Fashion for the Earth

Fashion’s Dirty Little Secret

Statistics are frequently changing when it comes to the fashion industry, but with more research becoming available all the time we are increasingly gaining clarity about how fashion, in particular fast fashion, impacts the Earth.  

In this series of articles, we want to present the most up-to-date facts on what these impacts are on our Air, Water, Soil, Forests, and Oceans so that you can best realize what your fast fashion purchase means for the planet. This is Water.

Water is essential to the existence of all life, but it is also a finite resource meaning the preservation of clean, unpolluted water is an imperative for every living thing on the planet. But water has never been more precious than it is now, in the age of climate change, where many parts of the world are threatened by drought. Industries that waste or pollute our water supply need to be examined. The production of textiles for clothing is one such industry. Textile production, including cotton farming, uses around 93 billion cubic meters of water annually and at each stage from beginning to end is highly polluting.   

The Impact of Cotton Farming

In 50% of the areas where it is grown, farming cotton requires irrigation.  And the amount of water needed to grow cotton in drier climates is higher than in wetter regions. For example, in Turkmenistan, the production of 1 kilogram of cotton requires 13,696 liters of water, but to yield the same amount of cotton in Brazil, only 17 liters are needed. 

In drier areas without sufficient rainfall, irrigation for water-demanding crops can drastically impact local populations already struggling with limited water resources. The Aral Sea, located between Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan, was once the fourth-largest lake in the world but was drained to irrigate cotton farms in the late 1960s. As a result, local fisheries struggled, and dependent communities collapsed. Desertification set it, and with increased salinity wetlands and marshes have reduced, and ecosystems have collapsed along with a concomitant loss of biodiversity. 

As a result of farming, water basins and underground aquifers can collapse as they have in Saudi Arabia and as they are threatening to do in San Joachim, California. These can take thousands of years to recharge, or dry up permanently.  

Poor irrigation and water management cannot prevent excessive runoff and water waste.  In the case of cotton farming, this can contribute to the contamination of shared water resources — rivers, lakes, wetlands and underground aquifers. The agrochemicals used, like pesticides, herbicides and fertilizers, introduced to water systems, pollute drinking water which in turn can damage human health and are destructive to local ecosystems with immediate toxicity or long term accumulation.

Textile Processing = Contamination

Once raw materials are produced, the next step in textile production is processing. The processing stage including the production of yarns for textiles and the ‘wet processing’ stage where fabric is dyed and treated with finishes both require enormous quantities of water and the use of highly toxic chemicals.  An average-sized textile mill with a production capacity of about 8,000 kg per day of fabric consumes around 1.6 million liters of water daily.

The industry uses more than 8,000 individual chemicals in processing garments including more than 3,600 individual textile dyes. The effluent from textile mills can contain sulfur, naphthol, vat dyes, azo dyes, nitrates, acetic acid, heavy metals like copper, arsenic, lead, cadmium, chromium, mercury, nickel and cobalt, formaldehyde, fixing agents, surfactants, chlorinated stain removers, hydrocarbon based softeners, caustic soda based soaps and non biodegradable dyeing agents as well as PFAS, phthalates, PFCs, brominated and chlorinated flame retardants, chlorobenzenes, and organotin compounds. 

The wastewater containing these chemicals is often deposited in local water systems polluting rivers, streams, groundwater, and aquifers. Wastewater from textile mills sent to clean waters can prevent the penetration of light necessary for photosynthesis, causing harm to marine life.  If used to irrigate nearby farms and cropland, it can result in loss of soil fertility and productivity impacting the food web and contaminating food with the toxic effluent – all with direct and indirect effects on human health. 

The Lesotho River in southeast Africa is one stunning example of this sort of pollution due to textile processing. The river is literally dyed blue from the production of denim jeans with a highly basic pH level of 12, deeming the water hazardous. The safe pH range for drinking water is 6.5 – 7.5. The Lesotho and other rivers across Africa contain chemicals and  toxic metals present in far higher concentrations than are considered safe. Thus, communities relying on the river as a general water source are at real risk. 

Release of Synthetic Microfibers

Besides the hazards of the wide range of chemicals used to dye and treat these textiles, all clothing sheds microfibers.  Microfibers are defined as less than 5mm in diameter and are shed during washing, drying and wearing our clothing. While the production of cotton can cause environmental and health issues for wildlife and humans, today over 70% of our clothing is made with synthetic materials such as polyester, nylon, and acrylics which are made from oil.  When microfibers are shed from synthetic materials, they are also defined as microplastics.  Today 35% of all the microplastics in the ocean are from our clothes. 

Wastewater treatment plants do capture a large portion of the microfibers released from washing machines. However, due to the magnitude of wastewater the plants receive each day, a large portion of microfibers end up in our fresh water and in our oceans. Those that enter the ocean become part of the food chain and disrupt marine ecosystems.  Those microfibers that are captured in wastewater plants are trapped in biosolids which are then transferred as fertilizer to farmlands where the microfibers adversely affect crops and soil biota.  

The Final Fashion Insult Is Degradation 

After we throw our clothes away, they continue to pollute water systems via landfills. In the United States alone, 66% of textiles are sent to landfills where over time they decompose and degrade.  With precipitation and surface run-off, they pollute groundwater with both synthetic microfibers and the chemicals used in their production

Only 15% of all textiles are recycled meaning they are downcycled or shipped abroad. A large portion of these “recycled” textiles ultimately end up in landfills. But many of the countries where these discarded clothes are shipped do not have advanced municipal waste systems and cannot control polluted wastewater. Not only do the landfills leach microfibers and chemicals into the groundwater as they decompose, but unwanted clothing can also clog municipal street gutters.  This prevents effective water flow, leading to flooding and water-borne disease. Or clothes can be washed out to sea where they continue to decompose and shed more microfibers. 

What Can You Do?

While critical policy and legislative work needs to be undertaken to remedy the water pollution issues caused by the fashion industry, there are things all of us can do to help at a consumer level too.  

Studies have shown how you wash your clothes impacts the amount of microfibers that will end up in wastewater. Using a full load and short washing cycles (like washing clothes on delicate settings or hand washing) can decrease microfiber shedding significantly. Using a microfiltration trap and washing in cold water can help reduce shedding as well as line drying, using a front-loading machine and washing clothing less frequently.

Shopping from companies using sustainability-produced cotton made without pesticides can reduce water pollution by 98%.  Choosing clothing made from non-synthetic materials that use fewer chemicals during processing, such as linen or organic cotton, positively impacts water quality. Look for certifications in clothes that assure they contain no hazardous chemicals such as the Oeko-Tex Standard 100, Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS), the EU Ecolabel, or the bluesign® certification.  

Think about using vintage, not faux vintage lines in the branded stores, but look to local thrift shops. Often clothes made decades ago are of better quality and you will have a unique piece of clothing.  

Reject fast fashion; it might be inexpensive to follow new fashion fads, but it means you will probably only wear something a few times before it’s out of fashion or it’s simply fallen apart. Make a stand and buy fewer clothes. Create a capsule wardrobe of classic styles that you can interchange to create new outfits and really utilize what you ALREADY have. Define a look of your own and be original. Don’t follow the fashion herd. 

Set up clothing swaps with your friends and family so you can find new outfits without spending money or wrecking the planet! Our Fashion Swap Toolkit can show you how to do it. Not only will you get new pieces for your wardrobe, these sorts of events are fun too. When you are buying new clothes, read the labels. Reject clothes made with synthetic textiles and virgin cotton and look for more sustainable materials like recycled cotton, organic linen, organic hemp, recycled wool, and innovative new fibers ECONYL, Bananatex, Tencel™ and CIRCULOSE. 

Lastly, consider asking the shops you buy from to provide sustainable fabric choices; let them know you want better choices — write to them, message them on social media, tell the store manager, politely! It seems insurmountable but it’s not. Each of us can make a difference. We just have to try. 

EARTHDAY.ORG strives to educate consumers on sustainable fashion practices through the Fashion for the Earth campaign. Use our How To Shop Sustainably Toolkit, and do your part by learning how you can make an impact with your shopping choices and make your voice heard by signing the Fashion Industry Must Change petition.