By Dr. Andrew Bodey, Best Foot Forward
It may not seem obvious, but water and fashion go hand in hand. With water scarcity becoming a major problem worldwide, what is the apparel industry doing to reduce its water footprint?
With regards to ethics, the apparel industry has traditionally focussed on issues such as fur and sweatshops. But ethics are much broader, and encompass a range of environmental issues. For the apparel industry, water is of key concern. Plentiful supplies of clean water are essential for human health and wellbeing… but they are running out. Half of China’s surface water is now too polluted to be drinkable, and a quarter is unusable even for industrial purposes.
NGOs are increasingly vocal about water. Over the past year, Greenpeace has launched three reports in its Dirty Laundry series. The reports have hung big brands out to dry for the water impacts associated with their supply chains.
We have been working with an iconic apparel brand that is keen to understand its water impacts and make improvements. Some of the results would be applicable across the sector. Per tonne, leather and cotton consume a lot of water, wool consumes less, and the synthetics consume very little. There is considerable geographic variation in water consumption and the source of this water varies too. Where rainfall is light, farmers must rely heavily on water reserves, which can cause a range of social and environmental problems.
Cotton (or ‘white gold’ as it is sometimes known) comprises 40% of the global textiles industry. It is so thirsty and so commonly grown, that in water-scarce areas, water reserves are being seriously damaged. Water diverted from the Aral Sea, largely for cotton production, is literally drying the area up. The sea once supported a fishing industry that employed some 60,000 people, but the industry has now been eliminated.
Water impacts have major economic consequences. China loses up to $36 billion each year because of water shortages. It loses an incredible 10% of its GDP through problems relating to pollution. The Chinese government may start to demand higher standards from textile factories, and the apparel industry needs to be ready to act.
In addition to water, cotton requires a lot of fertiliser and pesticide, which leads to eutrophication (excessive growth of plant life, leading to loss of animal life) and toxicity in rivers and lakes. Cotton supplies may soon be threatened by water scarcity and legislation, and the apparel industry will find its main raw material expensive and difficult to access in large quantities.
What can apparel companies do about their water footprints? They can start by exploring their supply chains to see where their largest impacts are. Are thirsty crops being sourced from areas of high water scarcity? Are textiles being dyed where pollution standards are low? This water sustainability assessment can be used to inform an impact reduction strategy.
Cotton’s impacts can be reduced through good farming standards. The Better Cotton Initiative (BCI) is pioneering such standards, and has the backing of Marks & Spencer, Levi Strauss, H&M and Adidas. BCI trials are showing promising results for reductions in water and pesticide use – and lower costs as a result. Apparel companies can also switch to alternative materials. Flax and hemp (the sustainability super-crop) can partially replace cotton. Unlike cotton, hemp requires very little irrigation, pesticide or fertiliser. Greenpeace is calling for toxic discharges to be phased out from textiles factories, and Puma and Nike have pledged to do so by 2020.
Just like fur and sweatshops, water is both an ethical and a business issue, and tackling it is key to improving reputations and de-risking supply chains. In short, good water management is essential for the long-term prosperity of the apparel industry.