SDG #6: Clean Water and Sanitation
Water is the essence of life on Earth, and in much of the developed world, access to clean water is an inalienable right. Regardless, despite greater access to clean water in recent years, 40% of the global population faces water scarcity, indicating major disparities. Currently, water stress affects over two billion people, and the planet has lost over 70% of natural wetlands over the last century (Clean Water and Sanitation n.d.). These figures are expected to increase, as climate change gives way to continued temperature rise.
In tackling these pervasive challenges, the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goal 6: Clean Water and Sanitation, seeks to ensure availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all by 2030. Comprehensive in scope, its ambitious targets include encouraging hygiene, investing in adequate infrastructure, and protecting and restoring water-related ecosystems.
A Thirsty Industry
Fashion, a top global polluter, is the third-largest industry consumer of water. Each facet of its complex supply chain heavily depends on this resource--from the irrigation of cotton crops, the production of fibers, all the way through to the washing of textiles post-production. The industry consumes 79 billion cubic meters of fresh water annually-- two percent of all freshwater extraction worldwide and over 10% of the water used by all industries. Without significant progress, this amount of consumption is set to double by 2030 (Common Objective n.d.).
The most water usage occurs in the growing and production of fibers, specifically with cotton-- the thirsty crop used in one-third of textiles globally. To better illustrate this, it takes an average of 10,000 liters of water to cultivate just one kilogram of raw cotton--equivalent to the weight of one t-shirt and a pair of jeans. Furthermore, it takes nearly 3,000 liters of water to produce just one shirt (Common Objective n.d.).
In 2019, the UK Parliament’s House of Commons Environmental Audit Committee (EAC) reported sobering findings on fashion’s ecological footprint in Asia which is home to much of the world’s textile production. Cotton growing herein has caused immense water stress, leading many areas to a fight between clean water and cotton production. The Aral Sea in Uzbekistan, formerly one of the world’s largest lakes, is now 90% dried up due to cotton farming (Water Briefing Global 2019). Though cotton farming thrives near abundant water sources, production hubs in drier regions require additional irrigation, limiting local water supply for consumption and sanitation.
Further along the supply chain, conventional textile dyeing and finishing of raw fibers exacerbate fashion’s environmental toll. It’s estimated that processing one kilogram of fiber--including polyester and other synthetic materials--utilizes between 100-150 liters of water. Textile production also contributes to hazardous chemicals discharged into rivers, further adding to oceanic microplastic pollution. The aforementioned EAC report estimates that the dyeing and treatment of textiles generate 20% of industrial water pollution globally-- deepening water insecurity and threatening human health (Water Briefing Global 2019).
The Ripple Effect -- A Way Forward
In spite of the startling statistics, the most pressing challenges to fashion’s water problem can be solved with a bit of ancestral wisdom and technological innovation. Findings demonstrate that the water pollution impact of organic cotton is 98% less than conventional cotton production, indicating a way forward.
Undoubtedly, combatting the water crisis necessitates a collaborative approach amongst governments, fashion retailers, water companies, and even washing machine manufacturers. Governments in clothing-manufacturing hubs like India and China are urged to enhance compliance and regulations for major retailers doing business in these regions. Experts also advocate for policies pushing retailers to adopt full traceability methods. Widely used in other modernized industries, traceability enables brands to digitally trace their raw materials to sustainable, ethical sources. This also helps in working with suppliers to reduce and remove water use from dyeing, stone washing, and finishing.
Ultimately, it’s up to the fashion brands themselves to impart the greatest, lasting change. Doing so requires aligning with mission-driven associations, disseminating knowledge, and proactive solutions to the environmental crisis. Member-based organizations like Fairtrade International and Better Cotton Initiative enable retailers to adhere to international standards and farming programs for sourcing sustainable materials. Aiming to quash exorbitant water consumption and artificial irrigation, solutions like Plexus Cotton work with farms in Africa to cultivate cotton crops, ensuring they’re rain-fed only.
Resorting to innovation, big retailers are adopting waterless technologies for dyeing and processing textiles. For example, G-Star RAW’s Elwood RFTPi jean, coined the ‘Most Sustainable Jeans Ever’, utilizes a clean indigo dyeing process in its production (Benson 2018). This results in 70% fewer chemicals and no salt, saving water and leaving clean liquid waste.
At the very end of the supply chain, consumers have significant autonomy when it comes to purchasing clothing with sustainability in mind. While brands can instruct consumers on reducing water and energy use in washing, it’s up to the buyers themselves to adhere to the idea that their choices are like a ripple effect -- impacting their immediate surroundings and the planet.
Author: Kristen Tadrous
Editor: Hailey Matarese
Anon, 2018. The Issues: Water. Available at: https://www.commonobjective.co/article/the-issues-water [Accessed June 11, 2020].
Anon, 2019. New report warns fashion is depleting world's water resources and damaging the environment. WaterBriefing Global. Available at: https://www.waterbriefingglobal.org/new-report-warns-fashion-is-depleting-worlds-water-resources-and-damaging-the-environment/ [Accessed June 11, 2020].
Anon, Goal 6: Clean water and sanitation. Available at: https://www.undp.org/content/undp/en/home/sustainable-development-goals/goal-6-clean-water-and-sanitation.html [Accessed June 11, 2020].
Benson, S., 2018. It Takes 2,720 Liters Of Water To Make ONE T-Shirt - As Much As You'd Drink In 3 Years. How The Fashion Industry Is Using And Abusing Water. Available at: https://www.refinery29.com/en-us/water-consumption-fashion-industry [Accessed June 11, 2020].