We all need water. We all wear clothes. These are basic human needs (thank you Maslow). Yet in the race for faster, trendier, and cheaper fashion, consideration for our waterways and oceans usually comes runner up. We see this at every step of the process.
The fashion industry relies heavily on water, with the growing and production of fibres being the greatest consumer. You only have to go so far as cotton for an example.
It takes as much as 20,000 liters of water to produce a single kilo of cotton, or approximately 2,700 litres to make 1 cotton t-shirt. Now consider multiplying that by the 21% share of the global fibre use for apparel and textiles that cotton controls (cotton is second most used apparel fibre).
In addition to this, it is worth acknowledging that 57% of the world’s cotton production occurs in areas that are already under high or extreme water stress, with only 30% coming from rain-fed farming.
The Aral Sea (or sadly, what is left of it) in central Asia, which was once the world’s fourth largest lake, is a devastating reminder of the effects of water stress on land, biodiversity, and communities.
You may have read that in some places you can tell the colour trend for the season from the colour of the rivers. You might have thought this was a myth or exaggeration, but there is some element of truth to this (check out the documentary River Blue).
This is not surprising when run off from wet processing (for example, dyeing, printing) is often left to pollute waterways, and eventually enter our oceans. This is not only harmful to marine life, but also to the health of those who work in the industry and those who live nearby.
The Citarum River in Indonesia is a clear example of the devastating effects of water pollution from the fashion and textiles industry. Every day the river is used as a dumping ground for industrial waste, domestic rubbish, and chemical fertilisers, by the factories and properties lining its borders. There is no proper waste management system, and little or no regulation. However, residents remain reliant on the polluted water for drinking, bathing, crop irrigation and washing clothes.
If you take a look down at what you are wearing, it’s likely that something you are wearing contains a synthetic fibre. 65% of our clothing is made from these synthetic fibres, the most common being polyester. This is bad news when it comes to our oceans.
Have you heard of micro-plastics? Well synthetic textiles are contributing to 35% of global micro-plastic pollution.
In the same way that threads come away from our clothing, leaving lint in our dryers, synthetic clothing sheds synthetic fibres (or plastic) during both the wash and wear phases. However, unlike our dryer lint, these fibres are so small, no ordinary washing machine filter is able to catch them. Neither are wastewater plants, so they head straight out to rivers, lakes and oceans, and are ingested by marine life (and if we eat seafood, possibly us).