World Water Day: Why Fashion Needs to Take More Responsibility for the World's Water
On Friday, March 22nd, we celebrate World Water Day, a global movement devoted raising awareness for the water crisis. It’s a moment devoted to asking: how can we make sure everyone has access to safe drinking water? The United Nations has pledged to facilitate safe drinking water for all by 2030 as part of its Sustainable Development Goals. Still, we can’t help but wonder, what about the 11 years before that? Approximately 0.007% of the 326 trillion litres of water on the planet is safe drinking water. So where’s it all going?
Every person on the planet has a water footprint; we all use a large amount of water on a daily basis. When we think about reducing our water footprint we think about cutting down on shower time and turning off the faucet when we’re brushing our teeth. Often we don't realise that the majority of our water footprint doesn’t actually come from our own faucets — it comes from the goods we buy and use. Books, furniture and electronics all use huge amounts of water during their production. Still, one of the biggest industries culpable for water waste is fashion. For years, clothing production has been using more than its fair share of water.
World Water Day 2019 is the perfect opportunity to recognise why the fashion industry is a major contributor to the water crisis.
In 2015, the fashion industry consumed 79 billion cubic metres of water – enough to fill 32 million Olympic-size swimming pools. That number is meant to increase by 50% by 2030. But what’s even scarier than thinking about water waste in terms of empty Olympic swimming pools is thinking about it in terms of thirsty people. 1 in 9 people alive today are thirsty. They don’t have access to clean safe drinking water. This is the central concern of the World Water Day movement. Where is all the world’s clean water going? Not to thirsty people, but to thirsty cotton.
2,700 litres of water go into 1 cotton t-shirt. That statistic feels impossible when you hold a cotton t-shirt. Especially if that cotton t-shirt is dry. Where does the water go? Water that is used in production is usually called “virtual water” because we can’t see or feel it from just looking at a product. This virtual water generally consists of the water wasted during the growing of cotton because of inefficient irrigation techniques. When you add in the amount of water it takes to actually manufacture material from the cotton plant and the water used during transportation, you have a lot of empty swimming pools worth of water waste on your hands.
Denim is another huge water consumer in the fashion industry. A single pair of jeans can use up to 7,600 litres during production. Next time you wear a double denim ensemble (also known as a “Canadian tuxedo”) you might want to think twice about how much water waste you’re representing. Note: you should also think twice for other reasons—in our opinion, double denim is only okay if you’re starring in a local Of Mice and Men production.
World Water Day is also an opportunity to acknowledge the problematic nature of laundry machines. At first, doing our own felt like the first moment of adulthood. We took pride in it because it made us feel independent from our parents (despite the fact that we were probably using our parents’ washing machines). When the novelty wore off, the ritual of clothes washing came to symbolise that you have your life together; doing a load made you feel good about yourself and gave you a sense of control in a world full of chaos. But what’s actually happening inside the washing machine? What secrets lie inside the twirling vibrating heartbeat of this enigmatic home appliance? The answer: water pollution.
1 load of washing uses 40 gallons of water (the same amount would hydrate 1 person for 80 days). While this water waste isn't ideal, an even bigger problem here is water pollution. When you wash clothes made from synthetic fabrics (polyester, nylon, etc), they shed microfibres into the washing machine water. A microfibre is a tiny fibre less than 5mm high, but, as we know, little things add up. An average load of laundry releases roughly 700,000 microfibres. Unless they’re caught by sewage treatment plants, those microfibres will end up in the ocean.
Microplastic pollution in the ocean is part of a larger problem. A lot of plastic waste has found a new home on the ocean floor where it wreaks havoc on marine life, destroying natural marine environments and poisoning fish. Society has acknowledged this problem and addressed it with initiatives such as the ban on plastic straws. However, there’s been less of a discussion about microfibre pollution from washing machines. World Water Day 2019 is an opportunity to further that dialogue. Our humble washing machines have seemed so well-meaning in the past, rehabilitating sweaty gym socks, removing unwanted scents, and giving us a true sense of accomplishment every time we do a load. But it’s time to recognise that washing clothes is part of the problem. It’s time to recognise that clothing, as well as straws and plastic bottles, is a major contributor to water pollution.
Water We Doing about it?
In 2010, the United Nations recognised “the right to safe and clean drinking water and sanitation as a human right that is essential for the full enjoyment of life and all human rights.” It is vital that all humans have access to water. It is less vital that all cotton t-shirts have access to water. So why are we prioritising the shirt? The fashion industry has taken far more than its fair share of the available clean water on earth. World Water Day 2019 is the perfect time to reevaluate the water usage of this industry. So what solutions are being offered?
The Better Cotton Initiative was founded by the World Wildlife Fund in 2005. The initiative teaches farmers to use better irrigation techniques and to reduce the use of fertilisers. In some cases, this has led to a 40-50% reduction in water usage during cotton production. Additionally, organic cotton is a far more sustainable alternative to regular cotton. Organic cotton production uses 71% less water than traditional cotton production. Looking out for clothes made from organic cotton is a great first step in reducing our individual water footprints.
In terms of microfibre pollution, it is essential that fashion designers carefully consider which textiles to use in their clothing. Certain fabrics have been proven to pollute more than others, so the problem of microfibre pollution can be best solved at the design stage. Still, as consumers, it’s important to realise that we are voting with our wallets. In other words, when we buy products, we are supporting the ideals and practices of the brand we buy from. As consumers, it’s our job to seek our brands that are ecologically responsible both in the design stage and in the production stage.
World Water Day is the perfect opportunity to consider where all the world’s water is going and where it should be going. It’s a moment to realise that safe drinking water belongs to thirsty people instead of thirsty cotton. It’s a moment to realise that doing laundry isn’t always the answer to everything. Solving the water crisis is daunting and often the statistics are scary. But the solution truly starts on an individual level. It starts with information, and it starts with becoming more conscious consumers in our everyday lives.