According to Subindu Garkhel, the head of cotton and textiles at the Fairtrade Foundation, making just 2.2 pounds of lint that’s used in clothing requires about 510 gallons of water. That’s roughly the same amount of water that the average person actually drinks in three years—all for material that might cost around $10 dollars to buy. Large, complex items like a pair of jeans might need as much as 2,000 gallons of water.
That’s probably a staggering amount for most people to comprehend, but it’s Garkhel’s job to know the numbers. The Fairtrade Foundation is a nonprofit that works with farmers, businesses, and governments around the globe to set fair standards and pay for textile workers' rights, as well as identify ways to increase sustainability in clothing manufacturing. The fashion and textile industries, Garkhel explained, are dominated by the need for cotton. And one of the most critical factors in turning cotton from an agricultural byproduct to a material we wrap ourselves in is, of course, fresh water.
This is not a good time for fresh water. About 2.3 billion people currently live in water-stressed regions, including 733 million in “high and critically water-stressed countries.” According to the UN, current water consumption trends mean we will only be able to meet 60 percent of our water needs by 2030.
Moreover, even if water is properly conserved for the irrigation of cotton crops, the manufacturing and processing of clothes themselves can devastate ecosystems. A lot of effluent byproduct is discharged into nearby rivers, streams, and lakes, polluting once viable water resources for the billions of people in need of clean water. Textile dyeing ranks as the second-largest polluter of water globally, decimating the productivity of freshwater ecosystems wherever a mill is situated. Holly Syrett, the director of sustainability at the Global Fashion Agenda, an organization dedicated to connecting global fashion brands with sustainable solutions providers, told The Daily Beast that around 20 percent of global wastewater is created by the dyeing and finishing processes from clothing makers.
In the wake of dwindling freshwater resources around the world, fashion houses and textile producers are now reckoning with the environmental impact of their industries. No formal regulations exist, which means the industry has to take its own initiative to develop new approaches and innovations in water conservation.
Some brands and raw material makers are already ahead of the curve. Stay True Organic Farms in Buenos Aires utilizes ancient techniques to create dyes made from sources like onions, avocados, yerba mate plants, wines, and quebracho bark. Though it takes staffers two full days to manually create these dyes from natural ingredients, the result is minimal chemical runoff and pollution into nearby waterways.
But a more efficient, large-scale solution is necessary to combat the global impact of the fashion industry. Many companies simply don’t know where to start, and educating them is the first step. One program Syrett is bullish about is the Apparel Impact Institute’s (AII) Clean by Design (CbD) program, a procedure that mitigates negative environmental impacts of textile manufacturing. The CbD program is “accessible to manufacturers across the globe [to] really address water efficiency,” said Syrett.
One of the most high profile CbD program success stories is Water<Less, by Levi Strauss & Co. Using AII’s Water Risk Atlas as their guide, the famous jean company can identify which of its suppliers are using excessive amounts of water, and asks the worst offenders to reduce their water usage significantly in order to continue business partnerships. To date, the company reports using around 9 million gallons, or around 14 Olympic-sized swimming pools, of recycled water at two facilities following the Water<Less program. The success of the program catalyzed the decision for all Levis facilities to adopt the Water<Less initiative.
For companies who are interested in finding ways to meet sustainability benchmarks, emerging technology can show the way. A new software developed by a company called Jeanologia identifies impacts in four major categories for clothing manufacturers: water consumption, energy consumption, chemical impact, and workers’ health. The software scores individual manufacturing facilities in these criteria and lets the parent company know how sustainable they really are, and how they can be improved.
While promising, these initiatives are far from silver bullets. Complicating the issue is the fact that solutions being put forth to combat climate change may actually end up exacerbating freshwater availability and conservation.
Alexis Morgan, the head of global water stewardship at the World Wildlife Fund’s Vancouver office, pointed to the movement toward regenerative production of cotton as an example of how environmental solutions clash. Regenerative cotton production is a growing method that restores organic carbon in the soil through healthy soil practices. These practices can be any combination of reduced tilling, use of cover crops, crop rotations, and other actions.
Morgan told The Daily Beast that while regenerative methods aid the sequestration of carbon in the soil and limit greenhouse gas emissions, “you may now have a water system that’s far worse off,” because “people are building standards that still don’t account for water.” A company may, for instance, adhere to the standards established by Regenerative Organic Certified—which makes no formal requirements for water use or consumption. While carbon footprints go down, meeting this goal may end up requiring more water, perhaps sourced unsustainably.
It is encouraging to see the fashion industry has an eye on solutions and a willingness to play its part to protect the world’s water reserves. But what the industry ultimately needs—and what the billions who are poised to suffer the brunt of water shortages require—is a formal oversight that can transform how water is used and conserved. The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) created “Green Guides” for companies making environmental claims about their products. While these guidelines include cotton and other fashion commodities, the Green Guides are just that—guidelines. According to a September report from Reuters, the FTC hasn’t updated its guidelines since 2012, opening the door for misleading environment-themed marketing tactics to flood the fashion industry.
Ultimately, the solutions to reduce water use in fashion exists; the industry might simply need its elbow twisted with some regulatory incentives. It’s something the world needs to be thinking about now—the world should not have to face a future where it chooses to be clothed or have its thirst quenched.