May 4, 2024

Fashion x Water x EJ

We’re Running Out of Fresh Water and the Fashion Industry is making it Worse.

Environmental Justice Impacts of Fashion's Water Consumption


The fashion industry's massive water consumption disproportionately impacts communities near production facilities, who face water scarcity and pollution from wastewater. The extensive use of pesticides and insecticides in textile farming contaminates nearby water sources, leading to a myriad of health issues in these communities. The energy-intensive processes of dyeing and finishing fabrics further exacerbate the industry's water footprint.

Local waterways have been polluted and drained, and the consequences are dire: diminished access to clean water, damage to local ecosystems, and serious health risks for nearby communities.

Data Point & Statistics:

  • The fashion industry uses a staggering 93 billion cubic meters of water annually, which is enough to meet the drinking needs of 5 million people for a year. This accounts for 4% of global freshwater extraction. (Source: UN Environment Programme)
  • The fashion industry is the second largest polluter of wastewater globally, contributing 20% of wastewater effluent. This polluted water, often containing harmful chemicals from dyeing and finishing processes, contaminates freshwater sources and poses risks to human health and ecosystems. (Source: Ellen MacArthur Foundation)
  • Studies suggest that fast fashion garments are responsible for 20% more water usage compared to conventional clothing due to their shorter lifespan and increased production frequency. (Source: The Business of Fashion)

Case Study 1: Bangladesh & Dye Pollution

Untreated wastewater containing harmful chemicals from textile factories feed into the Buriganga river in Dhaka, Bangladesh. This jeopardizes the health and livelihoods of riverside communities who rely on the river for their daily needs. The toxic dye pollution turns the river water blue or black, disrupting the local ecosystem, for the people and planet. [1]

Local Community-Based Solution:

Buriganga Riverkeeper is dedicated to protecting the river through educating and empowering local communities.They teach residents about the dangers of pollution, advocate for stricter regulations on industrial waste disposal, and promote sustainable textile production practices.

Case Study 2: Aral Sea & Drought [2]

he Aral Sea in Central Asia was the 4th largest lake in the world, but has now dried up due to the unsustainable textile production for fast fashion.  This insatiable water demand has devastated surrounding communities, displacing fishermen and farmers who relied on the sea for their livelihoods. This has resulted in a public health issue, emitting salts, heavy, metals, and chemical toxins into the air, which have led to higher rates of cardiovascular diseases and cancer in the area.

Local Community-Based Solution:

The Kazakhstan government and the World Bank have constructed an $86 million Kok-Aral dam expected to replenish the northern basin of the Aral Sea, making it 30% larger and 40% deeper. There are future plans to invest into the restoration of the southern sections of the sea to revive pasturelands poisoned by salt and dust storms from the dry lake bed.

Case Study 3: Lake Victoria & Discharged wastewater [3]

Lake Victoria in East Africa, the world's second-largest freshwater body, is facing massive levels of pollution. This is primarily due to industrial waste from nearby textile factories that are not respecting the 200m buffer zone and dumping sewage directly into the lake. This poses a significant threat to the surrounding villages which rely on the lake for fishing and agriculture and to the local ecosystem of native fish and marine life.

Local Community-Based Solution:

AgrAbility for Africa is working to remove industry debris and ghost nets from the lake through hosting community-led monthly clean ups and collaborating with local scuba divers for underwater cleanups. The organization hosts educational and awareness campaigns to empower the local communities to become stewards of their water resources.

Solutions: Consumer-Oriented Actions:

  1. Embrace "Less is More": Resist the urge for impulse purchases and prioritize quality over quantity. Invest in timeless, durable pieces that you'll wear for years to come, reducing the need for frequent replacements and their associated water footprint.
  2. Choose Sustainable Materials: Opt for clothing made from natural, water-efficient fibers like organic cotton, linen, or hemp. These materials require less water to grow and process compared to synthetic alternatives like polyester.
  3. Extend Garment Lifespan: Practice proper care and maintenance to extend the lifespan of your existing clothes. Wash them less frequently, use cold water cycles, and air-dry whenever possible. Additionally, consider repairing minor tears or learning basic sewing skills to prolong the life of your garments.
  4. Support Sustainable Brands: Research and choose brands committed to ethical and sustainable practices throughout their supply chain. Look for certifications like Fairtrade or GOTS (Global Organic Textile Standard) to ensure responsible production methods that minimize water consumption and environmental impact.
  5. Embrace Second-Hand Fashion: Give pre-loved clothing a new life by shopping at thrift stores, consignment shops, or online marketplaces. This not only reduces the demand for new garments and their associated water footprint but also extends the lifespan of existing clothing, minimizing overall waste.