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Wastewater: fashion's grotesk sustainability problem

By Don-Alvin Adegeest


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The water volume consumed by the fashion industry in 2017 was nearly 79 billion cubic meters, enough to fill 32 million Olympic-size swimming pools.

Nearly 20 percent of global waste water is produced by the fashion industry. That figure is easily comprehensible when it is broken down into the production per garment, where 5,000 gallons of water is required to produce just one pair of jeans and a t-shirt. If that t-shirt costs just 5 dollars/pounds/euros at your local H&M, its lifespan is undoubtedly going to be short-lived. This is the current reality of fast fashion and the ongoing discord with environmentalists urging for sustainable practices to save the planet.

Water use to increase 50 percent by 2030

The Global Fashion Agenda (GFA) and the Boston Consultanting Group (BCG) anticipate that water use will increase by 50 percent by 2030. This is critical, because some of the main cotton-producing countries such as China and India are located in areas that are already suffering from high or medium to high levels of water stress. Those levels are projected to become even more severe, as the shortfall between demand and supply of water is projected to reach 40 percent by 2030.

A choice between clean water or cotton production

As water scarcity becomes more extreme, cotton-growing nations and the fashion industry may face the dilemma of choosing between cotton production and securing clean drinking water.

Estimating the value for the world economy of the 39 billion additional cubic meters expected to be consumed annually by 2030, results in 32 billion at stake per year. That is the potential benefit to the world economy if the fashion industry can find ways to consume no more water than it does today.

Cotton production has the largest water footprint

The most significant water use occurs during the production of raw materials—notably in cotton cultivation—but many aspects of textile processing are also water intensive. Additionally, consumers are responsible for further consumption as they wash their clothes. Washing clothes can also have a detrimental effect on the environment, especially because of synthetic materials like polyester that contain plastic fibers. After frequent washes, those fibers break down into microplastics, which can make their way to oceans and harm marine wildlife. A recent article in CNN titled “The world is paying a high price for cheap clothes,” highlights how the fashion industry is harming the planet.

“60 percent of materials used by the industry are plastic fibers and the equivalent of 50 billion plastic bottles are leaked into the ocean through garment wash every year,” Francois Souchet, who leads the Ellen MacArthur Foundation’s Make Fashion Circular program which brings together all the key players to create more sustainable fashion, told CNN Business.

Current technology only allows less than 1 percent of clothing to be recycled into new apparel. “The fashion industry should design clothes with end of use in mind by integrating recyclable materials, such as lyocell, a fiber made from biodegradable wood pulp,” Souchet stated.

“The products are not designed to be turned into new [items] or refreshed in style…the materials that are used mean you cannot economically recycle clothes.”

A large opportunity for value creation awaits the world economy if the fashion industry manages to convert textile waste into raw materials through the use of advanced recycling techniques. To date, the technology is not there to produce this at scale and meet current consumer and corporate demand.

Fashion Revolution co-founder Orsola de Castro told CNN Business that the industry’s focus on circularity is a sign that the biggest companies are “hell-bent on continuing” with their current business model. That means pumping out low-cost clothing with ever shorter lifespans.

It is up to consumers to make an impact, by slowing down, buying less and buying better.

Image via Fuel4Fashion. Article source: CNN Business, “The world is paying a high price for cheap clothes;” Pulse of the Fashion Industry, a report by GFA and BCG.

Global Fashion Agenda
Sustainable Fashion