Water as a fashion victim? The lesser known evils of cotton

When I think of the fashion industry’s footprint on the Earth, my mind usually goes to the images I’ve seen of landfills made up almost exclusively of clothing, or of the plumes of smoke rising from a garment factory. Until recently, I have never given thought to the fashion industry’s impact on water. But I was surprised to learn that the textile industry is the third largest consumer of water in the world.  Clearly, water usage is a reason why the fashion business is among the most environmentally damaging industries around.

But where is all that water going? An astonishing fact I learned is that most of the garments being produced today are made of cotton, and cotton uses excessive amounts of water. This is because cotton plants are very thirsty and need to be watered intensively, especially when grown outside of their natural environment. Then there’s the dye process, which also uses and pollutes massive amounts of water. As a result, a simple cotton t-shirt can require up to 1,500 litres of water!

Up until now, I mistakenly assumed that cotton was also environmentally friendly because it was natural. I was particularly convinced by the ‘organically grown cotton’ label, but I’ve since found that these are not much better because they use just as much water and are dyed in the same chemicals as non-organic cotton. So how might a self-proclaimed fashionista tread such murky waters of consumer misinformation?

1) Buy less new. The things I learned in researching for this post have re-invigorated me on the path of re-use and reduce in my style decisions. As readers know well by now, this blog is about incorporating an ethical conscience in expressing style. Considering the current water extraction rates of the garment industry, I am prompted to check out my local second-hand shop or to look at re-working my existing wardrobe next time the shopping bug beckons.

2) If you must buy, look for quality investment pieces. Fast fashion (affordable apparel mostly aimed at young women) has increased the turnover in our wardrobes and changed our expectations of how long a garment is meant to last. Instead of purchasing cheaply made items that don’t hang around my closet for longer than a season, I look for pieces that I know will stand the test of time. They will be more expensive, but since I buy less overall, my pocketbook doesn’t seem to mind too much.

Of course, the water woes of cotton and the greater fashion industry footprint aren’t only dependent on the decisions of consumers- the industry definitely needs an overhaul of its unsustainable practices. But I want to leave you with hope! The quest for alternative raw fibre sources is growing, and garment innovators have been introducing improvements in dye technologies. To learn more about some of these neat innovations to help the environment, I leave you with TreeHugger.com’s Top 10 Awesome Innovations Changing the Future of Fashion. Here’s hoping that these ideas are worth their weight in water. 🙂



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