Two hands cupping fresh water

Fashion: One of the World's Thirstiest Industries

When we think of the fashion industry's environmental impact, we often reference carbon emissions. But what about the industry's water footprint?

When we think of the environmental harm caused by industries such as oil, agriculture, and fashion, our minds tend to fixate on carbon emissions. While carbon emissions are a primary driver of climate change and remain a genuine concern for global health, the water footprint of these industries is an equally daunting issue that doesn't receive enough attention.

Water, in essence, is the foundation of all life, a critical resource needed by all living beings. Yet, it is being consumed and polluted at inherently unsustainable rates as the fashion industry (amongst others) relies on it for continued survival. To shed more light on this issue, we researched the alarming statistics surrounding fashion's water footprint and how we, as shoppers, can fight back with our consumption choices. Here's what we found:

How Many Gallons of Water Went Into Making Those Jeans?

Hands holding three pairs of jeans, their production contributing to fashion's water footprint

Would you believe us if we told you your daily wardrobe likely took thousands of gallons of water to produce? The numbers surrounding fashion's water footprint are tough to swallow (no pun intended); for example:

  • It requires nearly two thousand gallons of water to produce a single pair of jeans. 
  • A single t-shirt can require over seven hundred gallons of water to produce.
  • The fashion industry currently uses enough water to quench the thirst of over one-hundred-million people for an entire year.

While those numbers may seem outlandish, they are accurate, and this is the harsh reality of fashion's gargantuan water footprint. The question you are likely asking yourself is, how? How could manufacturing one pair of jeans require enough water to hydrate one person for over three years?

The Devil is in the Materials

Hands holding clothing made with cotton, contributing to fashion's water footprint

According to the commonobjective, 24% of all garments are made from cotton, and 62% are made from polyester. Why does this matter? The processes required to source materials for clothing manufacture are the main driver behind fashion's water consumption and pollution.

Cotton is a highly water-intensive crop, requiring no less than 10 gallons of water to maximize the yield of one single plant. In areas where cotton farming is prevalent, local water sources have considerably declined. For example, Uzbekistan, a focal point country for cotton production, has seen a near eradication of the entire Aral Sea Basin due to cotton farming requirements.

Polyester, unlike cotton, is not naturally occurring. This material is derived from a chemical reaction involving petroleum, air, and water. Because it is a human-made material, polyester cannot biodegrade and could take up to two hundred years to decompose fully. While polyester may consume water at lower levels than natural fibers, the water pollution associated with polyester use is an especially dire side effect. Every time a garment made with polyester is washed, microplastics are released into our oceans as a result; a process that releases over five hundred thousand tons of microfibers into the ocean every year. To put that in perspective, that's the equivalent of around fifty billion plastic bottles. Yeah, fifty billion.

Dyes are Also to Blame

Sourcing materials for garment manufacture is only half the equation. All those beautiful colors we see on brand websites are the result of the garment-dyeing process, another major cause of global water pollution. With over two-hundred-thousand tons of dyes lost to pollution annually, textile dyeing is the second-largest polluter of water in the world. While eco-friendly dyes are actively being used and disposed of responsibly by sustainable brands, the overwhelming majority of  standard, leftover dye is dumped into ditches, rivers, and streams, causing irreversible damage to both local water sources and groundwater.

What Can We Do to Help

A pile of clothing next to a reusable shopping bag with a circular symbol on the front

The facts and figures mentioned above may paint a seemingly hopeless picture, but worry not; there are numerous ways for shoppers to reduce the amount of water they wear on a daily basis.

Shop sustainable: This may seem like a painfully obvious step, but with the amount of greenwashing in the current apparel landscape, it can be challenging to identify brands genuinely doing their part to create earth-first apparel. To ease your searching efforts, we've compiled a quick list of brands leading the charge toward a more sustainable future. Whether you're looking to replace your core essentials or get an early start on your summer wardrobe, these sustainable brands are for you.

Buy secondhand: Purchasing secondhand clothing will always be more sustainable than buying new since buying used inherently extends a garment's usable life. Luckily, for those not fortunate enough to have a plethora of secondhand clothing stores in their local area, major brands like Lululemon and CUTS Clothing have recently launched their own resale marketplaces in response to growing concerns around sustainability and inflation.

Try your best to limit returns: The only scenario worse than a shirt requiring hundreds of gallons of water to make is that same t-shirt being worn once and then discarded into a landfill or incinerated. This is the fate of the overwhelming majority of clothing returns, making it imperative for shoppers and brands alike to limit return rates as much as possible. This is easier said than done, especially for online shoppers who regularly deal with rampant sizing issues, accounting for 52% of all eCommerce returns. To mitigate size confusion and boost sustainable efforts, brands like Amour Vert and The Classic T-Shirt Company have implemented WAIR (a modern sizing solution backed by 3D body data) to provide seamless and accurate size recommendations to their shoppers. With WAIR, both Amour Vert and The Classic T-Shirt Company were able to decrease environmentally harmful returns and optimize their product designs around the bodies of their shoppers.                                    

It's the Little Things That Make All the Difference

While these steps may seem somewhat insignificant, aligning consumption methods with sustainable values is one of the most-effective ways that everyday shoppers can become influential advocates in the fight to reduce fashion's water footprint.

Eager to learn how WAIR can transform your eCommerce brand through sizing? Schedule a demo here, and be sure to follow us on TwitterInstagram , LinkedIn, and Facebook for all your fashion content needs!

Related Blog Posts