Thoughts about… the Water in our Wardrobes: Part 1

Watching Blue Planet Live on the BBC in March 2019, thoughts turn to the beauty and majesty of our oceans, which cover approximately 70% of our planet’s surface. Of course, the achievements of the original Blue Planet documentaries led by Sir David Attenborough were to bring attention to the damaging effect of plastics on the ocean’s ecology and wildlife, all caused by humans.

The latest version of Blue Planet live delivered the same message, showing turtles tangled up in plastic waste and dolphins playing dangerously with a plastic bag. Plastic has become a widespread component of our oceanic systems, with devastating effects. Every piece of plastic that we throw away can potentially end up in our oceans, where it can cause harm to wildlife, and ultimately break down into microplastics that then enter back into our food chain and are consumed by us.

Water is a vital part of our existence and one of the biggest uses of water is the Fashion & Textile Industries. Water is vital in every stage from growing cotton fibre, processing and colouration of fibres, yarns and fabrics all the way through to washing our clothing and home textiles. The world wide fund for nature WWF states that producing one cotton T-Shirt uses 2,700 litres of water. That is enough for one person to drink for 900 days, which is about 2 ½ years! In a recent report by charity Wateraid “Beneath the Surface: The State of the World’s Water 2019” they highlight the severity of the water crisis in the world, with one in nine people not having access to clean water close to home. For most people in the UK, we can access clean water just about anywhere, at home, in our shops, public water fountains are popping up in our cities. We are very lucky, access to water is something I certainly take for granted.

It’s one thing to be aware of our direct water consumption, but another when it comes to buying clothes, bedding and food. WaterAid highlight this in the report mentioned, they call water used in the production and manufacturing of goods, food and beverages “virtual water”. This virtual water can have a huge impact on a country such as India who have largescale water scarcity issues. So much of the water that is physically available is used in the production of goods for export that this depletes the amount available domestically. (See Fig. 1)

Thoughts about… the Water in our Wardrobes: Part 1

Fig 1 WaterAid 2019: Comparison of water scarcity by country

Although the production of goods for export is beneficial for a country’s economic growth, this should be balanced with the amount of water used in the production of the goods and the impact of that upon the country’s population. WaterAid encourage consumers to make more thoughtful choices when buying goods and to prioritise water for basic needs over consumption of exported goods.

There is also a role to be played by corporations and this is where the work of the Technologist comes in. Some corporations are highlighted for work done so far, such as Mars, Diageo and H&M. The report recommends that companies have an active water stewardship strategy where a company reviews its practices to ensure that water use is prioritised for basic human needs in the communities it works and manufactures in. This is not only the right thing to do but can be an added selling point for consumers also.

A Technologist can help with some innovative responses to this global challenge and highlight the importance of responsible water use in a number of ways.

Firstly, by researching and being aware of how much water is used at every stage of production, this will help gather the data and insights needed to make water usage a company priority and commitment.

Secondly, to encourage suppliers to recycle any water that is used.

Thirdly by working with suppliers to use less water. For the growing of cotton, this could be to work with an organisation such as Better Cotton who partner with farmers to adopt practices that use less water in the growing of cotton. When it comes to the dyeing of fabric, many advancements have been made. For cellulosic the cold pad batch method can be used which reduces the amount of water compared to continuous jet dyeing, although it takes longer and shade control is more challenging. For synthetic fabrics solutions such as DyeCoo which don’t use any water to add colour to a fabric can be adopted.

There are many opportunities for Technologists to research and identify water usage in the products manufactured by their company, and best placed to find other ways of doing things, to innovate. Technologists could help their company be a pioneering champion for water! As water is such a fundamental part of life on earth, it makes sense to prioritise how water is used and distributed, reduce the amount of ‘virtual’ water in our wardrobes and treat this precious resource with the respect it deserves.

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By Ann Marie Newton on behalf of QHQ


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