Water footprint: how the fashion industry and your shopping impact the Planet

Today is Blog Action Day, and I decided to be part of this great event.

When I found out this year’s topic – water – and I read the list of suggested post ideas, I didn’t hesitate one second: I was going to write about water’s footprint in fashion.

The reason is simple: I am a fashionista, and I love to shop. However for this my first Blog Action Day I really wanted to learn something important and share it with people who have my same passion. Understanding and being aware of the consequences of our actions should really be our priority.

Many people probably don’t know that the fashion industry is facing today a very big challenge related to water usage. The reason is simple: the textile industry is the third largest consumer of water in the world – behind at paper and oil industries – as well as polluter, making the business of fashion and clothing – from production, to consumption, care and disposal – among the world’s most environmentally damaging.

I found out that today about 8,000 synthetic chemicals are used throughout the world to turn raw materials into textiles. Ninety per cent of our clothes are imported, and it’s not just the children labouring in sweatshop conditions we may not see – it’s the 2 million tons of waste, 3.1 million tons of CO2 and 70 million tons of waste water that the industry produces in a single year.

Water consumption is a huge problem for growing fibres: the ever-thirsty Cotton plant takes around 1,800 gallons of water to grow enough to produce just one pair of regular blue jeans, and a whopping 400 gallons of water to grow the Cotton required for an ordinary shirt.

All this info broke forever my ignorance that made me think of Cotton is probably one of the most natural material for clothes – when I say natural I mean environmentally friendly.
I was wrong.

Therefore I found out how Cotton is bad for the environment, not just for the vast amounts of water needed (over 30,000 L to create 1 kg of Cotton), but also because it uses huge amounts of chemicals – pesticides and fertilisers – only marginally reduced by making the Cotton organic.

Looks like too often the focus is on the fabric, so if people buy a T-shirt made of organic Cotton they believe they’ve saved the world, but if it’s dyed in the same way as a normal T-shirt, it can actually be just as bad as using non-organic Cotton.

The dye process itself is also highly wasteful: in the worst instance up to 600 L of water can be required to dye 1 kg of fabric. Also, the more water that is used, the more harmful chemicals that are released, and the more energy is required to heat the dye.

Surprisingly I found out that a Polyester T-shirt, which uses a small amount of oil to produce the fabric, has less of an environmental impact, and Lyocell is the most sustainable fabric. It’s made from eucalyptus plantations, which produce more fibre per acre than, say, Cotton. There are no pesticides and processing and dyeing Lyocell is relatively clean. Even Bamboo has a questionable manufacturing process, because it’s hard to refine into fiber unless a manufacturer uses toxic chemicals like sodium hydroxide, which can cause chemical burns or blindness, to break down bamboo’s cells into something pliable called viscose.

Waste water is conceivably an even bigger issue than consumption. Toxic chemicals produced from dyeing textiles, along with other chemicals such as those used to produce synthetics, are contributing to a major crisis in pollution of fresh water, affecting the health of a number of species, including humans. Heavy metals such as chromium and cadmium, which are used to make bright and vibrant dyes, pose a threat wherever they appear in a product life cycle, particularly the use of the dye in dye wastewater.

But so much attention has been given to the energy, chemicals and water that go into making a garment that what many people don’t realize is the majority of the environmental damage comes once a garment has been purchased.

Talking about water’s footprint connected to our wardrobe, you’d be surprised at how much impact your personal or family clothing preferences have on the environment.

There are two aspects of this problem: shopping and household care.

-          Shopping:
On Environmental Health Perspectives Luz Claudio considers the way Americans and Europeans shop for clothes as “waste couture”: Fashion is low-quality and sold at “prices that make the purchase tempting and the disposal painless.” Yet this sort of so-called “fast fashion” leaves a pollution footprint, with each step of the clothing life cycle generating potential environmental and occupational hazards.

“Fast fashion provides the marketplace with affordable apparel aimed mostly at young women. Fueling the demand are fashion magazines that help create the desire for new “must-haves” for each season. Yet fast fashion leaves a pollution footprint, with each step of the clothing life cycle generating potential environmental and occupational hazards”

“Much of the cotton produced in the United States is exported to China and other countries with low labor costs, where the material is milled, woven into fabrics, cut, and assembled according to the fashion industry’s specifications. China has emerged as the largest exporter of fast fashion, accounting for 30% of world apparel exports, according to the UN Commodity Trade Statistics database. In her 2005 book The Travels of a T-Shirt in the Global Economy, Pietra Rivoli, a professor of international business at the McDonough School of Business of Georgetown University, writes that each year Americans purchase approximately 1 billion garments made in China, the equivalent of four pieces of clothing for every U.S. citizen”

Once bought, an estimated 21% of annual clothing purchases stay in the home, increasing the stocks of clothing and other textiles held by consumers.

Another area where the national wardrobe is setting off alarm bells, is the fact that the vast majority of our cast-offs don’t get a second lease on life and are just chucked in the bin. More than one million tons ending up buried in landfill every year, so then clothing and other textiles represent about 4% of the solid waste. This is why, even if you currently buy 50 cotton T-shirts a year, at $5 each, and throw them all away, moving to buy 10 high-quality and higher-priced T-shirts will make a huge environmental impact.

The other problem with cheap clothes is their simply not economical to maintain. Less than two per cent of our clothing budget goes on things that will extend the life of a garment – such as repair and mending (read more)

How you can make the difference:

* Make do and mend. Prolong the lifespan of a garment by finding a local tailor or buying a sewing kit to fix rips and lost buttons. Dry cleaners often offer low-cost repairs

* Never chuck clothes in the bin. Gift them to charity, pass them on or turn them into cleaning rags

* See new clothes as an investment. Pay more for higher quality clothes that will last season after season

-          Household care:
But the real issue could be that our household care and cleaning of our clothes can be the bigger culprit of polluting water. The energy and water required to wash a garment has far more devastating effects than the growing of the raw materials and the manufacturing of the textiles. Surprising? Not really when you consider that the average piece of clothing lasts three years, and is laundered hundreds of times in its lifetime.
Think about it: how many clothing washes do I do a week? At what temperature? How many times do I tumble dry a week? And what about ironing?
An average North American household washes 400 loads of laundry per year. This accumulated number of washes requires 13,500 gallons of water to complete, and is equivalent to how much water it takes to fill a standard above-ground pool!

The first steps towards recovering from our water addiction begin with wearing our clothes several times before washing. But once we get to a full laundry basket that is truly in need of a wash, there are a few basic tips to help you get started on eco-friendly and budget-smart laundering habits.

How you can make the difference:

* Wash your clothes in cold water. A very interesting fact I found out is that using only hot water for washing your clothes uses more electricity in a year than leaving the refrigerator door open 24 hours a day for an entire year. Cold water is the best alternative, as it not only reduces fabric shrinkage, but it allows colors to remain vibrant. So your clothes will fit and last longer and you’ll reduce your carbon emissions by 500 pounds a year! Not bad!

* Wash full loads. Washing machines are most efficient when operating at capacity. Take advantage of your washing machine’s full potential and load it up. Your wallet – and the Planet – will thank you for it.

* Use the right amount and type of detergent. When doing a load of laundry do you use the cap size as an indicator of the amount of detergent you should use? If so, odds are you are using way too much laundry detergent than what is actually needed. The amount you use should reflect the guiding lines on the inside of the cap. Another helpful hint is to look for phosphate-free detergents. Phosphates are the leading chemical agent in algal blooms and a major cause of aquatic ecosystem depletion. Also, instead of fabric softeners, try using white vinegar in the rinse cycle. The acid vinegar will neutralize the basic detergents and as a result will help keep your clothes looking clean.

* Consider an Energy-Star rated washer. If you’re in the market to replace your washing machine, consider a more cost-effective one. An Energy-Star or front-loading washing machine can save thousands of litres of water a year and be 30 – 85% more energy-efficient.

This journey through water footprint has been a great experience, and I thank Blog Action Day to give me the opportunity to open my mind and share with you what I have learned.

In conclusion –> we should view sustainable or organic fashion in the same context as organic food and local produces, and change our habit of household care of our wardrobe in the same way we take decisions about out nutrition and lifestyle.

Please share this post with your social network. Let them know about this important issue.

Click here if you need more inspiration
Click here to read about my meeting with David Suzuki

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62 responses to “Water footprint: how the fashion industry and your shopping impact the Planet”

  1. Circe says :

    this is such a great post, it really shows how people can have a big impact by making small changes.

    thanks for this

  2. jeffstroud says :

    Well done! Great research, very informative…
    I am a friend of kathy D’s Lake Superior Spirit, she mentioned your blog on her’s!


  3. Ox says :

    Nice piece of info. The blog world is buzzing with “water” today :)

  4. The Cookery says :

    “Make do and mend!” Thanks for these words to live by every day.

  5. lasullivan says :

    WOW! This just opened my eyes to a whole bunch of things I didn’t know, or rather, I never considered anyway. Thank you for sharing this link with me. Great post & I’m sharing it too! :)

  6. nrhatch says :

    Awesome post!

    Added to my H2o post. Thanks.

  7. waterguy says :

    good to link to you Elena – some great research & your passion is clear. warm wishes on this blog action day. Neil :)

  8. Gillian says :

    An informative post, do hope lots of people stop by and read this. Gillian

  9. hintsofgreen says :

    Your post is excellent- so comprehensive! I love it! Thanks for the comment on my blog as well! Keep up the good work!

  10. Brittany Macchiarola says :

    Great post! I am so glad you decided to be a part of Blog Action Day! :)

    Have you heard about Gap’s Denim Clean Water Program? Gap is definitely making its own effort to conserve Earth’s water supply. I wrote about it on my blog: http://greenbriefcase.wordpress.com/2010/09/22/gap-does-green/


  11. marimann says :

    Interesting post…some of your findings were quite surprising. Also thank you, Elena, for visiting my blog and commenting on my post at http://shebringsmewater.wordpress.com/2010/10/15/blog-action-day-2/

  12. Shashi says :

    totally awesome. .really impressive with ur ways we can make the difference..

  13. RevAllyson says :

    :) I enjoyed reading yours as well. Much of it I knew, but some of the numbers were new to me, and I appreciated learning. I’m not such a fasionista… I still have items in my wardrobe from the 90s. LOL… We live on a farm at present, so we do a LOT of loads of laundry, but about half are hung out (more in the summer, less in the winter). We wear things until they either no longer fit (donation to friends, family, or Sally Ann) or are worn to shreds. Worn clothing becomes rags or scraps for quilting, something we like to do on cold nights in the winter.

    Other things that can be done if you’re a bit handy with a needle (I’m not but one of my family members is *grin*), is if a pair of jeans gets too raggedy at the bottom or otherwise is no longer good length-wise, rip out the inseams of the legs, and open it up. A few snips and a few seams sewn and you can make a slightly shorter skirt good for many more months. And the wear patterns bear a striking resemblance to the “new fashion” skirts coming out on the market now. *grin*

  14. tamarachetcuti says :

    Hi Elena! Although I was already aware of some stuff you wrote I really like that you included tips on how to save water when buying, washing, taking care of clothes etc. Well done. You may be interested in the following TV series on the cotton trade although not specifically on water in the fashion industry. This is a BBC three series where six young fashion addicts were sent to India to work in cotton fields and clothes factories. Here ya go: http://www.bbc.co.uk/thread/blood-sweat-tshirts/

    Keep on educating!


  15. caddiemurray says :

    Very interesting stuff! I feel good about the fact that I only use cold water (except for towels …), and I’ve always followed the lid-markings guidelines, as well as always do full loads.

    But I know I need to look at some other things to do that will help … so, thanks for writing about this!
    Caddie Murray

  16. reymos says :

    Wow thanks for sharing your post about the impact of water in the fashion industry. It is very informative. By the way, thanks for visiting blog as well.

  17. Meenakshi Suri says :

    Elena, I’m so glad you stopped by my blog because that way I could follow your link to this incredibly detailed and well researched writing. I have to admit that I’m a fan of cotton which helps in keeping the skin healthy in warm un-cooled climates, but this is making me think about the impact it can have on the environment.

    Articles such as this help us to take the bigger picture in whatever action we take.
    Thank you.

  18. Simon Herbert says :

    Fantastic post and hugely interesting!

  19. Alicia says :

    Another thing you can do reduce waste and avoid supporting slave labour is buy second hand. There’s already tons of great clothing out there for everyone to wear without having to produce more. Instead of paying for new clothes which will in turn support the production of even more clothes you can support the recycling process and find lots of neat styles.

  20. Janay says :

    Hi Elena! Thanks for coming by my blog and reading my post on water for Blog Action Day. I absolutely love this post. I didn’t even know that much water is needed to use for a pair of jeans and a T-shirt. I’ll definitely have to be more conscious on buying cotton now.

    Thanks again for the post! :)

  21. aeldwood says :

    Fantastic and informative post… So if we buy clothing that doesn’t go in and out of style, and wear our clothes as long as possible (recycling rather than just throwing them in the rubbish bin, we become a part of the solution! Excellent Post!!!

  22. Jeanne says :

    What a great post! Another way to keep clothes finding new lives is to have a great big clothing swap with your friends once a year. Once it is an annual thing (and you see all the great fun things you inherit from your friends), it is so much easier to set aside something you don’t really use to give it a new life with your friends!

    Your readers may also enjoy my Blog Action Day post featuring photos of different ways that people have used to transport and acquire water over the past century: http://www.spellboundblog.com/2010/10/15/blog-action-day-water-flickr-commons

  23. onewetfoot says :

    Really good and thorough discussion of the issues around fashion and water. Thanks for sharing this.

  24. Julie says :

    Fascinating post. Holy cow on how much water it takes to grow cotton! Sometimes it’s daunting to think about how much work we have to do to make significant changes, but I like how this article gives us very real, small and meaningful things we can do starting right now.

  25. missmylin says :

    Awesome post! Yet another aspect of water that I had never considered before. Thank you for sharing :)

  26. ayearinredwood says :


    Well done on a fantastic and informative post!

  27. Dario says :

    Ottimo post, non le sapevo queste cose, grazie a te per aver condiviso con noi queste tue conoscenze.

  28. jodiq says :

    Blog Action Day was fun to take part in. This is a terrific post, thanks for sharing!

  29. BeirutiAdventures says :

    Wow, what an eye-opener!
    Great post!

  30. viviene says :

    cotton? really? this is such an informative post! thanks for sharing all these information…

  31. commonweeder says :

    What an excellent post. And I thought there was waste in raising livestock! So many areas that we never thought of that waste water, and make it dangerous. Thanks for your post. I am really glad to find your blog.

  32. modernest says :

    hi elena,

    wow. there is tons of amazing info here! we stopped using hot water in our wash a long time ago, but i had no idea how many more things we could do to live less impactful lives! thanks so much for posting!


  33. Owen says :

    YOU GOTTA BE KIDDING ME?!? wow….glad I didn’t celebrate Black Friday. Wash clothes in cold water, old clothes= charity, new clothes=investment. Check. Check. Check. Amazing post.
    -Green Mascot


  34. Renae says :

    Wow! Time to add more requirements to the list of how to make greener purchases!
    Water is a resource that many people think will always be around, but will it be clean, and who are we taking the water from when ours is dirty?

  35. SherryGreens says :

    Very informative post, thank you. I really had never thought about my clothing foot print before. I was astonished at the amount of water! Like you said, we should invest in high quality clothes that stand the test of time, and maybe even wear them a few times before washing. For my part, I have swithed my household to air drying all our clothes.

  36. mahna says :

    i want to learn more about the use of water in textile industry

  37. sajeela says :

    great article! thank you so much! I have posted it on my web site sewyourselfsilly in the wahts new page and will pass it
    on to all my sewing students

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