Water encompasses many aspects in our lives. It links us to our past and future. Water currently used for production, bathing, and hydration was present during the dinosaur era (Sigit, 2019). It is the key to life and is “the core of sustainable development” when it comes to achieving goals. People call Earth the blue planet for a good reason. Oceans dominate, with land and clouds making subtler appearances. This makes it easy to forget that despite its abundance, water is still a precious resource.

Cotton farming and clothing production are water intensive and create pollution. Mounds of clothes are heaped at dump sites. These towering piles of fabric can take 200+ years to decompose. The fashion industry is incredibly wasteful, with 85 percent of garments going to waste. Clothing is produced rapidly to meet customer demand.

Water in Clothing Production

It Begins with Cotton… 

Producing textiles is an arduous process. A kilogram of raw cotton uses 10,000-20,000 liters of water. Additionally, dyeing, spinning, and finishing uses 100 to 150 liters. As for cotton farming, about half of production requires additional irrigation. This strains water reserves in areas without enough rainfall. Cotton is popular, with approximately half of all fabrics being made out of this crop. However, its manufacturing process is unsustainable. Cotton is linked to a negative “chain of impacts” worldwide.

Cotton farming severely impacts countries around the world. Uzbekistan has drained the Aral Sea Basin. In China and India, cotton is grown in the drier areas, with little regard to water consumption (Leahy, 2015). Australia extracts “about five Sydney Harbours’” per year. In Latin America and the Caribbean, cotton has ”the highest return per unit of water used” out of the agricultural export products. North America is not immune to these detrimental effects either. In the United States, western states struggle with shortages, with water being imported elsewhere to grow cotton.

Cotton farming also causes pollution. In Bangladesh, the Dhaka River has turned into dark sludge, all so that shops in the United States and Europe can earn profit (Regan, 2020). Meanwhile in India, cotton uses about 50% of all pesticides in the country. The United States is undergoing a similar predicament, with cotton being the third most pesticide intensive crop. In the end, water too full of toxins is untreatable (Le, 2020). Runoff from fields also results in algal blooms that block sunlight, create contagions and consume oxygen.

The solution involves growing and producing things in the right place. Farmers are already learning about how rainwater harvesting or drip irrigation can save up to 60% of water resources. Water planning and minimal pesticide use has made it easier to cultivate without negative consequences (Newell, 2016). Companies are eliminating the procedures that use up so much water by attempting to reuse fibers. Organic cotton production is a better alternative, since it prioritizes the “preservation of lands.”

Slow and Steady Wins the Race

From argyle print to sage green, trends cycle in and out of style, turning coveted items into last season trash. This can make it difficult to find what to wear. In an effort to profit off this ever changing market, corporations overproduce clothing.

 As consumers, we have more power than we realize. Our purchases tell companies what we want. Although it is impossible to halt all cotton production, emphasis can be placed on certified organic cotton. Buying sustainably can be more expensive than fast fashion. Nevertheless, it is a worthy investment. Poorly made clothing tends to break down after a couple of wears and washes.

A cheaper alternative to reduce your water footprint is to use clothing that has already been made by thrifting or purchasing second-hand and in return, donating unwanted garments. With a shirt using about 2,700 liters and a pair of jeans over 8,000, thrifting one outfit can save thousands of liters of water. Lastly, leadership should enact and enforce regulations on water consumption.

Oftentimes, we want to have an effect by setting goals for ourselves. Perhaps we promise to take shorter showers or turn off the tap. Unfortunately, being fully sustainable and waste free is financially unfeasible for many. The good news is that small changes make a big difference. If more people subtly changed their routines, it would make more of an impact than anything else.

Connect With Us

To learn about the water crisis and how you can save water, join Connect for Water’s newsletter. If you would like to partner with us, consider becoming a water sponsor. For $5.00 a month, you can provide people with clean water for five years.