Fashion Industry and Water Waste: 4 Ways to Be More Sustainable

water pours out of a nozzle with a hand underneath - Fashion Industry and Water Waste
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Written by guest contributor, Emily Folk.

Fashion Industry and Water Waste

When you go shopping, you consider so much about each garment you try on: How does it feel? How does it look on? How do I have to wash it? Is it worth the price on the tag? But many shoppers neglect to ask themselves another important question about the fashion they buy: how much water was wasted in the making of this item? 

It turns out the apparel industry is, often times, a very wasteful one. Consider this statistic: it can take a whopping 2,700 liters of water to produce a single cotton t-shirt. You likely have a dozen of those sitting in your dresser drawers, meaning your wardrobe played a part in the industry’s ongoing neglect of its water usage. In fact, factories and textile mills can use 1.5 billion cubic meters of freshwater each year.

Fortunately, some brands and manufacturers have realized the wasteful side of their industry. Large shops – H&M is a great example – have started non-profits dedicated to finding solutions to the fashion world’s waste problem. And, yet, there are still so many ways for designers to reduce, reuse and recycle.

Let’s start with water first. Here are four ways the fashion industry can cut down on water usage.

1. Recycling Cotton 

As previously mentioned, cotton is a huge drain on the world’s water supply. As such, a great way for the industry to cut down on its water use is to reduce its dependence on new cotton crops and opt for recycled fabric instead.

Many companies already do this, but new methods are being rolled out regularly. The latest — found through the non-profit started by H&M — is an earth-friendly solution that breaks down old, discarded content into a new material that can be re-spun and made into new clothes.

2. Supply from Sustainable Farms 

It is up to manufacturers to decide from where they’ll source the materials necessary to make clothes. Another way to cut down on water use is to start at the source and choose only producers who subscribe to earth-friendly processes that cut down on water waste.

A farmer’s over-usage of water can be detrimental to more than just an area’s overall supply of H2O. Animals in the area can also be devastated by the lack of water, especially when it’s hot outside. Heat stress can cause livestock and other animals to fall over, and many will never get back up because they are so weak. An abundant supply of fresh water can prevent this fate, though, so farmers with a responsible water plan are a must.

3. Streamline Production Processes

In order to create a single garment, so much gets clipped, hemmed and thrown away. The wasted materials then become wastes of water, since water goes into the production of many of the fabrics that designers use to create their clothes.

With this in mind, all fashion designers should scrutinize their own production processes in order to make the most out of every square inch of fabric, every spool of thread and every piece of machinery that uses water or another source of electricity. Cutting down on resources overall is a surefire way to reduce water usage, too.

4. Dye Clothes Responsibly

Fabric dyes are important to designers because they allow them to create garments in the exact hue they envision. However, dyes are also notorious for slipping into the water supply, polluting it in a way that’s hard to purify.

Therefore, the fashion industry can and should adhere to strict dyeing policies. Something as simple as installing a nozzle on a hose to give water a more direct flow can help the spread of dyes. Fashion industry leaders can also push for research in the realm of textile dyes to find less damaging formulations. In doing so, they’ll be able to reduce one of the greatest impacts the fashion industry has on water.

These four are just a few of the many ways fashion brands can better manage their water usage and respect for the world’s supply of water. With time, these four changes — and any others put in place by the fashion industry — can have a hugely positive impact on the world at-large.

Emily Folk is a freelance writer and blogger from Lancaster, PA. She covers topics in conservation, sustainability and renewable energy. To see her latest posts, check out her blog Conservation Folks, or follow her on Twitter.

Brands That Reduce Water & Textile Waste (affiliate links):

  • Tonle – A zero waste clothing line that uses factory deadstock and designs their own clothing to make use of every last piece of fabric.
  • Everlane’s Denim Collection – The denim factory recycles 98% of its water and uses energy-reducing practices throughout the manufacturing process.
  • Levi’s Waterless Collection – Uses up to 96% less water than traditional processes
  • Zero Waste Daniel – Daniel uses fabric scraps from New York’s Garment Industry to make fashion foward, one-of-a-kind pieces.

More in Materials

Leah Wise

Leah Wise is the founder of StyleWise Blog. She has been writing, speaking, and consulting on sustainable fashion, the fair trade and secondhand supply chain, and digital marketing for over ten years. An Episcopal priest, Leah holds a B.A. in Religion from Florida State University and an M.Div. from Yale Divinity School. When not working, you can find her looking for treasures at the thrift store.

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