It Takes 2,720 Liters Of Water To Make Just One T-Shirt

Artwork: Meg O'Donnell
World Water Day exists to focus our collective attention on the importance of water and, this year, we’re more switched on to the topic than ever. In the final episode of Blue Planet II, English broadcaster and naturalist David Attenborough issued a characteristically gentle yet undeniably rallying cry for us to protect "the future of humanity and all life" following devastating footage of a mother whale carrying the dead calf she unwittingly poisoned with her contaminated milk. Since then, conversation has been swirling around ocean plastics and water pollution, with the focus on what we can do as individuals.
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But our preference for single-use shopping bags and plastic water bottles isn’t the only culprit. In order to truly address water usage and pollution, we need to look at the big industries that wield the greatest proportion of power. And one of the worst offenders? Fashion.
A 2017 report revealed that, in 2015 alone, the fashion industry consumed 79 billion cubic meters of water — enough to fill 32 million Olympic-size swimming pools. That figure is expected to increase by 50% by 2030. It's a staggering amount, but it makes sense: It takes 2,720 liters of water (as much as you’d drink over a three-year period) to make a T-shirt. And your favorite pair of jeans? Almost 10,000 liters of water went into creating them.
Part of the reason these seemingly simple garments have such enormous water footprints is that they’re made from cotton, a famously thirsty crop. It takes 20,000 liters of water to produce just one kilogram of cotton, and when you pile on the fact that much of it is grown in areas suffering from high levels of water stress, you have a problem.
Uzbekistan’s answer to that particular problem was to divert the freshwater sources that fed into the Aral Sea in order to irrigate their cotton crops. The Aral Sea was once the world’s fourth biggest lake, but between the 1950s, when the practice began, and 1997, it had shrunk to 10% of its original size. In 2014, Nasa released satellite images that showed it had all but completely dried up. Communities on the shores of the Aral Sea found themselves with no fish for food or income and were left to deal with the salty, chemical- and pesticide-infused cocktail created by the dried-up lake bed, which blew into nearby villages and caused cancer and lung disease.
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But it’s not just that the fashion industry uses up so much water. There’s an issue with what it’s putting into it, too. Globally, it’s thought that around 8,000 synthetic chemicals are used to turn raw materials into textiles, and estimates lay 20% of the world’s industrial water pollution at the feet of fashion’s textile-dyeing and treatment processes.
In June of last year, a report by Changing Markets highlighted viscose production’s pollution problem. Villages downstream from factories that supplied fast-fashion retailers teetered on the banks of rotting black rivers, streaked through with red and sometimes thick with foam.
Because viscose is derived from plant-based fibers, it’s often celebrated as a ‘green’ option, but the reality is that its production is reliant on chemicals. Hydrogen sulphide, sodium hydroxide, and carbon disulfide cause an array of health issues, from skin burns and paranoia to birth defects and kidney disease, yet they’re all used to treat the pulp during production. Poorly treated or untreated wastewater loaded with these chemicals was being released into waterways, leaving locals without access to drinking water and suffering from a sweeping list of health complaints. Numerous deaths have also been reported.
While some brands and viscose suppliers were keen to clean up their act, one in particular wasn’t. A second, follow-up report was released in February 2018 to look more closely into Aditya Birla, a supplier for H&M, ASOS, Zara, Tesco, and M&S. Not only were they not interested in making changes, but conditions at their sites had got markedly worse.
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Now might be the time for these big-name brands to ditch Aditya Birla, Rob Harrison, editor of Ethical Consumer magazine, which helped produce both reports, suggests. “Initially [campaigners] would rather they stuck around and tried to make the change happen. Sometimes that works and sometimes that doesn’t. And campaigners are aware of the fact that there’s a point where you have to step away from them and decide, actually, you can’t buy from these [suppliers] anymore, they’re just not going to move.”
Though we as consumers would love for all factories to transform into eco-friendly havens, it’s not that simple, even for the most willing. “It’s practically quite difficult to convert your whole production over to Tencel,” says Harrison, referencing one of the greener, safer alternatives highlighted in the report, “because it’s not just putting a filter on the pipe or collecting the pollution in a different way. It’s a completely different production method and so it involves building another factory.”
So while offending suppliers work on improving what they have, are there any out there who built their model upon eco-friendly foundations?
Plexus Cotton is one shining example; a cotton merchant supplying a variety of brands, created with sustainability in mind from the ground up. Working only with smallholder farms in Africa, its crops are exclusively rain-fed. While this practice is inherent to its processes, Plexus holds itself accountable under the Cotton made in Africa (CmiA) certification, which does not allow for artificial irrigation. “We are 100% behind that type of certification,” says cofounder and head of marketing, Paige Earlam. The company’s water-conscious values continue through its production line under a ‘Field to Fashion’ model.
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“We do everything,” Earlam continues. “So if they have to be embroidered, we do the embroidery in house. We do the design work, we make the templates, we do all the pattern making.” And that holistic approach means certified dyeing processes, recycling, and safe practices at every step.
As Plexus works hard behind the scenes, some on the fashion stage are changing the game, too. Earlier this year, G-Star RAW released the ‘Most Sustainable Jeans Ever’. To create the G-Star Elwood RFTPi jean, the brand developed the world’s cleanest indigo dyeing process, formulated with 70% fewer chemicals and no salts. With no salt byproduct, this saves water and leaves only clean, recyclable effluent. Frouke Bruinsma, the brand's corporate responsibility director, explains: “Unlike a regular denim wash that takes approximately 40-70 liters of water, this pair of jeans uses only 10.” Using sustainable technology and renewable energies, 98% of the water will be recycled and reused, while the other 2% will evaporate.
Where does this innovation take the industry? “Our Most Sustainable Jeans Ever were certified at the gold level by the Cradle to Cradle Innovation Institute and is now accessible for everyone via the Fashion Positive Library,” Bruinsma says. “The main reason for sharing this denim fabric knowledge is to hopefully inspire the entire industry to use it. We see that collaboration and sharing is needed to make a change happen in our industry.”
Still, fashion has a lot to answer for. No garment is worth the sacrifice of clean drinking water, agriculture, community, and even human life. There are big changes to be made to preserve and conserve our most precious resource, but as long as there are voices inside and outside the industry demanding it, we’re on the right track.