It might not seem obvious at first glance, but the fashion industry is responsible for a huge amount of water usage and pollution.
On World Water Day, we take a look at some of the ways our wardrobe impacts water globally.
Research by WRAP found that the total water footprint of clothing in active use in the UK in 2016, including the water consumed overseas to make our clothes, was 8 billion m3 of water. Most of this water is used during the growing and production of fibres, although colouration, fabric finishing and domestic washing also require water.
Water is used most intensively in agriculture, particularly in cotton growing, which places a burden on the places where it is grown.
The high costs of producing cotton increase pressure to maximise the yields per hectare for the volume of water available. This in turn incentivises greater use of fertilisers and pesticides, which further affects the water supply as the run-off pollutes local water sources. The global average water footprint for 1 kilogram of cotton – equivalent to the weight of one man’s shirt and a pair of jeans is 10,000 – 20,000 litres, depending on where it is grown.1
The Ellen MacArthur Foundation pointed out in their 2017 report that, according to World Bank data, many of the key cotton-producing countries were under high water stress, including China, India, the US, Pakistan, and Turkey.2
The Aral Sea in Central Asia was once the world’s fourth largest lake, but has now shrunk to a fraction of its former size due to a major water diversion project by the Soviet Union in the 1960s, in order to convert the arid plains of Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, and Turkmenistan into farms for cotton and other crops.
Many of the chemicals used to finish and dye fabrics and garments are known to be harmful to the environment and to human health.
Some of these chemicals include:
- Solvents: used to dissolve substances in a solution (eg to dissolve pigments in a dye solution). Some solvents that are hazardous to human health are trichloroethylene, benzene and methanol.
- Surfactants: (detergents, wetting or foaming agents, softeners and antistatic agents) used in many stages of clothing production. Alkyl phenol ethoxylates are commonly-used surfactants which are endocrine disruptors, meaning they could mimic or interfere with the hormones of mammals. Commonly used softeners which are intentionally applied to the fabric are DHTDMAC, DSDMAC and DTDMAC.
- Water and soil repellents are used particularly in outdoor clothing, often using fluorinated or perfluorinated compounds. Some of these substances, including PFOA and PFOS (sometimes called C8 technology), have been known for many years to have hazardous properties. This has led to the increased use of other perfluorinated substances. However, many of these (including those sometimes known as C6 or C4) have been shown to have problematic properties as well – including altered immune and thyroid function, liver disease, lipid and insulin dysregulation, kidney disease, adverse reproductive and developmental outcomes, and cancer.
- Dyes: azo dyes and others can be very toxic and are often persistent in the environment. Some also contain heavy metals such as lead or cadmium, which are known to damage the immune system.
- Plasticisers and phthalates: used to soften plastics lilke PVC for textile applications, eg screen printing / coating fabrics. Phthalates are one common group of plasticisers, which are used in large quantities in the print, often around 30-60% of the total composition. Several phthalates have hazardous properties, such as being toxic to reproduction. Because phthalates are not chemically bound to the PVC but can leach out, users are likely to be exposed to and ingest the phthalates from the textile, for example through fibre dust. Children can get exposed when chewing on the printed textile. More and more brands are trying to use less phthalates in their products. Alternative plasticisers exist, as well as alternatives to PVC.
- Crease resistance, often achieved using formaldehyde, which is known to be carcinogenic to humans and is linked to allergic contact dermatitis.
- Biocides and pesticides: used to prevent damage to crops and to finished textiles/clothing. They are designed to be hazardous for the target organisms and as such it is difficult to prevent them from also being toxic to other organisms. Fibres including cotton, which is conventionally grown with a lot of pesticides, may contain residues of these pesticides.
Industrial waste water pollution
Conventional textile dyeing and ‘wet processing’, (the processing stage at which textile substrate is treated with colourants and/or chemicals), requires large amounts of fresh water withdrawal and disposal of wastewater afterwards.
WATCH: India: How our clothes cause water pollution
In addition to dyeing, water is used as a solvent in many pre-treatment and finishing processes, such as washing, scouring and bleaching. At the end of the dyeing process, an estimated 10–20 percent of the dye typically remains. Wet processing wastewater also contains bleach, detergent and other processing chemicals. If it is not treated, or not treated adequately, prior to disposal it will cause water pollution.3
Here are two examples of water pollution from textile manufacturing:
Citarum River, Indonesia
There are more than 2,000 companies near the Citarum River in West Java, Indonesia – mostly textile factories built near the river because they need large quantities of water. In recent years they have discharged enormous amounts of chemical waste directly into the river.m Lead levels are more than 1,000 times the US Environmental Protection Agency drinking water standard and levels of other heavy metals such as aluminium, iron and manganese are above the international average.
Being exposed to these kinds of chemicals at work is obviously highly unsafe if proper precautions are not taken. Devastatingly, there are many reports of textile industry employees being harmed or even killed as a result of exposure to chemicals or chemicals causing unsafe working environments.
In January 2022, six employees at a textile dyeing and printing mill in India died and 22 others were hospitalised after inhaling toxic fumes leaking from a chemical tanker parked near the factory.
In June 2021 in Morocco 60 workers were taken to hospital with respiratory problems after a chemical leak.
At least 16 employees of a luggage bags factory in Pakistan were killed in September 2021 after a short circuit caused a highly flammable chemical to catch fire.
The scale of the textile industry’s contribution to the release of microfibres into our waterways has been revealed over the past decade or so.
About 35% of microplastics ending up in the oceans (about 0.5 million tonnes) are from washing synthetic textiles.4
A team at Plymouth University found that acrylic garments released nearly 730,000 tiny synthetic particles per wash, five times more than polyester-cotton blend fabric, and nearly 1.5 times as many as polyester. Some studies have suggested that these microplastics have the potential to poison the food chain, build up in animals’ digestive tracts, reduce the ability of some organisms to absorb energy from foods in the normal way and even to change the behaviour of crabs.
What can we do?
Ask questions of brands about their production processes and how they reduce their use of water and of harmful chemicals, and how wastewater from manufacturing facilities is treated.
Join Remake’s call for action for improved safety in the textile industry via the Pakistan Accord, which seeks to give garment industry employees routes to raise health and safety concerns about their workplace.
Wash your clothes less frequently, and wash synthetic clothing in a bag that catches microfibres and prevents them from getting into our waterways. But bear in mind that WRAP say “washing and care has less impact on the overall water footprint which occurs largely during fabric production. Compared to the quantity used in fibre production, the quantity of polluted water arising from washing clothes is very little.” valuing our clothes 2017, p.35.
Choose to reuse, buy secondhand and keep your clothes in use for as long as possible to reduce the amount of new clothing you buy.
Support less chemically-intensive ways of making clothes, including those made from low impact fibres like linen, and those coloured with natural dyes.
Find out more about World Water Day https://www.worldwaterday.org/
Fancy getting deeper into the fashion/water issue? Come + watch RiverBlue with us tomorrow night!
It’s our first Film Club event + we can’t wait. Pay what you can, bring snacks, stick around after to chat/help tidy – info below.
1 Valuing Our Clothes, WRAP, 2017
2 A New Textiles Economy, Ellen MacArthur Foundation, 2017
3 THE STATE OF THE APPAREL SECTOR 2015 SPECIAL REPORT: WATER, Global Leadership Award in Sustainable Apparel, 2015, p.17
4 Primary Microplastics in the Oceans: a Global Evaluation of Sources Authors: Julien Boucher, Damien Frio, p.20 and 21