The Water You Wear

The ocean, rivers, and you

As individuals, we can make lots of choices to help our ocean, rivers, and streams — like choosing to ditch single-use plastics, using reusable water bottles, or opting for reef-friendly sunscreen. But a lot of our environmental impact is influenced by less-obvious decisions. For example, have you ever thought about the impact of your favorite t-shirt?

On average, a kilogram of cotton takes about 10,000 liters of water to produce. With raw materials and processing considered, your average 250 gram t-shirt takes about 2,495 liters, or about 660 gallons, to make. You might ask: how do we use all that water in making one shirt? 

The shirt off your back

To put it simply, everything we use has a “water footprint,” or the amount of water used to make the item in question. A t-shirt’s water footprint includes growing the cotton, processing it, dyeing, washing, and finishing the fabric. Some of this water is used directly– like the water used to dye a shirt– while some of it is used indirectly, like the water used to grow raw cotton that is later made into fabric. In this instance, cotton is a crop that demands lots of water, and it’s often grown in regions of significant water shortage. This is only compounded by our “fast fashion” culture, which encourages us to buy clothes more often. Fast fashion creates high profits for brands while leaving the environment to bear the costs. It also wastes significant amounts of water to make clothes that are quickly replaced by next season’s trends. In 2015 alone, the EPA estimates that 10.5 million tons of textile waste went into U.S. landfills (about 7.6 percent of our total municipal solid waste that year). Not only does the clothing industry use significant water resources and generate waste, it also contributes to pollution. About 20 percent of industrial water pollution is attributed to the textile dyeing process. This often has the highest impact on communities in the countries where clothing is manufactured. Many of these communities already face water shortages, and polluted freshwater only adds to the problem.

Putting the brakes on fast fashion

Only 0.02 percent of the Earth’s water is accessible freshwater (read: the water that’s not in the ocean, far underground, or in glaciers). With such limited resources, we should do our best to use water wisely. Clearly, our “fast fashion” mindset hasn’t been helping. So what can we do? Consumers can choose to support brands that are more sustainable, while also holding the fashion industry to a higher standard. By demanding more accountability, we can start to move the needle of the industry in a more sustainable direction. Here are some tangible things you can do to help.

  1. Support brands that already use sustainable practices. If you have the means, buying sustainable fashion shows brands that being eco-conscious is a worthwhile investment. Invest in pieces that are well made and timeless, so they will last longer and you will need fewer items.
  2. Reduce. Most of America’s textile waste is discarded clothing. To combat waste, buy fewer items and keep the ones you have for as long as possible. By buying fewer items, you can use the money you saved to invest in pieces you’ll cherish. Alternatively, reduce the amount of newly manufactured items you purchase by shopping thrift or vintage!
  3. Reuse. Reuse pieces in your closet by styling them in new ways, and try to mend your clothes if there’s minor damage. An interesting example is Patagonia’s Worn Wear program, which repairs and recycles used gear to keep it in the market for much longer. And keep an eye out – more brands are starting to follow their lead!
  4. Recycle. When it comes time to get rid of clothes, instead of throwing them away you can donate to your local shelter or host a clothing swap with friends. If they’re totally beyond repair, cut them up into rags you can use to clean the house!
  5. Educate yourself (and your friends) on the impacts of fast fashion. You’ve already taken the first step by reading this blog. Research the sustainability practices of some of your favorite clothing companies. Then, share your new knowledge with friends and family!

Alright friends, go forth and dress with our waters in mind!