Friday, 28 October 2016

Your Clothes' Water Footprint

Aside from needing to fuel ourselves every day with food which includes a very changeable amount of virtual water, another of our quotidian actions consists of wearing some sort of clothing. A couple of recent extracurricular activities shifted my attention back to virtual water within this context.

The weekend was spent away, and I was able to view an exhibition on fashion through the decades at the Nordiska Museet in Stockholm.
Perhaps unsurprisingly for generally environmentally-forward Sweden, the ecological aspect was threaded into the curating of the exhibition, providing viewers with awareness of the water cost of something as common as a pair of jeans, estimated to be an incredible 12,000 litres according to their source.

Virtual water cost of jeans - Nordiska Museet, own photo

Every day we have the opportunity to see or, especially in urban centres, are extraordinarily surrounded by advertisements which encourage us to admire, desire and purchase new items of clothing, to the point where we've come up with the expression retail therapy, an established pastime for many.

This fast fashion culture, comprising the speed of production and consumption of fashion, has turned into a regular purchasing habit for many, meaning we have never gone through so many items of clothing and so quickly, and the link to environmental effects and the use of water is profound.

Similarly to food production, the environmental cost of clothing is due to many factors we need to take into consideration.

From the need of water resources during the initial stages relating to growing the materials, such as cotton natural fibres, to the making or processing of materials such as tanning leather, up to the final stages where clothing is sprayed with chemicals, each garment quickly tallies up to vast amounts of water use and water pollution caused during such production.

Let's take cotton, the world's most widely used natural fibre: it makes up for almost half the fibre used to make clothing and textiles globally, and adequate water provision is necessary for its vigorous growth.

This National Geographic video infographic efficiently shows how cotton is a very thirsty crop and every garment requires a lot of water and energy to be washed and dried post-purchase. Take a look.


As the video suggests, thinking of it on a global scale really helps to attempt to imagine the amount of pressure our planet is under, when it comes to manufacturing and taking care of all of our clothing.

The fashion industry's virtual water cost lies, in this case, in the growing of the cotton and the finished product aftercare.
However, while the National Geographic video's solution aims to tackle the issue of taking care of garments by advising to skip drying and the ironing, it omits the issue of all this water used and polluted during the dying of garments.

During the production of cotton items of clothing the fashion industry uses enormous amounts of both energy and water, as well as generating waste and pollution.

Manufacturing water uses include:
  • cooling of machinery (which uses a lot of energy to operate);
  • cleaning and rinsing products, parts and vessels;
  • as a lubricant;
  • as a solvent or reactant in a chemical reaction.
Add to that water used for washing garments during production, de-sizing, rinsing and dyeing...

Considering all these steps, the total virtual water needed for the production of a simple T-shirt or a pair of jeans is really high:

That's the estimated water cost of a single T-shirt!

Your Water Footprint

And here's what a pair of jeans' water footprint looks like according to Stephen Leahy's sources.

The use of chemicals used to turn raw materials into textiles and during the dyeing process end up in water streams causing further pollution, and the same goes with the detergent used once clothes have been purchased and are washed at home.

From a legislation viewpoint, a study of the water footprint assessment of a pair of jeans and the influence of agricultural policies on the sustainability of consumer products concluded that, in that case, the impact of the policy was greater for the condition of the basin's water resources, rather than for the water footprint of the cotton produced to make a pair of jeans, highlighting the need to look at local context (Chico et al.)

Meanwhile, there is a search for alternative sources of fibres to produce clothes in the future, alongside optimisations in terms of more water and energy-efficient home appliances.

So we have adverts telling us to buy new clothes on a weekly basis, keeping demand high, water being used for the growth of clothing raw materials, water used in the manufacturing process, becoming polluted and going back into water systems creating more issues for ecosystems downstream and water used for washing and taking care of the already water-intensive clothes.

While fashion, as a way of expressing our deep cultural values, is an industry that is here to stay, having its need of resources in mind can help us make more informed choices.

Without even delving into social cost of new clothing, a Trucost report exposed how most global industries would not even be profitable, were environmental costs to be taken into account.
This makes me think that as well as pushing for better regulations which consider the fashion industry's effect on the use of limited resources, we, as consumers, also need to make the best decisions possible in order to reduce our water use individually and collectively.

After attending "Thread: Rethinking Fashion, Conscious consumerism: Using our consumer purchasing power to create good" at King's Cross Impact Hub on Tuesday, the other event tying in with water usage, it was reassuring to see that many entrepreneurs have environmental and social sustainability at the forefront and as one of the major features of their clothing brands, whether it was using organic, fairtrade cotton or renting out clothing to avoid items being unused.

Other ways of acquiring clothes can help reduce the environmental pressure of the production of new clothes: purchasing second hand clothes, going to charity shops, trading and exchanging clothes with friends, making the most of clothes we already own before buying more and mending clothes in order to extend their use.

Everything you are wearing needed thousands of litres of water to produce.

How do you think the fashion industry could be more sustainable?
Is the search and use of alternative materials enough to alleviate the strain on resources or should a shift in consuming patterns be addressed seriously?

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