromium, for example, is flowing into a local body of water. If a community uses it for drinking, cleaning, bathing or irrigation, they’re being unwittingly exposed to incredibly hazardous substances that can cause kidney and liver damage, cancer and death.
Once our jacket or jumper or t-shirt has made its way to the shops and then into our wardrobe, it poses another problem. As we wash clothes that are crafted from synthetic fabrics such as nylon and polyester, they shed tens and hundreds of thousands of microfibres. These tiny, plastic fibres are often so small that they pass straight through water treatment plants into rivers, lakes and the ocean.
Plastic pollution is harmful enough on its own, but microfibres also absorb other pollutants and toxic chemicals. As fish accidentally eat them, they subsequently enter the human food chain. While they’ve been shown to harm small organisms, there’s currently no conclusive data on what the effects on humans might be. But throw in the fact that plastics have been found in up to 94% of drinking water samples in the US and that’s a lot of plastic we’re ingesting.
What Can We Do?
Clearly, our supply of clean water is under threat, but can we do anything about it? Yes.
Demand more from fashion brands
Exposés abound of high street and designer labels embroiled in water pollution scandals. Research them and hold them to account.
Buy and wear more natural fibres
The less plastic we buy, wear and therefore wash, the less microfibres we flush into our waterways.
Wash your clothes less
We don’t need to wash our clothes every time we wear them. Hang them up to air them out and save water.
Sources: Copenhagen Fashion Summit, EcoWatch, Greenpeace, The Guardian, The Story of Stuff Project, To Die For by Lucy Siegle, World Bank Group
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