The fashion industry is a big water polluter that contributes 20% to global wastewaters and it ends up harming us.

Over the years, increased efforts from governments and campaigners were made to raise awareness of environmental issues. More companies have incorporated new business practices to prevent them from further aggravating global warming. However, when we think about pollution, only carbon emission pollution or excessive use of plastic comes to mind. However, the fashion industry is one of the biggest culprits for water pollution.
Fast fashion worsens the impact on the environment; it is a business model that turns design ideas into cheap clothes displayed in stores within 2 weeks of conception. Fast fashion brands have about 52 micro-seasons with new designs introduced weekly to satisfy consumers’ need for the latest trends.
The cause of the water pollution starts from the production process. Cotton fibre requires a lot of water to be made into usable fabric. It takes about 8000 litres of water to make a typical pair of jeans and about 2500 litres of water to make a cotton shirt. To put things into perspective, 2500 litres would fill 30 bathtubs of water.

Water polluted by textile dyes
Photo credit: RiverBlue

The large consumption of water presents the problem of disposal. The fashion industry contributes approximately 20 per cent to the world’s wastewaters. Most of the developing countries that produce fabrics dispose the toxic wastewater into rivers which pollutes them. These wastewaters are comprised of chemicals such as bleach, acids and dyes. These chemicals found in the fibres also pose a health threat. When the garment is worn the residue of the chemicals could be transferred to the skin. As a result, skin conditions such as dermatitis or allergies may occur more often.

Moreover, manufacturers are switching from natural fibres (cotton and silk) to synthetic fibres (nylon and polyester) as a cost-cutting measure. When our clothes made from synthetic materials are washed in the washing machine, the fibres shed and when they are released into the open waters, they pollute the waters. The microfibres are small enough for fishes to consume or be absorbed into their body. Not only is it dangerous to marine life, but it is also dangerous to us if we consume the affected fishes. It is estimated that we could be consuming plastic of a credit card’s weight weekly through our food and water consumption.

Change is starting to happen, albeit at a slow pace, with increasing pressure from consumers. H&M introduced a new sustainable range called Conscious. Likewise, Primark carries OEKO-TEX® certified beddings which are free from harmful chemicals. H&M also has a recycling programme which allows customers to bring old clothes to the store in exchange for a discount. The old clothes would then be recycled into rugs or be used as materials for insulation.

Clothes recyclng bin at H&M store

So, what else could be done to be eco-friendly? We can choose to buy clothes made from organic or natural fibres as they do not need to use heavy chemicals in the process. That also means the materials would be biodegradable and will not pollute the waters if it shed when washed. We also could purchase clothes with certification labels that controls the chemicals used such as OEKO-TEX®, GOTS, or BLUESIGN®.

Furthermore, we could purchase from brands that have a circular economy business model such as Charity Apparel. Circular economy in fashion is a business model based on 4 principles: phasing out toxic chemicals or materials, increasing the utility of the clothes, improving recycling and lastly, making effective use of resources.

Circular fashion
Image: Ellen MacArthur Foundation

Sustainable fashion does not have to be simple and boring; you can look good and save the environment. Maybe a question we should pose to ourselves is whether consumers are willing to be fashion-conscious and choose from sustainable fashion lines, even if it may cost them a little more.