What California's Devastating Drought Means For Fashion

Photo: Bloomberg/Getty Images.
It's not uncommon that Mother Earth helps us dictate our fashion decisions. We're often keeping her in mind when expanding and consolidating our closets. But, Earth Day is one time of the year when it’s super easy take a close look at your style's impact on the world. And, for denim diehards, this year it's especially important.

Whether you’re based in California or not, chances are you’ve heard all about how the Golden State’s drought is a massive deal, affecting everything from chardonnay to showers. But, the implications of California’s serious drought go way beyond food, wine, and your daily wash. It may seem frivolous in the face of serious agricultural issues, but the H2O shortage is having a very real impact on the industries that we touch every day, like fashion. And, denim in particular.

According to Market Watch, Southern California is the premium denim capital of the world, responsible for producing 75% of the world’s designer jeans — think J Brand Jeans, Paige Denim, 7 for all Mankind, Guess, True Religion, the list goes on. Furthermore, water is key to the creation of denim: on average, manufacturing a pair of jeans uses a huge 2,900 gallons of the stuff via treatments, washes — all of which combine to give those '70s-style flares you’ve been eyeing an impeccable finish.

With no end in sight to the California drought, it’s no surprise that denim brands are facing a potentially huge problem: how to create their product without using unsustainable amounts of increasingly scarce and expensive water in the process. Some brands, like Frame Denim and Tortoise Jeans, have already started using innovative methods, like ozone machines which shrink water usage by up to half, reports Market Watch. And, should we start to predict a trend, we'd wager that raw, untreated styles might become du jour — not  a bad thing after years of distressed popularity.

But, it doesn’t stop there. Your slouchy cotton tees, shirt dresses, and classic white button ups aren’t immune from the effects of drought, either. California and Brazil are both major players in the cotton game, which is heavily reliant on water supplies for irrigation. In SoCal, the USDA predicts that pima cotton acreage will drop to 155,000 this year, its lowest level since the 1930s, according to CNBC. Meanwhile Brazil, the world’s fifth-largest cotton supplier, is experiencing its worst drought in history — bad news for cotton output all round.

In the face of dire predictions that California only has a year’s supply of water left, textile shortages and corresponding price hikes are a looming issue for local designers. Jeffrey Navarrete, design director of L.A.-based label Wren concedes, “There is a concern for future production. At Wren we frequently use 100% cotton chambrays, denims, and jerseys. If we are not careful, we could be looking at higher costs for goods or significantly less quantities available to us.” 

In turn, the future is looking uncertain for the L.A. garment industry. Home to apparel manufacturers, factories, and craftsmen, with a workforce of 200,000, the garment district is a key reason why L.A. is a popular base for home-grown labels, including Band of Outsiders, Rodarte, Vince, and Wren. “Producing in L.A. offers many benefits. It allows us to support our community, keep control of the quality that is produced, and work on a manageable production timeline,” says Navarrete. If brands opt to relocate manufacturing overseas to escape the threat of drought-related costs, the U.S.’s already shrinking garment industry — and its base of knowledgeable apparel craftsmen — will take a blow.
 

Since blue jeans and cotton are a part of fashion’s DNA, it’s imperative that the fashion industry finds a way to deal with issues of water scarcity. Otherwise it's not looking good for our favorite brands, let alone Mother Earth
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