This isn’t a new realization; the fashion industry has always relied upon abundant amounts of water to produce the clothes and shoes we wear. That favorite T-shirt in your closet, the well-worn leather loafers under the bed and those cozy wool sweaters couldn’t have been produced without ample resources of H20.
In fact, both cotton and wool – two favorite natural fibers -- are insatiable water hogs. It takes more than 100 gallons to produce one single pound of raw cotton or shorn wool -- and that doesn’t include what is needed for rinsing and preparing the product, or washing and dying the fabric once the material is made.
But the real challenge today is ensuring there are enough water resources in the regions where the products are made. According to researchers at Growing Blue, more than 20 percent of the world’s commercial products are produced in water-scarce areas of the globe. That includes the clothes and shoes we wear, which increasingly are being made in developing countries like China, India, Bangladesh and Pakistan.
Minimizing water pollution
Companies like Nike, Gap, Levi Strauss, PVH, H&M and many smaller sustainable apparel companies have come to realize that the way we produce clothes has a direct impact not only on the world’s valuable clean water resources but on the apparel industry’s bottom line.
In 2011, as a result of a report published by Greenpeace detailing industrial water pollution problems in China, PVH, known for its Van Heusen and Calvin Klein brands, joined the Zero Discharge of Hazardous Chemicals (ZDHC) initiative and implemented its own action plan to eliminate toxic chemical pollution. The members of ZDHC developed a list of 11 restricted chemicals, along with advisories directed at minimizing or eradicating chemical pollution. They also set a goal to “remove harmful substances from textile production by 2020.”
Other organization members include Levis Strauss & Co., H&M, Marks & Spencer, Puma, United Colors of Benetton and Adidas, to name a few.
Reducing water impacts in drought areas
Levi Strauss is known for its innovative and inveterate brainstorming when it comes to conserving water. Its contributions have spanned from creating production methods that require less water, to challenging consumers to refrain from washing their jeans more than once every two weeks (or longer!). And of course, it’s the engineer behind the “Drop a Brick” crowdfunding project.
The nonprofit initiative, wacky as it sounds, is designed to save water where it counts – in the toilet – by displacing the water in the toilet reservoir with a sustainable “brick” that can help minimize the flushing of thousands of gallons of water. Needless to say, Levi Strauss, based in California -- one of the most drought-impacted states in the country -- has done a lot of thinking about water conservation strategies. While displacing water in the household toilet may not sound like it has much to do with the apparel industry, it’s an example of how companies faced with everyday water challenges are helping to inspire a change in mindset for consumers as well.
Waterless dye process breakthroughs
The fabric dye process is an intrinsic step in clothes and footwear production. Unfortunately, it is also one of the most polluting stages. The rinse water from millions of pounds of dyed fabric ends up going into drainage and sewage systems, where it makes its way into public rivers, lakes and other water sources.
Fortunately, several companies are on the cusp of solving this problem by creating water- and chemical-free dying processes.
Nike recently announced its ColorDry process, which uses super-charged liquid CO2 to force the dye into the fabric. According to Nike, there are no residue inks or chemicals to get dumped into the environment. The only residue is used CO2 that is separated from leftover dye, which is then isolated in the separator.
The environmental benefits, says Nike, are substantial. Almost all of the dye is used in the process, which reduces the chance of environmental pollution from waste products. It uses less energy as well – reportedly 63 percent less. And it has a smaller physical footprint, which means the process can be done more economically than traditional dyeing, which requires more manpower, larger facilities and increased overhead.
Apparel Made 4 You, based in Rancho Cucamonga, California, has come up with its own waterless technology, which it calls Active Tunnel Infusion. Rather than shooting super-heated CO2 into the fabric to embed the dye, the ATI uses photons and thermal energy to transfer an image from a template onto the fabric. The process, says AM4U, takes about 30 seconds for a piece of fabric big enough to make a shirt.
Like the ColorDry process, the patent-pending ATI system is said to have numerous environmental benefits that go beyond its waterless application. The machine fits in a room about the size of most bedrooms and requires a fraction of the manpower that conventional dye processes need. Thus it also takes less overhead to operate. The process doesn’t rely on aerial spray methods, so the air pollution is minimized.
Both of these waterless methods boast better color penetration and resiliency than conventional methods. This means the product will maintain its color and, in some cases, usability for a longer period of time – an added benefit for companies looking to improve production results and brand recognition.
New materials, improved recycling methods
One of the most enduring advances the fashion industry has made recently is the development of new, sustainable materials. Levi Strauss pioneered the use of PET bottles in its jeans to increase their durability and lifecycle. The concept of recycled plastic has spun off other industry initiatives as well, like Eco-fi (formerly known as EcoSpun), a company that breaks down recyclable plastic and spins it into usable fibers that can then be sold and mixed with other fibers, including wool and cotton. Recycling the fibers means less water used to grow and prepare new materials, and mixing materials can also mean longer-lasting products.
Just the same, most clothes and footwear eventually fall out of use or fashion with their owner. In earlier days, that often meant dumping it in the landfill. In addition to the negative burdens of landfills on the environment, all that clothing needs to be replaced. That means more energy, manpower and – you guessed it – water resources.
As a result, many apparel companies are realizing that offering consumers a way to recycle their pre-loved apparel will not only keep waste out of the garbage dump, but also decrease the demand for more water in the production cycle.
Patagonia, H&M and a growing number of other companies have developed innovative ways to encourage consumers to bring in their old duds. They range from coupons that offer a small bulk discount on in-store products to an exchange rack where consumers can leave their used item and pick up a “new” one. And they all, to some degree or another, benefit the consumer, the company and the environment.
The realization that companies can change consumer behavior is a powerful concept and just as transformational to the industry’s future as the technology it is developing to improve production methods. As the fashion industry is now discovering, economic profitability is as dependent on instilling and encouraging good environmental habits in consumers as it is in streamlining production methods. With a new mindset comes better water conservation, an increasingly important benchmark for today’s sustainable fashion industry.
Image: Tibetan woman preparing wool: Sukanto Debnath
Jan Lee is a former news editor and award-winning editorial writer whose non-fiction and fiction have been published in the U.S., Canada, Mexico, the U.K. and Australia. Her articles and posts can be found on TriplePundit, JustMeans, and her blog, The Multicultural Jew, as well as other publications. She currently splits her residence between the city of Vancouver, British Columbia and the rural farmlands of Idaho.