Ask the expert: the water issues

Posted in Life
by Anna Brismar on 27 March, 2015

These are the most pressing water-related challenges facing the fashion and textile industry today.

Every other week, Make it last’s sustainability expert Anna Brismar of Green Strategy answers questions about fashion and sustainability. Have a question you want answered? Send it here! And read more about what sustainable fashion really is, or at least how we define it with the help of Anna, here.

This week’s question:

Water has become a growing concern for the fashion industry. Could you give us a summary of key water issues that need to be addressed by the industry from a sustainability perspective?

Anna Brismar: Yes, freshwater is today a central issue for the fashion and textile industry. Not only is freshwater an essential ingredient in the cultivation of natural fibers, such as cotton, but also it is a recipient of large volumes of polluted water from dyeing facilities and fabric factories. In addition, water is used as a solvent in various stages of fabric processing, such as washing, dyeing and chemical treatment. Helping to ensure responsible use of water at all stages of production should therefore be top priority for the fashion and textile industry. Fortunately, over the last five years, numerous fashion brands and chains have begun to seriously address water issues across their supply chains, either through company driven work (such as Nike, Puma, Adidas and Levis) or through industry collaborations (such as STWI). This year’s Global Leadership Award in Sustainable Apparel (GLASA) also has water as its overarching theme.

To summarize, the most pressing water-related challenges facing the fashion and textile industry today are:

How to select the most sustainable fiber type and fabric during design and sourcing

There are large differences between fiber types in terms of how much water that is generally used in production. For example, conventional cotton is the most water-consuming crop of all fiber types, while polyester is the least water dependent. Yet, compared to conventional cotton, better cotton and organic cotton require significantly less water. Designers and buyers at fashion companies thus have a great opportunity to select those fiber types and fabrics that have the smallest water footprint during production. Both the fiber type and the farm region here need to be considered.

How to make efficient use of water for crop cultivation on farmlands

Of all fibers, cotton is the most common type within the textile industry next to polyester. However, conventional cotton depends on vast amounts of water for cultivation. Although there are significant geographic variations globally across farm regions (depending on hydro-climate and soil conditions), cotton is generally highly water dependent. On most farmlands, cotton crops are fed with both rainwater and irrigation water, of which the latter is diverted from rivers, lakes or aquifers. In Turkey, for example, on average 7,000 liter of water is used to cultivate one kilogram of cotton (considering both rain and irrigation water). One t-shirt typically requires about 0.23 kg of cotton, which has consumed about 1,600 liters of water. Especially in arid regions with low annual rainfall and high evaporation rates, such as in Egypt, Syria and Turkey, farmers need to make very efficient use of the limited rainfall and irrigation water. Rainwater harvesting, drip irrigation, and various organic farming practices are here important strategies to use water more effectively. However, in many countries, the irrigation water is used lavishly without sufficient consideration to other users in society and downstream. Coping with highly unpredictable rainfalls over time, and even fluctuating river flows, are also common challenges for many cotton-producing farmers worldwide.

How to minimize water pollution during fiber, yarn and fabric production

Conventional cotton production also depends on large amounts of insecticides and herbicides, as the cotton crop is highly sensitive to insect infestations and weeds. According to WWF, while only 2.4% of the world’s crop land is planted with cotton, it accounts for about 24% of the global sales of insecticides. In addition, cotton also uses large amounts of fertilizers. All these additives result in the pollution of soils and waters, which poses a threat not only to ecosystems but also to human health.

Moreover, yarn and fabric production involves various steps of water-dependent processing, from washing of the raw material, to dyeing and chemical treatments. In many factories, these processes may result in the discharge of highly polluted water into nearby rivers and lakes. Greenpeace has been highly focused on these issues through its Detox campaign over the last years.

How to make efficient use of water during yarn and fabric manufacturing

The production of yarns and fabrics may not only result in water pollution, which is a widespread problem in countries like India, China, Indonesia and Bangladesh, but also requires large amounts of water. Ensuring efficient use of water at all stages of production is therefore an urgent issue for the textile industry. Over the last years, several new and promising techniques have been developed that could dramatically reduce water use within large dyeing facilities. Commonly, water is used to dilute and disperse the dyeing agents and pigments inside the textiles. With these new techniques, water is not needed at all or in very low quantities. Instead, these innovative techniques rely on high pressure and/or heat in combination with carbon dioxide (see DyeCoo) or air (see AirDye). (Read more here.)

How to allocate water fairly and wisely between competing water users in society

In addition, the fashion industry also needs to consider other water-dependent users in society. For example, water is also needed for food production, other industrial processes, municipal services, and household activities. The key question for governments and policy makers is thus how to allocate water wisely and fairly between competing water users. Competition over water and inevitable tradeoffs are already apparent, and will becoming even more challenging as the world’s developing economies and middle-class populations continue to grow, especially in Asia and Africa.

Pictured: Industrial wastewater containing hazardous chemicals discharged into the Cihaur River.

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