There are lots of stats about fashion and water floating around in articles, reports, and even on Instagram. Doesn’t the industry consume 32 million Olympic swimming pools’ worth of it per year, and account for 20% of the world’s water pollution? Does it really take the amount of water you would usually drink in three years to make a cotton t-shirt?
Understanding fashion’s murky relationship to water goes deeper than these oft-cited numbers.
There’s no arguing with the fact that making clothing can be a thirsty business. Whether you’re growing cotton plants or processing polyester and viscose, the fibers that make our materials can take more than their fair share of water. Then there’s the spinning, dyeing, printing, and finishing of the fabrics, which all contribute to the overall water consumption of a garment.
However, we can’t holistically sum up fashion’s water impact with a single stat. That’s because it’s not just about how much is needed per se, but where it comes from, how efficiently it is used, and where it ends up afterward.
Let’s start with the basics. Remember learning about the water cycle? Also called the hydrologic cycle, the concept behind it is that water can never be “used up” or lost. Instead, the total amount of water on Earth always remains the same, eternally cycling between rain, rivers and clouds.
This still doesn’t mean that fashion gets a free pass to all the water it wants. Science states that most of the Earth’s water is the saltwater contained in our oceans, and just 2.5% is the valuable freshwater that industries such as fashion rely on. Two-thirds of this is locked up in glaciers and ice caps, while the rest is either found in lakes, rivers and wetlands, or extracted from soil and rocks. This is the only water suitable for use by humans and has to be shared between industries and individuals.
Although this water technically can’t just disappear, it can change state, be moved to somewhere else, or end up polluted. When we talk about the fashion industry “using” water, we mean that it extracts it from these sources and doesn’t return it to the same place in the same condition. In other words, if the water was clean and was in a river, and now it’s not clean and/or not in that river because of fashion, it’s fair to say that fashion took that water away.
Still, nobody has ever actually measured how much water pollution the fashion industry causes, especially since most of the pollution occurs in countries that don’t collect that data. That 20% stat? It was made up by a marketing company many years ago.
How much water do the most common fashion materials use?
Spoiler: there’s no easy answer.
If we take cotton as an example, it’s almost impossible to calculate a global average of how much water it takes to make one t-shirt because it depends on where it is grown and what practices are used. The most common statistic marks it at 2,700 liters, which has led people to compare making a t-shirt to drinking three years’ worth of water for one. Now widely used across the Internet, it seems to trace back to a collaborative campaign from WWF and National Geographic.
The issue is that these numbers are not only highly disputed numbers—they oversimplify the problem. Water usage differs according to how the cotton is grown, whether it comes from rainfall or irrigation, and how it is reintroduced back into the ecosystem.
Over half of the world’s cotton gets its water from rain, according to a figure that cotton scientist Dr. Keshav Kranthi, Head of Technical Services at the International Cotton Advisory Committee (ICAC) shared with Transformers Foundation. He says the rest needs 1,214 liters of extra water on average. This amount also differs between farms, which are able to control how much water they use. Reducing the amount that evaporates or gets contaminated with agricultural chemicals and runs into rivers, streams, and lakes can lower the total consumption, and can be done—at an expense—by installing more efficient irrigation systems.
So how do we factor in all these elements when talking about our t-shirts? The Water Footprint Network breaks it down by calculating water impact in three parts: blue, green, and grey. Green counts the natural rainwater used, while blue accounts for any additional water taken out of rivers, lakes, or the ground. Meanwhile, the grey footprint is worked out as the amount that would technically be needed to dilute any added chemicals so that the water would be safe to release back into the system once used. That means that if the cotton in your t-shirt was grown on a farm that uses a lot of chemical pesticides and fertilizers, it’s probably going to have a higher water footprint.
Now, onto other fibers. Is cotton one of the better out of the bunch, or should we all be switching to synthetics, as the Higg Index suggests? What about if we all wore hemp—after all, doesn’t it use half the water of cotton?
Comparing the footprints of different fibers has its complications, because it depends so heavily on how they are grown or processed. For example, the study that gives us the hemp statistic compares the global average water consumption for cotton with that of hemp grown in a lab in the UK. So, while we can say that it probably uses less water than cotton, more research would be needed to give us a clear confirmation.
As for synthetics and semi-synthetics such as polyester and rayon, the Water Footprint Network says in its own report that the lack of data makes it difficult to draw comparisons. Although we don’t need water to grow synthetic fibers, their chemical-heavy processing poses its own problems. The report initially places polyester at the bottom of the pile and lauds rayon as the most water-friendly. However, heavy use of toxic pesticides can turn cotton into the biggest water culprit of the three, and even rayon’s footprint can shoot up depending on the type of yarn you are trying to produce.
How is fashion contributing to water scarcity?
What the report does drive home is that the water use for each of these textiles isn’t set in stone. But talking in terms of water quantity alone still leaves one major sustainability factor out of the picture. We need to know where in the world that water is coming from.
That’s because using large amounts of water in a country that isn’t under existing water stress (like Vietnam) might not be so bad, while extracting that same amount in a dry area like Gujarat, India will have a more immediate impact on both local people and ecosystems.
One way to work this out is with the Water Exploitation Index Plus (WEI+). It calculates all the freshwater (that’s the stuff from rivers, lakes, etc) that is currently being used in a country as a percentage of what is available. ‘Using’ more than 20% of all the available water means that the country in question could well be suffering from water scarcity, while 40% or above poses a serious threat. Predictably, many of the major countries exporting textiles and apparel including India, Pakistan and Uzbekistan fall into this risk zone, and the data suggests that fashion is exacerbating the issue.
According to the USDA, all three of the above are among the top ten cotton-producing countries globally, and the social and environmental impacts of the industry are already infamous. The drying up of the South Aral Sea in Uzbekistan has been directly linked to sloppy water extraction for irrigating cotton, as has the fast-depleting Indus Delta in Pakistan, around which cotton, rice, wheat and sugarcane are all grown.
Meanwhile, in Dhaka, Bangladesh, textile mills may be extracting as much water from the ground for their own use as is supplied to the entire megacity of over 20 million inhabitants. According to the World Bank, local groundwater levels have declined by three meters per year in recent years, but mills are still busy extracting it, using it for processing, and releasing it back into rivers without proper treatment.
This takes us to another crux of the issue. One of the key reasons for fashion’s bad water reputation is what happens to the water that is used to make our clothing. Whether it’s runoff from agricultural chemicals or wastewater from dyes and finishes, a lack of proper treatment prevents this water from being reused.
“When that waste water is released back into the natural water cycle, the clean groundwater is being contaminated as well,” explains Amira Jehia, the co-founder of NGO Drip by Drip, which is dedicated to tackling water issues in the fashion and textiles industries. “That way we are losing more and more of our clean freshwater resources that we existentially need for ourselves.” If proper water recycling could be implemented instead, a 2030 Water Resources Group report claims it would cover 75% of Bangladesh’s industrial water demands.
By generalizing fashion’s water use into flat figures and staggering stats, we’re undermining the power that brands have to lower their consumption by ensuring sustainable water management. It’s not that every t-shirt takes said amount of water to produce, but rather that every brand can decide whether to let this number go up, or try to reduce it. This extends to us as consumers too. “We can make more conscious choices and support those labels that understand the severity of the problem and their own responsibility in making better choices,” Jehia points out.
So why aren’t fashion brands doing more about water?
Making clothes is infamously complicated. Brands aren’t in charge of doing it themselves; instead, they coordinate with a complex web of suppliers who provide them with everything from fibers to fabrics and finished garments. This chain can involve many different organizations, who in turn might be working with other third-party suppliers to fulfill the order. As a consequence, brands can struggle to track down exactly where their items are being made, and who is making them.
Add to that the fact that almost every brand is looking for the cheapest option available, pitting suppliers against each other to offer the lowest price and win the client. So, if it’s going to be more expensive to invest in a proper water treatment facility, they won’t be able to compete in this hyper-competitive environment. Ready Made Garments Bangladesh claims that “factories have a reluctance to invest money in effluent treatment,” and even when factories do have treatment plants, they keep costs down by not operating them properly.
If you came here looking for one staggering statistic, this next one might be it. According to a recent water security survey by nonprofit the Carbon Disclosure Project, only one in ten of the participant brands showed awareness that manufacturing their clothes could contribute to water issues. Not a single surveyed company (which counted Adidas AG, Burberry, Gap Inc, H&M, Inditex and Kering Group among them) considered the pollution caused by making their clothes to be a substantial financial or strategic risk.
But it’s not that these brands don’t know how to be better. There are plenty of reports, resources, initiatives and organizations that have already mapped out ways in which fashion could lower its water impact, from working with farmers to help them implement more efficient irrigation systems to committing to zero chemical discharge initiatives. Between them, the brands surveyed by CDP counted a total of 34 opportunities to reduce their pollution, and some even thought that managing these issues could bring potential financial benefits in the long term.
So, what is stopping progress from being made? It could be that brands don’t feel enough consumer pressure about water usage to drive them to do things differently, or that they don’t actually work closely enough with their suppliers to be able to help them implement these actions.
If we want to take the conversation forward, however, we need to change our questions. Rather than wanting to know exactly how much water it takes to make our clothing in general, we should be asking brands exactly what they are doing to ensure that the water they use gets back into the system safely. It might not be as satisfying as a single statistic, but it does emphasize that each decision-maker in the fashion supply chain has the power to change these numbers—they just have to be willing to try.