Is Fashion’s Impact on Water being overlooked?

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As we observe World Water Day on March 22, it is imperative to recognise the fashion industry’s profound yet often overlooked impact on water resources. Over two billion people globally are living without access to safe drinking water, magnifying the urgency of addressing fashion’s water footprint. World Water Day serves as a poignant reminder of this pressing issue, calling upon us to confront the industry’s part in exacerbating water stress, having profound negative implications for both surrounding ecosystems and communities globally.

Currently, around one-third of the global population is grappling with water stress. If the current trajectory persists, this proportion is poised to swell, potentially affecting nearly half of the world’s population by 2025.

The fashion industry’s reliance on water is undeniable. The sheer volume of water consumed throughout the value chain — over 79 trillion litres annually — underscores the urgent need for action to address the industry’s significant water footprint. For the most part, water is required at the raw material stage, however other processes, such as textile dyeing, stand out as water-intensive processes, requiring vast quantities of water for rinsing and treating textiles during the colouring stage. Additionally, water is used for washing and finishing garments, further contributing to the industry’s substantial water consumption. As the demand for fashion continues to rise globally, so too does the industry’s water consumption, highlighting the pressing need for sustainable water management practices.

Today, more than 20% of the world’s GDP is produced in water-scarce regions. As droughts and flooding become more frequent, 75% of apparel and textile sites are projected to face high to extreme water risks by 2050, particularly in high-risk regions such as India, China, Brazil and Pakistan.

Amidst the escalating risks posed by bad weather patterns, the fashion industry faces heightened vulnerabilities. In 2020 alone, 52% of all Open Source Hub listed facility locations encountered above medium water quality risk, signalling a pervasive threat to production sites. Poyang Lake, the largest freshwater lake in China, is a prime illustration as it sustains farmland irrigation and cotton crops. Yet, during a three-month drought in 2022, the lake shrunk by over 75%, underscoring the dire consequences of unpredictable weather fluctuations. Such events reverberate globally, with Argentina’s economy forecasted to shrink by 2.5% due to the 2023 drought, as estimated by the International Monetary Fund. Similarly, China incurred losses exceeding $7.6 billion from severe drought in 2022. The burgeoning impact of climate-related disasters, with costs surging by 77% over the past 50 years, as reported by the World Economic Forum, underscores the urgency for decisive action.

 

Broadening perspectives to scale proven programmes and considering impacts outside of owned or controlled facilities are imperative steps to protect oceans and mitigate water scarcity in basins. Amidst the escalating concerns about water stress and scarcity, the fashion industry’s impact extends beyond water consumption. The processes involved in textile production, particularly dyeing, contribute significantly to water pollution. Textile dyeing, a water-intensive process, not only consumes vast quantities of water but also introduces a myriad of chemicals into water sources.

In fact, approximately 20% of all global water pollution stems from textile dyeing alone, highlighting the magnitude of its environmental impact.

Moreover, the proliferation of synthetic clothing fabrics like polyester and nylon exacerbates the issue of microplastic pollution. Studies show that 35% of microplastics found in the ocean result from washing clothes made of synthetic material. These fabrics shed microfibres during use and washing, which eventually find their way into water bodies, including oceans and freshwater sources. The persistence of microplastics in the environment not only causes ocean acidification and threatens marine biodiversity but also poses risks to human health. As these microfibres enter the food chain, they have the potential to accumulate toxins and harm marine life and, ultimately, human consumers. Thus, addressing water pollution from textile production and mitigating the spread of microplastics are critical steps towards ensuring the sustainability of the fashion industry and safeguarding water resources for future generations.

Global Fashion Agenda collaborate with The Microfibre Consortium  to ensure fibre fragmentation is considered within the wider sustainability agenda. The topic expertise of The Microfibre Consortium combined with Global Fashion Agenda’s unique ability to accelerate impact across industry stakeholders will ensure that the interconnectedness of fibre fragmentation to areas such as resource stewardship, a key priority of the GFA Monitor, is clearly understood. Therefore, microfibre pollution is not siloed as a standalone topic, but becomes integral to a range of efforts to improve industry practices

 

Despite the lack of transparency, insights from the Fashion Industry Target Consultation 2023 revealed promising progress in water stewardship targets within the fashion sector. Notably, 67% of respondents have set ambitious targets to implement water stewardship across the textile value chain by 2040, with 63% already measuring and reporting progress. However, only 36% of Fashion Industry Target Consultation brand respondents have reported that they have set targets towards the elimination of microfibre pollution across the textile value chain by 2025, almost half that of producers (63%). These statistics highlight both progress and areas for improvement in the industry’s efforts to address environmental concerns.

As highlighted in the GFA Monitor 2023‘s chapter on ‘Resource Stewardship,’ the fashion industry can take significant steps to mitigate shared water risks and contribute to positive basin outcomes across the global garment value chain. By adopting a context-driven approach, engaging stakeholders across the entire value chain, and developing strategies to mitigate microfibre pollution, the industry can drive positive change. Explore comprehensive solutions in the GFA Monitor 2023 to learn more and take actionable steps toward sustainable water management in the fashion industry.

 

Amid growing recognition of water sustainability issues, the European Commission has been exploring policy avenues to address challenges across sectors, including fashion. The Call for an EU Blue Deal issued by the Economic and Social Committee, advocates for measures like water consumption labels and transitioning to a circular water economy. Additionally, President Ursula Von der Leyen’s announced Water Resilience Initiative aims to address water access while tackling climate-related risks. However, the initiative faced an unexpected delay following lobbying efforts from agricultural and industrial sectors. Originally scheduled for presentation on March 12th, the initiative’s withdrawal from the agenda highlights the challenges of implementing comprehensive environmental policies amidst competing interests and has sparked criticism from environmental NGOs, emphasizing the urgency of maintaining momentum in water resilience policymaking.

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