Water Pollution in the Fashion Industry

Water pollution is a scourge of our time, directly linked to climate change and the widespread diffusion of the human species on the planet.

Pollution that affects rivers and aquifers is affected by the discharge of wastewater from the dyehouse, but also pollution is produced indirectly by washing synthetic garments in the washing machine.

The fast fashion industry generates quite a few problems, as far as water consumption and pollution are concerned: problems that we have to deal with as soon as possible.

There are solutions, and they are viable, but let’s first understand the relationship between the world of fashion and the most important resource for human life: water.

Water consumption in fashion industry

In the visionary film Dune by Denis Villeneuve, there is a dialogue between the protagonist, Prince Paul, and a man who, in the middle of the desert, is watering giant date palms.

The man says he is the only one who takes care of these enormous plants, which are very thirsty: in one day they consume as much as 100 human lives!

When the prince asks him if it would not be better to cut down the palms and dedicate the precious resource to the inhabitants of the planet, the man shakes his head: palms are not cut down, because they are sacred.

A scene not so far from our reality: the amount of water needed to produce a pair of jeans is equivalent to the water requirements of 100 days of life of a person living in the West and one year of a person living in a sub-Saharan region.

In a sense, jeans are also sacred to us.

Water consumption is a form of pollution

But it’s not just a matter of equitable distribution of resources: water consumption also has a polluting impact. For example, a drained aquifer can lead to desertification and changes in local fauna and flora.

Let’s not forget the mitigating role that photosynthesis has: trees are a real green lung of the planet and a possible way to reduce global CO2 emissions.

In addition, the excessive consumption of freshwater leads to the slow and inexorable decline of rivers and canals that flow into the sea: this allows the salt wedge to rise, i.e. to bring saltwater even where before there was freshwater.

Here, too, we see drastic changes in the natural habitat of many species, which are forced to migrate or become extinct.

Water pollution in the fashion

If we talk about water pollution in the fashion world, dyeing is the most problematic process. When we go to look at the chemicals used in the production of new wool garments, we discover that in all the processing steps they are necessary, and they also imply a great consumption of water.

Take dyeing, for example: here, water is the medium through which the entire dyeing process passes, because in it are dissolved the dyes and dyeing auxiliaries, which the water brings upon the textile fiber.

Fashion chemicals that contribute to water pollution

But what are the main chemical contributors to this pollution?

The list would be long, so we will just mention the main ones: we have the oil to produce synthetic fibers, fertilizers for the cultivation of plant fibers, primarily cotton. Heavy metals, solvents, but the compounds most commonly found in the wastewater from textile mills are alkylphenols, on which Europe has applied very strict restrictions since 2005.

Africa and the pH of its rivers

Some rivers in Tanzania are blue. But not the “natural” blue we might imagine in a deep watercourse.

Water Witness International researched in Ethiopia, Lesotho, Madagascar, Mauritius, and Tanzania, analyzing the quality of the water around textile mills.

In one river in Tanzania in particular, a worrying result was seen: the pH measured was 12, the same as bleach.

The chemical elements make the water basic and unusable for humans. Despite this, the wastewater is not treated properly, and this harmful water ends up in the fields and on the tables of local people.

A problem with water pollution controls

Of all the water-consuming processes, dyeing is the worst, as we have mentioned: it consumes between six and nine trillion liters of water per year, three-quarters of which becomes wastewater.

The main problem is not the wastewater itself, but the fact that in some geographical contexts it is more difficult to apply controls on the treatment of this wastewater, which becomes an easy source of water pollution.

“Some of the chemicals used in Indian dye plants are banned in Europe, which is a cause of dilemma for wearers of imported garments” Virginia Newton-Lewis, a senior policy analyst at WaterAid, tells Vogue magazine.

Moreover, even when there is regulation, individual manufacturers often discharge wastewater illegally.

Perhaps it would be easier to find those responsible if they were in Italy, but in Bangladesh, India and China? The only way forward for the consumer remains to choose local producers.

Water pollution for washing clothes

We’ve talked about water consumption and the release of contaminated wastewater during production processes, but we’re missing the last factor of water pollution for which the fashion industry is responsible: washing clothes.

It is estimated that washing synthetic garments release 0.5 million tons of microfibers into the oceans each year.

A washing machine full of polyester garments can produce 700,000 microplastic fibers, which end up first in the seas and then in our food chain.

Microplastics in the oceans are an urgent problem, so it’s important to know that washing our synthetic clothing is responsible for 35% of this type of water pollution.

What solutions to textile water pollution?

Reduce waste, certainly, but also choose, as far as possible, a sustainable fashion.

Did you know, for example, that regenerated wool does not use dyeing processes? Find more information in our article “Regenerated wool: a way to save the planet”.

The good news is that today many companies are committed to sustainability standards, in their fashion production.

Is the production system slowly changing? Perhaps.

But it’s up to us consumers to take the reins of the planet into our own hands and start making more responsible choices.

“Today the consumer can trigger a core mechanism with his choice, and by choosing a store or a shopping center. Because he can consume less, but better.” (Fabrizio Tesi, CEO of Comistra)