Fashion: The Thirsty Industry

Written by Beth Noble, originally published on Good On You

Ever thought about how much water it took to make your cotton t-shirt? How about three years worth of drinking water for one t-shirt! That’s a lot of water; 2,700 litres to be exact. 

Pretty shocking right?

In recognition of World Water Day, we want to reflect on the fact that not everyone around the world can just turn on a tap in their house to drink clean, fresh water, let alone flush a toilet with the push of a button. Only 2.5% of the Earth’s water is freshwater and only 0.3% is accessible to humans. So while we may be a ‘blue planet’, usable water is incredibly scarce in comparison.

The fashion industry is a massive consumer and polluter of our fresh water. And one of the biggest culprits is cotton. Despite only occupying 2.4% of the world’s cropland, cotton accounts for 24% of the world’s insecticide use and 11% of pesticides. Toxic chemicals washing into waterways and entering the ecosystems, is becoming a major source of pollution, especially in developing countries.

Unsustainable cotton farming has resulted in the loss of the Aral Sea in central Asia. In the 1970s, the Aral Sea was the fourth-largest lake in the world. It was an important source of life for the surrounding communities and home to millions of fish. It now covers a mere 10% of its former area. The local Uzbek communities have suffered the loss of livelihoods and food sources while gaining new health impacts. The dust from the lake is carcinogenic and now covers their villages.

Manufacturing in the apparel industry also contributes to the water footprint of fashion. It’s estimated that around 20% of industrial water pollution in the world comes from the treatment and dyeing of textiles, and about 8,000 synthetic chemicals are used to turn raw materials into textiles. Each year, textile companies discharge millions of gallons of chemically infected water into our waterways. It’s estimated that a single mill can use 200 tons of fresh water per ton of dyed fabric. So not only does this consume water, but the chemicals pollute the water causing both environmental damage and diseases throughout developing communities.

In the developing world, where the majority of our manufacturing takes place, factories and textile mills are located directly along or close by waterways such as rivers and canals. These factories use 1.5 billion cubic metres of freshwater each year. In places like Dhaka, Bangladesh, the water is so polluted at times, it isn’t even safe for livestock. Many industries and households that rely on fishing and farming to make a living are now suffering as a result of the lack of freshwater.

Polyester is one of the world’s most common fibres and it uses the same material found in plastic bottles. But when we wash our polyester clothes, thousands of microplastic fibres are washed into the waterways. In fact, it’s estimated that a single polyester garment releases 1,9000 individual plastic microfibers. And guess where these microfibers end up? In our oceans where they threaten ecosystems and end up in our food chain.

But there is something we can do

Did you know that if we extend the lifecycle of our garments (especially our cotton garments) by nine months, we can reduce the water footprint of our clothing by about 5-10%? It’s not a huge amount, but it is a case for buying less, buying well and making it last!

Another great way to reduce your water impact is to buy only certified organic cotton. It’s grown without the use of synthetic pesticides, insecticides and fertilizers, which means you won’t be contributing to water pollution. However, it does still use a vast amount of water to grow the crop, so you’ll want to make it last as long as possible.

Alternative fibre sources are another great alternative to the thirsty cotton crop. Brands using raw, natural, renewable or recycled materials are on the rise. These materials include flax, monocel (a form of bamboo material that uses less water and toxic chemicals), linen and recycled polyester. Seek out brands that use waterless dyeing and low-impact dyes if you can, as they help reduce the pollution of waterways.

Making clothes last

It’s not too hard! While you wouldn’t expect even the best-made t-shirt to last forever – you simply wear items like these to death – stretching its life out by nine months is doable. We have nine simple ways to help keep your wardrobe from absorbing too much of the precious resource and keep your garments around longer.

1. Wash Less Often

Washing our clothes frequently is wasteful and bad for your clothes. Wash them less frequently to keep them longer, while saving time and natural resources. Washing detergents are harmful to the environment and damaging to your clothes. Many clothes, especially sturdier items, like jeans, only need a good airing out before your next wear. Martha Stewart has an elaborate guide for spot treating to avoid the machine wash.

2. Read Care Instructions

It’s not always fun reading instructions, but four lines ain’t so bad, right? The guidelines are there by law and provide you with useful information. Like where a garment was made, how to wash it and what not to do with it (like tumble drying).

3. Removing Stains Before Washing

Got some red wine on your white shirt? No problem. Before you put the garment into the wash, spot-clean the stain. Cold water and a bit of Wonder Soap or laundry detergent will do the trick. Cold water will reduce the chances of the stain setting, especially if it’s those tricky ones like coffee.

4. Be Careful of Machine Washing

If you absolutely must machine wash your clothes, make sure you colour match and save up your clothes to wash as many at once. The settings are important, as spinning on the highest setting will fatigue your clothes quickly. Cold washes are usually best. Some machines even have an eco setting, so make sure you switch over to that to save water as well.

5. Drying in the Sun or Shade

Know whether to dry your clothes in the sun or the shade. The sun is quick to fade clothing, so avoid leaving colours in the sun for too long. However, whites love the sun and get an extra sparkle from the rays.

6. Losing Shape

Some clothes will lose shape when hung on a line. Opt for a clothes horse to lay a special garment flat when you need to take extra care not to disfigure.

7. Be Careful of the Dryer

Read the care instructions! Some clothes are fine in the dryer, but keep in mind that high temperatures can affect the fit. (And it’s also not great for our environmental footprint!).

8. Ironing

Ironing might take a bit of time, but it will keep your garments looking fresh and sharp. But remember, heat can stress the material and fade the colour. To protect your garment, iron on the reverse on a cooler setting. If it’s thicker cotton or linen, you will need more heat. But be careful you don’t burn thinner cotton. If you’re using organic cotton, use a much lower setting, as the chemicals in conventional cotton won’t be there to protect the garment.

9. Hung or Folded

The way you store your clothes will affect their fit and shape. If you’re hanging a heavy knit it will lose its shape and fit. However, a crisp shirt will hate being folded in a draw. Hang it alongside your silk dresses and freshly ironed tees. Despite being a little more expensive, wooden hangers will last longer and take better care of your garments.