Water Pollution in the Fashion Industry: The Shocking Truth & What You Can Do

Boy taking drinking water from river

Water Pollution in the Fashion Industry: The Shocking Truth & What You Can Do

The clothing industry is sadly considered one of the world’s worst polluters.

Between the unsustainable water usage for crops like conventional cotton and the rising rates of landfill pollution, our go-to textiles are responsible for up to 10% of annual carbon emissions and for 4% of all freshwater extraction annually.

Water use and landfill waste aside, however, there is one more pressing environmental impact hiding behind our favourite clothes: ever-increasing levels of water pollution.

In the fashion industry, water pollution is the hidden environmental cost behind routine fabric dyeing and the use of synthetic finishes, exacerbated by the rise of fast fashion and the growing demand for cheaper products.

So, what exactly do we mean by water pollution when it comes to the fashion industry, what are the effects of these increasing pollution levels on our planet, and what can we do about it?

Polluted river caused by the fashion industry
The impact of textile dying on water sources. Photo by Rebecca Bliklen on Unsplash

Where does water pollution in the fashion industry come from, exactly?

We’ve already touched upon the issue of toxic chemical use in the apparel industry here, but if we want to really understand how widespread the problem is, we need to take a deeper dive.

The industry’s impact on water sources mostly stems from the finishing processes within the back end of the production cycle, including:

Chemical waste from fabric finishing

Unless explicitly stated, all garments produced by textile manufacturers go through an extensive finishing process, most commonly designed to make the fabrics softer, waterproof, or anti-wrinkle.

These treatments also include intensive finishing processes like stonewashing and bleaching, commonly used for denim pieces.

In order to treat fabrics, manufacturers typically use a number of hazardous chemicals, including:

In order to treat fabrics, manufacturers typically use a number of hazardous chemicals, including:

  1. Formaldehyde for crease-resistant and water-resistant finishes,
  2. Organotin compounds for antimicrobial finishes, and
  3. Chlorinated paraffins for sturdier, flame-resistant fabrics.

After the chemicals are applied, the fabrics are finally washed, resulting in run-off chemical waste being released into surrounding waterways. 

Synthetic dyes

Most textile factories will also dye their fabrics with cheaper, synthetic dyes rather than opt for more expensive organic dyes, resulting in chemical-laden blues, reds, and greens bound to pollute waterways after washing.

The biggest culprits behind dyeing water pollution are azo dyes, chlorobenzenes, and heavy metals like cadmium, lead, mercury, and chromium VI.

These chemicals are used to create more vibrant colours and stabilise the fabrics to avoid colours washing off in the laundry.

Rather than disposing of leftover water from the dyeing process safely, wastewater is often expelled into local waterways untreated, and sadly, unquestioned, releasing the leftover chemicals into streams and rivers. While most dye is absorbed, 15-50% of azo dyes does not bind to the fabric and is therefore released into the environment. 

Girl in bright clothing with synthetic dyes
Synthetic dyes pollute waterways. Photo by TANYA LAYKO on Unsplash

Other sources of water pollution in the fashion industry include:

Pesticides and fertilizers

While the overwhelming majority of water pollution in the fashion industry comes from treating and dyeing, the farming of natural fibres also plays a part.

Cotton farming is the biggest culprit, as it is responsible for 24% of insecticides and 11% of all pesticides used despite only taking up about 3% of the world’s arable land.

The runoff of pesticides and fertilisers from cotton farming contaminates surrounding waterways, accumulating over time.

Cellulose solvents

In the case of viscose production, which requires dissolving wood pulp chemically, it’s the non-biodegradable and toxic chemical solvents used like carbon disulphide and sodium hydroxide that, when released, contribute to water pollution.

Given that 5.2 million tonnes of viscose, otherwise known as rayon, were produced in 2020 alone; and that a Changing Markets report found that manufacturers in China, Indonesia and India were dumping untreated wastewater, polluting local rivers and lakes; we can see how significantly this fabric contributes to water pollution.

Leather tanning

90% of the world’s leather is tanned (prepared and preserved) using chromium. Other chemicals used in the leather production process include aldehydes, coal-tar derivatives, arsenic and cyanide-based finishes.  

Sadly, as the majority of leather is produced in third world countries such as India and Bangladesh where there are no restrictions on water treatment, toxic waste water is simply flushed into local rivers. Many are used for drinking water and bathing for local communities. 

Samples of groundwater close to tanneries have found arsenic, chromium, lead and zinc which are heavily carcinogenic. Hexavalant chromium which is produced when the commonly used trivalent chromium oxidises can cause damage to lungs, kidneys, liver, the immune system and fertility

Plastic waste

Finally, there is the microplastics issue.

It is estimated that synthetic textiles like polyester and acrylic release as much as 12 million microplastics with every single wash, polluting waterways and endangering marine life.

pexels-karolina-grabowska-hand against t shirt
The impact of synthetic chemicals from clothing production is huge. Photo by Karolina Grabowska from Pexels

What is the impact of textile pollution? 

So, what is the environmental and human impact of water pollution in the fashion industry?

Between the treating, washing, and dyeing of textiles, clothing brands and fabric manufacturers are responsible for a whopping 20% of all industrial water pollution.

And looking even further, the dyeing process alone is particularly destructive: according to UN data, textile dyeing is the second-largest polluter of water globally.

These figures come with real-life consequences for not only the environment but human health, especially in the Global South where most textile companies are located.

Environmental impact

Water pollution is considered one of the main drivers behind biodiversity loss, responsible for destroying ecosystems and the surrounding soil. 

Synthetic dyes have been found to inhibit aquatic plant growth, impair photosynthesis, and promote toxicity and carcinogenicity in marine species.

When ingested by marine life, microplastics are also responsible for altering animals’ behaviour and physical characteristics.

Human impact

Community on river side affected by water pollution in the fashion industry
Water supplies can be contaminated by chemical waste. Photo by Tim Shepherd on Unsplash

In the biggest textile-producing countries, chemical-laden wastewater can contaminate local water supplies, putting farmers’ livelihoods at risk and threatening human health.

In Indonesia, for example, the Citarum River has long been pumped with untreated wastewater from surrounding textile factories, resulting in an array of toxic chemicals (including nonylphenol and nonylphenol ethoxylated) entering the water supply. 

Using contaminated water for farming harms crops and the surrounding soil. Drinking polluted water increases the risk of developing life-threatening diseases including cholera and cancer. Chromium laden water can cause many health problems for workers and nearby residents, such as those listed above.

Are there any brands making a difference?

Sadly, according to a study by charity CDP, only 23% of analyzed fashion companies are setting targets to reduce water pollution, with even fewer companies monitoring their progress.

On top of that, only around one in 10 even acknowledge the risk that their production processes contribute to water pollution.

Fortunately, however, there are sustainable brands and eco-conscious initiatives tackling the issue of water pollution in the fashion industry.

ZDHC (Zero Discharge of Hazardous Chemicals)

ZDHC Contributor logo
Image courtesy of https://www.stoneisland.com/experience/es/zdhc-roadmap/

Multi-stakeholder organisation ZDHC is tackling the water contamination issue by promoting more sustainable chemical management procedures, boasting over 170 contributors across all production stages of the clothing industry.

Retailers signed up include G-Star Raw, Hugo Boss, Levis, Kering, LVMH, Puma and even fast fashion giants such as H&M, Inditex (Zara’s parent group) and Primark.

According to their guidelines, wastewater must be treated prior to discharge to eliminate harmful chemicals either physically or through biological degradation.

ZDHC is behind the Roadmap to Zero program, designed to eliminate all discharges of hazardous chemicals into our atmosphere and waterways. 

Look for a ZDHC membership or logo above when researching manufacturers and brands.

SAC (Sustainable Apparel Coalition)

SAC logo
image courtesy of https://apparelcoalition.org/

The Sustainable Apparel Coalition focuses on improving sustainability across all stages of the value chain.

The nonprofit alliance is the brain behind the Higg Index, standardising the meaning of sustainability across the value chain and measuring the environmental and social impact of the entire textile production process.

Water pollution and chemical contamination are a big part of the verification, and the organisation often collaborates with ZDHC.

Tencel and Monocel

More sustainable brands are also embracing the sustainability of viscose alternatives like Tencel and Monocel.

These materials come from wood pulp, however unlike viscose, they can be dissolved by using organic solvents rather than using harmful substances that contribute to water pollution.

Tencel manufacturers also implement a closed-loop system designed to reuse rather than discharge: so the solvents are reused to treat more wood pulp.

How can I make a difference?

girl with laptop thinking about water pollution in the fashion industry
You CAN make a difference! Photo by Mimi Thian on Unsplash

Water pollution might not yet be the strongest focus for brands and manufacturers, but you can take matters into your own hands by supporting sustainable brands and changing how you care for your clothes.

In addition to supporting the brands that have committed to working with the above organisations, you can also make a difference if you:

Look for a Bluesign certification

bluesign logo
Image courtesy of https://www.bluesign.com/en

Bluesign is an independent program promoting sustainable textile production from factory floor to shop floor, paying particular attention to reducing harmful chemical use.

In order to receive approval from Bluesign, products have to adhere to strict criteria, providing full transparency and traceability on all chemicals used alongside their environmental and health risks.

Major brands like Adidas and North Face are Bluesign compliant.

Shop OEKO-TEX certified apparel

Image courtesy of https://www.oeko-tex.com/en/

OEKO-TEX offers certifications to clothing companies by verifying the safety of their products and testing for hazardous chemicals.

Finding a DETOX TO ZERO logo on your jacket or pair of jeans will ensure that all components have not only been tested for trace levels of harmful substances but also have been produced with sustainable chemical management in mind.

Only buy naturally dyed products

The effects of water pollution being shown when clothes are rung out
How to tackle contaminants in water for fashion production. Photo by Teona Swift from Pexels

Synthetic dyes are believed to be the most polluting part of the finishing process, so choosing items that are treated with natural dyes can easily help reduce your consumer footprint.

Plant-derived dyes are not only non-toxic but also fully biodegradable.

Buy less, wear more

The average person today buys 60% more clothing than in back in 2000 while wearing items for half as long as they used to, exacerbating water pollution from fabric dyeing, finishing and dissolving even more.

One of the best ways to combat the effects of overconsumption is to buy less, buy second-hand, and use favourite garments as much as possible before disposing of them.

Washing smarter!

If you’re concerned about the impact of washing the synthetic garments you already have, there are different ways you can reduce microfibre shedding and dispose of your pre-loved garments better.

Start by washing smarter, limiting how often you wash your clothes and making sure you’re going for full loads every time.

You can learn more about how to reduce shedding in our microplastics article.

Reforming one of the world’s biggest polluters, one t-shirt at a time

In China alone, 70% of all rivers and lakes are polluted by the 2.5 billion gallons of wastewater produced by the garment industry.

If our consumption habits don’t change, these figures might soon become global, but there are many ways you can be part of the solution instead.

The issue of water pollution in the fashion industry has been ignored for far too long, and it’s up to conscious consumers like you to take a stand and start reforming the industry, voting with your dollar!

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