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Water Waste in Fashion: Your Jeans are Thirsty

Water is a hot commodity. 2.5% of the earth’s water is freshwater “and only 0.3% of that is readily accessible to humans; the equivalent to 0.01% of all freshwater on Earth”. It is also used in absolute excess by the daily processes of our world, chiefly by the industrial-agricultural complex and fast fashion (The Guardian). Tragically, by in large because of the cyclical pollution that comes hand in hand with such industries, our “water footprint will reach a level 40% above reliable, accessible water supplies by 2030” (The Guardian). The water issue in fashion can be boiled down to two points: consumption in manufacturing and pollution from manufacturing.

The impact of something as simple as a pair of jeans, a staple in everyone’s closet, is larger than we would initially conceive. Cotton, which “accounts for 90% of all natural fibers used in the textile industry…and 40% of all apparel produced globally”, is the main material used in the manufacturing of jeans and its farming is “the single largest water consumption factor in the apparel supply chain” (The Guardian). Being the staple that they are, jeans are produced in excess: “2 billion pairs… every year”- the majority of which, “three out of four garments”, end up in landfills (Greenpeace). Water in the production cycle of denim is not restricted simply to its use of cotton: “a typical pair takes 7,000 litres of water to produce”. To put that into perspective, that is the equivalent to as outlined by the EPA roughly 400 showers worth of water (Greenpeace).

An essential part in the production of those jeans, and clothing in general, are the use of dyes that get them to be the perfect light wash you’ve been frantically combing Topshop for. It has been estimated that “17 to 20% of industrial water pollution comes from textile dyeing and treatment”;  “1.7 million tonnes” of “8,000 synthetical chemicals” are used (The Guardian, Greenpeace, The Guardian). Water pollution goes beyond dyeing. Polyfluorinated chemicals, PFCs, which are frequently used by athletic brands and “have the potential to remain in the environment for hundreds of years” are also commonly released into the water sources of the disadvantaged communities manufacturing these products, further exacerbating cyclical water insecurity (Greenpeace). This is not to say that these chemicals are restricted to freshwater as many have slowly begun to seap into our oceans. Unfortunately such chemicals are not the only pollutants facing our oceans: coral bleaching, garbage islands and chemical spills are bombarding this delicate ecosystem at an alarming rate.

It is believed that “an estimated 14 billion pounds of trash, much of it plastic, is dumped in the world’s oceans” annually. Adidas took note of this by starting an initiative to clean up ocean pollution in association with the nonprofit Parley for the Oceans (Sustainable Communication). Their initiative, which is mainly diverting plastic from coastal areas directly into the production cycle, has helped spawn a shoe made of recycled ocean plastics, using a technique they hope to later utilize for other apparel. Adidas has taken other steps to reduce its global footprint, such as phasing out plastic bags in its stores and removing microbeads from its products. There is a caveat to this though – the price of the shoes is yet to be released and we wouldn’t expect them to be a steal considering their limited edition status. With this comes the problem of accessibility – only a small proportion of the population will be able to buy these sneakers or shop at ‘environmentally responsible brands’ such as Reformation and American Apparel.

Luckily though other brands have taken steps to being more environmentally conscious. A perfect example for this is Gap Inc., which vis-a-vis other fast fashion brands has consistently achieved its goals of sustainability both socially and environmentally. Working with the United Nations Global Compact on Sustainable Supply Chains, Gap Inc. has for over two decades taken numerous steps to improve the water consumption in their manufacturing; “committed to managing water use and wastewater discharge in global textile supply chains”; establishing “a Clean Water Program to monitor denim laundries’ waterwash discharge and require them to clean up wastewater practices” and  introducing standards to producers that requires they meet  “waterwash quality guidelines” (United Nations Global Compact).

The larger issue here, that transcends the use of water in fashion, is the overarching pattern of waste of our throwaway-commodity culture, coupled with the deluge of street style we see on social media. Take for example Forever 21, if you spend more than ten minutes riffling through the astonishingly tightly packed clothing you’ll notice a trend- astronomically low prices. In that moment a 3$ top may seem like a great deal but after the fourth of fifth wash it’ll essentially be disintegrated. We are conditioned to buy items we don’t need simply on the basis that they’re cheap. The problem with this is that three quarters of garments produced annually, 60 billion pieces, “will end up in landfills or be incinerated” either because they are not purchased or thrown out after a few uses (Greenpeace). So while it’s exciting to see influential brands like Adidas and Gap taking such initiatives, it’s simply not yet enough to counteract the damage we have done to our planet – and continue to do, all in the quest of being fashionable.

Written By:

Mia Stewart


Ravasio, Pamela. “How Can We Stop Water from Becoming a Fashion Victim?” The Guardian. Guardian News and Media, 07 Mar. 2012.

Chung, Shuk-Wah. “Fast Fashion Is “drowning” the World. We Need a Fashion Revolution!” Greenpeace International. Greenpeace International, 21 Apr. 2016

“Indoor Water Use in the United States.” EPA. Environmental Protection Agency, June 2008

“Plastic Garbage.” Sustainable Communication. Eco 360

Vincent, James. “Adidas’ Limited Edition Sneakers Are Made from Recycled Ocean Waste.” The Verge. The Verge, 08 June 2016

Issue, By. “Supply Chain Sustainability Resources & Practices – The UN Global Compact.” Gap Inc. Clean Water Program. United Nations Global Compact

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