Fashion Doesn’t have to be thirsty

Introduction

               As I write this from London, the UK is once again in the midst of a summer heatwave, with 30-plus degree temperatures causing taps to run dry and schools to shut in parts of the country. With water conservation on everybody’s mind, it is fitting that today also marks Desertification and Drought Day, an initiative of the UN’s Convention to Combat Desertification.

               For many of us in the West, reliable access to water can feel like a given – it’s only when taps run dry or hosepipe bans hit that we remember it is something that can be taken away. Many people – particularly in the global south – don’t have this luxury, and as climate change continues to make extreme temperatures and unusual weather more and more common, water stress and drought will become increasingly damaging problems in these regions .

              The problem isn’t helped by the fact that many water-stressed regions, such as India, Pakistan, and some regions of China, power large parts of their economy with textile and garment production. Many of the processes involved in these industries are extremely inefficient, wasting or polluting huge amounts of water that could have been used to quench peoples’ thirst or water essential crops. Traditional dyeing methods are one of the worst offenders, using up hundreds or thousands of litres of water just to dye a single garment.

               It isn’t all doom and gloom, however. There is a silver lining to all this ineffiency: if we could come up with more efficient ways to run these industries, then there’s a lot of water that could be saved. Green Universe have been working hard to solve this problem, and we have come up with a solution that will revolutionise the dyeing process – but more on that later!

              So, why is the fashion industry so thirsty? Why are these water-intensive industries often based in regions with high levels of water stress? And what can we do about it?

Why fashion is so thirsty?

              Even for those of us who try our best to buy ethically, the water cost of our clothing is something most of us rarely think about – if ever. We never see the water that goes into dyeing our clothing; it all happens long before we see the finished garment, in factories in other countries using machines and processes most of us know very little about. The textile industry consumes up to 200 tonnes of water per tonne of fabric, but by the time we see the garment on the rack, no evidence remains of the huge quantities of water that went into making it. The water cost of our clothing becomes invisible. Even after we learn how much water goes into dyeing a garment, it’s a little hard to imagine. Why should one piece of fabric need that much water?

               Most methods of dyeing work by submerging the fabric or fibre in a solution of dye, water, and various salts and chemicals which help to transfer the colour from the solution to the fabric. Depending on the type of dye and the material being dyed, the process might need to be helped along by heating up the solution, stirring the fabric or dye solution, or adding additional chemicals to help the colour attach to the fabric. This process can take hours of heating or stirring until the dye “fixes” to the fabric.

               Once the dye is in the fabric, the fabric is washed over and over again to remove any unfixed dye, as well as the nasty salts and chemicals. This is all left behind as wastewater, full of “residual dye, mordants, chemicals, and micro-fibres”. This wastewater is often dumped in rivers, leaving marine life dead and exposing local communities to toxic chemicals while taking away their access to clean drinking water.

WATER stressed out

               Why do these water-hungry industries seem to thrive in countries where water is scarce? India, one of the largest exporters of textiles, has incredibly high levels of water stress (defined as the proportion of water withdrawn from total supplies each year): data from the World Resources Institute in 2019 ranked India as the 13th most water-stressed country in the world, while also having “more than three times the population” of the other top 17 most water-stressed countries combined. Three quarters of the Indian population don’t have access to drinking water in their homes, and a 2019 government report estimated that nearly half the population face “acute water shortages”. Despite the scarcity of water, dirty and water-hungry dyeing processes continue to worsen the issue: in 2020, industrial waste from dyeing units exceeded treatable levels, leaving high levels of ammonia in Delhi’s water supply for over a month. The pollution from dyeing plants is massively unpopular, causing massive damage to India’s agricultural industry and inspiring huge protests. So why does it continue?

               Unfortunately, India is in a catch-22. India needs the huge number of jobs the textile and garment industries provide, and the low margins of the fast fashion industry make competition among manufacturing countries fierce: there is the constant looming threat that if India strengthens its environmental and labour regulations too much, fashion brands will shift their production to competing countries like Bangladesh, which already have several competitive advantages over India. In other words, drained water supplies and polluted waterways are the cost India must pay to stave off massive unemploymen

Quenching fashion’s thirst

               It’s strange to think how the huge water and environmental costs of the clothing we buy are almost entirely hidden from us in the West. Professor Arjen Y. Hoekstra, quoted in this Fashion Revolution article, points out that many countries “have significantly externalised their water footprint, importing water-intensive goods from elsewhere”, putting “pressure on the water resources in the exporting regions”. In this way, the problem is swept under the carpet, becoming someone else’s problem to deal with – out of sight, out of mind. Would we feel differently if it was our own rivers being polluted, our own water supply being used up?

              But we can do better than making it someone else’s problem. What if there was a solution that could let countries like India remain competitive and keep their populations employed without draining their limited water supplies and turning their rivers fluorescent colours?

             At Green Universe, we have been working hard on this issue, and are proud to say we have come up with a solution that will revolutionise the dyeing process, making it clean and water-efficient: Clean Color Tech.

              We are conscious of the reality that any solution has to cost the same or less than current methods if we want margin-conscious fashion brands to adopt them. The good news is that Clean Color Tech is no more expensive than traditional methods, while saving more than 90% of the water, decreasing emissions by over 60%, and requiring 90% less energy. We are excited to tell you more in our follow-up article later this month – make sure to follow us on Instagram and LinkedIn to make sure you don’t miss any exciting developments!