Fashion x Water
We often think of our clothes using water when they’re in the washing machine. Yet washing our clothes represents only one of the many ways our clothes connect to our water supply. In fact, the fashion industry is both a major consumer and a major polluter of water. In the face of a changing climate, and growing water constraints around the world, we think it’s time to bring the impacts of clothing on our water supply into sharp view. Let’s look closely at three ways in which our wardrobes and our waters are linked.
Polyester everywhere: synthetic microfibers in our oceans
Polyester is a synthetic fiber found in 52% of our clothing.  Polyester is a plastic, in fact it is the same material, polyethylene terephthalate (PET), that is used to make plastic bottles. As the world’s most common fiber, polyester is literally everywhere. When we wash our polyester clothes, thousands of microplastic fibers shed into the water supply. How many fibers are we talking about? One scientist studying polyester pollution has found that each time we wash a polyester garment, 1,900 individual plastic microfibers are shed into the water supply. 
These fibers eventually end up in our oceans at a shocking rate, where they threaten countless delicate ecosystems. Microplastic fibers make up 85% of the human-made material found on the world’s shorelines.  With polyester production expected to increase from 40 million tons in 2010 to 70 million tons in 2030,  this environmental problem will only continue to escalate.
Dyes in our drinking water
The fashion industry is one of the largest consumers of water in the world, using between 1.5 - 2.4 trillion gallons of water a year.  A significant amount of this water is used in dyeing and finishing of textiles. It’s been estimated that a single mill can use 200 tons of fresh water per ton of dyed fabric.  Dyeing and finishing doesn’t just consumer water, it pollutes it terribly. Consider these facts:
- In 2010, the fashion industry produced 150 billion garments, from fiber weighing 100 million tons. 
- For every pound of textile produced, roughly a pound of chemicals is required. 
- The clothing and textile manufacturing process uses 25% of all chemicals produced worldwide. 
- Around 80% of clothing imports to the US come from developing countries;10 90% of wastewater from these countries is discharged directly into rivers and streams without any treatment. 
- Many of the most frequently used chemicals in the dyeing and finishing process have been identified as dangerous to human health, marine life, and the environment. 
In Bangladesh, a top manufacturer of our clothes, 95% of textile dyeing and finishing factors are located directly along or near rivers, canals, and waterways.  These factories consume 1.5 billion cubic meters of freshwater per year. In Dhaka alone, textile factories emit over 1.3 million cubic meters of polluted wastewater daily. This environmental pollution has a heavy human toll. In the dry season, when water levels are low, waters are so polluted that they cannot be treated to meet safe standards for drinking water. The water is so heavily polluted, it isn’t even safe for livestock. Aside from leaving communities struggling to access safe drinking water, water pollution has reduced productivity for a quarter of the households in Dhaka, who rely on fishing and farming to make a living.
Cotton: a natural fiber that pollutes water
We’ve talked about how cotton is a major consumer of water as well as synthetic pesticides, insecticides, and fertilizers. Here, we’ll delve a bit deeper into the relationship between cotton, fertilizer, and our water systems.
Fertilizer is a substance that is added to the soil to increase its fertility. By increasing the nutrient content in the soil, fertilizers essentially help plants grow. Fertilizer can come from many sources—it can be organic, such as manure from cattle or sheep, or it can be synthetic. Fertilizer impacts the water supply through agricultural runoff, which is defined as the flow of water from a farm into ponds, lakes, coastal waters, and underground sources of drinking water. This runoff process happens naturally, through rain and the melting of snow, as well as after the irrigation of farmland. Any water that exceeds the needs of the crops and soil is either evaporated or becomes runoff. What is the problem with all of this fertilizer runoff from chemical cotton?
In the US alone, 90% of all cotton crops receive synthetic, nitrogen-based fertilizer. , In California, cotton received the most nitrogen of any crop grown in the state (in a study from 2002-2007).  Nitrogen fertilizer contains nitrate, a nutrient that dissolves in water. Water systems contain many plants and algae, and plants use nitrate to grow. When excessive nitrate arrives in the water, plants absorb it and continue growing. As they grow, they absorb an increasing amount of the oxygen available in the water, leaving less oxygen for marine life. This reduced oxygen content, referred to as hypoxia, kills any marine life that can’t move (such as mussels) and makes fish and other mobile marine life move to areas where the water contains healthy levels of oxygen. The result of fertilizer runoff? Literally lifeless water, also known as “dead zones.” Perhaps the most significant of these zones has formed in the Mississippi River Basin and the Gulf of Mexico, which now has 7,700 square miles of water devoid of any marine life.  This type of massive environmental degradation doesn’t happen in isolation, but rather connects back to us. The damage to ecosystems threatens the livelihoods of communities who rely on fishing, and impacts our food chain as well.
Building a water conscious wardrobe
We can’t ignore the fact that our clothing decisions impact the water supply. Nor should we. But the connection between water and our wardrobes is a murky issue with no easy solutions.
When it comes to minimizing your contribution to fertilizer runoff and cotton, choosing certified organic cotton is certainly a wise water choice. Organic fibers are grown without the use of synthetic pesticides, insecticides, and fertilizers. This means that when you buy organic cotton, you are not contributing to water pollution caused by excessive nitrogen fertilizer.
Both polyester shedding and dye pollution pose a harder problem for us to avoid as thoughtful consumers. A few alternatives to standard dyes exist, including natural dyes, waterless dyeing, and low-impact dyes. Natural dyes, despite their name, pose some of the same challenges as synthetic dyes, including the fact that they can’t be deposited in local waterways without treatment. They also require more energy and a greater amount of mordant, which is used to make sure the dye sticks to the material. Waterless dyeing is a relatively new, expensive technology that holds promise for dramatically reducing water consumption. However, it appears to be many years away from being widely adopted due to the high cost of acquiring the machinery. Low-impact dyes are likely the best available alternative to the current industry standard, although they are more expensive. Despite being synthetic, low-impact dyes do not contain toxic chemicals, require less water, and emit less wastewater as a result. Low-impact dyes that are certified by standards such as Oeko-Tex and the Global Organic Textile Standard (among others) are the likely the most sustainable dyeing options available on the market today.
In our own closets, as we have learned more and more about the environmental and social impact of our clothes, it has made us believe strongly that you should only buy clothes you love. Knowing all that goes into a piece of clothing has turned us into slow consumers of fashion. We buy quality. We invest in process. And until the industry changes, we often find ourselves come back to the idea that buying with this philosophy in mind feels like the best we can do.
Will you be thinking of water the next time you shop? How can we buy with water in mind? Tell us your thoughts on water and our closets.
Download our Fact Sheet about Microplastic Fibers in Oceans Download our Fact Sheet about Fertilizer Run-Off in Oceans Download our Fact Sheet about Dye in the Water Supply Download our Fact Sheet about Cotton and Water Scarcity
- Black S, Eco Chic 2008 via http://www.tedresearch.net/media/files/Polyester_Recycling.pdf
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- Muthu, S. S. (2015). Handbook of Sustainable Apparel Production. CRC Press. p. 272
- January Apparel Import Data Show Increased Diversity of US Sourcing Strategies
- UN Water: Statistics Detail
- Eleven hazardous chemicals which should be eliminated
- The Bangladesh Responsible Sourcing Initiative
- Fertilizer Use and Price
- Table 15. Percentage of cotton acreage receiving nitrogen fertilizer, selected States
- Nitrogen fertilizer use in California: Assessing the data, trends and a way forward
- Fertilizer Runoff Overwhelms Streams and Rivers–Creating Vast “Dead Zones”