Everything you need to know about fashion and water pollution
How are you trying to save water in your daily life?
Do you close the taps when washing dishes? Maybe you choose to take a shower instead of a bath?
But have you ever considered the water footprint of the clothes you buy?
Usually, when we speak about water preservation, protection, and crisis, we don’t immediately think of our wardrobes. Yet, we should. Everything we wear needs water to exist and has likely polluted some water in the process too.
It is time we discuss water in fashion.
The thirsty industry
The fashion industry uses a lot of water. When we say a lot, we mean 79 billion cubic metres of water annually, or enough water to fill nearly 32 million Olympic-size swimming pools. For the comparison, that is more water than what we use for energy production. And even though this is not yet critical (it is less than 1% of the total global use of water), things might change very soon. Some estimate that the industry’s water needs might increase by 50% by 2030. The real issue comes when we realise that the majority of the garment producing countries (like China, India, Bangladesh…) already face water scarcity today, and such a big increase will make the critical situation even worse. We’ll come to this later.
But now, let us focus on an important point: the majority of fashion’s water footprint comes from the manufacturing of the clothes. And everything starts with the cultivation of the fibres.
Cotton is the most popular natural material, counting for almost 40% of all raw materials used in fashion. It is also a very thirsty plant: it takes more than 20,000 litres of water to produce just 1 kilogram of cotton. To put things in perspective, you need approximately the same amount of water to make a single cotton t-shirt as what you would drink in 3 years. Largely, this is because the crop (usually grown as a monoculture) needs lots of irrigation. When this is done intensely and unsustainably, it can deplete the local water resources. The biggest example is the shrinking of the Aral Sea, directly linked to cotton production. To be fair, organic cotton uses significantly less water than this, since it is usually grown on small-scale farms and in a more responsible way. However, fast fashion companies are the biggest buyers of organic cotton today. Scaling up even the most responsible agricultural practices is far from sustainable.
Wastewater and pollution
Yet, fashion’s water footprint doesn’t stop at the harvest. The industry uses a lot of water during manufacturing, especially for washing and dyeing. For example, to dye just 1 kilogram of yarn, you would need about 60 litres of water. That’s a lot of water, especially for many factories situated in places of increasing water scarcity. Moreover, all that manufacturing water has to go somewhere too.
The UN estimated that the fashion industry generates about 20% of the global wastewater. Due to the speed of production, financial pressure on the factories, and the weak governmental regulations, much of that water ends up in nature, and local water systems. An estimated 200,000 tons of fabric dyes end in the waters every year. Most of those dyes are synthetic and contain stuff like acids, sulphur, and bleaches. They are also non-biodegradable. Instead, they bioaccumulate in nature. With time, they release the mentioned toxins and kill life in the rivers, lakes, and eventually the oceans.
One report found out that 70% of rivers in China are polluted largely because of the heavy fashion industry. This means that millions of people don’t have access to clean and safe drinking water today. And that’s only China. Bangladesh, the world’s second-largest garment manufacturing country, is on the path towards the same destiny. The freshwater sources became saturated with fashion waste and have turned into a direct health risk for the people depending on them. The same goes for other clothes-producing countries: the clean water shortages are now a fact for people living near garment factories, across the world. The must-watch movie, RiverBlue, documents this brutal reality very well.
Microplastic in our oceans
The fashion wastewater eventually ends up in our seas and oceans, further affecting marine life. As if that wasn’t enough, there’s another pressing issue when it comes to fashion and oceans: microplastics.
Remember how we mentioned that cotton is the most popular natural material? Well, polyester is even more popular, making over 55% of the share in the total global fibre market. It is a plastic-based material, meaning that when we wear such clothes, they shred microplastics. Microplastics are plastic fibres that are less than 5 mm in length, and as such, they easily go through most of our water filters and end in the water systems. Globally, the fashion industry is responsible for almost 35% of global microplastics pollution.
Washing and taking care of our clothes play an important role here. Washing only 6kg of polyester releases 137 000 fibres. Just like with fabric dyes, these fibres don’t biodegrade. Instead, they have a profound and lasting impact on the ecosystems.
Ok, we know that was a lot of heavy facts, so how about some good news?
The first good news is that the way we wash our clothes can already reduce the number of microfibers released during the cycle. Similarly, using special microfibers-catching bags or products, like our PLASTIKINI bag, can further reduce the impact our clothes have on the water.
However, we don’t think that the responsibility should fall solely on the consumer. We strongly believe that it is time for the industry to address the water problem.
What are we doing about this?
Because of everything we said above, we at GNGR Bees take our water footprint seriously. Apart from making a laundry bag that helps us reduce microfibers, we also think about how we design and make our clothes. We chose to use reclaimed and recycled plastic, to reduce the plastic pollution in our landfills and oceans, instead of adding more. Our material also uses less water and energy than virgin polyester.
Of course, we don’t pretend that this solves everything. In fact, as we wrote recently, no single action (or even a combination of them) is ever enough. Thus, we are constantly looking for what we can do more. Currently, we are discussing with our suppliers and are trying to find a way to reuse the water created during the dyeing process. Speaking of which, we mostly use the dye-sublimation process. It means that we use heat and pressure to apply (print) our dyes deep into the fibres, to get durable and vivid colours. The process comes with minimum waste and it doesn’t require much or any water. As such, there is almost no wastewater. In the future, we committed to further minimise our dependency on water.
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