Most apparel companies don’t see the risks of water pollution in their value chain, new CDP report shows
  • Few fashion companies are aware of the water risks in their value chains, despite being a major pollutant, new CDP report shows
  • Sustainable fashion has grown increasingly important to consumers
  • The entire fashion model of constant manufacturing may need to change to truly clean up the industry

How thirsty are your clothes? The sustainable fashion conversation to date has been all about textile manufacturing — organic cotton, upcycled fabrics, lower-emission factories — and much less about how the industry uses an extraordinarily scarce resource: water. 

“Climate change itself is really a story of water, because the warming of the planet is expressed in changes in the way water behaves,” explained Paula DiPerna, special advisor to the Carbon Disclosure Project (CDP), in an interview with Karma.  “Water vapor going up into the atmosphere when it should stay in the ground creates more clouds, which creates more rain, when then creates more wild storms and warmer oceans.”

The fashion industry, already one of the top producers of carbon emissions, is second only to oil in its pollution of freshwater resources. By one estimate, it takes more than 5,000 gallons of water to manufacture just a t-shirt and a pair of jeans, beginning with the growth of the fibers used in their textiles. The use of pesticides or synthetic fertilizers, especially for synthetic fibers like polyester, can permanently dry out and damage the soil, in addition to contaminating local water sources. Cotton production alone accounts for 6% of global pesticide use. 

After the fibers are harvested and the textile fabric produced, the dyeing and finishing process begins. The use of toxic chemicals, including in the dyes themselves, can pollute the water during that process and also if the garment later ends up in a landfill, as 92 million tons do each year.

In Bangladesh alone, the textile manufacturing sector discharges an estimated 217 million cubic meters of polluted wastewater — which is then used to grow fruits and vegetables sold inside and outside the country’s borders. 

“The part of the value chain that I think companies are more aware of is the physical location of their manufacturing,” said DiPerna, who pointed out that the water-related risk that most fashion companies perceive in Bangladesh is flooding, rather than pollution. “But it seems that they’re less aware of the actual impact of all of their work on water pollution.”

In a new report “Interwoven Risks, Untapped Opportunities” released today, CDP surveyed the fashion industry on their use of water, and the results were damning. Only 21% of the largest 100 apparel and textile companies by market cap reported their water-related data through CDP; of those that did, including Gap Inc. and the Kering luxury brand group, only 11% had awareness of water pollution in their value chains. 

All of this poses risks not just for the planet, but for the company. 

“It’s whether a brand is able to increase its resilience to fluctuations in the cost of cotton through future water scarcity,” said DiPerna. “If you procure recycled cotton, it reduces your cost of cotton, but you’re also insulating yourself against the failure of a cotton crop if there’s no water.” The CDP report identified about $180 million in business opportunities tied to improved water sustainability.

“We are a pretty-cotton heavy brand, and the largest impact to water footprinting is in the cotton growing process, so we’re looking at how we can select raw materials that use less water,” said Lisa Hook, senior manager for environmental sustainability at Gap Inc., in an interview with Karma.

Gap Inc. is implementing multiple sustainability initiatives with a particular focus on India, a water-stressed country that is also home to many cotton farms and apparel manufacturers. Their work includes the launch of an innovation center to test and scale water-saving technologies and the Women+Water Alliance, a partnership with USAID, to improve the sustainability of farming practices through education. 

“Sustainability is an industry-wide challenge, so we want to get out in front in certain areas but also, to move the needle and see the sustainable impacts that we want to see, it really requires collaboration,” said Hook. Gap Inc. is among the signatories to the Zero Discharge for Hazardous Chemicals, an industry-wide push for the banning of especially-harsh chemicals in apparel manufacturing, and Hook noted that for water specifically, the United Nations’ CEO Water Mandate Water Resilience Coalition has been a galvanizing force.  

What’s the solution? In addition to building awareness and transparency, both of which were clearly lacking from most companies in the CDP survey, a useful starting point is the design, before any crop is planted or harvested, because that will dictate 80% of a product’s environmental impact through its life cycle.

“Once you design an item, with a certain fabric and a certain color and a certain everything in mind, that blocks in the environmental requirements,” explained DiPerna. 

The other solution is a governance one that goes beyond just the fashion industry: water pricing or taxing, similar to what has been tried for carbon. It’s not exactly a new idea — many tenants already pay their landlord or utility company for their water use every month — but until now, it’s been largely tied to real estate rather than manufacturing.

“Without a price on water that is agreed as a minimum, it’ll be very difficult to properly steward water, especially in a warming world,” said DiPerna. Sweden, for example, is planning to introduce a tax on water use. Fashion giant H&M, which has its headquarters in Stockholm and was among the respondents to the CDP survey aware of their value chain risks, recently began piloting a new chemical-free wet processing method for its clothes that could reduce water use by up to 90%. 

But even if clothes are manufactured with far less water, and far fewer pollutants, the ongoing manufacturing is itself a problem. 

“Even if you have a circular economy model, there’s still something going around in the circle,” said DiPerma. “At some point, you have to stop shopping. But that’s not what the apparel industry is based on.”

That could be set to change. Another recent survey by the London-based industry group Wovn found that Gen Z consumers are not only highly attuned to sustainability, but willing to spend more money on fewer garments to reduce their environmental impact.

“It seems like every day, another fashion brand launches a flashy new sustainability initiative,” Wovn co-founder Lindsay Trombley wrote in a Medium post about the survey. “But these initiatives tend to focus on fabrics instead of on the enormous volumes of clothes that are produced every year, many of which are never sold and go straight to landfills or incinerators.”