Read, Debate: Engage.

How the fashion industry pollutes our water

April 25, 2024
topic:Ocean Pollution
tags:#fashion, #fast fashion, #ocean pollution, #groundwater, #water pollution
located:Bangladesh, Thailand, Vietnam, USA, Spain, Japan, China, Cambodia
by:Gerardo Bandera
Greater public awareness of the climate crisis has pressured large retailers to ‘green’ production chains and make them more sustainable, but the bulk of the work is yet to be done.

The fashion industry emits up to 10 percent of global carbon emissions and continues to be the second-largest consumer of water. The culture generated by fast fashion to update our wardrobes for this year’s new look has also generated high levels of water pollution, contamination and waste with detrimental effects on the environment and human health.

The past two decades have seen an unprecedented growth for the fashion industry. Consumers today purchase 60 percent more clothing than they did 15 years ago, while clothing waste has also increased due to early discardment, overproduction and cheap fabrication; nearly one third of the clothing produced is burnt or trashed before being sold.

The increase in demand generated by fast fashion’s culture has induced destructive consequences for the world’s water supply, 93 billion cubic metres of which is used by the fashion industry annually. Below are the main sources of the textile industry’s water pollution.

Sources of water pollution by the fashion industry

Cotton farming

The most widely used natural fabric for clothing, cotton requires large amounts of water for irrigation and treatment, depleting local freshwater and groundwater resources. To increase the production required to fulfil this high demand, pesticides and fertilisers are often used to increase cotton output.

Apart from damaging the quality of soil and destroying microbial communities underground, the runoffs from the agrochemical-contaminated water pollute nearby water sources - posing threats to local biodiversity and human health.

Synthetic fabric production

Wastewater from the production of synthetic fabrics, which requires 70 million barrels of oil per year, releases lead, arsenic, benzene and other pollutants into water sources. 

Contaminated wastewater

Fabric dying and treatment practices generate about 20 percent of the world’s wastewater. In Bangladesh alone, 1,500 billion litres of water are used annually in garment factories and mills, depleting the region’s dwindling groundwater resources and transporting byproducts and harmful contaminants to nearby water sources.

The textile finishing and dying process infuses many chemicals into the water, including oil, phenol, dyes, pesticides and heavy metals, like copper, mercury and chromium. The polluted water can make its way to nearby streams and groundwater and may then be used for irrigating crops, therefore contaminating food sources with carcinogenic chemicals.

Microfibre pollution 

Little visible but highly dangerous, the textile industry’s pollution of water sources with microfibres (tiny synthetic fibres) has worried environmentalists all over the world, especially since these can spread across rivers and oceans. Some studies have estimated that up to 85 percent of human-made pollution on shorelines is from microfibres, while others have warned that half a million tonnes of microfibres are discarded into the oceans annually.

These fibres are released not only during the production process, but also after purchasing, when clothes are worn and washed. Microfibre pollution from synthetic materials can take hundreds of years to decompose and can disrupt underwater ecosystems. In fact, traces of microfibres from synthetic sources, like polyester and nylon, have been found in fish and other seafood destined for human consumption.

Fashion’s Biggest Water Polluters

The world’s largest water polluters hide under murky waters since most companies do not monitor their contributions to the sector-wide issue, and those who do are hesitant to disclose this information out of fear of backlash. Recent studies have shown that only one in 10 fashion companies is conscious of its water pollution levels, while less than a quarter of companies have set goals to reduce water pollution across the supply-chain.

In the past, the world’s largest retailers, such as Zara, Puma and Armani, have been linked to water pollution scandals in China. Companies like Gap Inc. and H&M have acknowledged their role in water pollution and have enforced measures to reduce water-use and contamination across their manufacturing process. Whether these promises are true commitments or just greenwashing campaigns to appease customers’ environmental consciences remains to be seen.


Sustainable Cotton Farming

The World Wildlife Fund has started the Better Cotton Initiative, which seeks to promote sustainable cotton farming that minimises its impact on the environment. The enterprise assists farmers in sustainable water management, reducing agrochemical use and promoting decent work environments.

Shopping from retailers that source their cotton from certified organic cotton vendors can help promote sustainable farming and reduce their own impact on the environment.

Choose sustainable materials

To reduce their environmental impact, consumers should choose garments made of natural fibres that require less water in the manufacturing process, such as linen or organic cotton, and when possible, reduce the purchase of synthetic fibres that release microfibres, such as nylon and polyester. 

Customers can look for clothing with certifications of limited chemical content, such as OEKO_TEXⓇ or GOTS.

Reduced Consumption and production

While fashion is a powerful method of self-expression and the fashion industry has been integral to economic growth and development, the current rates of consumption and production cannot continue without exacerbating the dangerous consequences for the environment.

Consumer culture should shift towards long-term use of quality garments, repairing or donating older garments and purchasing second-hand clothing. On the production side, companies will have to decouple themselves from the expectation of rampant growth and focus instead on providing quality products that stay in style longer.

Image by ILO/Aaron Santos

Article written by:
Profile Pic Full
Gerardo Bandera
Editor, Author
Bangladesh Thailand Vietnam USA Spain Japan China Cambodia
Embed from Getty Images
Cotton from unsustainable sources uses large amounts of water for production, which is polluted with fertilisers and pesticides.
© Prashanth Vishwanathan/Bloomberg via Getty Images
Embed from Getty Images
A garment-dyeing factory in Bangladesh. The dyeing process releases colorants and harmful chemicals in wastewater when untreated.
© Kazi Salahuddin Razu/NurPhoto via Getty Images
Embed from Getty Images
Toxic foam builds up in India's Yamuna River as a result from industrial wastewater and pollution.
© Anindito Mukherjee/Getty Images
Call to Action
Clean water: a drop of life
Support now